To hell and back in a Mercedes GLA45 AMG

Deep in South Africa lies Die Hel, accessible by just one, devilish road. We drive it

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions, my arse – it’s not even paved. I’m tiptoeing over melon-sized boulders, my face one constant, contorted wince as I wait for the inevitability of expensive German metal interfacing with ancient, unyielding rock.

Behind me is 15 miles of woefully slow progress, to the right six inches of spare road… and then oblivion, ahead of me, 15 miles of much the same. And the worst part is I’ve brought it all on myself.

Words: Jack Rix

Photography: Rowan Horncastle

The plan, wonderfully simple and perfectly foolish, was hatched with the spirit of adventure coursing through me… in the sanctuary of an air-conditioned office in London. There is a town, well, a smattering of small buildings, buried deep in the Gamkaskloof valley, itself sandwiched like the filling in a taco by the mighty Swartberg mountain range five hours from Cape Town.

It’s known simply as Die Hel, “the hell”, a name given to it by all those that experienced first-hand just how brutal the climb then descent into the valley could be, whether via donkey tracks in the old days, or the rubble road today.

The first settlers were clearly mad, but stumbled their way into the valley in the 1830s and, finding fertile soil and plenty of water, decided to make it home, living in isolation for 130 years. In 1962, a chap called Koos van Zyl showed up and announced that with a team of just eight workers, he was going to build a road into the valley.

We begin our ascent up the Swartberg Pass, wrestling to keep our AMG pointing forward

The 100 or so residents rejoiced, and then promptly scarpered the moment the project was complete, lured by the prospect of earning actual money in nearby towns over perpetually gruelling self-sufficiency. The last farmer called it a day in 1991, poor fella.

But the road remains, the road to hell: a vicious snake that rolls along the valley floor before attaching itself to the mountain side and coiling its way through the relentlessly jagged geology. It’s a mere 30 miles long, but the drive is two-and-a-half hours if you’re lucky enough to avoid a puncture, cracking your sump or plummeting to an untimely death. All the while, you know that with just one way in and the same way out, every mile closer to hell is a mile to be relived fleeing in the other direction. 

A 4x4 with ground clearance is the minimum requirement. Something with knobbly tyres, underbody cladding and diff locks is preferable, but honestly, where’s the adventure in that? Far more interesting to take something that claims to be an SUV but is really a gussied-up hatchback – something smaller, lighter and wholly inappropriate – and stress-test it to the limit. Something like the Mercedes-AMG GLA45, then, an A45 in SUV garb.

A quick review of the spec – 20-inch alloys, Continental Sport Contact 2 tyres, large wing, 376bhp highly turbocharged 2.0-litre engine – confirms I should really be heading straight to the nearest track, not to the snow-dusted peaks. It also reminds me why I told Mercedes we were planning a gentle tour of Cape Town’s surrounding wine country, and omitted to mention we were plunging headfirst into car purgatory. Ignorance is bliss and all that. But before the GLA torture and awkward phone calls can begin, we’ve got a hell of a journey just to get there. 

Job one is the boring bit, a blast from the airport to our hotel in Oudtshoorn, the epicentre of South Africa’s ostrich industry and the start of the southern approach to the Swartberg Pass. Turns out there’s no such thing as a “boring bit” when you’re driving in South Africa. Everywhere the mountains loom like sentinels, the sky seems higher and wider and bluer, and the light is spectacular – all soft honey tones and razzle dazzle sun flares. Five minutes on the road and Rowan’s trigger finger is twitching uncontrollably.  

We could have ridden the R62 all the way in, but with time to spare we decide to peel off and sniff out the Seweweekspoort (try saying that after a half a crate of Castle) – another gravel road and one of just three north to south passes through the Swartberg range. I say pass, this is more of a through – the road cleaving its way between crackled red cliffs that flank the road like giant dry-stone walls.

This is GLA45 country: flat road, loose surface and rock faces that shout back. Whereas Merc’s baby AMG 45 family has a tendency to underwhelm on tarmac – brutally fast and heroically flatulent but somewhat one-dimensional in its point-and-grip approach – here it parps and slides like a WRC car that’s been to finishing school. I still find myself constantly scanning for rogue stones and clouds of dust coming in the opposite direction but, when it opens up, we have the perfect tool for the job. Didn’t think I’d be saying that at any point on this trip. 

While I’m grinning like a fool, niggling doubts are beginning to form. South Africans don’t see snow all that often, most never, but a rare dump at high altitude the night before our arrival is threatening to put a spanner in our spokes. Single-track gravel passes, altitude and no barriers don’t tend to mix well with low-riding pseudo-SUVs on summer tyres. Funny that. In fact, they don’t tend to mix well with anything on four wheels, and there are rumours that the Swartberg Pass – our only access to the road to Die Hel – could be closed. 

Nobody can give us a definitive answer, not even the Prince Albert (pfffft) police, stationed on the opposite side of the pass. We head to bed full of ostrich (bit like venison, since you asked) but distinctly unsatisfied, and wake up from an anxious sleep prepared to accept our fate… which appears all but sealed when we drive past a 20-foot sign declaring “SWARTBERG PASS CLOSED”. Fairly conclusive, then, but we elect to press on and only stop when a physical barrier gets in our way. 

Twenty minutes later and the mountains we hope to conquer hove into view – the full Ken Burns effect – and then we see it: a sign, our saviour. Only the northern approach, damaged by flood water weeks earlier, is shut – the southern half and the turn-off to Die Hel is open for business. We whoop and beat the steering wheel, and swear with delight in below-average South African accents, then drop off the tarmac onto what was once gravel but is now gluey mud, and the unsuitability of our chariot hits home. 

We begin our ascent up the Swartberg Pass, wrestling to keep the four-wheel-drive GLA pointing forward as the surface flips between ice in the shadows and muddy slush in the sun. And then a fully loaded VW Polo barrels past, stops on the edge of the precipice and ejects its cargo of five hysterical children, who all plunge head first into the snow. We, it seems, are the only ones not delighted by the frosty conditions. 

Nearly at the summit now, and whereas once we diced with superminis on the lower slopes, it’s all Toyota Hiluxes and Jeep Wranglers up here. Clearly, we’ve brought a water pistol to a gun fight, but right now, who cares? The views are enough to make you believe in miracles. Layer upon layer of mountain fading to the point where the haze takes over and blends the horizon to infinity. One last glimpse of heaven, then, before our appointment in hell.

A left turn. A sign plastered in stickers. All so innocuous, all so sneaky. Because that’s how it starts, lulling you into a false sense of security, tempting you forwards, inch by inch, but the punishment has already begun. It’s the kind of surface a trophy truck would take flat, but what causes a mere ripple in one of those is a cataclysmic event in a GLA45.

We’re not driving, we’re crawling, 15mph tops and constantly weaving, trying to pick the line of least resistance… at least the GLA’s steering is pleasingly direct. Hit a larger than average rock, and the GLA will happily clamber over it, then crash down the other side ricocheting off the bump stops. If you’re lucky, a mild headache follows; if you’re not, the GLA’s belly pan gets a scar to tell the grandkids about. 

But, by heck, it’s still moving. Like a determined, masochistic tortoise, we scrape and bounce and clatter our way down the road, too far to turn back. I imagine the look on the faces of AMG’s engineers if they could see us now – they were tasked with shaving tenths; we’re shaving most of the major componentry.

And the surprises keep on coming, because what started as a flat path winding its way aimlessly into the valley, suddenly gains altitude… and danger. Uphill hairpins, the kind I’d normally take with a flourish of wheelspin to keep the camera and my ego happy, are tamer affairs.

We try our hand at fording and come out with the brakes steaming but intact on the other side. In the last hour and a half, I’ve used precisely three per cent of the GLA45’s available horsepower, and haven’t left Comfort mode for fear of multiple herniated discs, but we’re doing things this car never dreamed of, taking it places it never thought possible. And who’d have thought? It’s got all the answers.

And then, like a final phrase in some dark opera, the valley reveals itself: lush, green, quarantined from the rest of the world, mesmerising in its beauty. Predictably, though, there’s a final lash in the tail – the steepest, narrowest and most decrepit section of the lot claws at the car in one final attempt to bring us grinding to a halt. But it’s too late, we’re through the gates of hell and deposited on the valley floor. 

God knows what I was expecting: dogs with multiple heads? A river of blood? The reality is relative normality. A campsite, a few random shacks and one guest house that’ll be our home for the night. We find it, park up and darkness is abruptly upon us. With no electricity and no signal in the valley, our phones are demoted to torches as we stagger back to the main house to ask the owner – one of just 10 full-time residents – if the restaurant is open. She stares back. Beer, meat and fire is the best she can do. Fine by us. For tonight, we dine in hell.

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