It was just after dawn and the sun rose majestically over the snow-capped peaks of the Swartberg Pass. The golden yellow rays—tinged with hues of red, bluish-purple, and brilliant orange—reflected off the glistening, pristine snow. The view was breathtaking—like nothing Donald had ever seen before. The mile-high Pass they were passing through was a masterpiece of engineering, full of wide loops, switchbacks, and stunning views.
He didn’t want to miss a single moment of the extraordinary panorama spread out before him, but he had to concentrate on his driving.
Donald had researched information about its construction on the Internet late last night. The final work accomplished by the legendary road builder, Thomas Bain, it was completed after six years of grueling labor in 1887. Because the road was narrow, winding, and very steep, he couldn’t afford to act like a tourist on vacation, even though he felt like one.
One stupid mistake and they’d be airborne—and it was a long way to the valley below.
He’d also discovered the San Andreas Fault ran smack dab through these mountains. The most destructive earthquake in South Africa’s history had hit not far from here in 1969. The quake had been so strong, 6.3 on the Richer scale, with aftershocks exceeding 7.0, that the force of it had been felt as far away as Durban, on the coast. Thinking of the rock towers surrounding this road shifting and swaying like tinker toys made his stomach quiver.
“Tell me again why we’re going to this place—what’s it called, Heitsi?” he said.
“Gamkaskloof,” their guide replied from the back seat.
“Die Hel” Alec said, using the Afrikaans colloquial name as he scrutinized the map splayed out across his lap. He was in the passenger seat with several well-worn reference books scattered at his feet. Every so often he reached down and picked one up, then flipped back and forth through the pages. He scribbled furiously and made several notes on both the map and the small notepad he always kept with him.
“The Hell is an extremely fertile valley, thirty-two miles long and less than half a mile wide,” he continued, as he paused for a moment from what he was doing. “It’s aptly nicknamed by the locals, because it is a place of mystery and legend, in the tradition of Sir Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. We’re going to Gamkaskloof, because of what we found in the Karoo yesterday.”
Heitsi said nothing. An air of concern cloaked his countenance, like a barely discernible gossamer veil.
It was mid-morning when they reached the bottom of the valley.
The temperature had risen dramatically as they descended. Now, all the windows in the Land Rover were down, allowing a scented breeze to flow through the vehicle. The valley floor was covered with a variety of reverie shrubs, thorn trees—with their exaggerated umbrella-shaped crowns, gnarled branches, and jagged thorns—and the spectacular Klapperbosse.
The narrow road wound through bush so dense it seemed like an impenetrable wall and finally brought the three companions to the Gamka River crossing. Donald was grateful they hadn’t seen another vehicle. He couldn’t imagine how they would have negotiated the encounter—there was no place to turn around.
“This valley has to be one of the best-kept secrets ever,” he said. “I had no idea anything like this existed in South Africa.”
“Most people outside of the area don’t,” Alec responded. “The valley was discovered by accident. For more than a hundred years, the only way to get down here was on horseback through the river gorge, or over the mountains. The cut-off leading down into the valley wasn’t even constructed until nineteen sixty-two. Within thirty years of its completion, the last farmer had sold out his interests to the Cape Nature Conservation Society, the organization which manages the Swartberg Preserve. Now, there are only two permanent residents who live here—a conservation official and his wife.”
The Land Rover hit a huge pot hole and the three occupants were momentarily rattled.
“Hit another one of those, Donald,” Heitsi admonished, “and you might as well get out the camping gear right now, because we won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
“You see those three odd-shaped formations up ahead?” Alec tapped his graduate assistant on the shoulder and pointed.
“That’s where we’re going to look.”
“Look for what?” Heitsi demanded, a scowl on his face.
“The Tomb of the Unmentionable.”
Six thousand miles away, on the shores of the Mediterranean, an orange-yellow sun was momentarily trapped among a contingent of cumulus clouds as they pranced across the sky, casting a mosaic of lavender and ocher-red hues across the heavenly, deep-blue canopy. A soft, cool breeze, unusual for this time of year, cascaded over the dirty-green water that was the Vieux Port of Marseilles. It left row after row of undulating ripples in its unseen wake.
The smell of salt, and rotting fish, permeated the shimmering air.
On the peak of the strip of land that projected west into the bay, high above the Port, stood the imposing Church of Notre Dame de la Garde. Construction on the Romano-Byzantine style basilica had begun in 1853 on the hilltop where the town’s lookout post had once stood. It was completed forty-six years later, one year shy of the new century. The hilltop, like most religious sites in Europe, had a long history. Originally, a simple chapel had been built there during the thirteenth century. Eventually, it became a priory for the monks of St. Victor. Three hundred years later, the church had been fortified to defend against a threatened invasion by Charles V of Spain.
Now, the century-old basilica dominated the view for miles around.
Standing atop its two hundred foot high belfry stood a huge, gilded statue of the Virgin Mary holding her infant child. Mother and child had a magnificent view of Fort St. Jean, and Fort St. Nicholas, as well as the rocky islet of If, site of the sixteenth century Chateau d’If mentioned in the Count of Monte Christo, the nineteenth century novel written by the French novelist Alexandre Dumas.
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Genre – Christian Thriller, Fantasy, Adventure
Rating – PG-13