Through hell in high water

Greetings from “the place of the lost goat”, better known as Prieska.

We cracked 1000km yesterday and right now are a little over halfway through our journey. Although there’s still a long way to go a whiff of celebration could be detected at today’s biscuit break. Stocks of droëwors and Ginger Nuts are down accordingly.

The stretch from below Thunder Alley to Prieska has been characterised by a meandering river and consequently, flatter water, providing little paddling assistance. Storm systems passing overhead have also ensured stiff headwinds. But “Please guys, you must enjoy!”

The stretch from below Thunder Alley to Prieska has been characterised by a meandering river and consequently, flatter water, providing little paddling assistance. Storm systems passing overhead have also ensured stiff headwinds. But “Please guys, you must enjoy!”

We set off from Orania with a welcome addition to our team – Gavin from Vanderkloof, who paddled with us all the way to Prieska. Soon after leaving Orania the !Gariep ceases to be the boundary between the Free State and Northern Cape, and lies entirely in the Northern Cape.

At that point it enters a fast-flowing section that includes some of the river’s more famous rapids – Marcel se Monster, Gert se Perd, Hell’s Gate, Sarel Sidewinder, and Thunder Alley – faintly ridiculous names, although the humour becomes a little more difficult to appreciate when the only thing separating you from them is a thin layer of recently-repaired plastic.

The boys scouting the upper section of Marcel se Monster, the first of the notable rapids one hits after leaving Orania. At higher water levels it was in a forgiving mood, but two of us still swam.

The boys scouting the upper section of Marcel se Monster, the first of the notable rapids one hits after leaving Orania. At higher water levels it was in a forgiving mood, but two of us still swam.

In our case high water levels meant that the rapids were much less ferocious than usual. At lower levels rocks get exposed to form enormous holes, boils and whirlpools, some of which are big enough to swallow a boat whole before – hopefully – spitting it out a few meters away. What we experienced was a series of large wave trains: a wild ride, but not dangerous or technical.

The night after running the rapids, three things happened. First we congratulated ourselves on our continued survival. Then mining operations through the night alerted us to the fact that we were now in diamond country, with some mild “diamond fever” and scratching around in the dirt ensuing.

Mining has become a ubiquitous feature on the riverbanks as we paddled past De Kalk, the farm on which the first diamond was discovered in RSA. After seeing the damage inflicted we are re-evaluating the need for shiny stones (but it hasn’t stopped us scratching around in the dirt during biscuit breaks). Diamonds are unlikely to find their way onto any engagement rings though. Sorry ladies.

Mining has become a ubiquitous feature on the riverbanks as we paddled past De Kalk, the farm on which the first diamond was discovered in RSA. After seeing the damage inflicted we are re-evaluating the need for shiny stones (but it hasn’t stopped us scratching around in the dirt during biscuit breaks). Diamonds are unlikely to find their way onto any engagement rings though. Sorry ladies.

Finally, water levels dropped dramatically – some 2m by morning – and no doubt the rapids would have been a different proposition had we been just a day later.

These photographs were taken from the same spot just 12 hours apart and illustrate just how different the terrain looks at high and low flows. These changing water levels play havoc with diatom sampling. They also complicate re-entry into the river when you’ve chosen a campsite some distance down a shallow side stream.

These photographs were taken from the same spot just 12 hours apart and illustrate just how different the terrain looks at high and low flows. These changing water levels play havoc with diatom sampling. They also complicate re-entry into the river when you’ve chosen a campsite some distance down a shallow side stream.

Diatoms ahoy! Sam scrubbing diatoms from beautifully green and slimy cobble. The same spot at the tail end of Thunder Alley had provided relatively slim pickings the previous evening when the water levels were higher.

Diatoms ahoy! Sam scrubbing diatoms from beautifully green and slimy cobble. The same spot at the tail end of Thunder Alley had provided relatively slim pickings the previous evening when the water levels were higher.

After the excitement of Thunder Alley and its surrounds, the !Gariep slows, the terrain flattens, and it’s a long flat grind of 180km through commercial farmland to Prieska.

One small hiccup of excitement below the old bridge leading into Douglas on an otherwise flat river. We’ll take what we can get.

One small hiccup of excitement below the old bridge leading into Douglas on an otherwise flat river. We’ll take what we can get.

We stopped near the town of Douglas, which lies on the Vaal river near its confluence with the !Gariep. This meant hitching a ride some 15km into town – no small task given current beard and personal hygiene levels. Getting a lift in proved no problem, but as the sun set and cars out of Douglas became a rarity, help came from an unexpected source. Back at camp, the farmer whose land we were essentially trespassing on had stumbled upon James and Gavin. After a small dose of the 3rd degree he warmed to them and the idea of our trip, even offering to drive the round-trip to pick up the stranded Sam and Ian, who had just started the three-hour walk back in the dark. The offer was gratefully accepted.

Ian’s grandmother grew up in Douglas in the 1920s and had pointed out a few landmarks for us to visit. She would discover that much has changed. The public library has become a political headquarters and the grocery store her family ran is now a bottle store.

Ian’s grandmother grew up in Douglas in the 1920s and had pointed out a few landmarks for us to visit. She would discover that much has changed. The public library has become a political headquarters and the grocery store her family ran is now a bottle store.

Chance meetings with landowners on the riverbanks sometimes bring unexpected benefits. On discovering James and Gavin, the owner of this idyllic spot offered to collect Ian and Sam who were stranded some 15km away outside Douglas. Lesson: don’t attempt hitch-hiking after dark.

Chance meetings with landowners on the riverbanks sometimes bring unexpected benefits. On discovering James and Gavin, the owner of this idyllic spot offered to collect Ian and Sam who were stranded some 15km away outside Douglas. Lesson: don’t attempt hitch-hiking after dark.

After Douglas we had some lengthy paddling days into regular headwinds, covering more than 50km on a couple of days.

We passed the confluence between South Africa’s two biggest rivers, the Vaal and !Gariep, a notable landmark for us although we didn’t see the different water colours that many people had told us of.

The somewhat inauspicious meeting of the !Gariep and Vaal Rivers below Douglas. Those expecting a surge in flow below this point were disappointed.

The somewhat inauspicious meeting of the !Gariep and Vaal Rivers below Douglas. Those expecting a surge in flow below this point were disappointed.

Below the Vaal confluence water quality becomes a bit more of a concern because of mining activity in the Vaal basin and the associated acid mine drainage, but for now we’re continuing to use chlorine tablets rather than the more effective but time-consuming filtering.

The evening after passing the confluence, the fishing gods were with us and Sam reeled in a small yellowfish and two barbel. We kept and ate the barbel, and found it surprisingly good, with no muddiness at all. We’re thinking of opening up a barbel sushi restaurant on our return. Barbelicious.

Sam managed to quadruple our haul of fish in a single afternoon. Here he is reeling in the first of two barbel. The master fisherman managed to snap James’s fishing rod the following day. Fishing has its ups and downs.

Sam managed to quadruple our haul of fish in a single afternoon. Here he is reeling in the first of two barbel. The master fisherman managed to snap James’s fishing rod the following day. Fishing has its ups and downs.

It’s also gotten quite a bit hotter and some small changes – the appearance of Prosopis, an alien tree thriving in arid riverine environments; reduced sightings of bee-eaters; and Sam walking the streets of Prieska dripping wet after a pre-shopping shower – suggest we’re moving through a transition zone from the sub-tropical east to the arid west.

Tracks left by a monitor lizard in the river sand.

Tracks left by a monitor lizard in the river sand.

We saw our first quiver tree about 50km east of Prieska, much further east than the previously-known distribution suggests. The tree was the subject of Sam’s recent MSc and he tells us with much excitement that the tree has just been reclassified from Aloe dichotoma to Aloidendron dichotomum. James and Ian have taken this fact on board and are going on with their lives.

And so finally we arrived in Prieska, said our goodbyes to Gavin over a hearty lunch, and did our usual city stopover thing – refuelled, caught up with data entry and blog writing, drank too much Coke and got to bed too late. Sometimes rest afternoons seem harder than being on the river. From here we travel on through some quite remote country to the Buchuberg dam, through the old asbestos mining areas of Westerberg and Kougas, and on to Upington, which we hope to reach in about a week’s time.

This is what we have to show after a month’s sampling work on the river. These beauties almost escaped from the torn rear of Sam’s kayak in the great Orania-Weir-Debacle. They are the subject of much pampering and cause of an even greater amount of anxiety.

This is what we have to show after a month’s sampling work on the river. These beauties almost escaped from the torn rear of Sam’s kayak in the great Orania-Weir-Debacle. They are the subject of much pampering and cause of an even greater amount of anxiety.

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2 thoughts on “Through hell in high water

  1. PLEASE look after those bottles filled with diatoms (?), or you won’t enjoy.Loving those epic photos and the amusing diary of your travels. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Or maybe not.

  2. Thanks guys for a brilliant blog – I foresee such literary talent being utilised in a collector’s coffee table book, selling well in Oranje, Prieska and Upington. And in Douglas – Ian’s gran is going to be thrilled with the pictures.

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