Greetings from the SENQU2SEA team!
We’re alive, but sweating profusely in the +40 degree Augrabies heat!
We reached the Falls yesterday and have been stewing a rest day away today, thankful for an afternoon thundershower which cooled things off a bit. Much respect for all the vegetation which has to endure this blistering heat day after day!
The river between Upington and Augrabies Falls is more technically demanding than what we’ve previously encountered.
For long stretches it is highly braided, with many narrow channels constantly splitting and merging, with twists and drops and many exposed and unexposed rocks. The river also drops substantially in altitude – about 170m in all – meaning fast-flowing water with many rapids and weirs to be negotiated.
Adding further spice, the correct route takes one into the path of two obstacles – Miggie Falls and a patch of serious whitewater between Keimoes and Kakamas – that fall squarely into the category ‘to be avoided’.
All this makes navigation critical, and we’ve been fortunate in two respects. First, prior to departure Sam had used info gleaned from William Dicey and Rob Wilson to plot a route for us (with the aid of Google Earth) that turned out to be absolutely perfect. Then in Upington we met Johann Swart, a young local kayaker who had paddled the stretch between Upington and Keimoes in 2010 and the critical section around Miggie Falls a few weeks ago. He was psyched to paddle and took a day off work to join us in his short whitewater kayak for the trip to Kakamas. Having his navigation and whitewater skills (anyone who can eskimo roll instantly receives our respect and adoration) around took a load off our shoulders, and although James and Ian took a swim we managed this section without major incident.
Miggie Falls is spectacular – a great mass of water rushes over a series of large rocky drops. Apparently two people have unintentionally attempted (and survived) the full run down the falls, but with our boats and experience levels we were more than happy to accept the 200m bash-fest through reeds, camelthorn and, our personal favourite, swarthaak, to put-in below the falls. Johann opted to paddle the ‘chicken-run’ down a side channel, which he did in fine style in his bathtub.
At the Keimoes bridge Johann was picked up by his parents Jeremie and Bea, who own the local Pick ‘n Pay in Upington. They brought us a huge and completely unexpected food parcel packed with goodies – ice cold Cokes, sweets, snacks, lamb chops and Eben se Wenwors – honestly the best lamb and boerewors we’ve ever tasted. Thank you so much guys – we’re really touched by your generosity.
Shortly after the Keimoes bridge Sam’s boat nearly came to grief once again on a small innocuous weir. After successfully negotiating the weir, Sam hit a submerged rock and shortly thereafter found himself and his boat swimming. Apparently he swims better than his boat, which quickly filled with water and then decided to get lodged between two rocks. A kayak full of water is a serious weight and any additional water pushing against it generates an immense force that can easily fold the whole lot in two, which is near enough to what transpired. The crumpled boat eventually dislodged itself and to everyone’s surprise an assessment of the damage suggested it was still river-worthy. Turns out plastic boats such as the ones we’re using have a memory and often reform to their original shape. So, after leaving it in the sun and doing some light blowtorching the only visible damage is a small crease on the boat’s midriff. Phew!
The following day needed two long portages – the first a 1km walk along a dirt road to get around some gnarly whitewater, then a shorter but steeper carry up, around, and down Neus weir and falls. Both were done in searing 45+ degree heat and are best described as ‘character-building’.
Below Neus Falls one soon enters the spectacular Neus Gorge, with cliffs of bullet-hard black rock rising straight out of the water.
We overnighted at Khamkirrie, where the owner Gawie kindly let us camp for free in exchange for a couple of photos (the Senqu2Sea team never being shy to whip out a few thousand mile stares), before making the final 12km push to Augrabies Falls. This final bit needs some care as there are a number of rapids – Rhino, Rodeo/Rollercoaster, Klipspringer, Blind Faith and Cascades –immediately followed by the take-out point just a few hundred meters from the main falls.
Let’s just say that the survival rate of going over the Augrabies Falls is much MUCH worse than that of Miggie Falls. So there were some nerves and slight consternation as James threw a 180 and went down the last rapid backwards…
Luckily he held it together and we arrived at the take-out point unscathed. We soon discovered that that was the easy part though, as we still had to carry our boats about 500m over a rocky granitic moonscape and down and up a steep gorge running adjacent to the main channel. Thankfully after doing this portage (interspersed with several swims) we were met by SANParks Augrabies Falls National Park Manager Frans van Rooyen, who kindly transported us to the Augrabies Falls campsite where a well-deserved Coke break was taken. Thank you Frans, you were a lifesaver!
Today is a rest day and James offered to hitch a ride into Kakamas to pick up some supplies and some medication for Sam who’s not feeling 100%. With Sam out of action, Ian was left to fend off persistent strikes from starlings, baboons and vervet monkeys. Meanwhile, finding a lift back to the falls proved tricky for James, looking more than a little down-and-out in his dirty vest, bearded and tanned way beyond a blazing bronze. Luckily there were some roadworks just outside the town, and he used his best begging face and the line about getting medication to a sick friend to guilt the first car in line into giving him a lift. However, this was not before being asked to present said medication and forced to take off his sunnies and hat so the driver could “see what he really looked like”.
From here another steep portage into the Augrabies gorge at Echo Corner awaits us, and then some exciting paddling down to Onseepkans and into the Onseepkans gorge.
We’ll be hemmed in by rock faces for a lot of the time, and the next time we’ll have good enough internet for a post will probably be Vioolsdrift, about 10 days’ paddling away. Until then…