Ode to a diatom

In case anyone is still following the blog, I found a fascinating article in an old issue of National Geographic (thanks Les!). It’s a one page piece on diatoms, with several cool colour images of diatom ‘skeletons’, otherwise known as siliceous cases. These have been massively magnified with the aid of a scanning electron microscope. I won’t paraphrase the article any further; instead I’ll get Caitlin (thanks!) to post the lot and you can be as amazed as I was to find out just how ubiquitous and crucial diatoms are in our everyday lives. Who would’ve thought?!
Ciao,
Sam1mod

2mod

3mod

4mod

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All good things

It’s done! Sixty one days and 2125km after setting out from Qacha’s Nek in Lesotho we paddled through the thick early-morning fog that envelops the coast near Alexander Bay to reach our final destination: the mouth of the mighty !Gariep River.

On the beach at Alexander Bay just after pulling the kayaks up and out of the water for the last time at the mouth of the !Gariep River.

On the beach at Alexander Bay just after pulling the kayaks up and out of the water for the last time at the mouth of the !Gariep River.

Here we were met by Sam’s dad Peter and girlfriend Kate, who had negotiated the tricky final stretch of deep sand to welcome us at the mouth with champagne. And all of a sudden that was that…the river life we’d grown so accustomed to over the previous months had come to an end. It was a little hard to comprehend right then and there, but the champagne put paid to any deeper philosophical musings.

Hills and koppies of the coastal forelands stretching to the higher mountains of the Richtersveld in the far distance.

Hills and koppies of the coastal forelands stretching to the higher mountains of the Richtersveld in the far distance.

Our last blog was posted from the verdant lawns of Felix Unite’s Camp Provenance at Noordoewer. From this point the river quickly re-enters the spectacular hyper-arid mountain scenery that makes the Richtersveld world famous.

The rocks of the Richtersveld are some of the oldest on planet Earth and, because of the almost total lack of vegetation, the fascinating geology of this area is on full display.

Interestingly, different rates of erosion of softer and harder rocks has resulted in a stepped relief, with harder rock layers forming natural weirs which have trapped boulders washed downstream over time. This has created many of the rapids for which this stretch is famous. As with most of our trip we found the rapids in a forgiving mood and negotiated the Sjambok, Gamkab, Rollercoaster, Rocky Horror, etc., etc. rapids without incident. We did get out of our boats to have a peek at Sjambok, but it was quickly decided that the couple of hundred metre walk to inspect the meat of the thing was too much effort. We were obviously getting a little too flippant because, closer to the confluence with the Fish River, an unnamed and rather benign rocky rapid caught Sam off guard, forcing his boat between two large boulders and into some churning water on the other side, with him taking an unceremonious swim. Ian was swift to capitalise on his misfortune by pointing out the old paddlers’ adage of a round of drinks on the last swimmer. His initiative came back to haunt him at a slightly more note-worthy rapid the following day, as he was bundled out of his boat along with some electronics – he was clearly not expecting to take a swim. Fortunately he was met downstream by very sympathetic teammates with suggestions of their preferred beers. Now with beers on the line, the last few rapids assumed critical importance, with usually co-operative team members employing all sorts of smoke-and-mirror methods to throw each other off the scent of the easiest line through. Sam and James proved equal to the task though, and eagerly await their bounty.

The mountains and scenery in the Richtersveld were magnificent.

The mountains and scenery in the Richtersveld were magnificent.

We spent the better part of a day paddling past Aussenkehr, the largest farm in the Southern Hemisphere, fronting some 40km of the !Gariep River and containing what is effectively one of the biggest towns in the area, housing a community of thousands of permanent and seasonal workers and the infrastructure required to support them.

Aussenkehr is also the location of what must be the only Spar located on a farm, at which we were happily able to stock up with a few luxuries for the last few days after a relatively lean restocking attempt in Noordoewer. Pickings were still a bit slim for this final leg though, forestalling any early celebration and forcing a little culinary inventiveness: Ina Paarman probably did not envisage her pesto as an accompaniment to bully beef, but we found the result delicious.

On the whole we’ve eaten rather well though, which I suppose is necessary given the energy intensive lifestyle we’ve been leading. An unintended consequence is that our food bags have been the source of much attention from our primate cousins, and on two occasions we suffered losses from baboons and vervets respectively. In the one instance, however, Ian had thankfully put his larger brain to good use and packed in layers, with the Eet-Sum-Mor’s surviving the raid at the expense of the less important bread and tomatoes.

The Richtersveld/Ais-Ais Transfrontier Park, which flanked us both left and right for much of this section, is somewhat unusual with respect to its governance structure. It’s both a peace park – a joint agreement between the governments of RSA and Namibia to conserve the land bordering the !Gariep River – as well as a community-run park. This means the inhabitants of four local Nama communities have grazing rights and (depending on which source you go with) rights to mine within the park boundaries. In return for leasing the land to SANParks these communities also receive other benefits such as access to transport and educational scholarships. It seems like a progressive arrangement, although we were surprised (despite assurances to the contrary by a SANParks staffer at Sendelingsdrif) at the inclusion of mining as a permissible activity, which seemed to be ongoing within the park.

We were somewhat puzzled and distressed to see what looked like active diamond mining taking place within the borders of the Richtersveld National Park, as depicted in this photograph.

We were somewhat puzzled and distressed to see what looked like active diamond mining taking place within the borders of the Richtersveld National Park, as depicted in this photograph.

Despite the prevailing aridity, we were treated to some intriguing game viewing en route to the coast. Late one night we were awoken for the second time on the trip by a strange thrashing noise emanating from the river. Our torchlights revealed the heads of dozens of massive barbel, all bunched together with their mouths gaping open at the water’s surface. We’d previously seen this phenomenon at our camp below Kum-Kum Falls and had debated whether it might be some form of migration, perhaps to deeper water. However, the aggressive splashing and herding formation in the direction of the shallows suggested that it was some kind of pack hunting strategy. Indeed, closer inspection revealed numerous smaller fish hiding in the shallowest water between rocks and cobbles. We think that the barbel scare smaller fish into the shallows and that many of these fish try and escape by leaping out of the water, landing in the awaiting barbel mouths. If anyone has more insight on this, we would be pleased to hear from you.

Closer to the coast we also came upon ever greater numbers of gemsbok on the Namibian side of the river, coming down from the sparsely vegetated dunes for a drink. On one occasion we had the privilege of paddling right up to a good sized herd which were patiently and gracefully swimming – with just their heads and horns exposed – across a channel in the river from an island on which they had been grazing. A truly magnificent sight!

Gemsbok running wild along the riverbanks on the Namibian side. Seeing these majestic creatures made us feel like we had stepped back in time to an era before much of the wildlife had been hunted out in Southern Africa.

Gemsbok running wild along the riverbanks on the Namibian side. Seeing these majestic creatures made us feel like we had stepped back in time to an era before much of the wildlife had been hunted out in Southern Africa.

The river then leaves the mountainous terrain of the Richtersveld around Sendelingsdrif and enters the coastal forelands, flanked by dunes and vast expanses of desert sands.

Desert sands became a common occurrence in the valleys and on the plains and mountain slopes as we neared the cold Atlantic Ocean coastline.

Desert sands became a common occurrence in the valleys and on the plains and mountain slopes as we neared the cold Atlantic Ocean coastline.

Just before Sendelingsdrif we passed signs of a huge mega-weir construction project – part of an ambitious inter-governmental scheme to bring a reliable source of water to the people, and a more natural flow regime to the mouth of the river. As ever, the search for a balance between human and ecological needs goes on.

Below Sendelingsdrif one finds the curiously (we thought humorously) named settlements of Brandkaros (Burning Blanket) and Grootderm (Large Intestine). Diamond mining ramps up appreciably in these parts, and huge dumps of stone, sand and mining debris are visible not far from the river banks.

Abandoned diamond mining buildings just behind the coastal dunes near the !Gariep River mouth.

Abandoned diamond mining buildings just behind the coastal dunes near the !Gariep River mouth.

We were told that the entire section of river from Sendelingsdrif was a no-go zone, but we didn’t feel the need to travel incognito until the final few kilometres.

A rather ominously worded sign in the diamond mining area.

A rather ominously worded sign in the diamond mining area.

The proposed covert SENQU2SEA mission amounted to a laughable attempt to pass underneath the Alexander Bay-Oranjemund bridge undetected. After fumbling around in camp for an hour with our headtorches, we set off at 05h30 into a fog that obscured what little starlight was supposed to guide us. After 50 metres we hit our first sandbar. We spent the next hour waffling and zig-zagging the 2km to the utterly deserted bridge. Here we nearly came to grief on a line of steel poles and cement bollards: the remnants of an earlier bridge washed away by floods, resulting in whispered shouts of caution and heaving paddle strokes from Sam leading the way. We joked that we couldn’t possibly be mistaken for diamond smugglers as we were clearly completely inept at stealth. We then drifted slowly downstream waiting for first light, shivering in a light headwind and disturbing a few snoozing groups of pelicans.

Pelicans on the !Gariep estuary.

Pelicans on the !Gariep estuary.

The last few kilometres were a lovely paddle through lifting mist and fog in the soft dawn light, with the smell and roar of the Atlantic growing slowly stronger.

Final stretch to the coast in the mist.

Final stretch to the coast in the mist.

We must have arrived at the changing tide, because we were able to paddle right up to the river mouth, being washed ashore for the final time by small wavelets. A few local fishermen were already at their business nearby. As we hauled our boats ashore it didn’t feel as if anything was out of the ordinary.

We’re returning home with some pretty weird calluses, many good memories, and even more data.

In fact, it’s a veritable mountain of data, which will take some weeks to work through. We’ve painstakingly collected 61 diatom and water samples, one approximately every 40km for the entire length of the river; 53 isotope samples taken in tributaries of, and within the Senqu and !Gariep Rivers themselves; well over 1200 GPS locations of interest, including around 500 water abstraction points and 500 fish eagle, goliath heron and giant kingfisher sightings. (Never before has a statistician collected so much raw data – Ian is a rare breed indeed!). We also recorded and photographed the location of all significant bird nesting colonies along the length of the river, as well as mining activity. Hundreds of points record the location of fishing activity, starting from the town of Aliwal North. James studiously recorded bird species observed on a daily basis, amounting to a continuous record of species presence along the entire length of the river. He also hauled his camera out more than 1060 times (that’s approximately once every 2km) to document riverine vegetation, and scrambled up 60 koppies to take a series of quite outstanding high resolution landscape panoramas. All this data amounts to a thorough and carefully captured snapshot of most of the Senqu River and the entire !Gariep River system, and something we’re quite proud of. We hope it’ll be of much use as a baseline dataset and as a resource to current and future researchers of the Senqu and !Gariep Rivers.

Juvenile Yellowfish were inquisitive fish, often swimming around us when we went for a dip in the river to cool off.

Juvenile Yellowfish were inquisitive fish, often swimming around us when we went for a dip in the river to cool off.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for joining us along our journey, for all your encouragement, comments and corrections. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed your company along the way! With respect to the blog, we’d like to say a special thank you to Caitlin von Witt (aka Squirmy Worm, as Ian and Sam learnt early on) for being such an outstanding PR liaison person. She took text and photos from three angular and abrasive individuals, ran it through several hundred class 5 rapids, and delivered a rounded and smoothly polished product to our adoring fans (i.e. parents). We’re also very grateful to Yolandi Els, co-ordinator of the Arid Lands Node of the South African Environmental Observation Network (http://www.saeon.ac.za) and Prof. Timm Hoffman of the Plant Conservation Unit (http://www.pcu.uct.ac.za) at UCT for providing some funding and logistical support for the expedition. Anyone interested in accessing the data should please get in touch with either Yolandi or Timm, as SAEON and the PCU will be the primary repositories for the data.

There are many more thank you’s to be said to people who helped us before we left, and all along the way. We’ve decided against a long list of names; you (and we!) know who you are. Instead, we’d simply like to say a sincere THANK YOU! to all of you. You enriched our journey, your generosity touched us deeply, you showed us the way.
A last parting thought: what we did wasn’t actually that remarkable, what was remarkable was that we DID it!

Southern Africa is full of adventurous potential, and friendly people, should you need some help with directions. We live in a corner of the world where you can get lost, and find yourself, just as easily. What’s more, it doesn’t need to involve a huge financial outlay, or a massive carbon footprint.

Paddling through the Richtersveld/Ais-Ais Transfrontier Park. A truly beautiful part of Southern Africa and well worth a visit.

Paddling through the Richtersveld/Ais-Ais Transfrontier Park. A truly beautiful part of Southern Africa and well worth a visit.

So next time you’re in need of some rejuvenation, go beach camping up the West Coast, go walking in the Cape mountains, or go cycling on some quiet farm roads. There are rich memories out there to be made, and the stars will light your way (except in Alexander Bay)…

Covert paddling under the cover of darkness and early morning mist to make it past the Alexander Bay borderpost in order to avoid being denied entry into the diamond mining area and our final destination, the sea.

Covert paddling under the cover of darkness and early morning mist to make it past the Alexander Bay borderpost in order to avoid being denied entry into the diamond mining area and our final destination, the sea.

PS. Watch this space for more exclusive SENQU2SEA behind-the-scenes video footage (yet to emerge from the editing room).

Dolly Parton’s duck soup

Greetings from the land of green lawns and overpriced burgers and cokes (also known as Felix Unite’s Camp Provenance).

Yes, against small odds the SENQU2SEA team has made it to Noordoewer after several days in the rocky wasteland west of Augrabies Falls.

Damming of the !Gariep continues; this nasty looking weir (for fish and kayakers) under construction at the Blouputs bridge.

Damming of the !Gariep continues; this nasty looking weir (for fish and kayakers) under construction at the Blouputs bridge.

Park Manager at Augrabies, Frans van Rooyen, put together a small team to assist us with the portage to Echo Corner which was greatly appreciated.

The South African National Parks team who helped us portage into the Augrabies Gorge at Echo Corner. Thanks Mario and team, you guys are legends for helping us carry such heavy loads!

The South African National Parks team who helped us portage into the Augrabies Gorge at Echo Corner. Thanks Mario and team, you guys are legends for helping us carry such heavy loads!

Dropping into Echo Corner was like entering another world. After many days of paddling in a more or less flat landscape frequently surrounded by vineyards we were suddenly flanked on both sides by steep granite cliffs and an almost total lack of vegetation. The drop in altitude and parabolic effect created by the surrounding mountainsides caused temperatures to soar even higher than we had experienced at the Augrabies Restcamp, making shade a vital ingredient in the selection of campsites.

While the mountain slopes have become more barren, the river remains a ribbon of life and James’s intuition about the profusion of insect life in the hotter, drier environment was spot-on when we chose to camp in a seemingly idyllic dry tributary one evening. Within the space of half an hour several solifuges and scorpions had been spotted and okes were swiftly making all sorts of ingenious barriers at the borders of their groundsheets to keep the wildlife at bay. Sam’s construction clearly had a design flaw, resulting in a spider bite, but luckily with no lasting ill effects.

Isolated supply store outside Onseepkans. Sam was on resupply duty this day and ended up sitting outside the store for two hours waiting for them to open before a passer-by informed him that the shop would be closed for the day…next shop?...10 km away, on your bike son.

Isolated supply store outside Onseepkans. Sam was on resupply duty this day and ended up sitting outside the store for two hours waiting for them to open before a passer-by informed him that the shop would be closed for the day…next shop?…10 km away, on your bike son.

After 3 days of wilderness paddling we reached the small border outpost of Onseepkans and camped at the Gravity Adventure campsite despite finding no-one in attendance (being river people, we were sure they wouldn’t mind ☺).
We met Alex – a local river guide – the following morning and he provided some valuable info on the rapids above and below Ritchie Falls, which lies just a few kilometres downstream of Onseepkans. Meanwhile Sam received an exhilarating lift to the Onseepkans Mission village with Alex’s friend Anthony, who clearly had rally driving ambitions in his partially inebriated state. Then it was off again into even more remote terrain to the west.

Onseepkans locals.

Onseepkans locals.

The key to not dying at Ritchie Falls is to get out of the water quickly if one is unfortunate enough to capsize at the smaller Klein Valle, which precedes the main falls.

And this is exactly what Ian did with the help of some towage from Sam! The only thing that ended up being sacrificed to the falls was one of Sam’s slops (read: James’s father’s slops…sorry about that!).

One of James’s PhD supervisors had informed him to watch out for Ritchie Falls because if he went over he would definitely DIE. When he saw it for himself in real life he had to wholeheartedly agree.

One of James’s PhD supervisors had informed him to watch out for Ritchie Falls because if he went over he would definitely DIE. When he saw it for himself in real life he had to wholeheartedly agree.

Ritchie Falls is a truly impressive sight. From the larger right hand channel which we had paddled, a maelstrom of water cascades, sucks and boils down a steep, polished rocky chute. Much of the water is actually transported below the surface layer of rocks in enormous siphons and potholes worn in the bedrock over the aeons. Definitely a portage! Equally impressive is the deep gorge formed by the left hand river channel, which meets the right hand channel at the bottom of the falls. This too has been beautifully sculpted and polished by the water over time.

Ritchie Falls and gorge.

Ritchie Falls and gorge.

We chose to overnight at Ritchie Falls in order to make the portage around the falls easier in morning coolness. Despite this forethought, we were still sweating heavily by the time the boats were in the water the following morning. This particular portage is a careful operation, as the kayaks need to be lowered down a section of steep, smooth granite, before being hauled to the waters edge.

Sam and Ian applying some of their climbing skills with some nifty rope work to get the kayaks down the side of the gorge at Ritchie Falls.

Sam and Ian applying some of their climbing skills with some nifty rope work to get the kayaks down the side of the gorge at Ritchie Falls.

Two big rapids follow shortly after Ritchie Falls: Big Bunny and Dolly Parton. On inspection both appeared less intimidating than we were expecting (probably because of higher than normal water levels) but by no means push-overs.

A big hole guards the bottom of Big Bunny and it’s almost impossible to avoid as a large, fast and very powerful wave-train pushes one straight in that direction. Despite this, the team all made it through with flying colours, James even stopping for a bit of nonchalant wave-riding in the hole before deftly grabbing his blue foamy which had been torn free from his boat by the water. He was less lucky at Dolly, which has a deceptive rip in its hole. Ian and Sam fortunately made it through unscathed, Ian with particular finesse, having been told to gun it through with some speed!

Ian: It looks pretty “bony” down the left there, hey boet. Sam: Ja no look china, there’s a nasty “siphon” down there too, I skei “a boof stroke off the tongue” down the right line is the go on this one maboet.

Ian: It looks pretty “bony” down the left there, hey boet.
Sam: Ja no look china, there’s a nasty “siphon” down there too, I skei “a boof stroke off the tongue” down the right line is the go on this one maboet.

Below these rapids the temperature seemed to kick up a few more notches, sending Game consumption levels through the roof and us scurrying for shade whenever out of our boats. At this point the remoteness of the area really dawned on us, with few access points marked on the map and miles of jagged peaks on all sides. From this point on, all the way to Vioolsdrif the mountain slopes seemed to be scorched and tortured by the sun’s white heat, radiating it during the afternoon and creating oven-like conditions, with the notable inclusion of the oven’s fan also running. These were possibly some of the hottest conditions of the entire journey and we found it almost impossible to relax or cool off. A dip and a wet sarong provided only temporary respite.

We passed the impressive Groot Pellaberg at whose foot lies the tiny historical mission station of Pella some distance inland.

Downstream we came across the extensive date plantations at Klein Pella where the harsh conditions in this area are ideal for growing this hardy crop. Below the Pella region the river plain widens and flattens, becoming a myriad of braided channels separated by reed, rock or tree-lined islands. Some carry one all the way through to the other side, most pinch out as the water seeps slowly through the reeds to rejoin larger channels. Within these channels lie Kum-Kum Falls, a feature we were looking to avoid by keeping river right. But a slight error in channel selection early on led to over an hour of bumping, scraping and thrashing our way through narrow, shallow channels, overtopped by reeds and thorn trees. Some would say we got off lightly! A GPS track is certainly beneficial in navigating these channels, but they change with changing water levels, so it’s by no means a perfect solution.

The !Gariep is an artery of green running through the harsh, arid and rugged landscapes on the border of Namibia (on the left). This particular stretch is where we battled our way through the many narrow channels in an effort to avoid Kum Kum Falls.

The !Gariep is an artery of green running through the harsh, arid and rugged landscapes on the border of Namibia (on the left). This particular stretch is where we battled our way through the many narrow channels in an effort to avoid Kum Kum Falls.

Braided channels continue all the way to the western end of the small communal farming settlement of Witbank. Every now and then we would see a small kraal or cattle outpost on an otherwise stark mountainside, probably used on a seasonal or rotational basis (we saw very few people). There certainly doesn’t seem to be enough vegetation on the slopes to support viable livestock farming, and most animals we saw were grazing within the riparian zone along the rivers edge. This was invariably dominated by Prosopis trees which, depending on one’s viewpoint, one can either see as a pest species competing with indigenous vegetation, or a valuable source of fodder, shade and wood.

Some distance after Witbank comes the settlement of Goodhouse, the location of an old ferry crossing (the ferry is still there but looks to be out of use) and apparently where the highest average temperature for South Africa is recorded. A small but thriving farming community is situated on the Namibian side where crops are irrigated during summer simply to cool them off in the stifling heat! The picture on the South African side is a bit more sombre. Much of the infrastructure remains from a large government funded scheme to kick-start an agricultural hub at Goodhouse, but for various reasons the whole thing imploded and now all that remains are pipes, powerlines and sand.

View over the !Gariep River and a dry riverbed meandering out of the mountains of Namibia. We were lucky enough to experience an evening of thunderstorms in this harsh and arid desert environment.

View over the !Gariep River and a dry riverbed meandering out of the mountains of Namibia. We were lucky enough to experience an evening of thunderstorms in this harsh and arid desert environment.

Channel-faffing set us back a few kilometres for a couple of days running, which meant we needed to up our game for the last two days in order to make Noordoewer and a welcome day off. Luckily the last stretch from Henkriesmond has been a real gem and (mostly) a pleasure to paddle. Getting up early, paddling in the morning coolness (and thankfully it HAS started to cool off now), and seeing the soft morning light on this rugged mountainous landscape has been spectacular.

The last day into Noordoewer was particularly brutal though, with the team clocking up over 60km, including a carefully calculated run down the side of a 5m weir, and two diatom samples.

Seven weeks living on a river and well over 1800km paddled makes one a little tougher, but we were still very glad to see the grassy lawns of Camp Provenance in the glare of the late afternoon sun.

The kayaks have handled the channel-bashing remarkably well, although the rear of James’s boat has continued to take on water (from the Orania weir debacle – read earlier post) against his best and repeated efforts to find and seal the leak. Candlewax – his latest attempt – seems to be doing the trick though. Other incidents have included Sam’s rudder cable snapping above Ritchie and James banging in the nose of his boat whilst negotiating the side channel on that 5m weir, but both have been successfully repaired.

Right now we’re doing the last resupply for the run to the coast and have started discussing reintegration into society. Not sure whether society will want us back…but maybe if we wash and shave…?

Hey, do the Khoisan still inhabit the !Gariep River valley? No no, that’s Sam Jack and Ian Durbach, two Englishmen from Cape Town.

Hey, do the Khoisan still inhabit the !Gariep River valley? No no, that’s Sam Jack and Ian Durbach, two Englishmen from Cape Town.

This last stretch will take us through the arid Richtersveld landscape and out onto the coastal plain. It won’t be a doddle (there are several noteworthy rapids, long flat stretches, headwinds etc), but it feels like the home stretch and we’re excited and a little nervous to be nearing the end of such a grand adventure.

The next time you hear from us we will hopefully have reached the sea!

Hot like Vindaloo

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!

Temperature reading at 11 in the morning at the Kakamas filling station. The temperature generally keeps climbing all day in this part of the !Gariep Valley and for the last few days has reached the mid- to high forties by the evenings. The three Cape Town ous keep scratching their heads every time the locals tell them that “it’s not too hot at the moment”.

Temperature reading at 11 in the morning at the Kakamas filling station. The temperature generally keeps climbing all day in this part of the !Gariep Valley and for the last few days has reached the mid- to high forties by the evenings. The three Cape Town ous keep scratching their heads every time the locals tell them that “it’s not too hot at the moment”.

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.

Johann Swart pointing out the best route to take down the braided section of river after Upington.

Johann Swart pointing out the best route to take down the braided section of river after Upington.

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.

Johann taking on a bit of whitewater. Thanks for all your help bru!

Johann taking on a bit of whitewater. Thanks for all your help bru!

Supermodels.

Supermodels.

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.

The boys couldn’t wipe the rather silly grins off their faces after receiving such an amazing array of gifts from Jeremie and Bea Swart.

The boys couldn’t wipe the rather silly grins off their faces after receiving such an amazing array of gifts from Jeremie and Bea Swart.

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!

Neus Falls with the Neus weir in the background. A tough portage in the searing heat.

Neus Falls with the Neus weir in the background. A tough portage in the searing heat.

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’.

Portaging through a sea of grapes drying in the midday heat. The !Gariep provides irrigation for extensive vineyards along the stretch of river between Upington and Augrabies.

Portaging through a sea of grapes drying in the midday heat. The !Gariep provides irrigation for extensive vineyards along the stretch of river between Upington and Augrabies.

Below Neus Falls one soon enters the spectacular Neus Gorge, with cliffs of bullet-hard black rock rising straight out of the water.

Ian giving a hard ‘boof’ stroke on entering the rapid at the top of Neus Gorge. Such style and grace doesn’t come around every day folks!

Ian giving a hard ‘boof’ stroke on entering the rapid at the top of Neus Gorge. Such style and grace doesn’t come around every day folks!

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.

Surveying the last stretch of water before the !Gariep River throws itself over the Augrabies Falls just around the corner. Our take-out was just a stone’s throw from this point.

Surveying the last stretch of water before the !Gariep River throws itself over the Augrabies Falls just around the corner. Our take-out was just a stone’s throw from this point.

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!

A peculiar feature of Augrabies Falls is the multitude of these colourful lizards which scurry over the smooth granite rocks wherever one looks. This one’s for you Lucy.

A peculiar feature of Augrabies Falls is the multitude of these colourful lizards which scurry over the smooth granite rocks wherever one looks. This one’s for you Lucy.

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”.

Full moon rising over the arid landscape near Kakamas.

Full moon rising over the arid landscape near Kakamas.

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.

The Augrabies Gorge has got to be one of the most spectacular and breath-taking views in South Africa.

The Augrabies Gorge has got to be one of the most spectacular and breath-taking views in South Africa.

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…

These local kids showered us with lovely sweet fresh grapes as we passed under the bridge that they were crossing. We thanked them for the treat and they shouted and waved and wished us well on our way.

These local kids showered us with lovely sweet fresh grapes as we passed under the bridge that they were crossing. We thanked them for the treat and they shouted and waved and wished us well on our way.

Of barbers, barbels and beckoning biscuits

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We’re enjoying the tail-end of a rest day in Upington, legendary hotspot on the South African weather map. The team has experienced something of a rebirth, but nothing spiritual of course – that would not be very expedition-like. Clothes have been washed for the first time in nearly 40 days and James and Ian are sporting new haircuts courtesy of a roadside barber. The fact that the people with the least hair have got a haircut has not been lost on Sam.

To much relief we also finally managed to courier more than 100 bottles of diatoms, water samples and isotopes – the fruits of our labours over the past 38 days – to their final destinations, Jonathan Taylor at the University of the Northwest and Roger Diamond at UCT.

Below Prieska, the site of our last post some 280km ago, the river enters beautiful, remote territory. Overhanging rock faces flank the river on its right-hand side, housing colonies of white-breasted cormorants. The rock consists of hundreds of thin, tightly-packed sedimentary layers warped and contorted over time to create amazing features and, although brittle-looking, proved to be bullet-hard to the touch.

Guano-covered cliffs just after Prieska where a colony of white-breasted cormorants was nesting. We’re GPSing the location of these colonies so that ornithologists can come back to retrieve some eggs. These will be useful in determining which toxins are present in the fish species inhabiting the river.

Guano-covered cliffs just after Prieska where a colony of white-breasted cormorants was nesting. We’re GPSing the location of these colonies so that ornithologists can come back to retrieve some eggs. These will be useful in determining which toxins are present in the fish species inhabiting the river.

The same day we passed through the abandoned asbestos mining settlement of Westerberg. Ghost towns always seem to be eerie, desolate places, and Westerberg is no different. On his daily hike to take landscape photos, James came across a rough shelter and wagon path probably used by small-scale miners in the even more distant past before Westerberg’s brief heyday.

The old asbestos mining town of Westerberg at the western end of the Asbestosberge through which we have been paddling. The town has long since been abandoned after the collapse of the asbestos mining industry and is now a ghost town.

The old asbestos mining town of Westerberg at the western end of the Asbestosberge through which we have been paddling. The town has long since been abandoned after the collapse of the asbestos mining industry and is now a ghost town.

Quiver trees have been our constant companions throughout this part of the river, with large populations of these iconic trees dotting the slopes of nearby mountains and koppies.

Landscape near Westerberg with obligatory kokerboom in the foreground. This charismatic species has been the focus of Sam’s recently completed thesis. He investigated the evidence for its promotion as a climate change indicator species, but found it to be a poor candidate for this.

Landscape near Westerberg with obligatory kokerboom in the foreground. This charismatic species has been the focus of Sam’s recently completed thesis. He investigated the evidence for its promotion as a climate change indicator species, but found it to be a poor candidate for this.

After three days’ paddling we reached the Boegoeberg Dam, the first dam built on the !Gariep. The campsite there was lovely, scoring highly in the important categories of grass, shade and proximity to Coke. Upon seeing us, the manager was so welcoming, offering us free camping and telling us stories about her and her husband hitching around South Africa for a year “with just a bag and a bible”, that we decided to pass an extra rest day there. Our trip has often reminded the people we’ve met of past or anticipated adventures of their own, and they’ve responded by acting with genuine kindness and generosity towards us. This has been a fantastic and humbling feature of our journey.

First light over Boegoeberg Dam

First light over Boegoeberg Dam

That extra day at Boegoeberg Dam turned out to be our first proper rest day of the trip, freed from the usual errands that have accompanied our previous stopovers.

With little needing to be done, we did little – Sam fished and bagged a huge barbel (released) and a couple of yellowfish that we enjoyed while lazing in the shade of one of the huge prosopis trees lining the campsite (our usual aversion to alien vegetation put on hold for purely selfish reasons).

 A fair-sized barbel caught by Sam just below the wall at Boegoeberg Dam. He’d caught an even bigger one the previous day, but the line had snapped when trying to drag it on shore. We later heard from Gavin Mocke that they get as large as 50-odd kgs and perhaps even larger!

A fair-sized barbel caught by Sam just below the wall at Boegoeberg Dam. He’d caught an even bigger one the previous day, but the line had snapped when trying to drag it on shore. We later heard from Gavin Mocke that they get as large as 50-odd kgs and perhaps even larger!

The Boegoeberg Dam wall is a large weir that has to be portaged, followed shortly by another portage around the Zeekoeibaard weir. After that the river enters another of its long, flat phases, and we again found ourselves paddling long daily distances into some of the stiffest headwinds yet encountered – probably around 30kph. Conventional kayaking wisdom suggests putting the wind out of mind when paddling into it; at SENQU2SEA we prefer to focus on the wind, but to imagine that we’re paddling really, really fast. It takes a lot of concentration not to look at the bank and shatter the illusion, but with much practice we’re getting there.

The character of the river changes considerably closer to Upington, becoming a network of smaller channels with thick reeds lining the banks and separating the channels. Navigating the channels is far from obvious. Promising-looking channels can slowly narrow and close out entirely, meaning a morale-sapping retreat back upstream. Fortunately we’ve managed to avoid any such ‘channel fiascos’ thus far, aided by the current high water levels and floods of 2011 that have tended to link many of the channels together.

Panorama over the river above Upington. Navigation is becoming a little trickier now that the river is becoming more braided. The real test lies below Upington where there is a literal maze of these channels, 9 out of 10 ending in dead ends.

Panorama over the river above Upington. Navigation is becoming a little trickier now that the river is becoming more braided. The real test lies below Upington where there is a literal maze of these channels, 9 out of 10 ending in dead ends.

Good campsites are also harder to come by on the reed-infested banks, but here again we’ve been lucky enough not to have to search too hard for a decent spot once the day starts drawing to a close.

Sweet camping on a sandbar after several kilometres of fruitless searching for an overnight spot along densely reed-lined banks.

Sweet camping on a sandbar after several kilometres of fruitless searching for an overnight spot along densely reed-lined banks.

Between reedy sections we’ve seen our first red Kalahari sand dunes, and otters have been regularly crossing our path through the water before diving down to safer pastures.

Rain over the Kalahari dunes

Rain over the Kalahari dunes

Food-wise, it’s time to admit that the SENQU2SEA team has fallen off the wagon in a big way.

For some time already we’ve been nursing a growing dependence on coffee, chocolate and Romeo Delights, our biscuit of choice. Failure to source a fresh supply in Prieska led James to pen an emotionally-powerful  harmonica ballad entitled ‘Romeo, Romeo (where art thou Romeo?)’. Surprisingly, the usually Spartan Sam has been the chief instigator of our downfall. When our Prieska chocolate supply ran out less than half-way to our next supply point, an emergency plan was hatched that saw us camping underneath the bridge to Groblershoop and Sam making the 4km roundtrip in a thunderstorm to return with enough bounty to get us to Upington. He’s also been a fine source of fish, landing a 4kg yellowfish a few days ago, that fed us for 2 days.

Arriving in Upington yesterday, we made a minor hash of a small weir on the outskirts of town that saw James sucked over the edge and, once safe himself, watch his kayak repairs and Pelican Case receive a strenuous test that they passed with flying colours.

That negotiated, we pulled up on the immaculate lawn at the home of the Mocke family, who run the Island View guesthouse on the bank of the !Gariep. We had been put in contact with Eben Mocke by William Dicey, whose wonderful book ‘Borderlines’ gave us the initial inspiration for this trip, and the Mocke’s have been unbelievably hospitable, allowing us to spoil their guests’ view with our camp, cooking us breakfast and generally giving us the run of their home. Relaxing on the banks of the river has been an absolute treat. An added plus is that the Mocke’s are a paddling family, and between them and their friends we’ve received a wealth of information about the challenging section of river that takes us to the Augrabies Falls over the next few days. Many thanks Eben, Ansa, Yvonne, Gavin and Johan!

BONUS MATERIAL – EXCLUSIVE SENQU2SEA BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO FOOTAGE:

The ‘Eskimo Roll’ is used to flip oneself back over after capsizing and is supposedly an important part of any paddler who’s worth his salt’s skill set. Check the boys practice their rolls on their day off at Boegoeberg Dam.

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.

The good, the bad and the bearded

The good news is that the spare paddle that James is using is still intact.

The bad news is that he’s pretty much snapped the back of his boat clean off after shooting a fairly innocuous-looking weir too far to the left, yesterday about 4km short of Orania.

The damage...part 1.

The damage…part 1.

Not to be outdone, Sam shot the weir too far right and sustained similar damage.

The damage...part 2. It turns out that the weir that inflicted the damage to the kayaks has a sharp steel railing running along its top edge.

The damage…part 2. It turns out that the weir that inflicted the damage to the kayaks has a sharp steel railing running along its top edge.

No, the kayak isn’t at that angle because James is paddling so fast. Limping into Orania with a severely damaged tail section.

No, the kayak isn’t at that angle because James is paddling so fast. Limping into Orania with a severely damaged tail section.

Sitting on the river bank surveying the damage and feeling more than a little sheepish, things looked pretty grim.

Since then though, a series of minor miracles have meant that the boats are river-worthy once again and we’re ready to push onward.

First Jana at the reception of the Aan-die-Oewer campsite in Orania put us in touch with Jaco de Bruin, transport manager at Jojo Tanks, a company manufacturing (would you believe it) plastic water tanks. He agreed to visit our campsite the next day to inspect the kayaks. We had been in contact with Gavin, the guide from Vanderkloof, who had decided to join us for a few days at the exact time we were deconstructing our boats. Him, Jaco and the three of us converged on our camp early this morning, decided a repair was feasible and transported the boats to Jojo Tanks, where Jaco carried out the plastic welding repair operation.

Patching up the kayaks at Jaco de Bruin’s workshop.

Patching up the kayaks at Jaco de Bruin’s workshop.

By 11am, we were good to go. We owe a heartfelt thanks to Jan Joubert and the ladies at Aan-die-Oewer, Gavin (again), and especially Jaco, all of whom gave up their time freely to help us out.

Ship-shape and all smiles.

Ship-shape and all smiles.

Orania tour bus.

Orania tour bus.

Orania has its own currency, the Ora.

Orania has its own currency, the Ora.

That left the rest of the day for some sightseeing around Orania.

We had been intrigued to see what Orania was all about, knowing little of it except its reputation as a center of Afrikaner nationalism with the eventual goal of independence from South Africa.
That much is certainly true, and we also found many examples of sustainable, environmentally-conscious living and a sense of self-reliance and entrepreneurship that, short of any political intentions, are more-or-less precisely what many in the environmental movements are calling for.
Many houses are built from natural materials like cob and straw bales, a significant proportion are entirely solar-powered and solar water heaters are obligatory. Most of the construction is done by the homeowners themselves.

“Earth Boat” house in the process of construction. Such a home has zero carbon footprint, being built using a combination of recycled and natural raw materials and relying on solar power, rainwater, biogas and natural temperature regulation.

“Earth Boat” house in the process of construction. Such a home has zero carbon footprint, being built using a combination of recycled and natural raw materials and relying on solar power, rainwater, biogas and natural temperature regulation.

The koeksister monument in Orania.

The koeksister monument in Orania.

We saw only a brief and perhaps superficial picture of Orania, when kindly shown around the town by local guide and farmer John Strydom. While our personal political views differ, the environmentalists in us could not help but think that Orania offers some positive examples for South Africa, and left us scratching our heads as to if, and how much, the political ends detract from their real achievements.

Tomorrow we head off towards Hopetown and some exciting water, to test out our new repairs!

Until we can write again, we leave you in the capable hands of James’s sweetheart Caitlin, who is managing the blog and posting some great pieces in our absence – thanks Caitlin!

Dam hard going

We’re a little downstream of the town of Vanderkloof, and finally clear of the two dams – the !Gariep and the Vanderkloof – that have to a large extent been the reason for our lack of correspondence. Paddling days have been long and strenuous, leaving little time for writing.

The !Gariep Dam is truly enormous and we were glad to have a GPS to help us navigate our way through the maze of bays and island koppies.

The !Gariep Dam is truly enormous and we were glad to have a GPS to help us navigate our way through the maze of bays and island koppies.

It’s hard to say where the !Gariep dam begins. We noticed the river slowing appreciably about 30kms outside of Aliwal North. From there it’s a long hard slog of 140km to the wall of South Africa’s biggest dam. Ignoring all advice we had received, we set out on our first day on the dam late into the morning. Within a couple of hours we were paddling straight into the teeth of a nasty headwind. We soon gave that up and set up camp in the midst of a developing sandstorm in the desert wastelands near Bethulie. The ghost of Hendrik Verwoerd – the previous name of the !Gariep dam – had scotched our paddling plans, but Sam and James managed to wade across a rising sidestream with R30 000 of photographic equipment raised above their heads to capture some great images from a nearby bridge.

Evening sandstorm near Bethulie. Our campsite was somewhere down there in the maelstrom.

Evening sandstorm near Bethulie. Our campsite wass somewhere down there in the maelstrom.

Weather was a constant challenge on the !Gariep dam. Winds were strong and often erratic, not confining themselves to the afternoon hours as we had expected. The dam is truly enormous, often several kilometres wide, and acts more like an inland sea, with winds whipping up large, tightly-packed waves that make paddling an arduous task. One can avoid the worst by hugging the shoreline, but our desire for shortcuts led us to opt for a number of open-water crossings, some more successful than others.

Then there have been the thunderstorms, two in particular having us cowering and invoking various protectors.

A sight etched in memory is James hurtling down the only koppie in the vicinity, (metallic) tripod in hand, having outstayed his welcome in an effort to capture the oncoming storm. A sudden lightning strike had him instinctively leaping 180 degrees and start running back up the koppie, before regaining his wits. On reaching camp he found Sam and Ian waving tent poles – essentially 3m lightning rods – around, furiously getting a tent up. Three bundles of metal, adrift in a sea of inert material. It is difficult to convey the force of the big storms brewed up by the !Gariep – they cover a huge area and yet seem to focus their energy directly on you, rain falling in huge quantities, sheet and fork lightning everywhere, at times close enough to emit a strong smell of burning metal.

That night we had to make do with Salticrax for supper, morale was low – then two harmonicas were brought out and sang as one.

This was the final photo before James ran for his life down the koppie.

This was the final photo before James ran for his life down the koppie.

Our route on the !Gariep dam took us, over the course of 4 days, from the riverside dunes near Bethulie to Oviston at the Orange-Fish tunnel and on to the dam wall near the town of !Gariep. The Orange-Fish tunnel is an engineering feat – a hole the size of a double decker bus tunnels through the mountains transporting water from the Orange to the Fish/Sundays rivers, where it services the farmers of the Eastern Cape.

Water inspector Ian Durbach wanted a word with the owner of this water extraction facility…it turns out the Orange-Fish tunnel guys had the correct permits.

Water inspector Ian Durbach wanted a word with the owner of this water extraction facility…it turns out the Orange-Fish tunnel guys had the correct permits.

For long sections we paddled through nature reserves – first the Tussen die Riviere and then the Oviston reserve – seeing eland, kudu, springbok, and wildebeest. People were almost non-existent.

Much of the !Gariep and Vanderkloof dams are bordered by game reserves. Eland were a regular sight and invoked a wilderness feel to this stretch.

Much of the !Gariep and Vanderkloof dams are bordered by game reserves. Eland were a regular sight and invoked a wilderness feel to this stretch.

At Oviston we overnighted at an abandoned campsite on the dam’s edge, complete with still-working taps and ablutions.

River life is not too shabby

River life is not too shabby

At the dam wall, Sam and James took a trip into !Gariep town for resupply and recreational time travel.

Prefab and facebrick houses line the streets of this small town, and a visit to the chemist to get medicine for Ian, who was down with a throat infection (since recovered), saw them inside someone’s house, where customers wait next to a tannie watching TV and puffing away at Stuyvie reds before going into the room marked “Apteek”.

The boys were happy to finally arrive at the !Gariep Dam wall. The view downriver to some flowing water was pretty spectacular.

The boys were happy to finally arrive at the !Gariep Dam wall. The view downriver to some flowing water was pretty spectacular.

A highlight at the dam wall was an impromptu tour inside the wall by the dam’s safety manager, Joseph Alexander, who showed us around the inner workings of this amazing structure.

It’s great that this still happens here in South Africa – it’s hard to imagine three bearded and bedraggled men being invited straight off the street to see the structural nuts of bolts of the Hoover dam, for example. We were lucky enough to see the opening of one of the dam’s four main sluices, releasing a huge plume of water downstream to farmers. This happens twice a day for 5-6 hours.

Joseph Alexander, fountain of knowledge of all things !Gariep.

Joseph Alexander, fountain of knowledge of all things !Gariep.

When we told Joseph our plan to paddle the length of the !Gariep, he didn’t miss a beat, dispensing some advice that has become something of a mantra for us: “Guys, please, you must enjoy”.

Whenever we’re paddling into yet another stiff headwind that seems to whip itself up just when we’re at our most tired, James takes it upon himself to remind us why we’re here – guys, please, you must enjoy.

One great thing about the !Gariep dam, unless you’re the dam manager, is that all the sediment carried by the river settles out as the water slows down. The water in the river becomes clearer and clearer as one approaches and pushes beyond the dam wall. As a result we’re now able to drink the water unfiltered, and diatom sampling has improved dramatically – we can actually see the green or “lively brown” (not “dead river brown”, as the manual tells us) film of diatoms on the rocks we’re sampling, much to our relief. Fish life is much more abundant although catches remain elusive. Sam has bagged the only catch of the trip so far – a yellowfish eaten in the aftermath of one of the thunderstorms. Sadly, !Gariep’s grasshopper population is likely to take some years to rehabilitate after a frenzied collection of “bait” for fishing.

Sam with the one and only yellowfish so far. Nice white meat but very bony…the fish wasn’t too bad either.

Sam with the one and only yellowfish so far. Nice white meat but very bony…the fish wasn’t too bad either.

The Vanderkloof dam follows closely on the heels of the !Gariep, separated by a fast-flowing 40km stretch of river.

It is South Africa’s second-biggest dam, shorter but much deeper. The banks of the dam are steep and rocky, and we passed through a spectacular gorge section with dolerite cliffs looming above, not a soul in sight except for some baboons.

Ian paddling into the gorge at the top of Vanderkloof Dam. For any climbers who might be reading this, there seems to be huge potential for new lines all along the dam, but particularly in the gorge section.

Ian paddling into the gorge at the top of Vanderkloof Dam. For any climbers who might be reading this, there seems to be huge potential for new lines all along the dam, but particularly in the gorge section.

We spent two days paddling the dam, overnighting about half-way at a spot that must boast one of the greatest concentrations of biting ants in the world.

Because of the steepness of the slopes camping options are not abundant, and we were obliged to stick it out. In the face of mounting attack, we conducted a number of ad hoc field tests of the ant-repelling qualities of everyday materials – Tabard and onion don’t work, Camphor cream seems to help a little. Any advice is welcome. The ants seemed to target James for special treatment, and he will probably need a little counselling on his return to get over his compulsive leg-brushing. It did mean though that we got an early start the next morning, that was instrumental in us making the long push to the dam wall that day.

Each dam requires a significant portage to get the boats and their contents down the dam wall and back to the now substantially lower level of the river. Sam and James carried the loads at !Gariep, with Ian conveniently “down ill”; at Vanderkloof, the highest dam wall in South Africa at 110m, all hands were on deck and we were very kindly helped by Gavin, a local kayaker we met on the dam that morning. Gavin went way beyond the call of duty, showing us the best portage route, carrying two loads down with us and giving us some much-needed advice for the rapids to come, having run them many times himself as a guide. Many thanks Gavin!

Portages…hard work, enough said.

Portages…hard work, enough said.

Local river guide, Gavin, was a great help at Vanderkloof Dam wall, showing us the best portage route and carrying a few loads.

Local river guide, Gavin, was a great help at Vanderkloof Dam wall, showing us the best portage route and carrying a few loads.

From here, we head on to Orania and some fast-flowing water. Things are about to get exciting!

The bright lights

24 January 2013

We’ve arrived in Aliwal North, several Spur cheeseburgers are down the hatches and things are looking up.

The last two days have seen a dramatic change in scenery along the !Gariep as we’ve moved out of the mountains and into the plains of the Free State. The river has slowed and broadened, banks have become more vegetated and reedy, and large-scale commercial agriculture much more prevalent. In short, we’ve seen a side of the !Gariep that many people would be familiar with.

A broad meandering river replaces the faster narrower one we were growing used to in the mountains of Lesotho.

A broad meandering river replaces the faster narrower one we were growing used to in the mountains of Lesotho.

Water Extraction Inspector Ian making daily notes on the localities of pump stations on the banks of the river. These features are becoming far more numerous as we enter commercial farmlands of South Africa.

Water Extraction Inspector Ian making daily notes on the localities of pump stations on the banks of the river. These features are becoming far more numerous as we enter commercial farmlands of South Africa.

Filtering water from the highly silted !Gariep is becoming a daily routine now that we have moved out of mountainous Lesotho where cleaner mountain streams are more abundant. Our nifty ceramic filter turns murky !Gariep water (left) into crystal clear drinking water (right).

Filtering water from the highly silted !Gariep is becoming a daily routine now that we have moved out of mountainous Lesotho where cleaner mountain streams are more abundant. Our nifty ceramic filter turns murky !Gariep water (left) into crystal clear drinking water (right).

The river continues to be extremely silted, and as the terrain has flattened, side-streams have disappeared, meaning we’ve had to filter drinking water directly from the river – a labour-intensive process, especially as temperatures have risen and water needs increased.

We’re also using river conditions as an excuse for our first woefully unsuccessful attempt at fishing. Sam patiently reeled in mud for an hour; Ian spent most of that time just getting his line in.

Daily water samples reflect the amount of sediment in the water column, which is linked to upstream rainfall. Murkier samples are usually associated with the main Senqu/!Gariep River while clearer samples mostly come from side streams.

Daily water samples reflect the amount of sediment in the water column, which is linked to upstream rainfall. Murkier samples are usually associated with the main Senqu/!Gariep River while clearer samples mostly come from side streams.

Today we arrived at Aliwal North after an easy portage around an imposing weir at the entrance to the town. Aliwal is a big resupply point for us and we spent the afternoon buying enough luxury muesli and sweet chilli sauce to get us to Oranje, around 8 days paddling away. We collected a real Pelican Case that Kate had kindly couriered to us, along with a few love letters and a camera battery.

James also picked up a knife to replace his trusty Rapala, lost to the river. He almost ended up buying a (BB) handgun, until the saleswoman told him they were for kids to play with “until they’re big enough to hold a rifle”. Ah, inland South Africa.

Organising chaos as the team resupplies for the next leg of the journey to the !Gariep and Vanderkloof dams and beyond.

Organising chaos as the team resupplies for the next leg of the journey to the !Gariep and Vanderkloof dams and beyond.

Tomorrow we start a 100km stretch through mostly flat terrain towards Bethulie and on across the !Gariep Dam, where we’ll find out just how far 40km can be when there’s no river taking you along with it.

News from the crew

Today is a welcome day off, relaxing under the shade of a Diospyros on the banks of the !Gariep after eight straight days of paddling.

This is what happens when the team has a day off. Unidentified sleeping in well past sunrise after 8 straight days of paddling.

This is what happens when the team has a day off. Unidentified sleeping in well past sunrise after 8 straight days of paddling.

We are roughly two paddling days west of the Lesotho border in the vicinity of Marakaneng and about two days from Aliwal North.

Upon leaving Lesotho Ian and Sam made the hike to the Tele borderpost to check out and restock supplies while James remained with the boats and befriended some locals. So technically James is still in Lesotho and is an illegal alien in his own country.

It feels like we’ve come a long way, but the maps show that the journey has only just begun: 320km out of 2000+km.

After putting in near Qacha’s Nek in southeastern Lesotho it didn’t take long for all of us to become acquainted with the Senqu from upturned kayaks. James was the most eager to test the waters, deciding after about 8km that he needed a cooling off. Ian was able to brave the Lesotho heat for a couple more kms before he too spilled. Sam held out longest, but eventually decided that showing Ian how to perform a low brace was too much effort (skillfully transformed into a lesson on how NOT to do a brace).

The first significant setback in terms of equipment failure came early on day one when James broke his paddle mid-stroke in a rapid. The jury is still out on whether this was due to James’s extraordinary strength or the dinky-ness of his paddle. This has caused much debate in camp, although Ian and Sam are fairly sure the latter explanation applies. Luckily our spare paddle is more robust than James’s original one.

Up sh*t creek without a paddle…

Up sh*t creek without a paddle…

The rapids in Lesotho were a little bigger than we were expecting due to good rains and a consequently strong and fast-flowing river. Luckily we’re in the Goldilocks Zone in terms of flow rate and most of the really nasty flooding has missed us to the seaward side of the Drakensberg in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KZN. This level of flow has ensured some good training for more gnarly white water further downstream and we all had fun bouncing our way through Lesotho.

Sam about to punch through the first weir we hit just after entering into South Africa at Oranjedraai. There was lots of water flowing and we all gave each other a pat on the back for not coming out going through this one.

Sam about to punch through the first weir we hit just after entering into South Africa at Oranjedraai. There was lots of water flowing and we all gave each other a pat on the back for not coming out going through this one.

Paddling through Lesotho was a dream and a privilege. The beauty of travelling by river is that it takes one away from the main roads and into some very remote areas where the Basotho peoples’ traditional existence has endured. Because of the mountainous terrain, horses and donkeys are the main means of transporting people and goods. We often observed trains of donkeys carrying sacks of maize and other provisions – a task that would take hours and days of effort instead of the speed and convenience of a quick trip down to Pick n Pay.

Basotho boys clothed in traditional blankets and decorated for their initiation into manhood.

Basotho boys clothed in traditional blankets and decorated for their initiation into manhood.

Most of the livestock in Lesotho are tended to by the young boys who look after them in the rugged mountainous terrain.

Most of the livestock in Lesotho are tended to by the young boys who look after them in the rugged mountainous terrain.

The Basotho people were extremely friendly and curious at the sight of three kayakers and we were usually greeted with much shouting and waving from the cliff tops and frequently asked where we’d come from and where we were going to. We exhausted our collective Sotho repertoire at about the same rate that our friends on the banks exhausted their English.

The scenery in Lesotho was exquisite, characterised by narrow gorges with towering sandstone massifs and basalt mountains, alternating with more gently sloping terrain which provided ideal camping opportunities.

Typical landscape while paddling down the Senqu in Lesotho.

Typical landscape while paddling down the Senqu in Lesotho.

View over the Senqu River in Lesotho.

View over the Senqu River in Lesotho.

View over the !Gariep River in the Herschel District after entering South Africa.

View over the !Gariep River in the Herschel District after entering South Africa.

We have yet to use a below par campsite and, ironically, the main problem in terms of a camping existence has been finding clean water. The heavy rains have caused a deluge of sediment to be washed down the Senqu, so much so that the river water is undrinkable and our filtration device is quickly clogged. We’ve resorted to collecting and storing cleaner water from side streams and supplementing this with rainwater collected in our tarpaulins.

A typical day sees us up at 06h00 for our morning ritual of coffee (thanks Caitlin!). After carefully packing and waterproofing we’re usually on the river between 08h30-09h00 (subject to improvement). The day’s paddling is broken into a morning and afternoon session, usually aiming for a total of about 40km. We’re off the river by 16h00-17h00 and either hastily making camp to avoid an impending torrent of rain from one of the many afternoon thunderstorms, sampling diatoms, taking photographs, or prepping dinner.

It’s a surprisingly busy schedule – so much so that James has thankfully not had an opportunity to use his harmonica (despite daily threats).

Thunderstorms were a regular occurrence in the afternoons in Lesotho. We were humbled by their power and thankful for the fresh drinking water that they provided.

Thunderstorms were a regular occurrence in the afternoons in Lesotho. We were humbled by their power and thankful for the fresh drinking water that they provided.

Sam made the fortunate and amazing discovery that Boletus mushrooms can be found growing under the groves of poplar trees along the river bank and we’ve been eating these delicacies with our supper on a regular basis.

Sam made the fortunate and amazing discovery that Boletus mushrooms can be found growing under the groves of poplar trees along the river bank and we’ve been eating these delicacies with our supper on a regular basis.

James has been taking some really magnificent landscape photographs which he hopes to convert into a cheesy coffee table publication entitled ‘My Paddling Holiday’ and live off the proceeds for the rest of his life.

Ian and Sam have been inquiring about a share of the royalties. In addition to the evening landscape shots, James has been snapping photos from his kayak at 2km intervals which document the changing vegetation and geology along the riverbanks. This has resulted in some fairly frenetic stowing of expensive camera equipment as the roar of an approaching rapid grows louder.

James in his element taking the daily landscape photo.

James in his element taking the daily landscape photo.

Poor man’s Pelican Case to protect the precious camera gear.

Poor man’s Pelican Case to protect the precious camera gear.

Diatom sampling has been more challenging.

The heavy silt load in the river has been acting as fine-grained floating sandpaper, scouring the rocks of the thin surface layer of diatoms.

In addition to this, water levels have been unusually high, meaning that accessing rocks normally at shin or knee height are now waist deep. Despite these issues, we have persevered in the name of science and with encouragement from Jonathan Taylor, who seems hopeful about the presence of diatoms. This situation is (thankfully) likely to improve as we progress downstream.

The local Basotho youngsters were intrigued when Ian and Sam were conducting the daily diatom sampling.

The local Basotho youngsters were intrigued when Ian and Sam were conducting the daily diatom sampling.

Isotope sampling and GPS locality recording has been much easier.

In terms of bird sightings Gymnogenes have been a regular occurrence and Fish eagles to a lesser extent. Two highlights have been sightings of two groups of Bald Ibises and a massive congregation of either Lanner or Peregrine Falcons around a storm (numbering 300-400 birds!).

Aliwal North will be our next port of call where we will sample the culinary delights of the local Spur and do a general restock of supplies.

Hopefully some important equipment will be awaiting our arrival after being sent up from Cape Town (thanks Kate!). Now that we’re back in the great RS of A blog posts should be more regular and shorter due to better internet access.

That’s all for now…time for a swim.