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.