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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.