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!

Advertisements

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.