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!