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.

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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!