an ominous sign for a paddling trip…
Luck favours the prepared. Or rather, in my case, a spirit that cant resist an excuse to drop tools and leave town for a few days on another adventure.
If my memory serves correct the invite to join the trip actually came months ago so the ‘prepared’ part really had no excuses. My immediate reply at the time – it’s a no brainer, a river to paddle? Count me in.
A few days before departure date and I suddenly remembered I had committed and the usual frenetic trolley dash for biltong and duct tape followed. And with the standard issue graceful family farewell in the chilled, rain soaked pre-dawn darkness that reeked of an adventure in the waiting, we were on the road north again. This time it was a bit different, our destination – the Doring river. Lying on the edge of the Tankwa Karoo valley, one would hardly expect the driest place in South Africa, officially, to provide anything more than a trickle to paddle. I’ve heard we get more rain in one winter’s morning in Cape Town than this desert valley gets in a whole year. But apparently there is a river out there somewhere and we were going to find it.
how it looked
and how it should have looked…
beyond the boerewors curtain?
Out there exist’s a beauty beyond belief in a barren world of its own, and just a bit more extreme than its bigger brother over the escarpment. The Cedarberg on the left of the valley is the end of the Cape rains coming in during winter, and the Roggeveld escarpment on the right is the border to the great karoo, and there is certainly no rocket science needed to know there’s not much rain coming from there either. So in-between you have this absolutely peculiar, lunar like landscape that just somehow exists in its own eddy of life passing by on each side. The thought of anything surviving out here beats me, and if it wasn’t for the Tankwa Padstal, strategically placed on the roadside, I fear we may not have made it through either.
The drive in on the infamous dirt road 355 between Ceres and Calvinia didn’t give much away to be optimistic about either – dry, stark, barren, it’s the karoo way. The manne with their vier-by-vier’s were out in force, loaded to the brim with everything that opens and closes and folds and unfolds and clicks open and clicks shut, but I can say without doubt that we were the only ones out there with boats and paddles that morning. No one goes paddling in the Tankwa. You only go there to get roasted. To stand with a Klippies and Coke in one hand and to rub your naked bulging belly with the other. Fact. Or perhaps fashion, a karoo equivalent of being seen on Clifton beach in your speedo?
Our reason for being in this foreign world of alien creatures in an alien landscape? We had set out to tackle a lesser known stretch of the river – from near the confluence of the Matjies and the Groot river, paddling downstream on the Doring for three days. With the gate to our planned put in padlocked closed we were forced to set off a few kms upstream where we could get down close enough to the river. Boats pumped and drybags lashed down we set off in good spirits. It didn’t take long for the ‘River’ part of the deal to disappear and for the Doring to emerge, in full force, and the next few hours became an interesting tussle of forcing our way downstream through what seemed like endless channels and treeblocks. All filled with dorings of course. And if there is any doubt as to what this beautifully descriptive Afrikaans word means, the skin, or rather what’s left of it, on my arms and legs will gladly bear testimony to the endless onslaught, along with the worlds biggest snotklap received from one thick, thorn filled branch that wasn’t going to give way in a hurry. I will remember that one for a while and I have fond memories of that section – of gliding alongside the foliage and being raked to pieces and wondering, seriously, how I had not learnt my lesson yet. Once again – Mother nature 1. Ignoramus 0.
Eventually the massacre eased and we glided down open water to find a magnificent campsite at the beginning of the canyon. On the edge of a small rapid we ate ourselves full around a roaring campfire and were rocked to sleep to the tune of water cascading down seawards in this unbelievably stark and hostile world.
The horizon growing gradually lighter signalled the end of an interesting night’s sleep in an upturned boat – a new one to tick off the bucket list that I can’t quite recall being there in the first place. A brisk walk up the mountain to get a beautiful perspective on the lie of the river meandering through the mountains, and then we were off again. Many hours of rapids, swift faster flowing water, and stunning scenery of cliff faces dangling their precariously balanced rock formations over the water as we ventured deeper into the canyon. It was a magnificent day, soaking up the upper Doring in its glory while fine-tuning my croc-paddling skills – most of my paddling life has been spent balancing in racing canoes and kayaks so these took some serious getting used to. Its like sitting on a balloon floating down a river, they are horrendously useless on flat water, and even more so into a headwind, but brilliant fun through rapids once you’ve figured out how to steer them and after you have realised that you can actually spin them on the spot like a ballerina on a moving stage. By late afternoon we were all a bit weary and were happy to scout for campsites along the bank. Through a final series of bony overgrown channels and we stumbled upon a beach in the wilderness – the perfect setting for a magic night under the stars in the canyon, tucked in by the steep craggy mountain faces on both banks. The soft sand was blissful underfoot and I started feeling completely at home out there.
Day 3 provided a few fun moments in amongst the wild barren scenery. Spotting leopard spoor on our morning coffee stop and knowing we’d shared this little piece of paradise with such an incredible creature though I will confess to being less enthusiastic about trying to guess how fresh the spoor was. Watching a troop of baboons swim across in front of us to safety on the bank, and judging by the chorus of barking that followed they weren’t impressed with us being in their territory. As any self respecting bunch of campers would do we naturally barked back, louder, and so the arguing match continued until we had drifted past and out of earshot so I’m guessing they had the final say and I’m guessing it wasn’t polite either. The hour long haul across the dam eventually followed to finish off another great paddling trip, filled with loads of good memories, from starry campsites and roaring fires to hourly coffee stops and river cappuccinos, to feasts of sweet potatoes marinated in mushrooms peppers and onions, and to not so feasts of soya mince and spaghetti, and to sharing another magic experience in the fine company of Athol, Clare, and Ant and enjoying many funny stories and laughs while drifting down the river along the way.
I think I can openly confess that I could just be getting hooked on wilderness river trips.