Lifeblood: the indispensable factor or influence that gives something its strength and vitality
Heading north again, but truth be told, this wasn’t just another river trip – this year the dirty thirties finally gave way graciously to the naughty forties, and all I wanted to celebrate the occasion was to escape to the one piece of paradise I know never fails to restore some balance in life. It was sad that some of the closest people I have been blessed to have in my life could not be there to join us, but it was a special time to be with just the one you love. It had been five long years since we have drunk from the river together.
The traditional bumpy ride through no-mans-land, somewhere north of Sprinkbok, to our put in took about 2 hours, accompanied by the local farmer who was to drive our bakkie back. Conversations rattled the time away, ranging from how engineers fix the water pipeline that runs an impressive distance to supply towns in the area, to pot brood recipes. Local knowledge rules.
The final descent to the river is always an exciting time, a tad nerve wracking knowing the content of the cargo boxes in the back have to fit into the boats, but invigorating knowing all the plotting and planning and dreaming is about to get left behind for the real thing. Surprisingly, everything fitted comfortably, with room to spare – a novel first for any of my river trips. It made me wonder what I left behind but I was confident there was more than enough food, and our camping gear had been carefully whittled down to the bare essentials. An axe, a few beers, some duct tape and a lighter. What more do you need.
With that the bakkie disappeared in a cloud of fine Kalahari dust, and we were finally on the water, alone in the landscape bar the odd fisherman who would give us a smile and a friendly wave as we drifted downstream.
The water level was noticeably lower than my previous trip along this section, and the first campsite was one of the nicest I’ve ever experienced on the river – a huge sandbank jutting into the river. Vast open space, loads of firewood, a spectacular sunset, and sunrise. Afternoon swimming, an evening braai, fireflies flitting in and out of our world (technically I guess we were just visitors in their world) and drifting off to sleep under a glistening milky way, watching shooting stars streak through the magnificent night sky above. Sometime in the night the half moon started lighting up the sky, giving us the best of both worlds out there. I love the stars but I also love that moonlight dancing on the water.
Day 2 gave us the first signs of the change in weather, with the temperature gradually rising to the upper forties. The day was not without action. On a lower river, what was previously a nice section of fast rolling water had become a short but rocky rapid. Lara’s boat got caught at the top, turned sideways, threw her out and started going downstream on its own leaving her clutching the pesky rock at the top. It’s not fun losing your paddle and boat early on the second day. An action filled few minutes followed, frenetically scrambling trying to reach boats and paddles and reunite. It looks like a harmless stretch of river but it takes an instant for things to go wrong, you lose the boat, or each other, in a channel, and suddenly the trip takes on a completely different meaning. A very swift reminder that two man expeditions don’t leave much margin for error. Thankfully she was unharmed, as was the boat with the bar (the drybag with the wine and whiskey) but it did enforce a stop a few hundred metres down for some soul restoring coffee. Any excuse will suffice.
The day’s campsite was a special one – my previous passing through here bought memories of an incredibly beautiful place, desolate and barren. I recognised the mountains alongside as we approached and insisted we stop, even though it was early afternoon. The heat was now scorching the ground around us, and the afternoon was spent collecting firewood and swimming. Back to the basics of life! At 8pm the temperature was still 34C
Sometime in this paradise a dull ‘boof’ sound came from inside one of the boat hatches. The only things in there were gas cylinders, I’ve never know them to make that noise and for a few heart pounding moments I ventured cautiously closer to see what was going on. We all know the bottom of a gas cylinder is concave. What I didn’t know is that it can pop out – in hindsight its all very logical, if its 44C in the shade you have to know what it is inside the hatch, in the direct sun, and the heat had popped the cylinder out. I never like travelling with a ticking time bomb but we had no choice and every day from then on we nursed that oversized cylinder into the shade on every occasion. On returning home, curiosity propelled me to do some investigation into this, and what I found made me thankful to be alive after reading “the bottom of the cylinder pops from concave to convex immediately prior to catastrophic failure”, and seeing the results of an experiment on a similar cylinder to see the effects of 50C plus heat where the report starts describing the cylinder splitting into two, the end cap and a tub rocket, whose velocity hit almost 250km/hr.
I am usually cautious when planning for river trips, and expect things to go wrong somewhere sometime. We have a tool box equipped for such. But ‘catastrophic failure’ and ‘rocket’ aren’t words I normally take into account when planning the repair and medical kit. Another lesson learnt, glad it went ‘boof’ and not ‘boom’.
That night the wind picked up and days 3 and 4 became unexpectedly gruelling, paddling into headwinds and searching for sheltered campsites. The massive weir portage was a tough as expected, taking a good while to drag the boats over a seemingly endless rock field to put in safely below, followed by another soul restoring coffee stop and the search for a bomb proof camp site. Again the river did not disappoint, and the sandbank I had previously camped on had doubled in size.
It will take a long time for the memories of that last camp to fade, sitting out under the stars, sipping chilled champagne (yes, that bottle was nursed along the entire trip, without exploding!), watching the mountains glow orange, then fade for the stars. Like any self respecting guy, you have to give yourself a present – be it an axe, or a Playstation game, or a bike. But out here life returns to the basics, and the only present I wanted was the opportunity to burn this mighty piece of driftwood I had eyeballed at the foot of the dunes earlier. After 15 minutes of manhandling that thing, dragging, twisting, turning, and hauling I had it on the beach, we put some coals beneath and watched in awe as it took flame. Needless to say in the morning we didn’t have coals. We still had fire.
The last day provided the traditional sending off – you never come back from the river without a pocketful of respect for it. A broken rudder in the first half hour, and fun shooting a nice rapid upstream from the bridge (with the soul restoring coffee in between of course!) before we drifted the final 10 kms back to the farm.
Another adventure planned, dreamed, and lived, and more wonderful memories to hang on the wall.