A river guns through it


Call it canyoning or kloofing or river-running or whatever you want. Jacques Marais bashed his way down the Twenty-four Rivers gorge and he calls it extreme fun.

Old Uge and I were hiking up in Groot Winterhoek when we first discovered Die Hel. No, not quite as bad as you might think - no mother's in law convention or skinhead rapper skulking in the fynbos. Actually, rather a breathtakingly beautiful gorge plunging from the edge of the plateau down to a midnight mountain pool shimmering at the foot of a plummeting waterfall. Heaven rather than hell were my exact thoughts as we scrambled down a precarious footpath clinging to sandstone cliffs, descending towards the inviting water.

Good thing there were no bokkies about, seeing that water temperature must have been somewhere around three inches . Anyway, after an invigorating dip we basked on the rocks like leguaans, probably following in the footsteps of generations of San hunter-gatherers before us. And as the sun soaked into our chilled bones we stared down-river to where the gorge narrowed and morphed into a chaotic boulder playground, vowing that we'd make like Arnold and be back.

It took a few months, a bit of organising and a touch of sweet-talking with the missus, but by November we had our ducks in a row. Maybe I should say Geckos in a row, because that was the main logistical problem. You see, the little jaunt we were planning could basically be broken up into three distinct stages: first up would be an arduous, full pack hike of fourteen kilometres along the Groot Kliphuis Rivier to get to Die Hel; then you're into day two with some big-time boulder-hopping along the upper stretches of the Twenty-four Rivers gorge (this might take you in the region of seven hours) before day three dawns with the rush of river-boarding stretching away gleefully through a series of palmiet channels and tumbling rapids. It is here that you will need that Gecko and no, it has nothing to do with a reptile fetish, amigo.

With this in mind we went to speak to the guys at ARK Inflatables. River guides had been working on a personal inflatable specially designed to run Western Cape rivers in the low-water season and the prototype was just about perfect when we came a'knocking. It's as sweet an inflatable as you will ever find (although I can't really speak for the blow-up models available from Adult World), approximately 1,6 metres long and a bit more than half a metre wide, with a compressed foam bottom protecting the coccyx from backstabbing river rocks. These babies are perfect for river-boarding; just put your rucksack flat in the base, hold onto the grab handles and launch the little sucker. Otherwise you can do the "sit back and relax' thing with your pack at your back while paddling with webbed gloves.

One thing led to another and ARK put us in contact with Gravity River Tours who had completed a reccé of the gorge a few weeks ago. This is where "that Engelsman Tyers" (as Oom Flip, a local farmer with a well-oiled shotgun, calls him) comes into the picture. Neil had been scouting Twenty-four Rivers with a view to run it as a commercial, multi-day river trip and I think he decided we might be the perfect guinea pigs to unleash on this pristine environment. Arrangements were made to meet at De Hoek Estate where we would leave the bakkie, meet the Tyers brothers as well as one of the Groot Winterhoek rangers who offered to drop us off above Die Hel.

Normally one would slog it out on an undulating footpath leading from the park entrance and along the Groot Kliphuis River, traversing a true wilderness area resplendent with surreal rock formations and stands of tolbos (leucadendron salignum) and waboom (protea nitida). But seeing that we've been there and smelled the fynbos, we opted to head straight to Die Hel. This would normally feature as your first day, allowing you to experience the splendour of an unspoilt mountain fynbos reserve teeming with a diverse selection of fauna and flora. First prize would be a close encounter with one of the solitary mountain leopard, while other mammals such as caracal, grey rhebok, klipspringer and cape grysbok might also make the occasional appearance. Sharing this paradise is an abundance of bird species, including vibrant orange breasted sunbirds, cape sugarbirds and majestic black eagle.

From our drop-off point at the Groot Winterhoek huts (don't expect any creature comforts beyond four walls and a roof), the four kilometre walk down to Die Hel takes approximately an hour and care should be taken during the steep descent. Once there, however, you can revel in the bracing mountain pool and pumping waterfall flanked by ancient yellowwood trees towering along the water's edge. Anyone identifying with Bruce Wayne's superhero persona could explore an extensive cave system on the far side of the pool to make friends with at least six identified species of bats.

It is also here where we get our first instruction in the use of the Gecko: more specifically, how to launch it without looking like a complete pillock. Easy enough - position it behind your butt, hang on to the grab handles and plummet backwards of a high rock. Then, once you've got the water out your nose, try again until you get it right. Lesson Number Two before we set of on the boulder-hopping section along the upper gorge focuses on how to carry your craft: strap your backpack into the inflated boat, hoick it onto your back and there you go.

I watch the procession as they set off into the afternoon glare; grey and black Ninja Turtle look-alikes with short little legs, scuttling from boulder to boulder - not very macho, I have to admit. But we make good time as the afternoon progresses, mostly scrambling across huge rocks or walking through slippery, ankle-chomping shallows. Concentration is imperative and disaster nearly strikes when a gust of wind deflects Ugene on one of the crevasse jumps, but luckily George manages to grab hold of his arm to save the day. As more tributaries pump into the gorge, the water level rises accordingly, affording us stretches of leisurely flow interspersed with a few exciting rapids.

A few adrenaline-pumping jumps, probably between eight and ten metres high, have us whooping and crashing into deep pools until we ease into our overnighting spot around five pm. This is where quality of life kicks in big time - a wide ledge overlooking an untamed mountain, a cliff filled with San rock art at our backs and wild trout rising in a quiet pool shimmering in the afternoon rays . Neil's shares go for a nosedive as we realise he did not pack any beers, but flagging spirits are revived when we manage to tempt a few river trout into the pan. The semi-deflated Geckos make comfortable beds and we trip into dreamland as an enormous moon rises above the craggy summit of Sneeugat Peak.

Woodsmoke and the smell of Kloof coffee with condensed milk lures me out of my gecko just before dawn. With the caffeine fix sorted, we settle into breakfast before breaking camp and launching into the final day. By now the river is picking up speed and we cannonball along white water chutes to tumble into the churning pools below. Some stretches of water are so clear that you could just as well be somewhere in the Carribean (although I have to admit to a distinct lack of girls in bright bikinis). Hard paddling and a blistering sun see us head for the shade around midday for lunch and a well-deserved rest. Again the fishing doesn't disappoint and we settle down to tuck into fresh trout and a beast of a bass, prepared with pesto and an eclectic mix of fart-inducing leftovers on the side.

From here the topography flattens out as we approach the end of the gorge near Saron and we have to really dig in those shoulders to make headway. Navigation also becomes more tricky with a multitude of palmiet channels to choose from - take the wrong option and you're in for an extended session of bundu- bashing through these head high reed beds. But in the distance you will hear the sound of an ice cold frosty seductively whispering your name, so work those arms, manne! At De Hoek estate the flow eventually peters out into a large dam with sandy banks where you beach your Gecko in between incredulous okes looking up from their Landbou Weekblads to inquire "Waar die hel kom julle vandaan"?

Just check out their faces when you tell them from Die Hel ...

SIDEBAR 1: TOYS FOR KLOOFING BOYS

Enhance your kloofing experience by investing in the right kit. You will also look a lot cooler on the photos later on!

PACK:

Personal trial and error has made me opt for the CADAC Cycle 30. This baby has a water bladder compartment, free-flow webbing, a shock cord system and is made from durable, coated polyester that is water-resistant. An added benefit is a waterproof splash-cover that allows you to float the bag on the water surface. Get it at all major sporting retailers or contact your CADAC representative on (08 3) 771 0889 for more info.

SHOES:

Get the edge on adventure with ADIDAS's lightweight and quick-drying BANSHEE III. Styled for the outdoor athlete that needs to move between land and water, it features a Torsion system sole with Adiprene for shock absorption and grip. Cutaway uppers in mesh nylon with quick-release Fastex buckles make these shoes Numero Uno for the eco-athlete that wants it all. The recommended retail price start from R649 at nationwide retailers.

INFLATABLES:

This is probably the coolest toy you will buy all year. The Gecko from ARK Inflatables is small and on the ball - in fact, small and light enough to roll up and stick in your rucksack on your next backpacking holiday. Use it to access hard to get to fishing spots, riverboard it along a pumping rapid, sit back and paddle it along a leisurely river or play with it in the waves. Contact ARK on (021) 783 1672 or check out their website at www.arkinflatables.co.za.

SIDEBAR 2: GETTING IT ON - WITH AND WITHOUT GUIDES

GRAVITY RIVER TOURS:

Yup, if you think you can handle the dour humour of that Engelsman Tyers, contact Neil on (021) 683 3698 or (082) 332 4980. They run the Palmiet River near Betty's Bay (a half-day trip into the Kogelberg Biosphere resort at R195,00 per person) and he will also take competent individuals who passes the fitness test down the Twenty-four Rivers gorge. Contact Gra.vity for more information on the latter option.

GOING SOLO:

The Greyton area offers excellent kloofing and river-bashing opportunities to independently minded outdoor types. Relaxed river running with a Gecko (or a larger raft like a Croc) is possible along long stretches of the stunning Sonderend River. Nouwpoort Gorge in the Sonderend Mountains is a piece of heaven that few people know about, but don't attempt this one without due forethought. Expect hardcore kloofing with extreme ropework, sometimes inside waterfalls and in one instance through a narrow chimney that is as slippery as the inside of a cow. It might be a good idea to ask mountain man Alex Rose of INTREPID to tag along - he is available on (082) 536 8842 and will usually respond to offers of beers and money.

SIDEBAR 3: KLOOFING DO's & DON'TS

  • A wetsuit will protect against scrapes and bumps - high rivers necessitates a PFD and a helmet as well
  • Also contact the weather bureau to get an area-specific, three-day forecast
  • Be careful to set up camp beyond the flood level and to scout an escape route in case of flooding
  • Don't be gung ho - go with a guide or gather as much information beforehand on the area as possible
  • Don't litter. Other people following in your footsteps would like to enjoy a pristine environment as well
  • Foot entrapment is a very real danger in rocky rivers, so don't go charging into fast-flowing water
  • NEVER jump or dive into a pool without checking for obstacles first
  • Put your sunnies on a neck-cord if you value them - and you will need them as protection against glare
  • Webbed gloves make paddling more efficient and protect your hands when going through overgrown channels
  • You can never wear too much sunscreen - go for an alcohol-based formula that is absorbed by the skin

028 2729924 - gravity@mweb.co.za