Up River

I stared in disbelief. These boats were going to transport us ten odd kilometers into the heart of the Keurboom reserve? The yellow canoe, which would later be affectionately christened the HMS Jaundice, wobbled feebly on the back of the Landcruiser. Next to it sat its cousin, a sun kissed blue two-man known simply as the HMS Blue Balls.

We are adults.

I had been enthusiastic about the expedition right up to when we started packing. My friend and guide, Charlie, was his ever exuberant self. “It is not a problem” he said, “the weather report is clear.” I had heard these famous last words before, moments before needing a tent.

I turned to Olga who had been doing a fine job suppressing her laughter. She knowingly shrugged her shoulders and continued helping with the loading.

Some context: Charles, Olga (a Russian Backpacker) and myself are about to paddle up the Keurboom river. It is summer in Plettenberg Bay and one of us, Charlie, is already horribly burnt from a family function the day before. This is very important information for later.

Entry into the reserve was fairly straightforward. A fee at the gate and a loose hand waved to where we could unload the canoes. It was decided beforehand that Charlie and Olga will be paddling together in the two-man. I would be taking the single. I also had the luggage.

The entrance to the Keurboom hints at the splendor beyond. The wide sea facing harbor with the yacht club on the one side and the reserve jetty on the other gives’ way to the camping grounds of holiday makers. A little forest of tents. I confess to not being very focused on the view. We were all (except Charles, of course) a little tense. Apart from my bouts of rowing at gym I had not physically paddled in years. Olga, hailing from the district of Moscow, was even less experienced in a boat. Typically, of her people, this did not stop her from tackling the challenge head on. She summoned centuries worth of strength from past Spirit Babushka’s. It did not take long before Charlie and her had made a dynamic rowing team. I am sure I watched a documentary once about Russian athletes being inexplicably good at things. Their little United Nations enterprise quickly became no more than an articulated blue spider of oars in the distance.

I gave chase.

As mentioned earlier, the tent jungle which lines the shores seems to be a wildly popular attraction for holiday makers. Imagine a FEMA relief camp but with more obesity and beer. I was stunned at the amount of motor boats on show. Shirts were optional among their captains. Sun protection came in the form of back hair. We avoided the wakes of many outboard beer belly’s as we plunged ever deeper into the reserve. Charles had warned us that the first few kilometers were the hardest because we would be sharing the waterway with other holiday makers. We had rehearsed paddling into the wake of speedboats as a precaution.

Little by little, the traffic of the river started to ease. The distillation of thought one suffers when you start to relax began to settle in all of us. The first waypoint of our journey came into view.

A sheer rock face stretched skyward. From a high vantage point children were jumping. Across the river, on a little beach, their families picnicked and watched. We came to shore and promptly decided that the most adult thing to do would be to jump off the cliff face ourselves.

It makes for a surreal picture. The towering valley hued with shades of green. The mineral-black water punctuated by swimming pink bodies. We swam across the river and climbed the rock face to the ledge. Here the jumping would happen. In one brief moment the sounds of children and families died. I convinced my feet that the edge was where the party happened. As with all things in life, you just jump. Cool, serene void wrapped in tiny bubbles. I surfaced for air dying to do it again.

A brief side note: we had very diligently applied sunscreen before setting off. After our diversion at the rock face only Olga and myself reapplied. Very important information for later.

Having left the picnic area there was a sudden and dramatic drop in human noise. One of the extraordinary things about a river that winds deep in a valley is that it in equal turns hides and reveals its surprises around its corners. As the contented families left our rearview gaze, so too did their sound. In the blink of an eye, we were alone on the water.

With the bright sun overhead, we continued. The curtains of rock and foliage would widen, collapse and reform on either side of us as never ending fractals. The crags of cliffs testifying to the rolling pressure of millennia. With the exception of brief bursts of conversation between the two boats, all that could be heard was the dipping of oars.

Eventually we came to the official end of the river. There, by a short jetty, was the self-catered accommodation of the parks board. However, our destination was beyond these shallow rapids. We proceeded to carry our boats across the shallows and back into the river a hundred meters beyond. This process involved Charles and I grabbing each end of a boat and then swearing diligently as we tested the strength of our ankles on the slippery rocks. Not once did the idea of walking on the dry bank occur to us.

It did not take long before we reached our camp site: a copse of Blue Wattle overlooking our own private lagoon. Lunch was quickly unpacked. It would have been a wonderful assortment of toppings on crackers had I not forgotten the crackers. Still, the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings and solitude quickly eased any tension this caused.

Under the shade of the Wattles, we set up our ground cover and sleeping bags. There was no need for tents.

We decided to wallow in the shady lagoon. It is here that Charles removed his top. The consequence of two days’ worth of poor sunscreen decisions radiated like a dying star on the shore. Two lobster arms flailed wildly at his sides. He paired less with sunscreen and more with a light Thermador. My friend had metamorphosed into a sentient fire engine. A delicate tomato face stared in disbelief at the perfect pale vest outline. When the inevitable peeling came, he could make a Hannibal Lecteresque bust of himself. Each movement solicited a loud whine, barely audible over the laughter from his deeply sympathetic friends.

Later in the evening, before the sun would set, Charlie made a fire. As penance for my crime of leaving the crackers, I was on fried bread duty. We had travelled with a bag of expanding dough which needed to be cooked. Nobody could accuse us of being uncultured. We worked together into the night making dinner, sharing stories and swilling back glasses of Charlie’s exquisite cocktails. Three little people in the expanse. The stars took up sentry duty over the horrors of the world but in one quiet corner, three people had found Heaven.

Some places just don’t have noise. Don’t mistake me, this does not mean there is an absence of sound, merely an absence of noise. There was nothing superfluous about what we were experiencing. Nothing unnecessary. We were three people making dinner around a little fire. There was no politics, no agenda, just us.

It did not take long for the day’s rowing to be felt. Shortly after having finished dinner, we went to bed. Dark, warm sleep enveloped us all.

It is midnight. Were one to look up from our vantage point on the tarp, the Blue Wattle would frame the rolling stars perforating the void. Charles is wide awake as the others sleep. The reason? He has just heard a lions gruff bellowing. It is close. He can hear that it is close. Again it comes, deep and primal. Paralyzed with fear he starts thinking of contingencies. He has a knife, but what good is a man with a knife against a lion? He could wake his friends up and make a run for the canoes? We might not all make it. He could climb a tree? No. Not that. The sweat beads on his brow as the deep grunt repeats itself, closer this time.

Really close.

So close it is almost on top of them.

So close it could be… shit.

I had been snoring.

At first light breakfast was made. Despite it being the heart of summer, there was a dim coolness to the place. With great reticence we started the trip back.

We left nothing behind.

On the return, Charles was taking no risks. He ended up looking like a middle-aged Bedouin without fashion sense. I do not want to know what kind of moisture farming was happening within the many layers of his shrouds. Sunlight was definitely going to lose this time around.

In what felt like a dream we peacefully returned to the reserve entrance. A small eternity had passed for all of us. We had been isolated in the wonder of the Keurboom for a time that could not be measured. It had been felt. For all the fun and laughter, it was that magical thing which happens to you very rarely – a spiritual experience disguised as fun. I do not pretend to know why it was such a remarkable memory. I can only tell you that it was. It is my hope that you too would find the wonder in this beautiful place. When you are next in Plettenberg Bay, forget the outboard motor. Pack an oar.