Getaway (South Africa)
SLOWLY, SLOWLY ON THE CAPE KAYAK CAMINO
You’re encouraged to paddle in a mindful way during this overnight trail near Plett. But, ultimately, the rhythm of the river will lull you into it anyway
On a clear morning in early winter I met Johan Loots on Poortjies Beach in Plettenberg Bay. He was tinkering with five kayaks laid out on the beach like a fishing catch, readying them for our two-day river journey. Johan’s scruffy grey hair stuck out from under his old Hunter’s Dry cap. Built like a wrestler from decades of kayaking, he has made a life out of his passion. This former psychologist has established kayak-touring operations across Africa, from Príncipe Island to Mozambique, written three books on sea kayaking and has even designed his own split kayak (in sections for travelling). One of his recent ventures is in northern Spain, now registered as the first official kayak tour on the Camino de Santiago. His experiences there led him to create the trip we were about to embark on.
There was little wind but the crisp air still had some bite, and our group of seven paddlers who were mostly from Knysna, huddled around the coffee-and-rusks table while Johan gave the briefing.
‘We’ve called this experience the Cape Kayak Camino because the word ‘‘camino’’ is associated with a more sensitive and mindful engagement with nature. For some, it’s a spiritual experience and for others, it’s an adventure. We want you to treasure your time and reflect on the environment and your own life while on the water.’ Then he turned to look at the estuary, squinting into the sun. ‘We’re going to need to paddle hard initially.’
The start is the only potentially dangerous part of the day as the outflowing current from the estuary mouth tries to suck paddlers out into the ocean. So Johan requested we stick together at first and follow all his hand signals.
Despite these instructions, our exuberant group separated immediately after launching, like toddlers let loose in a petting zoo. Johan’s two assistant guides attempted to shepherd us in the general direction. Two to a kayak, we paddled briskly past the mouth and, as we entered calmer waters, a seal gracefully broke the surface alongside us. At the confluence of the Keurbooms and Bitou rivers, we took the left turn up the latter and passed under the N2 bridge. When the white umbrellas of the Emily Moon River Lodge came into sight, there was a chorus of remarks about having a drink on its deck, despite it being well before 10am. Alas, we paddled on.
With us settling into a rhythm, Johan told me his story. ‘I came to Plett in 1970 to be one of the town’s first lifesavers and discovered this wondrous place.’ By kayak he explored as far up the Keurbooms Gorge as he could paddle, and also spent a lot of time paddling out to sea from Central Beach to Robberg and back.
After kayaking the area for many years, it finally dawned on Johan to do an overnighter where you go from A to B to C. But it needed to be long enough and feel like a real adventure. That took some planning as the surrounding land is owned by a combination of Cape Nature, farmers and residents. What makes this trip special is the variety. ‘You have the Indian Ocean on one hand, a remarkably pristine lagoon system and two healthy rivers,’ said Johan. ‘The Bitou has wonderful birdlife, and the Keurbooms has an amazing gorge.’ The route also traverses an area added to Unesco’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2017.
Each paddle stroke took us further from the holiday houses of Plett and deeper into farmland. Grassy banks gave way to reeds as we slipped by a hill dotted with red aloes. The waterway narrowed to the width of a one-way street and we paddled in single file past a collection of gnarled yellowwoods and milkwoods on the river’s edge. Suddenly, there was a flash of red above us in the trees – the telltale sign of the underwing of a Knysna turaco (lourie). It crossed the river a few times above our heads as if to inspect us. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ went up from the Knysna crowd – it was pleasing to see that the symbolic bird of their hometown still held the power to delight them.
We parked our boats in a little gully that was as far up as the Bitou was navigable. Then we climbed out to enjoy our packed lunches of sandwiches, fruit and nuts. On the paddle back down the river, I remarked on how well our group was progressing.
‘It’s like a horse smelling home. As soon as you turn they get frisky,‘ laughed Johan. ‘It’s the same thing with people – they hold back on the way out but when you turn around they know where they’re going and speed up.’
We turned into the Keurbooms River just as the afternoon sun was growing weak and immediately passed a row of modern houses. ‘There used to be zebras on this estate,’ Johan said, ‘but after a big flood in 2012 they all got washed away and disappeared.’ Half an hour later the kayaks crunched onto the beach at our stop for the night. We hadn’t seen another boat or kayak on the water all day.
Our camp was at the Forever Resort, with its long stretch of river-facing property. We were based at the far end of the resort where Johan’s team transformed the area into a haven of fireplaces, gazebos, chairs and drinks tables.
‘We focus on local food and will have a braai and potjie for dinner,’ Johan’s wife Teresa, who handles the shore operations, told me. After hot showers, we pulled up chairs at the fire to share stories from our day while the potjie bubbled away.
We woke to a strong wind whistling down the gorge but conditions were calmer when we set off after an egg-andbacon breakfast. Looking down the river, it was as dark and glistening as a whale’s back. Yet below us the water was clear and we could make out dozens of jellyfish, the colour of pink Champagne, joining our journey into the Keurbooms Gorge, which promised the best scenery of our trip. We spotted more turacos hopping about in the tall trees around the Whiskey Creek braai area. Nearby was the creek itself, a tributary named for the caramel colour of its water. Johan once bumped into a leopard while exploring a walking trail near here. ‘At first I thought it was a dog,’ he told us.
As we reached a bend in the shallowing river that was the furthest point of the day, the distinctive cry of an African fish eagle rang out from its perch in a hardwood hung with old-man’s-beard. That sighting capped off a long list of birds we’d seen, including herons, egrets, cormorants, kingfishers, spoonbills and cranes.
We stopped for coffee at the braai area on our return. ‘In summer this place is so busy, but for 10 months we have it to ourselves,’ Johan said as he dunked his rusk. ‘We barely operate over December and January. It’s just not the same,’ he added, gesturing at the quiet river.
Back on the water, listening to nothing but the plop of paddles, I felt as serene about life as the ancient gorge we were passing through. Two days of smooth gliding had cast its spell and I had to agree with what Johan had said earlier. ‘There’s no better way to go than kayaking.’