Words by Shane Raw
Images by Chantelle Melzer
In the summer months in KZN, my outdoor activities are largely centred around kayaking, so winter to me, means more hiking in the Berg, paragliding (my other favourite thing to do), mountain cabins and log fires… and of course, Western Cape kayaking missions to catch the winter rainfall. These missions have been something of a non-event for the last few years due to the extremely poor and highly unpredictable rainfall experienced down south.
The Western Cape and particularly the city of Cape Town itself has been in the news a lot recently with the unimaginable and yet imminent reality of the taps running completely dry… no water. Nothing. Day Zero. As it turns out, we happen to know a little something about day zero… the KZN town we live in experienced 450 “day zeros” whilst in the grip of the devastating drought in 2016/2017. That’s right, 15 months with no municipal water supply! I can only hope that this was a serious wake up call to many to appreciate and conserve this increasingly threatened resource. So while I could empathise with all the residents of Cape Town as they faced the increasing possibility of not having access to running water to drink, cook, clean and well you know, basically survive…. There was another tragedy afoot… no water in the rivers to kayak!
Thankfully however, the cycle appears to have swung around and the rains have returned, with the fairest Cape receiving front after front of soaking, life-giving and river-filling rain through the month of May and into June and the forecast continues to look promising. The main storage supply dams have shown significant improvement and although they are not out of the woods yet, things are looking good for a properly wet winter season which is something I have been (not so) patiently awaiting for the last few years.
So last week, with 2 fronts forecast to hit in the space of the following 3 days, Chantelle and I (and my trusty Fluid kayak) seized the opportunity and boarded the flying fruit airline to Cape Town. During the somewhat bouncy decent and touch-down it became apparent that we were arriving simultaneously with the first of the blustery cold fronts. For the rest of the night we listened to the wind howl and the rain lash the roof of our friend Scott’s house. With each hour that passed my excitement and anticipation for full rivers grew exponentially.
Early the next morning we joined up with Andrew and the Gravity Adventures crew and headed out of the city and into the majestic Boland mountain ranges near to Paarl and Wellington. Due to their small and steep catchments, the Cape rivers are infamous for having an exceptionally quick run-off which means a short window of opportunity to catch them at optimum levels for kayaking. We had planned to use it as a warm up, but after checking the level of the Molenaars River which is flanked by the grandiose Du Toits Kloof mountains and finding that it had already dropped to a mediocre level we decided to make a bee-line for the crown jewel of Cape kayaking – the Witte. The Witte flows north-east away from Wellington alongside the northern section of the famous Bainskloof Pass, an incredible feat of road building which was completed in 1854 and is now a declared national monument.
On arrival at the top of the pass we were greeted by near perfect flows on the tea-coloured river which demands utmost respect and is quick to punish a mistake or a lapse in concentration. Due to the “bouldery” nature of the riverbed it is littered with siphons and undercuts which are a kayaker’s worst nightmare. So why do it? Well… dropping approximately 290 metres over 8 kilometres, it is a world class run – steep, fast and continuous and definitely some of the best whitewater kayaking in the country.
I spent the next 2 hours in my happy place while Chantelle followed along the picturesque and precarious mountain pass shooting down from strategic vantage points along the way. Being mid-winter, both water and air temperatures remain in single digits which means having sufficient quality thermal gear is critically important and I was extremely grateful to have a baselayer of First Ascent DermaTec thermals under my kayaking gear. Scott is somewhat of a weather guru and on his assurances of a rain-free evening we decided to brave camping out at the Tweede Tol campsite at the foot of the pass. We had no worries finding a campsite – it seems no one else is crazy enough to be camping in the middle of the Cape winter!
The following day we did a repeat run of the Witte albeit it at a significantly lower and rockier level. By the afternoon the second cold front was settling in, bringing with it intermittent showers and plummeting temperatures. We chickened out of a second night in the campsite and opted for a cozy room and a seriously delicious pizza at the Calabash Bush Pub just a little further down the valley. Through the night the rain poured steadily and we congratulated ourselves repeatedly on a great decision!
By morning the Witte had returned to perfect flows again and we were able to complete a third run in as many days… a rare treat by Cape kayaking standards. The afternoon drive back into the city took us past the Mattroosberg range and over the Du Toits Kloof pass. The images captured by Chantelle (some of which were captured out of the window of the moving vehicle) speak for themselves… like the mountains they depict, they are simply breath-taking!!
Our final day in CT consisted of a couple of meetings before going full tourist mode with a scenic drive down the coastline to Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach to find some penguins. We literally had half an hour to play with which wasn’t even enough to walk the full length of the board-walk but Chantelle still managed to capture some amazing shots in this short time – I am constantly in awe of what she can produce despite having very little to work with. Yes I admit I am her biggest fan ;)
The next 2 and a half hours were spent getting a taste of the Cape Town traffic calamity! Thankfully our flight on the flying fruit was delayed otherwise we would certainly have watched it fly overhead while we inched along the M5 north and had to spend another day in the Mother City – although I can think of worse places to be stuck for a day. Guess we’ll just have to head back soon!