Rolfontein Rhino Recce II: Vanderkloof Dam, 4-6 January 2016

 

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Paddling along the shoreline of Big Water on Day 1 of the Recce. Steep shale banks like this were typical given the low level of the dam.

 

A return to Vanderkloof Dam was on the cards for early 2016. In the interest of simplifying life, we decided to do a rough re-run of our previous multi-day trip. So once again we found ourselves roasting in the heat, swimming in crystal clear water, photographing rhino, buck and birdlife, and generally enjoying the delicious silence of the untamed Northern Cape wilderness. There were a few striking differences between this trip and our last, however. Most noticeable was dam level: with South Africa experiencing a severe drought, dam level had dropped to about 78% capacity (it reached the 50-60% range at time of writing, with the drought only beginning to break). Another noticeable difference is that we spent only two nights out—the original plan was three, but as the reader will discover, a medical emergency forced an early return to civilisation.

First, a few general observations about the trip right off the bat, all but one related to dam level:

a) Campsite availability. We had speculated that low dam levels would result in us being spoilt for choice for nice sandy beach campsites. However, while there certainly were more campsites available, some were rendered less habitable due to newly-exposed shale banks, as steep as they were slippery under foot.

b) Comfort at camp. More exposed shale + constant exposure to extreme temperatures = very, very hot surfaces for tents! Despite laying compact mattresses, sleeping bags, and clothing below us, nothing seemed to prevent being fried while trying to sleep. This is something that we do not recall experiencing during the last Recce, and we are a little puzzled as to why the problem was so acute this time round.

c) Birdlife. This edition of the Recce was ultimately cut short a day due to an accident. Nonetheless, the diversity of bird species spotted, and the density of individual species, was notably reduced in comparison to earlier trips on the dam at the same time of year (including the January 2014 Recce). We came to the conclusion that a key factor was that, due to the low dam level, the treeline was now further away from the boats—up to about 30m in many cases. However, this doesn’t explain the reduced numbers of raptors (particularly fish eagles, but also Verreaux’s eagle, jackal and steppe buzzards), nor the massive decrease in reed cormorants, white-breasted cormorants, and African darters. With regard to diversity of species: previously, the most common bird was the red-eyed bulbul. On this occasion, we only sighted bulbul once or twice, while Cape buntings—not recorded on the last Recce—were everywhere to be seen. We failed to spot a single red bishop, masked weaver, or kingfisher while out on the dam!

 

IMG_8681.JPGApproaching our Day 2 campsite at Bobbedjanbaai: Rhebok adopt a strategy of freezing when surprised by two bright kayaks.

d) Game. We did see a wide variety of game on the trip. We had, however, speculated that we would get some good shots of exposed game due to a broader gap between treeline and the water’s edge. Furthermore, we thought that a lack of water in the veld would force more game to the dam to drink. Of course, a reasonable person (!) may have instead predicted that (a) game is reluctant to spend a lot of time beyond the treeline, exposed; and (b) a lower dam level easily leads to isolated, ‘inland’ pools being formed, which actually increases available shoreline for drinking. As a result, our sightings and photos of game, while numerous, were nowhere near as dramatic as in 2014.

e) Weather. The heat was to be expected, but the dam’s infamous wind was conspicuous by its absence for most of the trip—except, of course, when we desperately needed an easy trip home and not a prevailing nightmare!

So, with those notes aside: the full-length log of the 2016 Recce.

 

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Day 1: Keeping drinks cool over lunch.

 

Day 1 (4 January 2016): Vanderkloof to Kingfisher Cove

Mileage 17.5km

We arrived in Vanderkloof mid-morning and made straight for Gavin Myburgh’s Adventure Centre (check out Gavin’s operation at http://adventurekayaking.co.za/). Gavin kindly agreed to help us with bakkie-trailer-boat logistics, and escorted us to the shore to bid us bon voyage. After packing the boats with camping and cooking equipment, clothing, emergency kit, provisions for five days on the water (plus emergency rations), cameras, the trusty dome tent, and various other kayaking paraphernalia, we were ready to launch. Amazingly, we had loads of space to spare, in spite of even taking a toilet seat along! Had we forgotten something very important? Or had we become more skilful at the art of packing sea kayaks?

 

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Packing on Day 1: We fitted all this gear into the two kayaks with space to spare. (Obviously we didn’t take the big plastic box on the right. We only took its contents. We did take the toilet seat, however!)

 

The two boats we used were the same as those from the 2014 Recce: Scotty in his yellow Mission Contour 480, and Barry in the red fibreglass Kaskazi Skua (thanks Mom!). With calm, windless weather, spray skirts were abandoned in favour of towels keeping sun off the knees. We headed eastwards towards Big Water. It wasn’t long until we made our first game sighting: five gemsbok on a spit of land exposed by the low dam level. High temperatures and beating sun were the order of the day, and by the time we stuck our noses out into Big Water, we were craving a swim.

 

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Day 1: Gemsbok on land newly exposed by the low dam level.

 

We decided to have lunch at the spot where we had our first tea break during the 2014 trip, a shale beach that was perfect for swimming. Temperature? 51.3 deg C, measured on the deck of the Skua. In the shade under a small rock, the mercury failed to drop lower than 42.7 deg C over our lunch break. Our first meal in the wilderness was boiled eggs and leftover New Year’s venison, washed down with Oros. We had forgotten the fresh bread rolls at home…

 

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Day 1, lunch time on Big Water. 51.3 deg C on the deck of the Skua. Toasty!

 

During the last trip, much of the first day was spent circumnavigating Rolfontein Island. This year, given the later start, we agreed that we would head straight toward the first 2014 campsite, with the intention of then rounding that peninsula to see whether the bay on the other side also provided adequate shelter. We ducked into all the little coves en route, and had several close encounters with game: a female kudu, close to the water’s edge, watched us drift by warily; we spent some time looking at mountain rhebok near Kingfisher Cove; and gemsbok were numerous on the slopes of the hills surrounding the area. Throughout the day, we had noticed an abundance of Cape buntings, which was to prove to be the avian mascot for the trip. We noted fewer African darters and cormorants than the previous Recce, and well as a general reduction in birdlife, but chalked up red-knobbed coot, fish eagles, and a few unidentified LBJs by mid-afternoon; none of them in great numbers. By evening we had spotted more LBJs, as well as red faced mousebirds, Cape and African pied wagtails, and a circling juvenile fish eagle. We had also spotted some monstrous fish, surprisingly unbothered by the boats.

 

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Day 1, just before heading out onto Big Water.

 

We were pleased to learn that Kingfisher Cove was now a little camp-friendly plateau, fronted by an impressive shale bank covered in buck spoor. Our first potential low dam-level campsite! We then headed to our 2014 campsite, but after establishing that neither bay on the peninsula held a candle to the new-look Kingfisher Cove, we headed back in the late afternoon to set up camp amongst freshwater mussel shells and otter spoor. The late afternoon brought thunder to the east and heavy weather on the horizon, but still none of the dam’s infamous wind. The temperature at sunset was 34.6 deg C, a significant and very welcome drop. Setting up camp was followed by a good campfire with sherry sun-downers. Supper was to be our only fresh meat of the trip: pork chops and wors, accompanied by butternut on the coals. Considering all the venison leftovers we were still carrying about, by the next day we would be sick of meat and longing for a healthier diet. Fatigue (or perhaps sherry?) had the effect of making the shale bank very slippery underfoot, and both of us had a few ignominious falls hauling equipment from the boats to the campsite. We turned in early, enjoying the peace and quiet of life on the dam—only to discover the nightmare that is boiling hot shale under your tent…

 

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Day 1 campsite at Kingfisher Cove. What used to be a small cove was now a steep shale beach.

 

Day 2 (5 January 2016): Kingfisher Cove to Bobbedjanbaai

Mileage 23.0km

Our first evening was peaceful and windless, with none of the threatened heavy weather ever materialising. Just before sunrise, Scotty stuck his head out the tent to find a barn owl staring back at him from a rock a mere 5m away. Amazingly, our shale-beach campsite showed evidence of fresh spoor made during the night. We were surprised that buck would have passed the tent at such close quarters for a nocturnal drink, when so many other banks were available. The temperature was cool at sunrise: only 24 deg C. At around 7am, after more wagtail and LBJ sightings over coffee, we struck camp, had a swim, and headed out onto Big Water. Our aim for the day was twofold: photograph rhinos, and then make it to Bobbedjanbaai before dark.

 

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Day 2: Gemsbok and choppy water at 7am. The greyish-white land between water’s edge and the treeline is evidence of the 22% drop in water level during the course of the 2015/2016 drought.

 

All along the first leg of the day’s paddle, gemsbok had come down to the water’s edge for a morning drink. Heading out onto Big Water, we noticed that the wind had picked up a little. It whipped up a typical Vanderkloof-style set of waves close to shore, providing a rare opportunity for kayak-surfing 800km from the nearest saltwater! As with our previous trip, we opted to do an overland game survey, to confirm the presence of rhino from a distance before committing ourselves to a long paddle for better photo opportunities. It soon became evident to us that dam level has a major impact on game viewing: while there were a lot of animals spotted, they were widely and thinly distributed over newly-exposed land. We realised that today was probably not going to be our day for good photographs. Nonetheless, with rhino spotted, we had tea and then headed off for a kayak safari.

 

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Day 2: Scotty catches a snooze after game-viewing.

 

This part of the dam also provided the first substantial display of birdlife. We entered the bay to find it teeming with waterfowl: goliath and grey herons, an impressive flock of shelducks, greater flamingos, white-breasted cormorants, and Cape and red-billed teal amongst others. Some of the animals spotted on the shore included springbok, gemsbok, white rhinoceros, vervet monkeys, kudu, duiker, and warthog.

 

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Day 2: Morning tea, looking towards Big Water.

 

In the late morning, we headed back across Big Water to Rolfontein Island for a lunch of crackers, processed cheese, boiled eggs, leftover meat, and apples. For the remainder of the trip, we would have to make do with dry rations. Temperature in the shade had by this time reached 39.9 deg C, and we had we had exhausted fresh water supplies—while Scotty stuck to filtered dam water, Barry opted to just drink the water straight out the middle of the dam! The afternoon was to be a steady paddle in nearly windless conditions to Bobbedjanbaai, via a remarkably lifeless Raptor Alley. En route, we established three things about this part of the dam at 78% capacity: (i) Rolfontein Island remains circumnavigable; (ii) Osplaat is no longer circumnavigable, forming a peninsula with the northern shore of the dam; and (iii) Hornet Island was no longer an island.

 

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Day 2: Leaving Big Water via an unusually lifeless Raptor Alley.

 

After a relatively uneventful paddle, we hit Bobbedjanbaai around 15:45, and were met by a large fish eagle perched on a tree stump. The mercury had hit 41.8 degrees in the shade, necessitating a swim. Unfortunately Barry managed to jump in wearing his glasses, which resulted in a frantic search. It was the eagle-eyed Scotty who spotted them from his kayak glinting in the sun about a metre underwater. Crisis averted!

 

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Day 2: Swimming at Bobbedjanbaai. Our hat-stand had, minutes earlier, served as a perch for a massive African fish eagle. Scotty is swimming right about where Barry’s glasses were recovered.

 

Bobbedjanbaai was so named in honour of the noisiest troop of baboons we have ever encountered. However, this year’s trip did not deliver any nocturnal baboon brawls, nor any barked commentary on our camp activities. The campsite itself was pretty much as we had left it two years ago, albeit with a deeper beach due to the lower dam level. Beneath the shale we even unearthed the circle of rocks from our campfire two years ago! We used the fireplace again for old time’s sake, rustling up a dinner of tuna pasta with gem squash on the side. (Washed down with sherry, of course.) While preparing supper, we were witness to a spectacular LBJ fight—two unidentified birds rolling in the dirt in a competition that was surprisingly savage. Unfortunately poor light prevented a single decent photo being taken of this contest. Ever wary of our primate friends, we baboon-proofed the kayaks before turning in for the night. To our despair, shale heat radiation was again an issue, seeing as there was nothing but shale upon which to put up the tent. The following morning, our sleeping bags were soaked through with sweat—and we hadn’t even been inside them!

 

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Day 2 camp at Bobbedjanbaai. The difference in water level is very evident: in 2014, with levels in the high 95-100% range, the boats were pulled up roughly in-line with where Scotty is standing.

 

Day 3 (6 January 2016): Bobbedjanbaai to Rooiwalle (via Hondeblaf River mouth)

Mileage 30.5km (22.8km from accident to home)

 

Sunrise at Bobbedjanbaai proved just as beautiful as last trip: this really must be one of the most idyllic spots on the entire dam. After striking camp, the plan was to head east, paddle a few kilometres beyond the mouth of the Hondeblaf River, and see if any other campsites were available. Late morning would see us at our furthest point from Vanderkloof; we would then begin the return trip with the intention of spending the final night of camping (most probably) at Rooiwalle. That was the intention—it was never realised.

Just after we launched, Bobbedjanbaai finally lived up to its name. A troop of stropping baboons had come down to drink on the opposite side of the bay. Once again, the troop proved entertaining—we were treated to the spectacle of a baboon sitting in a cactus, which was comic, to say the least.

 

 

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Day 3: A baboon in a cactus. Stranger things probably happen out here.

 

Despite a temperature of 26 degrees, windless conditions, and the water’s surface resembling a mirror, the morning was not destined to be entirely tranquil. We encountered two noisy events. The first was a rather loud kayak tour group, approaching from the west—10 upcountry paddlers in 6 boats, strung out over about a kilometre of water. We went over to chat, and found out that they were intending to travel the length of the dam with only 3 nights under canvas—heavy mileage. These were the first paddlers we had yet encountered on the dam, with the exception, of course, of Gavin Myburgh’s local tour operations and the fellow from Vanderkloof with the outrigger-equipped canoe. We hung back and let them pass by, hoping that our game-viewing would not be badly hampered. The second event was a meeting with a speedboat, crewed by Smittie and his wife Christina, who stopped to have a chat with us. Little did we know that this second meeting was to prove a lucky one! Other than that, beautiful, still, glassy conditions prevailed—not a breath of air, with the hills reflected in the mirror-like water. Flatwater paddling at its finest!

 

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Day 3: Glassy conditions near the mouth of the Hondeblaf River.

 

We turned roughly 26km out from Vanderkloof, and started looking for a suitable beach on which to have a cup of tea and a biscuit. Even with the dam at 78%, landing spots were not easy to come by in this area—the only suitable candidate was infested with ‘balbyter’ ants. We headed over to the northern bank and decided to land on a steep shale bank littered with rocks, with a short flat shelf of about 5cm depth. After hauling the boats ashore and using a few larger rocks as moorings, we clambered onshore. In the process of getting all the tea-kit out the boats, disaster struck: Scotty lost his footing and fell onto an old tree stump. His right calf was deeply punctured by a branch, with a second small puncture wound on the inside of upper left thigh.

 

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Day 3: Result of the accident, with a makeshift tourniquet.

 

After application of a tourniquet, the bleeding stopped. We resolved to immediately head back towards the town of Vanderkloof. We stopped periodically for a break, with an eye on the state of the wound—the sitting position in a kayak most likely helped to curb further bleeding. And then, just as we approached our camping site of the previous evening, the wind hit. For the first time in the trip, just when we could have done with a bit of calm, the dam’s infamous prevailing wind made an appearance. We were to have the wind in our faces all the way home—a very, very hard paddle, with the final 15km across Big Water and into Vanderkloof presenting the extra challenge of choppy waters breaking over the bows of our boats. A long slog for a day’s paddle in excess of 30km: we spent the hours of around 10.00 until 18.00 fighting the wind, with the heavy chop added to the mix just before lunch.

 

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Day 3: A bloody bow en route home.

 

As soon as we were within cellphone range of Vanderkloof, we phoned Gavin to arrange for some medical assistance. He met us at the take-out point and whisked Scotty off to local nurse Yolandi, and provided ample commentary on the ensuing clean-up, stitching and dressing of the wound. By the time logistics and medical attention had been completed, it was high time for a beer and a square meal. At the local Ribbok Pub & Grill, scoffing beers and rib baskets, we ran again into Smittie and his wife. After hearing the woeful story of the accident, Smittie kindly offered us a spare room to spend the night.

And so the trip came to an end on a not-so-positive note. We owe a debt of thanks to Smittie and Christina for their hospitality, to Gavin for providing logistical support and acting as an ambulance driver, and to Yolandi, who was kind enough to lend us her medical expertise after hours. We will be back, however. A full crossing of the dam—or perhaps even a circumnavigation—is in order!

 

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Sunset over Big Water on Day 1.

 

Birds

  1. African darter
  2. Cape bunting
  3. Karoo prinia
  4. African pied wagtail
  5. African red-eyed bulbul
  6. Western barn owl
  7. African fish eagle (juv. and adult)
  8. Pied crow
  9. European bee-eater
  10. Red-knobbed coot
  11. White-throated swallow
  12. Reed cormorant
  13. South African shelduck
  14. Grey heron
  15. Yellow-billed duck
  16. Goliath heron
  17. Greater flamingo
  18. Red-billed teal
  19. Cape teal
  20. White-breasted cormorant
  21. Black-winged stilt
  22. Cape wagtail
  23. Verreaux’s eagle
  24. Barn swallow
  25. Cape turtle dove

Unid. duck (possibly South African shelduck); various unid. LBJs throughout the trip; old masked weaver nests.

 

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Day 2: European bee-eaters.

 

Animals

  1. Gemsbok
  2. Rhebok
  3. Kudu
  4. Warthog
  5. Vervet monkey
  6. Springbok
  7. White rhinoceros
  8. Baboon
  9. Duiker

Evidence of otters; one leguaan spotted en route to launch.

 

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Day 2: Close encounter with a gemsbok during the game survey.

 

Last of the summer paddling…

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A nice, windless Saturday at Gordon’s Bay. The Necky was launched from the main beach, and then paddled past the new harbour and all the way to the point. Ahead was a paddle boarder, as well as someone paddling a sit-on-top with two dogs on board! Cutting across the bay, the entrance to the old harbour was a little wild with some big swell. The photo above was taken back at the main beach, after trying my hand at surfing the few waves that break between the rocks in front of the Spur.

What a sunset!

 

Breede River: Bird list

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Pale chanting goshawk, near the Breede River take-out point.

Positively identified birds in the Breede River area (Rivierplaas camping and kayaking):

1. African hoopoo
2. Common waxbill
3. Fork-tailed drongo
4. Fiscal flycatcher
5. Masked weaver
6. Common fiscal
7. Pin-tailed whydah
8. Jackal buzzard
9. Hadida ibis
10. Western cattle egret
11. Cape bulbul
12. Cape wagtail
13. Malachite kingfisher
14. Cape white-eye
15. Brown-hooded kingfisher
16. Cape robin-chat
17. Reed cormorant
18. Red-faced mousebird
19. Lapwing plover
20. Alpine swift
21. African sacred ibis
22. Black-headed heron
23. Common moorhen
24. Black crake
25. Olive thrush
26. African paradise flycatcher
27. Helmeted guineafowl
28. Cape sparrow
29. Pale chanting goshawk
30. African darter
31. African fish eagle
32. Black-shouldered kite
33. Cape turtle-dove
34. Egyptian goose

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Common waxbills, photographed on a dawn paddle in the sidestreams around Rivierplaas campsite.

Paddling on the Breede River

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We headed down to Rivierplaas for four night’s camping on the banks of the Breede River in the Overberg region, Western Cape. This superb little campsite is about 25km downstream from Worcester. We had been hoping that Rivierplaas could serve as a convenient, fall-out-of-bed-and-into-a-kayak base for paddling the upper Breede. Unfortunately, going upstream from the campsite, it is only a 3km paddle until a small rapid halts further progress, while about 500m downstream is another small rapid that would make returning to camp by boat impossible. Portaging around these obstacles was not possible either, as the steep banks of this part of the Breede are covered in thick, impassable bush.

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Paddling at dawn near Rivierplaas.

It took little more than three hours for all available water on this labyrinthine portion of the river to be explored. Nonetheless, the campsite itself was rich in birdlife, and there is nothing to beat a gentle paddle at the break of dawn with mountains on the horizon. To reach the river from the campsite, you must first paddle through a network of gently flowing sidestreams, dotted with flowering water-lillies. Because of the thick vegetation, spotting birds from the water is difficult. However, judging from the number of birdcalls, there is a lot of birdlife on the river as well. Life at camp made up for the limited paddling: beers in the cooler box, an empty camping ground, beautiful sunsets and stars, and even bread baked in a paraffin can.

One scorching-hot day, we took the advice of Rivierplaas resident ‘Biltong’ Hugo, and put our boats in at the low-level bridge a few kilometres downstream. We had arranged with Elspeth to pick us up at a point about 12.5km further down the river. Despite being flanked by farming operations, this portion of the fast-flowing Breede is beautiful, thanks to the thick bank vegetation and the backdrop of Cape mountains.

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Paddling on the Breede River, below the low-level bridge. Note the dense bank vegetation.

This expedition yielded African fish eagles, cormorants, African darters, and moorhens, as well as a magnificent pale chanting goshawk perched on a fencepost on the side of the road. The highlight, however, was an unidentified, colourful snake of no more than 40cm length swimming across our paths at the exit of one the little rapids. The poor thing was struggling against the current, snorkeling its way toward shore. Had Barry not put on the brakes, it would have had its misery compounded by being run over by a red plastic kayak!

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Into the palmiet!

There were around six or seven ‘ripples’ to negotiate–hardly rapids by any stretch of the imagination. Our only flirtation with danger was accidentally following a river channel that both Biltong and JB, the Rivierplaas host, warned us not to take. The river is full of islands and fast-flowing channels lined by ‘palmiet’ and dense foliage. Biltong and JB suggested that we should follow the rule, ‘if in doubt, go left’–with a single exception. True to form, we managed to apply the rule to prove the exception, and down the danger-channel we went. This twisty passage quickly narrowed and became overgrown, our boats being pushed into low-hanging branches and reed-banks by the strong current. The river flows very strongly through this channel, so once you go in, there is no turning back. Fortunately, the end of the channel was not blocked, and we made it through the undergrowth without getting stuck. We did hit the occasional branch, however, and came back with an intimate knowledge of the smell, taste and feel of Western Cape riverside vegetation.

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The fleet convenes

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Two up-country kayaks and one usually resident in the Cape made the trek to Simonstown, False Bay, for a bit of salt water paddling. Choppy water and a south-easter limited our exploits to the harbour and bay area, with a landing at Long Beach. Despite the limited paddling, we spotted Cape cormorant, African penguin, swift tern, and Hartlaub’s gull, as well as seals and sailing boats.

Necky Kyook joins the Cape fleet!

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The Necky Kyook after her maiden voyage on the high seas off Strand.

A new boat has been added to the fleet: an approximately ten year-old Necky Kyook. According to the previous owners, the Canadian-built Necky was purchased in New Zealand, and hasn’t seen water since its arrival in South Africa 8 years ago. Barry bought the boat with a rudder pedal missing. In general, buying old boats with missing parts is not a great idea. The aftermarket hybridized pedal was proving difficult to source, but fortunately the old owners found the original and made contact a few weeks later.

The Kyook trades speed for stability, and should (in theory) be a nice boat for the sea. It is visibly a rather squat vessel. The front hatch is perhaps a touch small, but the quality is excellent and the boat has seen little use in its lifetime. It also features some charmingly old-fashioned trimmings, including an aluminium rudder and hatch covers that are secured by draw-strings and toggles instead of modern straps and plastic clips. We have some exposure to Necky’s Kyook model, as a friend in Kimberley happens to own one too.

The Kyook’s new port of call is with Barry in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. This morning, bright and early, she took her maiden voyage at Strand Beach in False Bay. Despite calm seas, the eternal land-lubber in Barry took hold, and he was pitched into the surf for a swim when attempting to come ashore. The indignity! Pictured above is the Necky prior to washing off all that sea sand.

Glacial pavings, petroglyphs, and three paddles at Nooitgedacht

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Engravings of animals (incl. rhino) and geometric patterns on glacial pavings at Nooitgedacht. Running horizontally is scoring in the Andesite that resulted from glacial movement 300 million years ago. The engravings are around 1,500 – 2,000 years old.

 

On the banks of the Vaal, about 30km from Kimberley, exposed rock formations show evidence of glacial action some 300 million years ago. These sheets of Andesite provided a canvas for 2,000 year old engravings of animals and geometric patterns. Glacial action is largely responsible for the widespread distribution of diamonds stretching from Kimberley westwards across the Northern Cape and into the Atlantic Ocean. Nooitgedacht is one of many sites on the Vaal River that shows evidence of digging activity over the past 150 years. Unfortunately, with regard to the glacial pavings themselves and the invaluable record of human heritage inscribed on them, it is difficult not to detect an air of neglect about the site.

 

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Juvenile baboon. Vaal River near Nooitgedacht. 2014.

We have taken three paddles on this section of the Vaal River over the past three weeks. Spotted during these trips were vervet monkeys, baboons, kudu, leguaans, an otter; malachite, pied and brown-hooded kingfishers, white-breasted cormorants, goliath herons, hadada and African sacred ibis, African darters, Egyptian and spur-winged geese, African pied wagtails, southern masked weavers, red bishops, African fish eagles, and a Cape eagle owl.

 

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Cape eagle owl near Nooitgedacht, Vaal River. 2014.

The second of these paddles provided the best fauna viewing, and confirmed that silence on the water is the best way to ensure seeing plenty of animals and birds. This second trip was also the longest paddle, all the way from Nooitgedacht up to the silted weir below the railway bridge and back. We had four memorable encounters with animals on this second trip. First, with our boats up against the bank under some trees, inquisitive young vervet monkeys couldn’t resist getting as close to us as possible. Second, we caught a magnificent leguaan (water monitor) sunning itself on a clay bank, and were able to get close for a good shot. (This is probably the same leguaan that Kevin spotted on the third trip in the same area, again sunning itself on the bank.) Third, a troop of baboons proved itself just as curious as the vervet monkeys on the return trip. The youngsters from this troop even had a young kudu to play with in the undergrowth. And fourth, in broad daylight, a Cape eagle owl – a rare sighting in this part of South Africa.

 

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Brown-hooded kingfisher near Nooitgedacht, Vaal River. 2014.

 

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Vervet monkey near Nooitgedacht, Vaal River. 2014.

Our first trip with Lennie in late March saw the Vaal in flood, due to the heavy summer rains up river. This made the clay banks quite treacherous, and very dirty. The Vaal in this area is very silty, and leaves the boats filthy. The flooding has resulted in a lot of up-country litter hanging on branches and lying on the bank. The Vaal around Kimberley is also bordered by farming, and the resultant influx of people probably contributes to the litter lying around. Nonetheless, there are still strikingly beautiful stretches of bank, with thick bush and ravines; the drive from the main road down to Nooitgedacht features thickly vegetated valleys. It leaves one to wonder what the river and surrounds must have been like at the time those rock engravings were created, a time before the environmentally destructive effects of commercial farming and diamond mining.

 

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A flotilla of kayaks on the Vaal, during the third trip (13 April). Pictured are Graham, Kevin, and Scotty; out of shot are Elspeth, Barry and Lennie.