I'm on a mission to find all the great kayaking spots in and around Gauteng. With that in mind, I headed out to Paddle Power on the Crocodile River, 4 km upstream from Hartbeespoort Dam and had my best paddle experience to date.
Feeling your entire body work as you get into a paddling rhythm is a fantastic sensation, and you know you're doing good stuff like exercising your core, back, arms and legs – which is incredibly satisfying, especially if you're someone like me and spend way too much time sitting at your desk. But continually going around in circles on a small dam, albeit in a well-appointed kayak surrounded by greenery, can get pretty damn boring. The same scenery keeps gliding by like clockwork. Before you know it, you're almost on first name terms with all the coots (small water birds) defending their little territories around the dam, you've passed each one so many times.
Okay, I'm pretty eccentric, so this most probably doesn't happen to you. But my point is, after putting in about six laps at Emmarentia, my mind begins to wander and I get bored. Here's the thing though: After paddling 6 km (one lap equals one kilometre) my body still has more than enough oomph to keep going, but I invariably stop and get out because I'm unstimulated. This is great for getting a couple of paddles in after work during the week, and seriously convenient as I live down the road. But when it comes to pushing myself physically and developing my endurance skills I need a much bigger pond.
My next go-to place is Lake Heritage at Cradle Moon. Significantly larger than Emmarentia Dam, and only 36 km outside Johannesburg, it's a great place to paddle – and when I'm there I find I can naturally cover much more ground. Even better, when I'm taking a breather, I can just bob about in the middle, taking in the surrounding Muldersdrift countryside while appreciating the birdlife and watching game amble along its banks. They also have a great outdoor restaurant, so I always make a pit stop there before heading home. But at the end of the day it comes down to the same thing – I'm going around in circles, again.
Paddle Power, my gateway to adventure
Wanting to broaden my horizons, I popped into Canoe & Kayak World and spoke to Robbie Herreveld – one of SA's most respected paddlers and kayak tourer of note – to get some advice. “Paddle Power,” he says right off the bat. “From there you can go 4 km down the Crocodile River and into Harties. Just keep on Malibongwe until you hit the Broederstroom T-junction and you're there.” Well, that was me sold. Two days later I was back, this time to purchase a really cool kayak life jacket – I was gearing up for my first mini adventure!
On arrival, I found Paddle Power to be everything I'd hoped it would be. In many ways it reminded me of one of those rustic pub/eateries you can come across in places like the Eastern Cape. Following the colourful handmade “To the beach” sign, I walked through some dense indigenous vegetation and found myself on a small sandy area bathed in sunshine. Large enough to take a few tables and beach chairs, with enough space left over for small kids to play and build sandcastles, I thought it was a nice touch. To my left was the river, and up the bank on my right I could see the shaded deck of the Beach House restaurant that provides great views over the river.
Paddle Power's main activities include river rafting trips and abseiling, but I wasn't there for that. On hearing what I was planning to do, Pat, one of the owners, warned me how low the water level was in some areas, commenting that some visitors have a complete sense of humour failure when they get stuck on a sandbank. This made me laugh – the whole point of taking on a paddle like this is to deal with what nature throws at you and work it out. If I'd wanted an uncomplicated, predictable paddle I would have stayed on a dam!
Saying hello to the Crocodile
Now I haven't messed about with small boats on rivers since I lived in the Eastern Cape during the mid 90's, but everything I'd learned soon came flooding back.
My first “wake up call” was quite funny. The river bank dropped down about a metre and was fairly steep, with very little space for me to get my act together while climbing into my kayak. All was going well until I swung my right leg over the hull and my left leg sunk into the mud right up to my knee. Not sure how to extract myself, I gingerly lowering myself into the cockpit and somehow managed to wiggle my stuck leg free and give it a good shake (to wash off the thick mud) without tipping into the drink. Laughing at myself for forgetting how precariously sticky riverbanks can be, I headed out downstream on my way to Hartbeespoort Dam.
When Pat mentioned the river was extremely shallow in areas she wasn't kidding. The first kilometre was fairly tricky to navigate, with me having to pay close attention to what the current was doing to pick out the deeper channels. Even then, the water was often too shallow to paddle, and I had to resort to using my hands to scoot myself along until I found a deeper section. But with all the sandbanks out the way, the river opened up and continuing on my way became a non-issue.
With the current pushed me in the right direction, making paddling easy, I glided through the predominantly rural landscape dotted with expensive estates with views to die for. And the birdlife was spectacular. At one point, about one kilometre from Harties, I came across a vertical cliff that dropped straight down into the water. Dotted with precariously hanging trees, I paddled under the high-rise canopy and found myself completely engulfed by swirling swallows as they hunted insects for lunch. Then I noticed a pair of Malachite kingfishers hanging out on a branch close to the water not three metres away from me doing the same thing. It was a special moment, and exactly the kind of stuff that made me take up kayaking in the first place!
My Harties experience
Before I knew it I was entering Hartbeespoort Dam. The wide open, watery vista that greeted me I found completely liberating – I'd never paddled on such a big body of water before. So I struck out for the middle, not knowing where I was going, just that I felt free. Eventually, way in the distance, I spotted what looked suspiciously liked a yacht mast, so I changed direction to go investigate. Turns out I'd stumbled across the Ifafi Aquatic Club.
After paddling closer to check it out properly, I then began considering my options. Although still feeling strong, I'm no Man Mountain and fairly new to paddling, so I didn't want to push things too far on my first major outing. With that in mind, I headed around the bay where the Swartspriut River enters the dam on my way back to Paddle Power. While doing so I came across a bird sanctuary chock-a-block with breading birds on their nests. The raucous cacophony of bird cries completely bombarded my senses, making the experience quite special – so I decided to take a well-deserved break and hang out watching them for a while.
Heading back to base
By now the sun had shifted somewhat in the sky and I realised it was time for me to start heading back. I had no idea how far I'd paddled, I just knew that when I eventually got back to the Crocodile I still had 4 km to go, and with the current working against me.
Travelling against the current once I was back on the river proved to be quite interesting. Whenever I stopped paddling there was no forward momentum at all – I just stopped, then started moving backwards. This meant I had to paddle hard the entire way, it was my only option if I wanted to get back to my car and crack open a refreshing ice cold beer!
Negotiating the shallow sandbanks proved to be particularly tricky. Although there was still just enough water to float my boat, it was too shallow for me to paddle, so the current kept swinging my bow downstream and back towards the dam. Knowing that it's always a mistake to fight a current, I went passively with it instead until I found my gap and headed back upstream.
By the time I got back to Paddle Power I was happily exhausted, not to mention famished! So I settled down on the Beach House restaurant's deck for a couple of pints and some chow while I chilled taking in the view. And, as an added bonus, the one man band was knocking out some amazing blues – perfectly finishing off what had been an epic day.
I've always known that I'd enjoy kayak touring, and now that I've completed my first mini adventure I'm chomping at the bit for more. In fact, I've already given myself a new goal; paddling the entire circumference of Hartbeespoort Dam – now there's a nice big circle for me to get stuck into! - (c) 2017 NavWorld
To find out more about Paddle Power visit their website www.paddlepower.co.za
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