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Climbing mountains, fording streams

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Bolanders achieve SA’s first Ocean to Ocean canoe crossing

cn_rh_kromThe Western Cape boasts two great rivers, flowing east and west respectively across the interior, and into the oceans on opposite coasts.

The Berg, which has its source in the Drakenstein mountains south of Franschhoek, empties into the chill Atlantic at the west coast town of Velddrif, while the Breede (or Breë) River, which arises in the Skurweberg range above Ceres, mouths into the Indian Ocean at Witsand (St Sebastian Bay).

Both rivers are famous for their canoeing events; the Berg River Marathon attracts the country’s most accomplished individual rowers, while the Breede River hosts the country’s best-known double canoe marathon.

Veteran Springbok rower Donnie Malherbe of Stellenbosch had long nurtured the dream of traversing the Western Cape from ocean to ocean, by canoeing from west to east along both rivers – a seemingly absurd notion, as the two bodies of water are not linked.

In the vicinity of Tulbagh, however, the Berg and Breede rivers are separated by a distance of about 45km, which provided the solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem.

Joining forces with business partner Danie Nel (a keen canoeist and well-known endurance athlete from Wellington, who last year completed the 2 300km Toyota Freedom Challenge mountain-bike race), the two adventurers decided to prove the impossible possible.  In the early hours of September 12 this year, the pair began their epic journey from Velddrif, where the Berg River meets the sea.

At first, darkness and dense mist made navigating the estuarine currents difficult, but after three days of rigorous paddling upstream for 12 hours at a stretch, the end of the journey’s first leg was in sight.

Just near Gouda, Nel and Malherbe were forced to abandon their canoe, which had been rent asunder by a rapid, but, undeterred by this minor mishap, they continued their expedition early the next morning in a borrowed canoe.

Upon reaching Gouda, they then embarked on a gruelling 40km portage along back roads, following the railway line, and arriving in the hamlet of Wolseley after dark, later the same day.

Over the next four days, back in their canoe, they travelled downstream on the Breede River past Worcester, Robertson, Bonnievale, Swel-lendam and Malgas, finally emerging “with aching bodies and blistered hands and feet” on the Cape Infanta side of the river mouth at Witsand, having covered 560km in eight and a half days!

“To our knowledge we’re the first to achieve this ocean-to-ocean crossing,” says a chuffed Nel. “It was tough going, but we’ve proved it can be done, and hopefully paved the way for others.

“It was an incredible privilege viewing nature from water level. We were exposed to a rich diversity of birdlife, with an amazing number of fish eagles along certain stretches.

The few river-folk we encountered were very sceptical when we explained where we’d come from and where we were headed. They probably thought we were crazy!”  

That may well be the case, particularly in the light of Nel and Malherbe’s next challenge, which is to paddle the entire crocodile-infested length of the Nile… upstream!

Written by Maggie Follet You are reading Climbing mountains, fording streams articles

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