Without a Paddle……or dinner

Disappointment is a strange mistress. The things that disappoint one, may seem like a blessing to another, or even within yourself, your state of mind at any given moment may determine if you see an event as a blessing or a curse. This is a story about misplaced disappointment.

The story at De Hoop camp in the Ais Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. My dad and I were on a kayaking trip along the Orange River. Having already completed the upper sections of the river a few days earlier, we were putting in at the large pool at De Hoop. The plan was for our next stop to be at Sendelingsdrif. So as we took off down the river and into the first rapid, the land rover with our support crew took off over Akkedis pas. Calling it a support crew is probably a bit of a stretch, as it was just my mother. We had planned to be on the river pretty much a full day, so we made sure it was an early start. For the most part, we made good progress throughout the morning, and when we pulled over for a lunch stop on a sandbar, we were probably about halfway to sendelings. Conditions were favourable, and we had virtually no wind to hinder our progress on the slower sections of the river. After lunch, however, it was a different story altogether, as the wind started picking up, and we were fighting a nasty headwind along some of the flat sections of water. Fortunately, we were on fishing kayaks, which have pretty decent aerodynamic properties, but it was still a challenge.

It was probably around 2 pm when disaster struck. We approached a rather serious rapid, probably not much more than a grade 2, but after hours of paddling, and fighting a headwind, with tired bodies, even a grade 2 can be a challenge. I ran the rapid first, as my dad pulled up on the shore to take some photos. Once I was through the rapid, I turned my boat around to spot for the old man. As he entered the rapid, I immediately knew things were about to go flub, his line was all wrong, and he completely missed the wavetrain. As he fumbled over a large boulder, with about a half metre drop, the boat went belly up, the old man went one way, the boat another, and his paddle was never to be seen again. Luckily dad was in one piece, and I managed to grab the boat at the bottom of the rapid. A quick analysis showed that things were not well. The hatch to the drywell had come open, the boat was flooded, and the drybag containing the cameras, and the only cellphone we had, was not nearly as dry as we would have liked. This in its own was not the end of the world, pity about the photos of the last two weeks we had lost, but nothing an insurance claim couldn’t fix. The more immediate problem was the paddle that just never showed up again. We spent at least half an hour diligently searching for the paddle, before making the call that we had to abandon this plan, and make use of the remaining daylight hours to figure out how to get all of us downriver to where a chalet, a shower and braai would be waiting for us. 

Plan A, we tied a short length of safety rope between dads boat and mine, and I would tow him down the river. We soon abandoned this plan. The fully loaded boat, with the not insubstantial weight of the old man himself, was just too cumbersome to tow, and the trailing boat would just act like a rudder to my vessel, and I was zig-zagging all across the river. This simply wouldn’t work. 

Plan B was then put in motion. On the Namibian side of the river, there was a public road running the length of the river, all the way to Sendelings. So we dropped dad off on the Namibian bank, effectively now making him an illegal immigrant. He would run along the road following the river, and hopefully, soon enough a vehicle would pass by and he could bum a lift. Somewhat serendipitously, as pushed off, now towing the much lighter, empty boat behind me, a car came along and picked him up. So as I paddled off, now completely alone, piloting two kayaks down one of the remotest sections of the Orange river, I watched the little car disappear downstream, till all I saw was a cloud of dust, this too soon vanished. I was in for one hell of an adventure, I just didn’t know it yet. But dad also had a bit of adventure ahead of him still, on account of him being illegally in Namibia now. He managed to negotiate with the driver that so kindly gave him a lift, to drop him off at a gauging weir a couple of kilometres upstream of the Sendelingsdrift border post, where he could sneak back across the river undetected, and then hike the last km or so down to the Sendelingsdrift camp on the South African side. 

I was struggling with the extra effort of towing an unmanned 3.5-metre longboat, with a mind of its own, but I was initially making good progress. When I did approach a rapid, I would untie the ghost boat, and let it drift through the rapid on its own, then I would come down behind it, catch it in the pool, tie it up again and carry on. At one slightly longer and complicated rapid, I decided it best to pull up on the shore first, drop off the ghost boat, run the rapid with my boat, then pull up on the bank below the rapid, walk back up the 300 odd metres to where I left the other boat, and then run the rapid again. Under any normal circumstance, this would actually sound like a lot of fun, but by this stage, I had been on the water for around 8 hours, and my body was taking the strain. Then the wind picked up again. Only this time it was from behind. Again, under normal circumstances, this would seem like a blessing, but when you have a 3.5-metre rudder behind you, being steered by the wind, and you have no way to control it, it is no blessing. Also, it was now probably around 4.30pm, and I knew I was going to be running out of daylight soon. The fact that I had not yet even reached Potjiespram yet, I knew I had to pick up the pace. The only way to do that was to get rid of the gigantic lumo yellow anchor I was towing. I paddled a little further till I found a safe spot that I could jettison dads kayak. I knew that it would have to be a spot I could easily identify again in the morning because we would need to come back to recover the boat. The GPS had suffered the same fate as the camera and cellphone earlier, so I couldn’t exactly just mark the spot. Then I spotted a beautiful white beach, with a nice distinctive rock feature on either side of it. Confident I would have no trouble finding this spot again, I paddled for the shore, pulled the empty boat up and hid it behind the rocks. 

Now, full of vigour, and ready to start covering some serious ground before dark, I jumped back into my boat and took off at a sterling pace. I knew I couldn’t be far from the Potjiespram camp now, and I desperately hoped I would find some campers there, who could give me a ride through to Sendelingsdrift. As I rounded the next corner in the river, a small rapid appeared in front of me, and about halfway down this rapid, was Potjiespram campsite. I was so happy, but this soon turned to disappointment, as it was clear that the campsite was totally deserted. Any hope of a lift to Sendelingsdrift, or of the ice-cold beer they would offer me after hearing my story, quickly disappeared. This was no time to feel sorry for myself, I would just need to keep paddling, and pick up the pace. The sun was now officially setting, and as I exited the rapids below Potjiespram, the desert greeted me with a magnificent orange and pink sunset, in a way only the Richtersveld can. But now, as darkness set in, and total darkness it was, as there was no moon visible yet, I struck a low point. My body had been tired most of the afternoon already, but now my mind was tired too. I was in a funk. I knew that bar some serious issues, my dad would have been in Sendelingsdrift hours ago already. I could picture them now sitting on the verandah of the cosy chalets at Sendelings, sipping on a G&T, watching the flames of the fire that they would soon be braaing some gemsbok filets on. I could picture a fridge full of ice-cold beers, a dry seat to sit on, and one that was multiples more comfortable than the hard plastic tub filled with river water I was currently sitting on. Instead of letting these thoughts depress me any further, I told myself, just keep paddling, the sooner you get there, the sooner I too could enjoy these creature comforts. As I got back into a rhythm, one paddle stroke after the next, I slipped into some sort of autopilot mode. I think there is a possibility I may, in fact, have fallen asleep whilst still paddling. 

The next thing I remember, I was halfway through the process of flipping over, in a pretty strong rapid. I must have slipped into a narrow channel between two large outcrops of rock. The river was no more than 3 metres wide here, and the water was moving fast. I was too far into the flip to recover, so over I went, into the gushing water. I knocked my head at some point, not sure if on a rock, or the side of the boat, I just recall hanging onto the strap on the side of the boat with all my strength, and making sure my other hand had a solid grip on my paddle. I definitely didn’t want to be stuck in this creek without a paddle. I managed to climb onto the top of my still capsized boat and ride the rest of the wavetrain out straddling the boat like a surfboard. Then the rushing water stopped. It was quiet enough for me to get my bearings again. I was still in between two big boulders. The only way out was to carry on downstream. The water was still flowing pretty fast. I used this opportunity to right my boat, and get back on, the right way around. Then I heard the sound of more rapids to come. They sounded rather serious. I really didn’t want to repeat what I had just been through. It was still pitch dark out, and even if it was light, I didn’t have the energy to fight another rapid, not even a small one. Then, miraculously, the moon just peered out over the horizon, and with its first pale white rays of light, lit up a tiny sandbank in a gap between the rocks. Contrast against the dark rocks on either side, the white sand shone with a heavenly glow. I turned my boat towards this angelic beach, and as the nose of my boat collided with the sand, I sighed a massive sigh of relief. I pulled the boat up a few metres from the water’s edge, and just plopped myself down on the sand next to it, and took a few minutes to get my breath back and to steady my thoughts. I still couldn’t get the picture of gemsbok steaks and ice cold Windhoek lagers out of my mind. 

It was a full moon night in the desert, and as the moon had now come completely out of hiding, it painted the Richtersveld in a beautiful glow. I knew I was still at least 10km out from Sendelingsdrift, but I was now cold, sore, my head was throbbing, and there was no way I was tackling the river again in the dark. Even with the light of a full moon, I knew it was too dangerous to carry on. I opened up the front hatch of my boat, pulled my dry bag out, and swapped my Rockies for a pair of tekkies. Just putting on a pair of dry socks and shoes, and a dry t-shirt instantly lifted my spirits. I took off now on foot for Sendelingsdrift, I estimated it was about 8km or so if I cut a B-line across the desert, instead of following the river. So off I went, taking a slow jog across the harsh, rocky desert floor. The Richtersveld lit up by a full moon, is an absolutely stunning thing to see, the rock formations, decorated with the odd Quiver tree and Halfmens are mesmerising. On later visits with my friend Jacques, we would spend hours under similar conditions for him to get the perfect photographs to capture this stunning environment, but this time around, the spectacle was completely lost on me. All I wanted to see were the mine tailings on the outskirts of Sendelings, a sign that I was nearly home. All I wanted was a gemsbok steak and an ice-cold Windhoek Draught. It probably took me about 90 minutes to make the crossing, but when I finally ran onto the airfield outside Sendelings, I could already taste my dinner. I was salivating so I might have seemed like some rabid wild animals coming out of the dark. Just then, I saw the lights of the Land Rover coming towards me. There was just one problem, they were coming from the direction of Potijespram. Immediately the reality of my situation sank in. It must have been close to 10 pm already, and my family had obviously been out in the desert too, looking for me. The first thing I asked as I climbed into the car was whether dinner was waiting back in camp. The answer came back, in an almost flabbergast tone. Of course not, they had expected me to arrive at Sendelings no later than 6 pm. When the sun had set and there was still no sign of me, they had headed up the river in search of me. They had been looking for me all night, obviously, no dinner had been made. 

I had never been so disappointed in my father as I was at that moment. I had resigned myself to the belief that they wouldn’t be worried about me until much later. Furthermore, everyone who knows my father knows that food is seriously important to him, and I couldn’t fathom that my little misadventure would be enough to warrant him putting off dinner. We drove into camp, me with a seriously fat lip. The fire hadn’t even been lit, but at least the beers were cold. They suggested we just make some sandwiches or something, I put my foot down. I wanted a braai, it had been my motivation throughout the whole day, and we were going to braai. I was probably a little ungrateful about the whole event. 

My 19-year-old mind could not fathom why anyone in their right mind would stuff about searching for me, instead of making dinner. Obviously, I was going to get there eventually, and I would be starving. It would take 11 years, a colleague drowning on that very same stretch of river in front of my eyes, and having a child of my own, to realise what must have been going through my parent’s minds at the time. This was one hell of an adventure, and an experience I am very glad to have had and walked away from unscathed. At the same time, it has also taught me to try and see things from someone else perspective, before passing judgement. Paul and Lo, I am sorry I was so ungrateful that day, and probably a few other times as well….

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