Ever since I was a kid, spending my first years in South Africa, I’ve been particularly partial to paddling up and down rivers … meandering up and down and appreciating whatever it is that nature has decided to put on display.
Most of those pre-high school canoe adventures were experienced in the Eastern Cape – specifically in the myriad small rivers surrounding East London – and it is always with the proverbial “pangs of nostalgia” that I set out on the rivers of that province.
Of course, I no longer have the energy of my youth, so I prefer drifting downstream and so much the better if there’s someone else to do the bulk of the paddling. For one thing, it allows me to concentrate on taking pictures and drink in the soul of the river. Every river has a soul and, while its mood can change from day to day, the soul remains immutable and to return to a river, even after an absence of a couple of years, is to renew one’s acquaintanceship with a favoured fellow life-traveller.
One of my favourite rivers in the region is the Sundays, which rises just south of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape Karoo and flows into the Indian Ocean at Colchester. Halfway down its length is Darlington Dam, which is enclosed in the northernmost section of the Addo Elephant National Park (AENP).
The history of Darlington Dam – as well as the Sundays River Valley it was intended to serve – revolves around the self-interest of two individuals; auctioneer James Kirkwood and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld.
The Eastern Cape has got a long history of people being gulled into leaving Britain with the promise of acquiring vast tracts of inexpensive but fertile land … only to find unpleasant strings attached or conditions being vastly different from what they promised. In the early 19th century, settlers arrived in the region only to find their farms comprised a buffer between the Cape Colony and marauding isiXhosa from what is currently known as Transkei.
In 1877, tribal wars being a thing of the past, Kirkwood came to the Sundays River Valley to conduct the auction of a farm. The river was in flood, everything was lush, and Kirkwood was so smitten that he bought the farm himself. Six years later, he owned 21 farms in the valley.
As any farmer knows, a constant supply of water is essential because drought inevitably follows good rains. Kirkwood’s landholdings (some 30 000ha) prompted him to float a company and establish an irrigation scheme, for which he sought shareholders but no-one supported him and he went broke in 1887.
Several relatively small irrigation schemes had been established by the time Fitzpatrick visited the valley in 1913. He liked what he saw and bought a few farms around Addo village, figuring the area was perfect for citrus cultivation. Year-round water remained a problem and Fitzpatrick realised a dam would have to be built. For this vision to happen, however, the citrus-farming industry would have to be far larger than it was – and that’s where the second Eastern Cape farming “scam” originated. Just after World War One, the adventurer compiled a series of brochures and advertisements in the British press that aimed at enticing ex-servicemen to South Africa. They were illustrated with orange orchards in California because there was nothing in the
Sundays River valley but bush.
The people who came to the valley were so angry that he wasn’t able to set foot in the valley for quite a few years. Nonetheless, those ruffled feathers were apparently later smoothed because Fitzpatrick’s grave lies just outside Sundale which, together with Kirkdale and Addo, are three villages at the heart of the community.
One village that has been obliterated from valley life is that of Darlington itself, says Terri Pickels, co-owner of Crisscross Adventures. She’s been telling the story where her husband-partner Chris and I are wading knee-deep in the dam’s waters putting out lines for carp.
Construction on Lake Mentz (as the dammed area was originally named) was completed in 1922 but, due to drought, it only filled six years later – in the process submerging the hamlet of Darlington. The lake was renamed in 1995 andthe area incorporated into AENP at the turn of the century.
At 45 000ha, Darlington is the largest of the greater AENP’s seven sections and comprises a quarter of the park’s total area. It is also remote and getting there entails a two-hour 4×4 drive from the main camp under optimal conditions. There is no formal accommodation – though there are a few camping sites and a rudimentary ablution block on the western shores of the dam – and visitors must take all their own consumables.
Darlington’s remote, it’s rough and it’s awesomely quiet. The birdlife is magnificent and there’s an abundance of herbivores (SANParks has just reintroduced elephant to the section after an absence of 150 years). When dam levels are low, you’ll spot water birds roosting on the remains of buildings jutting above the surface.
The second part of the Sundays River adventure is a guided canoeing expedition and it launches close to Crisscross’ HQ near Addo village, which is about 13km from the park’s main gate. The river flirts with AENP’s western boundary without actually entering the park so, provided the conditions are right, you could paddle all the way down to the mouth. The canoes are broad and flat-bottomed which gives them stability and a shallow draught for when the river is low.
This stretch of river is narrow – never more than 25m wide – which means you’re never far from the banks. In places, you surge through narrow channels between with reeds brushing the sides of the vessels and meeting virtually overhead. Though the river is flanked on both sides by farmlands, people are rarely spotted which means riverine wildlife exists with minimal outside interference.
Go out really early, be super-quiet and you might come across a Cape clawless otter or two. Later in the morning, you’ll definitely spot water monitors (leguaan) sunning themselves below the red soil cliffs that line one side of the river.
This is a birdwatcher’s paradise. I’ve been down this bit of river four times and there are a few guaranteed species – pied- and malachite kingfishers, familiar chats, white-fronted bee-eaters, reed
cormorants and darters, Goliath and night herons, and it’s rare that you don’t get at least a glimpse of a distant fish eagle – but on each trip I’ve seen something new.
The first surprise is an African cuckoo hawk atop a stump, followed soon after by a spotted eagle owl peering uninterested from its perch as my companions, four Costa Ricans who’d taken part in the Iron Man competition in Port Elizabeth the previous day, and I drift by.
The morning’s excursion finishes with a lunchtime braai on the banks of the river. Meat, braaibroedjies and salad are accompanied by a couple of beers and it’s not long before the iron men are happily conked out on the grass. Crisscross’ third river activity is reserved for larger groups and is most ideally suited to younger people. It’s a combination boozecruise, fun-in-the-sun day that starts at Chrislin African Lodge in Addo (a charming, family-friendly set of rondavels and cottages set in sprawling grounds and an ideal accommodation facility for the groups of international volunteers that visit every year).
From Chrislin, it’s a 40-minute drive to the little town of Colchester, which is at the southern tip of AENP and straddles the lower reaches of the Sundays, and then aboard a covered riverboat with two large outboard engines. At the broad mouth of the river are the spectacular Colchester dunes, part of the largest coastal dune sea in the southern hemisphere. The only higher dunes in the hemisphere are to be found between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay in the Namib Desert.
The Colchester dunes – and those on the other side of the river in the Woody Cape section of AENP – cannot be accessed by vehicle and are thus completely unspoiled; they’re steep and the sand is fine and loose, which makes them ideal for sand- and bellyboarding. Much later in the day, chugging slowly back upstream to our mooring and replete with both beer and boerewors, I cannot help but recall and paraphrase that iconic U2 anthem … Sundays, bloody fun days.