Suspense on Lake Eland

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Do or die!

In this splendid KwaZulu-Natal nature reserve, peace and beauty belie the terror that awaits Andrea Abbott around a sandstone corner…

Farrokh was behaving badly. He refused to change gear. My husband John stared grim-faced at the zigzagging and uneven dirt road ahead – it was not the sort to be on when you’re having clutch trouble, even (some might say especially) if you’re in a Land Rover.

We were in the back of beyond, on a no-name road (apparently a shortcut!) somewhere between the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve in the far south-east of KwaZulu-Natal, and our destination, Lake Eland Game Reserve at the head of Oribi Gorge. The only other traffic we’d encountered were goats and a rabble of small boys who’d thrown fistfuls of stones at Farrokh. They must have known he couldn’t make a speedy getaway.

Somehow, stuck in third gear, Farrokh kept going and we juddered into the reserve just as it was being locked up for the night. No chance of breakdown assistance before morning. Luckily, receptionist Maria Ferreira was still in the office. With Farrokh incapacitated and our chalet two kilometres distant down a steep and winding track, Maria generously offered to give us a lift there.

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Blesbok are among the plains antelope at Lake Eland

At our waterside log cabin – one of about nine in that section – we couldn’t believe it when Maria’s car also gave up the ghost. Contagion had set in!It was a sign: we weren’t meant to have arrived. To blame was the fearsome wire that awaited us: the famous Lake Eland Zip Line that, at 4.5 kilometres, is the longest of its kind in Africa and, in parts, possibly the most hair-raising.

The 14-slide, two-hour caper includes a death-defying hurtle through thin air across the full width of the deep and jagged Oribi Gorge, an expanse of space aptly named Hell’s Gate. Friends who’d done it said it was the most exhilarating experience. To me, it seemed sheer madness. More than being the ride of my life, it could be my last. And to think I’d volunteered to do it! The things one does for COUNTRY LIFE.

And yet, I did do it, but only months later when we returned to Lake Eland. It wasn’t so much that ride, or the undertaking I’d given to do it, that lured us back. More enticing was the dramatic splendour of this very well-managed reserve, with its mighty sandstone cliffs, deeply incised valleys, rolling grasslands and 30-hectare lake that we’d only glimpsed on our first, truncated visit.

We also wanted to bask again in the blissful tranquillity of that gorgeously appointed log cabin where we’d dined on our little deck overhanging the water, hearing only the gentle sounds of nature – the clicking of frogs, the soft splashes of surfacing fish, the stridulations of crickets on the far side of the dam, the distant call of jackals. The night had been clear and warm, the stars out in force. A few of our neighbouring cabins had been occupied but all was quiet, everyone respectful of the reserve’s No Noise rule. “Anyone ignoring it gets escorted off the property,” Maria later told us. That rule alone would make me return again and again.

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The aptly named Hell’s Gate Platform

Owned by brothers Eric and Trevor Dunstone, who farm in the Oribi region, the 2 000 hectare reserve is an outstanding example of how privately owned land can be managed in a way that’s both financially workable and ecologically sustainable. This is especially significant considering the enormous threats facing the natural environment, and the fact that the lion’s share of land in our country is not under formal protection. And when, as at Lake Eland, private, conserved land adjoins a formally protected public reserve – in this case, Oribi Gorge – the wilderness is expanded, green lungs enlarged.

As the name indicates, Lake Eland is named after the eland, the largest antelope on the continent. Once widespread throughout Southern, Central and East Africa, the species has become extinct or greatly reduced in many places. Today, your best chance of seeing one is in a nature reserve, and their best chance of survival is to be in a place like Lake Eland.

The reserve’s four ecosystems – bushveld, grassland, wetland and coastal forest – provide habitat for a host of creatures including the threatened oribi and blue duiker, and others like zebra, blue wildebeest, giraffe, otters, leopard, caracal, black-backed jackal, and more than 200 species of birds. This abundant nature takes precedence at Lake Eland but that’s not to say it’s out of bounds to visitors and adventure junkies. Without them the reserve would probably not be viable.

Numerous picnic sites are tucked away, and there is fishing, canoeing, sailing and swimming in the lake. Well-maintained dirt roads allow for game drives. Better still is the network of mountain bike, horse and hiking trails that criss-crosses the reserve. Low-impact activities such as these can lead to close encounters with the wildlife. Exploring on foot also means you can reach view sites not accessible by car.

Particularly spectacular are the views from caves in the towering cliffs above the gorge. A well-built staircase of 383 steps leads down steeply to the caves where a display of rock paintings and artefacts depicts the culture of the San, who would once have lived there. For even better views and a truly thrilling (some would say, nail-biting) walk, you can test your nerve on the 80 metre-long suspension bridge, an engineering marvel that stretches 130 metres above the gorge. It sways and judders as you go. Best not to look down and see how far the drop is. I did and my legs turned to jelly. Rather keep your eyes on the rocky outcrop on the other side where another scary feat awaits those who dare: The Arm – a cantilever jutting into the air. That one, I could not face. The zip line is in another class entirely.

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The Arm, high above the gorge

Manager Daniel Struweg briefed us on what to expect and how to brake using the ABS (African Braking System) leather gloves. Our guides arrived to kit us out. Coward that I am, I asked to do the thing in tandem. Super cool and experienced Patrick Msawenkosi partnered me.

You’re assured the cables and harnesses and other safety equipment have a breaking strain of many tons and that the ride is smooth. Even so, it was daunting to step off the edge into nothingness and in a few seconds reach speeds ranging from 25kph to 100kph. “What am I doing?” I asked myself on each of the first five platforms. And yet, the slides from those were considered mild – ‘A walk in the park’ read the sign at Platform 4. That all changed at the sixth – the notorious Hell’s Gate Platform, where a terrifying scene greeted us. The distance across the yawning chasm a million miles below was so great (680 metres), that even the cables faded from view. We needed binoculars to see the platform we were heading for. This was life on the edge! ‘I laugh in the face of danger’ was the slogan on the sign.

And indeed, laugh hysterically was all we could do until our feet touched down on San Caves Platform – the ‘Point of no return’ was that slogan. As if we needed any reminder! Seven more slides to go, including a bum-wetting whizz across the lake and we were safe at last on terra firma. ‘I did it’ cheered the sign there. And so did we.

 

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