The Hotentots Holland Mountains have FIONA MCINTOSH wild, wet and wowed on the Riviersonderend kloofing trail…
Pictures: Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh, Shaen Adey and Supplied
We’ve been treading water for nearly five minutes and are getting quite cold. Plus, we still have five kilometres of kloofing and a hike back to the car to get through before dusk, and this is the very first obstacle.
“If you don’t jump soon, we’re going to go on without you or die of hypothermia,” shouts Matthew Holt, who has long ago abandoned positive encouragement.
On the cliff, a mere two metres above us, is the third member of our party, Nigel Holcombe, who is repeatedly approaching and retreating from the edge, as if doing a folk dance. “I’ll remember this, you b… ” he shouts as he finally leaps. But his threats are lost on impact as he disappears beneath the surface, for what seems a long time.
We’d spent the drive from Cape Town to the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve – a 70 000ha World Heritage Site running from the Elgin Valley in the east to Stellenbosch in the west – regaling Nigel with accounts of our last kloofing trip down the reserve’s most extreme canyon, the aptly-named Suicide Gorge. It was more than a decade ago, but we enjoyed reliving the journey.
When we reached the turn-off to the reserve, Nigel was ashen. “I’m not enamoured with heights,” he admitted.
“In fact I get vertigo. Perhaps this isn’t a good idea.” Fortunately we had Plan B. At the gate we told him the Riviersonderend Route, a much mellower kloof, was our goal.
But as we drove to the trail head, Nigel asked whether the authorities would actually come looking for us, if we failed to re-appear at the end of the day. “Of course,” Matthew replied, not looking him in the eye.
Kloofing (or canyoning as it’s known by the rest of the world) is a wonderful summer alternative to hiking in the Western Cape. Following a river’s course during the hot, dry season enables you to keep cool and hydrated.
So when Justin Lawrence, PR officer for CapeNature, the custodians of the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve, suggested that I revisit the kloofs of this rugged mountain reserve near Grabouw, I needed little persuasion. It seemed the perfect outing for Nigel, an intrepid friend visiting from the UK.
“Suicide Gorge is probably one of the most thrilling activities you can experience in our nature reserves,” Justin reiterated, when I contacted him for an update on the kloofing scene. “It’s incredibly popular and certainly gets your pulse racing. However, along with that thrill comes the need to be safe and careful.”
A kloofing trip, whether down Suicide Gorge or Riviersonderend, is not as simple as your usual hike up the mountain. You need to be well-prepared and accompanied by someone who’s done the kloof before, or
by an experienced guide.
“You’ll notice some improvements since your last trip,” he continued. “We have tried to maximise safety by making the signage a bit clearer and designing a waterproof map that you must take on the route.” We took him seriously. The weather forecast was good and we’d come prepared.
Despite an initial, long climb to a saddle, the four-kilometre hike to the kloof was not unduly taxing, most of it
a pleasant hike through the colourful fynbos of the reserve that is part of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.
At the turn-off to Suicide Gorge, we checked on Nigel’s progress. A shake of his head confirmed he was unconvinced about the entire endeavour. But his sense of adventure had returned by the time we reached the signboard at the river, which indicated our route down Riviersonderend.
We sat in the sun having lunch, donning our ‘shortie’ wetsuits and stuffing our valuables and clothes into watertight bags. Slithering into the mountain stream, we swam and waded through the first few pools, enjoying the wild mountain setting and changing river scenes. It was all good fun.
But we were committed to completing the jump. There was no turning back…
Wetsuits and summer heat notwithstanding, the water is bone-chillingly cold, but the effort of swimming through pools and clambering over boulders as we make our way down the river warms us up and revives our spirits.
We negotiate a few more small jumps and slides with out much ado, spending most of our time swimming or floating down the narrow gorge, gazing up at the sliver of sky framed by the canyon’s walls.
The boulder-hopping sections between the pools are more of a challenge, particularly as the day goes on – we’ve all executed some unplanned pirouettes after slipping on treacherous slabs – but overall it’s going swimmingly. Until we reach the only big jump on the route. Standing on the cliff edge, the tannin-stained pool looks a long way down.
“Think we’re going to have to give him a shove,” I whisper to Matthew, only partly in jest. As I try to persuade Nigel that a jump of seven metres is nothing to worry about, Matthew scouts around for the best launching pad.
Fortunately he spots a rope hanging in a gully to the side of the cliff, which we clamber down with relief.
The worst over, now we can relax and take in the pristine mountain setting as the valley opens up and the terrain gets easier. Such is the remoteness of the wilderness that it’s hard to believe we’re only a 90-minute drive from Cape Town.
By the time we arrive at the exit point we’re tired but stoked. So stoked and distracted that we manage to miss the turn-off to the path back to the start and end up hiking along a jeep track to a neighbouring apple farm.
“You’re not the first group that’s ended up here,” the kindly farmer admits. “Jump in the bakkie, I’ll run you around.” It’s been a long day and we’re grateful for the ride, and more than grateful that we decided against Suicide Gorge.
In a Nutshell
- The Hottentots Holland kloofs are open from 1 November to 30 April every year.
- Permits must be bought in advance from CapeNature, 021 483 0190 [email protected], www.capenature.co.za
- The Riviersonderend route is one of the easier self-guided kloofing trips but even if you’re an experienced hiker I’d strongly recommend going with a guide or someone who has done the kloof before. Venture Forth has accredited kloofing guides. 021 555 3864, [email protected], ventureforth.co.za
- All groups must be in possession of a waterproof map to the kloofs, on sale at the entrance gate.
Kloofing Adventures around the Country
- Garden Route, Western Cape > AfriCanyon’s trip down the upper reaches of the Soutrivier near Plettenberg Bay involves a couple of abseils, but don’t be intimidated, it’s not as scary as it sounds and there are no compulsory jumps. Superb guiding and safety set-ups allow complete novices to see this pristine canyon deep in the indigenous forest. A great family adventure. AfriCanyon 044 534 8055, www.africanyon.com
- Sabie, Mpumalanga > Starting off on the Drakensberg escarpment near God’s Window, this trip starts with the descent of a small tributary of the Mac Mac River, then follows the main river upstream to Mpumalanga’s famous Mac Mac Waterfall. Optional jumps mean that you can make the adventure extreme if you like; but since there’s no abseiling and plenty of hiking in the upstream section (including a stiff, 100m climb from the base of the falls) it’s an equally good choice for those who prefer a more mellow outing. Kestell Adventures 072 351 5553, www.kestelladventures.com
- Magaliesberg, North West > During the summer months, Gauties can enjoy kloofing in the magnificent Magaliesberg mountains. After an easy hike in, the guided descent of the pristine Grootkloof involves abseiling, rock hopping and some short swims along with a couple of compulsory jumps of no more than 1.5m. If you’re reasonably fit and adventurous this is a fun day out for the family. Mountain Adventures 082 6521490, www.mountainadventures.co.za