I didn’t start my new year with a bang, watching fireworks and drinking Champagne but instead I fell asleep under a billion stars and woke up to the sound and sight of the Witels River flowing next to me, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start a brand new year.
Have you ever walked along a balance beam with your heavy backpack on your back in a dense forest? No, why would you? But if you want the same experience, just go on a 5 day hike down the Witels River in the Western Cape, South Africa. The trip started with a long twisty scenic drive up Bainskloof Pass through many wineries. The drive was very exciting as we took hairpin turns on the side of a mountain with a high mountain on one side and a very steep cliff on the other side.
We got to the car park in the afternoon and had a very steep 5km’s ahead of us. My pack was heavy and it was one of those days when sweat beaded on my forehead and ran down my face while standing still. The hike got difficult very quickly as it got steeper and the sun beat harshly on my back. Halfway up, our wobbly legs, and the heat, forced us to take a break. With our lungs gasping for air and our bodies drenched in sweat, we all sat squashed together as we tried to fit into the narrow strip of shade that one lonely rock offered us. Halfway and I was already so exhausted, my shaking hands struggled to open my energy bar. I was warned that it was a very steep hike up but usually when my friends say “Its really steep” I think “Ya whatever” but wow, they weren’t kidding.
An hour later we stopped to watch the sun set. Well, we didn’t stop to watch the sunset, we stopped because we were tired and the sun just happened to be setting, but it was a good excuse anyway. Eventually as the last bit of sun disappeared we were at the top. We walked about 1km to our hut in the bright moonlight, occasionally got spooked by our own shadows because since when are there shadows at night? We got to what I would call a 5 star hut with a 5 star view. The hut was stocked with food and every kitchen utensil you can think of and even a platform for sleeping with mattresses and blankets, oh and even solar powered LED lights.
Day 2 began with a beautiful sunrise and white fluffy clouds poured over the mountain like liquid candyfloss, unfortunately the clouds did not cool down the day. In 36°C heat we hiked along the ridge and descended down to the river. You know the really steep mountain we hiked up the day before, well we hiked all the way down the other side, slipping and sliding through the harsh rocky landscape.
Eventually after half a day of hiking down hill in the unbearable heat we heard the little trickle of the river, but we had to push on until we were all the way in the gorge, and bam, the most beautiful river you have ever seen. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and admired the stunning landscape. Perfectly round grey boulders stuck out of the clear water that sparkled in the sunlight; the water was so clear we could see the smoothness of the grey, brown and purple pebbles beneath the surface. I cupped my hands and took a sip of the fresh water and looked up at the mountain cliffs to my left and the trees standing tall next to the river to my right. And so, that was the beginning of the next 3 days.
For the next 3 days my boots were packed away and with sandals on, we jumped from one wet boulder to another. At the beginning my balance was off but I quickly learnt to use muscles I didn’t even know I had to keep my body upright. When I wasn’t on a boulder, I was bundu bashing, climbing up the side of a cliff or lying in the river because I had just slipped.
The beginning of this wet and slippery experience started next to a beautiful waterfall. The white stream poured over the rocky outcrops above us and crashed into the blackness of the deep rock pool. We started boulder hopping as fast as we could while we figured out the best path to take without getting wet, but I was looking forward to the swims we had to do, just to cool down. After a few jumps, bumps and slips we got to the moment I had been waiting for, the first swim of the hike. We jumped into the chilly water chest deep and carried our backpacks on our heads across the river. The sun was so hot we dried within seconds and couldn’t wait to get back into the cold water. The next swim was too deep to walk so with our backpacks floating on their raincoats we pushed them along the river while we doggy paddled with our heads above the water, too scared to look down because the ground disappeared into the darkness below us. As we went further down the river, the gorge seemed to get narrower and colder which made the swims feel like we were swimming through a frozen tunnel in the mountain. At this stage we blew up a boat that only held 3 bags. We swam and pushed the boat along the river; we had to make 3 trips for everyone to get across but while we waited we got colder and colder. I was shivering and couldn’t wait to get to camp and get dry.
We set up our camp on a small section of sand right next to the river. We marked out our sleeping spots on a well-chosen section of sand with a rock conveniently placed as a pillow. We hung up our clothes to dry on natures washing line while a pot of tea was on the gas in the center of a cluster of rocks on which we sat. I had forgotten how pleasant it was to hike in summer, I could walk around the camp barefoot and washing dishes in the river wasn’t a painful experience. It felt like an upgrade from the cold winter Drakensberg hikes. The nights made a hard long day so worth it. The sun was gone and the moon was up casting shadows on the cliffs around us. The sky was filled with billions of stars and I made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep before I saw a shooting star. And once I saw that shooting star I fell asleep to the tranquil silence of the river that never sleeps.
The next morning I woke up desperately trying to get out of my sleeping bag but I was just so stiff I could barely move, which isn’t a good thing when you still have 3 days of hiking to do. Sandals on and down the river we go again. We jumped from one wet boulder to another and I tried as hard as I could to keep my balance. When we weren’t boulder hopping we had to lift ourselves up and over obstacles and figure out the best way through the underbrush. Occasionally our path crossed a trail and we veered onto it, we climbed our way up the gorge wall and I dug my fingers into every crevice and pulled myself up and sideways. Those miss-spent hours climbing all sorts of things definitely paid off. We bundu bashed through thick over grown bush next to the river and got stuck on branches and fell through decaying piles of washed up logs. To our relief we made it back to the river for more swims. The swims seemed to get longer and scarier as the walls closed in. While I kicked like crazy to stay afloat, I felt tiny (It was different to that tiny feeling of standing on top of the world and looking down); it was a ‘tiny’ I had never felt before. While floating in the middle of the gorge I could hear myself breathing and my heart pounding in my chest. I would look down and see nothing but a black hole beneath me and above me was a tiny strip of blue sky between two giant cliffs. In front and behind me was nothing but more water, I couldn’t see where I came from or where I was going.
Two days hiking along the river and my legs were getting tired and the more tired I got the more frustrated I got. I had visions of being stuck in an evil enchanted forest where the trees had an evil sense of humour. As I walked past the trees the branches turned into hands and grabbed ahold of my backpack, holding me back as I was about to jump across the river. Or these ‘hands’ gave me that unnecessary little push a few seconds before wanting to take the leap. The roots on the ground weaved around on purpose and made sure I tripped. We got scratches on scratches and scratches on bruises but there were still smiles as we got through the day of more wading, more swimming, more slipping, more falling into the river and more bundu bashing.
Our final day was a long hike along the side of the river, occasionally following a path but mostly bundu bashing until we reached the main road to the end and into civilization. This was a challenging hike with no luxuries, just roughing it in the most beautiful unspoiled spot, just the way I like it. It was all worth the scratches, bruises and sore muscles.