Civilisation be damned

Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies gave me two precepts to which I fervently adhere. The first is: “Self-pity is commonly held to be despicable; it can also be a real comfort if it does not become chronic.” The second: “The first principle of aesthetic appreciation is that it can usually be doubled by sitting down.”

I found myself clinging to both these aphorisms on a four-day kayaking­ trip. Kayaking, also known as paddling or canoeing, is a sport conducted on water.
Water I like. Sport, however, has always been a mysterious and fearful concept to me.

“It’ll be fine,” said my boyfriend. “We don’t have to keep up with the others.”

The “others” were seasoned paddlers—at least one of them a decorated champion—so my “not keeping up” was a given. What worried me was by how much I would not keep up. We were to paddle about 20km a day, setting up camp at a different spot each night. I had visions of dragging ourselves up a beach at dawn, just as the rest were cheerfully packing up their tents after a good night’s sleep, ready to set off again.

My boyfriend tried to reassure me by pointing out that we were in a two-man kayak, while the others were lone paddlers, giving us double manpower. He has paddled the length of Lake Malawi and conquered several other waterways to boot, so that gave me some confidence. But when we joined the others to “put in” (kayaking term for launch) my fears returned. First, the other craft were sleek, plastic racing canoes. Ours was a 30-year-old German folding canoe called a Klepper, with a wooden frame and deck and a canvas skin that was stretched over all this. She was a thing of beauty and master-craftsmanship, but also quite a lot heavier, broader and less wieldy than the modern, streamlined boats, which were darting off on to the bright water before we even assembled the frame.

“Don’t wait for us,” said my boyfriend, “we’ll catch up.” Robbie, our champion-paddler leader, looked dubious and gave us his map of the dam. Half an hour later we were on the water and my first fear was assuaged: the Klepper not only floated, but seemed to become a living water-bird as she cleaved happily through the waves at the edge of the dam.

My paddling skills, however, did not have the advantage of 30 years of German engineering. Two hours later we’d progressed about 50m against the wind. My boyfriend, one of those rare men confident in his masculinity, took the front seat instead of putting me where he could check my every move, so I was saved the barking orders from behind. Even so, I could see he was growing slightly anxious as the day wore on.

The other canoes were nowhere in sight, nor did we see any other sign of humanity. Vanderkloof Dam, previously known as PK le Roux Dam, is an intricately curled monster that reveals more of itself around each headland. There are islands, rock-walled gorges and secret inlets. It is in the middle of a vast Northern Cape nature reserve. Were you to get lost, it could take days for anyone to find you. Thankfully, we had Robbie’s map.

We ate lunch on the water, proving that you can have your kayak and eat in it. An hour later we were still a long way from the first campsite and my arms, back and legs were aching. I was holding firmly on to Davies’s words about self-pity and trying not to cry, thinking of how humiliating it would be to have to be rescued on our first day.

Then the wind came up. Did I forget to mention that the Klepper had a mast and a sail? When strapped to the side of the boat it slows you down, but take a breeze from the right direction and it is time, as seafarers have said for centuries, to raise the mainsail. My clever boyfriend also rigged up a jib, a smaller sail that billows to the side and catches any residual wind power.

From battling to move a few feet at a time, suddenly we were flying over the water, silver wake streaming behind us and the wind fresh in our faces. I appreciated Davies’s views on aesthetic appreciation like never before. We sat with paddles stowed and rejoiced in the beauty of the dam. A short while later we neared an island and saw seven astonished faces look up from their tent-erecting.

Thus redeemed, and with a lucky tailwind that lasted all week, we traversed the teal-green dam for four days without seeing a single house, car, road, power station, power line or power monger. No people, just two eland, three reebuck, a klipspringer, a bunch of dassies and a baboon. We set up camp at night on beaches marbled with the tracks of leopard and caracal and potholed with aardvark dens.

It was the purest escape and most pleasurable form of sport I have experienced. Next time I might even paddle a bit.

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