Rolling down the river
Two billion years ago a large rock struck our planet, leaving a crater measuring 300km across. The remnants of this cataclysm gave Parys a certain character that rebels against the flat monotony of much of the rest of the Free State. Imposing ridges and hilly terrain have made this a popular spot for climbers, mountain bikers and other outdoors adventurers.
Parys is not what you would expect of sleepy small-town South Africa.
The main drag is festooned with antique shops and eateries, including the foreign beer-serving Hoi Polloi and baroque trappings of Ruby’s — giving Johannesburg restaurants something to live up to.
Parys’s other natural wonder is the mighty Vaal River, which curves along the town’s northern outskirts. Ask any local proprietor how Parys keeps its chin up and they point to the river.
The Vaal is home to several rafting outfits, each taking dozens of eager paddlers down its flows.
We arrived on a Saturday morning at the home base of one such company, Earth Adventures. Once everyone had been assigned safety gear and were shuttled to the launch point, we listened to a brief safety lecture. If our guides proved adept on the Vaal’s surface, they were also sure-footed when standing in rapids to help hapless weekend paddlers through the torrents. Petrus, who gave us the safety lecture, has been doing this for nine years, he later told me while paddling past in his nippy one-man kayak.
Paying customers settled for two-person inflatables, which were launched with a dramatic, soaking splash on to the river.
With not a dry person in the house, this was the perfect icebreaker: impromptu water fights started almost immediately.
Soon we were heading down a 14km stretch of this impressive river, spying birds, curious campers and mansions befitting executive salaries and political kickbacks.
Along the way, four or five rapids with catchy names like “Big Daddy” shook things up: nothing nerve-wrecking, just wild enough to leave a smile on your face. But our guides noted the Vaal’s temperamental nature: a bit of seasonal rainfall and it can become somewhat more intense.
The biggest annoyance was the crowding; if you didn’t lead into the rapids or hang back with the stragglers, you inevitably became wedged between less focused rafters. Still, I found it a rewarding experience, despite being accused by my partner of being someone who doesn’t “play well with others”.
Much of the trip can be enjoyed lazily drifting along, blissfully un-aware that you didn’t apply enough sunscreen. After three hours we arrived back at the assembly point: sunburnt, waterlogged and sipping on one of the small bar’s cold beers. In hindsight, hustling through the dozens of other rafts made it all the more fun — something anyone of any age or fitness level can enjoy.
Why you should go: A day of sunshine, exercise and natural beauty on one of South Africa’s most impressive rivers.
Accessibility: Parys is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. Head down the N1 towards Bloemfontein for roughly 75km, then take the R59 off-ramp east. Parys is 18km further on.
Where to stay: Parys has several great bed and breakfast options. One worth trying is the rustic Lavender Hills, located near the town’s outskirts. More at lavenderhills.co.za.
Cost: Rafting is R450 a person, excluding lunch (bring your own). Group rates and specials also available. Optional DVD and photos available. More at earthadventures.co.za.