After a similar visit to Vanderkloof Dam 2 years ago, Barry Ross and his father Scotty Ross, came back to experience even more of South Africa’s longest dam!
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Thank you Barry for this amazing article. Looking forward to another visit from you and your father!
A return to Vanderkloof Dam was on the cards for early 2016. In the interest of simplifying life, we decided to do a rough re-run of our previous multi-day trip. So once again we found ourselves roasting in the heat, swimming in crystal clear water, photographing rhino, buck and birdlife, and generally enjoying the delicious silence of the untamed Northern Cape wilderness. There were a few striking differences between this trip and our last, however. Most noticeable was dam level: with South Africa experiencing a severe drought, dam level had dropped to about 78% capacity (it reached the 50-60% range at time of writing, with the drought only beginning to break). Another noticeable difference is that we spent only two nights out—the original plan was three, but as the reader will discover, a medical emergency forced an early return to civilisation.
First, a few general observations about the trip right off the bat, all but one related to dam level:
a) Campsite availability. We had speculated that low dam levels would result in us being spoilt for choice for nice sandy beach campsites. However, while there certainly were more campsites available, some were rendered less habitable due to newly-exposed shale banks, as steep as they were slippery under foot.
b) Comfort at camp. More exposed shale + constant exposure to extreme temperatures = very, very hot surfaces for tents! Despite laying compact mattresses, sleeping bags, and clothing below us, nothing seemed to prevent being fried while trying to sleep. This is something that we do not recall experiencing during the last Recce, and we are a little puzzled as to why the problem was so acute this time round.
c) Birdlife. This edition of the Recce was ultimately cut short a day due to an accident. Nonetheless, the diversity of bird species spotted, and the density of individual species, was notably reduced in comparison to earlier trips on the dam at the same time of year (including the January 2014 Recce). We came to the conclusion that a key factor was that, due to the low dam level, the treeline was now further away from the boats—up to about 30m in many cases. However, this doesn’t explain the reduced numbers of raptors (particularly fish eagles, but also Verreaux’s eagle, jackal and steppe buzzards), nor the massive decrease in reed cormorants, white-breasted cormorants, and African darters. With regard to diversity of species: previously, the most common bird was the red-eyed bulbul. On this occasion, we only sighted bulbul once or twice, while Cape buntings—not recorded on the last Recce—were everywhere to be seen. We failed to spot a single red bishop, masked weaver, or kingfisher while out on the dam!
Approaching our Day 2 campsite at Bobbedjanbaai: Rhebok adopt a strategy of freezing when surprised by two bright kayaks.
d) Game. We did see a wide variety of game on the trip. We had, however, speculated that we would get some good shots of exposed game due to a broader gap between treeline and the water’s edge. Furthermore, we thought that a lack of water in the veld would force more game to the dam to drink. Of course, a reasonable person (!) may have instead predicted that (a) game is reluctant to spend a lot of time beyond the treeline, exposed; and (b) a lower dam level easily leads to isolated, ‘inland’ pools being formed, which actually increases available shoreline for drinking. As a result, our sightings and photos of game, while numerous, were nowhere near as dramatic as in 2014.
e) Weather. The heat was to be expected, but the dam’s infamous wind was conspicuous by its absence for most of the trip—except, of course, when we desperately needed an easy trip home and not a prevailing nightmare!
So, with those notes aside: the full-length log of the 2016 Recce.
Day 1 (4 January 2016): Vanderkloof to Kingfisher Cove
We arrived in Vanderkloof mid-morning and made straight for Gavin Myburgh’s Adventure Centre (check out Gavin’s operation at http://adventurekayaking.co.za/). Gavin kindly agreed to help us with bakkie-trailer-boat logistics, and escorted us to the shore to bid us bon voyage. After packing the boats with camping and cooking equipment, clothing, emergency kit, provisions for five days on the water (plus emergency rations), cameras, the trusty dome tent, and various other kayaking paraphernalia, we were ready to launch. Amazingly, we had loads of space to spare, in spite of even taking a toilet seat along! Had we forgotten something very important? Or had we become more skilful at the art of packing sea kayaks?
The two boats we used were the same as those from the 2014 Recce: Scotty in his yellow Mission Contour 480, and Barry in the red fibreglass Kaskazi Skua (thanks Mom!). With calm, windless weather, spray skirts were abandoned in favour of towels keeping sun off the knees. We headed eastwards towards Big Water. It wasn’t long until we made our first game sighting: five gemsbok on a spit of land exposed by the low dam level. High temperatures and beating sun were the order of the day, and by the time we stuck our noses out into Big Water, we were craving a swim.
We decided to have lunch at the spot where we had our first tea break during the 2014 trip, a shale beach that was perfect for swimming. Temperature? 51.3 deg C, measured on the deck of the Skua. In the shade under a small rock, the mercury failed to drop lower than 42.7 deg C over our lunch break. Our first meal in the wilderness was boiled eggs and leftover New Year’s venison, washed down with Oros. We had forgotten the fresh bread rolls at home…
During the last trip, much of the first day was spent circumnavigating Rolfontein Island. This year, given the later start, we agreed that we would head straight toward the first 2014 campsite, with the intention of then rounding that peninsula to see whether the bay on the other side also provided adequate shelter. We ducked into all the little coves en route, and had several close encounters with game: a female kudu, close to the water’s edge, watched us drift by warily; we spent some time looking at mountain rhebok near Kingfisher Cove; and gemsbok were numerous on the slopes of the hills surrounding the area. Throughout the day, we had noticed an abundance of Cape buntings, which was to prove to be the avian mascot for the trip. We noted fewer African darters and cormorants than the previous Recce, and well as a general reduction in birdlife, but chalked up red-knobbed coot, fish eagles, and a few unidentified LBJs by mid-afternoon; none of them in great numbers. By evening we had spotted more LBJs, as well as red faced mousebirds, Cape and African pied wagtails, and a circling juvenile fish eagle. We had also spotted some monstrous fish, surprisingly unbothered by the boats.
We were pleased to learn that Kingfisher Cove was now a little camp-friendly plateau, fronted by an impressive shale bank covered in buck spoor. Our first potential low dam-level campsite! We then headed to our 2014 campsite, but after establishing that neither bay on the peninsula held a candle to the new-look Kingfisher Cove, we headed back in the late afternoon to set up camp amongst freshwater mussel shells and otter spoor. The late afternoon brought thunder to the east and heavy weather on the horizon, but still none of the dam’s infamous wind. The temperature at sunset was 34.6 deg C, a significant and very welcome drop. Setting up camp was followed by a good campfire with sherry sun-downers. Supper was to be our only fresh meat of the trip: pork chops and wors, accompanied by butternut on the coals. Considering all the venison leftovers we were still carrying about, by the next day we would be sick of meat and longing for a healthier diet. Fatigue (or perhaps sherry?) had the effect of making the shale bank very slippery underfoot, and both of us had a few ignominious falls hauling equipment from the boats to the campsite. We turned in early, enjoying the peace and quiet of life on the dam—only to discover the nightmare that is boiling hot shale under your tent…
Day 2 (5 January 2016): Kingfisher Cove to Bobbedjanbaai
Our first evening was peaceful and windless, with none of the threatened heavy weather ever materialising. Just before sunrise, Scotty stuck his head out the tent to find a barn owl staring back at him from a rock a mere 5m away. Amazingly, our shale-beach campsite showed evidence of fresh spoor made during the night. We were surprised that buck would have passed the tent at such close quarters for a nocturnal drink, when so many other banks were available. The temperature was cool at sunrise: only 24 deg C. At around 7am, after more wagtail and LBJ sightings over coffee, we struck camp, had a swim, and headed out onto Big Water. Our aim for the day was twofold: photograph rhinos, and then make it to Bobbedjanbaai before dark.
All along the first leg of the day’s paddle, gemsbok had come down to the water’s edge for a morning drink. Heading out onto Big Water, we noticed that the wind had picked up a little. It whipped up a typical Vanderkloof-style set of waves close to shore, providing a rare opportunity for kayak-surfing 800km from the nearest saltwater! As with our previous trip, we opted to do an overland game survey, to confirm the presence of rhino from a distance before committing ourselves to a long paddle for better photo opportunities. It soon became evident to us that dam level has a major impact on game viewing: while there were a lot of animals spotted, they were widely and thinly distributed over newly-exposed land. We realised that today was probably not going to be our day for good photographs. Nonetheless, with rhino spotted, we had tea and then headed off for a kayak safari.
This part of the dam also provided the first substantial display of birdlife. We entered the bay to find it teeming with waterfowl: goliath and grey herons, an impressive flock of shelducks, greater flamingos, white-breasted cormorants, and Cape and red-billed teal amongst others. Some of the animals spotted on the shore included springbok, gemsbok, white rhinoceros, vervet monkeys, kudu, duiker, and warthog.
In the late morning, we headed back across Big Water to Rolfontein Island for a lunch of crackers, processed cheese, boiled eggs, leftover meat, and apples. For the remainder of the trip, we would have to make do with dry rations. Temperature in the shade had by this time reached 39.9 deg C, and we had we had exhausted fresh water supplies—while Scotty stuck to filtered dam water, Barry opted to just drink the water straight out the middle of the dam! The afternoon was to be a steady paddle in nearly windless conditions to Bobbedjanbaai, via a remarkably lifeless Raptor Alley. En route, we established three things about this part of the dam at 78% capacity: (i) Rolfontein Island remains circumnavigable; (ii) Osplaat is no longer circumnavigable, forming a peninsula with the northern shore of the dam; and (iii) Hornet Island was no longer an island.
After a relatively uneventful paddle, we hit Bobbedjanbaai around 15:45, and were met by a large fish eagle perched on a tree stump. The mercury had hit 41.8 degrees in the shade, necessitating a swim. Unfortunately Barry managed to jump in wearing his glasses, which resulted in a frantic search. It was the eagle-eyed Scotty who spotted them from his kayak glinting in the sun about a metre underwater. Crisis averted!
Bobbedjanbaai was so named in honour of the noisiest troop of baboons we have ever encountered. However, this year’s trip did not deliver any nocturnal baboon brawls, nor any barked commentary on our camp activities. The campsite itself was pretty much as we had left it two years ago, albeit with a deeper beach due to the lower dam level. Beneath the shale we even unearthed the circle of rocks from our campfire two years ago! We used the fireplace again for old time’s sake, rustling up a dinner of tuna pasta with gem squash on the side. (Washed down with sherry, of course.) While preparing supper, we were witness to a spectacular LBJ fight—two unidentified birds rolling in the dirt in a competition that was surprisingly savage. Unfortunately poor light prevented a single decent photo being taken of this contest. Ever wary of our primate friends, we baboon-proofed the kayaks before turning in for the night. To our despair, shale heat radiation was again an issue, seeing as there was nothing but shale upon which to put up the tent. The following morning, our sleeping bags were soaked through with sweat—and we hadn’t even been inside them!
Day 3 (6 January 2016): Bobbedjanbaai to Rooiwalle (via Hondeblaf River mouth)
Mileage 30.5km (22.8km from accident to home)
Sunrise at Bobbedjanbaai proved just as beautiful as last trip: this really must be one of the most idyllic spots on the entire dam. After striking camp, the plan was to head east, paddle a few kilometres beyond the mouth of the Hondeblaf River, and see if any other campsites were available. Late morning would see us at our furthest point from Vanderkloof; we would then begin the return trip with the intention of spending the final night of camping (most probably) at Rooiwalle. That was the intention—it was never realised.
Just after we launched, Bobbedjanbaai finally lived up to its name. A troop of stropping baboons had come down to drink on the opposite side of the bay. Once again, the troop proved entertaining—we were treated to the spectacle of a baboon sitting in a cactus, which was comic, to say the least.
Despite a temperature of 26 degrees, windless conditions, and the water’s surface resembling a mirror, the morning was not destined to be entirely tranquil. We encountered two noisy events. The first was a rather loud kayak tour group, approaching from the west—10 upcountry paddlers in 6 boats, strung out over about a kilometre of water. We went over to chat, and found out that they were intending to travel the length of the dam with only 3 nights under canvas—heavy mileage. These were the first paddlers we had yet encountered on the dam, with the exception, of course, of Gavin Myburgh’s local tour operations and the fellow from Vanderkloof with the outrigger-equipped canoe. We hung back and let them pass by, hoping that our game-viewing would not be badly hampered. The second event was a meeting with a speedboat, crewed by Smittie and his wife Christina, who stopped to have a chat with us. Little did we know that this second meeting was to prove a lucky one! Other than that, beautiful, still, glassy conditions prevailed—not a breath of air, with the hills reflected in the mirror-like water. Flatwater paddling at its finest!
We turned roughly 26km out from Vanderkloof, and started looking for a suitable beach on which to have a cup of tea and a biscuit. Even with the dam at 78%, landing spots were not easy to come by in this area—the only suitable candidate was infested with ‘balbyter’ ants. We headed over to the northern bank and decided to land on a steep shale bank littered with rocks, with a short flat shelf of about 5cm depth. After hauling the boats ashore and using a few larger rocks as moorings, we clambered onshore. In the process of getting all the tea-kit out the boats, disaster struck: Scotty lost his footing and fell onto an old tree stump. His right calf was deeply punctured by a branch, with a second small puncture wound on the inside of upper left thigh.
After application of a tourniquet, the bleeding stopped. We resolved to immediately head back towards the town of Vanderkloof. We stopped periodically for a break, with an eye on the state of the wound—the sitting position in a kayak most likely helped to curb further bleeding. And then, just as we approached our camping site of the previous evening, the wind hit. For the first time in the trip, just when we could have done with a bit of calm, the dam’s infamous prevailing wind made an appearance. We were to have the wind in our faces all the way home—a very, very hard paddle, with the final 15km across Big Water and into Vanderkloof presenting the extra challenge of choppy waters breaking over the bows of our boats. A long slog for a day’s paddle in excess of 30km: we spent the hours of around 10.00 until 18.00 fighting the wind, with the heavy chop added to the mix just before lunch.
As soon as we were within cellphone range of Vanderkloof, we phoned Gavin to arrange for some medical assistance. He met us at the take-out point and whisked Scotty off to local nurse Yolandi, and provided ample commentary on the ensuing clean-up, stitching and dressing of the wound. By the time logistics and medical attention had been completed, it was high time for a beer and a square meal. At the local Ribbok Pub & Grill, scoffing beers and rib baskets, we ran again into Smittie and his wife. After hearing the woeful story of the accident, Smittie kindly offered us a spare room to spend the night.
And so the trip came to an end on a not-so-positive note. We owe a debt of thanks to Smittie and Christina for their hospitality, to Gavin for providing logistical support and acting as an ambulance driver, and to Yolandi, who was kind enough to lend us her medical expertise after hours. We will be back, however. A full crossing of the dam—or perhaps even a circumnavigation—is in order!
- African darter
- Cape bunting
- Karoo prinia
- African pied wagtail
- African red-eyed bulbul
- Western barn owl
- African fish eagle (juv. and adult)
- Pied crow
- European bee-eater
- Red-knobbed coot
- White-throated swallow
- Reed cormorant
- South African shelduck
- Grey heron
- Yellow-billed duck
- Goliath heron
- Greater flamingo
- Red-billed teal
- Cape teal
- White-breasted cormorant
- Black-winged stilt
- Cape wagtail
- Verreaux’s eagle
- Barn swallow
- Cape turtle dove
Unid. duck (possibly South African shelduck); various unid. LBJs throughout the trip; old masked weaver nests.
- Vervet monkey
- White rhinoceros
Evidence of otters; one leguaan spotted en route to launch.