The Keurbooms Canoe Trail
Afew days ago I caught a glimpse of my wife’s neatly prepared shopping list lying under the usual pile of car keys and sunglasses near the front door: butternut, carrots, garlic bread, condensed milk… How could a single night’s culinary line-up fill an entire page?
And how on earth would we fit all those provisions into a canoe? I was careful not to voice my concerns, however, and let nature do the work instead. My friends and I were planning to paddle the Keurbooms Canoe Trail with our wives, but the forecast predicted rain and one by one the girls (and their shopping lists) dropped out.
Fair enough, it was the middle of a Garden Route winter and after some heavy storms the Keurbooms River was pushing a steady flow of water, which would make the 7km upstream paddle a little tougher on the arms than usual. But a bit of rain and some exercise never hurt anyone!
Besides, we’d probably have the river all to ourselves and we’d get the chance to spend the night in CapeNature’s newly renovated cabin in the gorge. Yes, this was the perfect opportunity for some long-overdue male bonding…
Two canoes and a bottle of whiskey
Indigenous forest lines the steep sides of the Keurbooms River gorge.When you get tired, pull the canoe ashore and take it all in. Look out for the resident male bushbuck (below) at the overnight cabin.
I meet Mark and Stu at the slipway below the N2 bridge over the Keurbooms River near Plettenberg Bay. Once the wives were out of the picture, the logistics dwindled from a full-page shopping list to a single SMS that read: “Bring food and booze.”
We take stock of our supplies: four steaks, a packet of kebabs, potatoes, beer, two bottles of red wine and some whiskey, not to mention an overripe orange that somehow found its way onto the menu. We pick up two canoes, a life jacket each and waterproof bags to keep our clothes and sleeping bags dry.
We pile in, Mark and Stu in one canoe and me in the other, with all our provisions to balance it. Soon the hum of the N2 fades and all I can hear is the splash of my paddle as it cuts into the dark water. The Keurbooms River flows through a steep gorge, which becomes increasingly spectacular as we paddle around each bend. Dense forest rolls down to meet the tannin-rich water typical of most Western Cape river systems.
I hear the heavy flap of a fish-eagle’s wings as it takes off from a yellowwood tree. Unlike so much of the Garden Route, this scene could not have changed much in hundreds of years. We’re paddling upstream into a stiff headwind, so we take a breather at Whiskey Creek, about 5km upriver from the start. It’s a beautiful little inlet that cuts into the surrounding hills, with a white-sand beach.
The inlet was probably named for the moonshine colour of the shallow water. Let me say upfront that I’m not one for hitting the hard tack in the middle of the afternoon, but what the heck, we’re on holiday, and there’s no better place to share a warming dram of single malt with my fellow paddlers on a chilly winter’s day. Cheers, Whiskey Creek!
There’s a rope spanning the river at Whiskey Creek. No motor boats are allowed beyond this point. It’s out of season and we haven’t seen another soul on the Keurbooms since we started paddling, but on a sunny day in December I’d imagine it could get quite hectic.
From this point the river takes on a more remote and rugged character. Gentle rapids bubble over pebble beds as the river winds into the Tsitsikamma Mountains. When it gets shallow we have to drag the canoes through the water and soon my feet are numb with cold.
You can paddle the trail in your own canoe – if you have one – and you’d think the rental canoes would be quite ropey, but they’re perfectly designed for the task. They’re made of flexible plastic, not fibreglass, so you can drag them over the rocks and shoot a rapid or two without worrying about damaging them.
After a string of deep pools and another rapid, we start looking for the hut. Surely we’re nearly there? But all we can see is forest and more forest. By some fluke, we spot a solar panel in the gap between two trees and we go ashore.
The river carries on for another few kilometres from here – if we’d shot past the hut we would’ve been in for a long day. The refurbished Whiskey Creek Cabin is a treat. With a 180-degree view of the Tsitsikamma Mountains to the north and the Keurbooms River gorge to the south, it’s a great place to spend the night.
Evening sets in to the kow-kow-kow-kow call of a Knysna turaco in a tree near the hut. While we get a fire going in the big stone fireplace in the centre of the deck, a male bushbuck saunters up to join our gang. “Welcome to the boys’ weekend,” says Stu.
The bushbuck hangs out in the undergrowth beneath the deck and seems completely unperturbed by our presence. Tonight’s feast is a utilitarian affair. The meat sizzles over the coals and some foil-wrapped potatoes skirt the edge of the fire for good measure.
The red wine flows, it starts to rain, and we huddle around the wooden kitchen counter on the covered terrace, tucking into our braai. The conversation becomes more and more animated as the rain pelts down on the roof. We look for the bushbuck, but he’s called it a night and gone off to find shelter of his own, no longer interested in our banter. We follow his (sensible) lead and hit the sack before things get messy.
The sound of the river flowing over the pebble bed below the hut wakes me up. It’s early. I step out onto the deck and take in the scene. It’s like something from the Amazon: a low mist hangs over the gorge, with the ghostly shapes of giant yellowwood and stinkwood trees just visible in the haze.
Above the mist, the sky is blue and the peaks of the mountains are dipped in sunlight. I feel a pang of regret that our wives are missing out on this – not that I’d admit it to Mark and Stu!
Soon the kettle is whistling and we head down to the river with a strong coffee in hand. No river adventure is complete without a swim. We plunge into the dark, freezing water – it’s an instant regmaker.
Back at the hut we fry up last night’s leftovers then we pack the canoes and drift into the stream. Paddling downriver is certainly easier on the biceps, but the wind has changed direction and a sneaky onshore breeze applies the brakes. Along the way we shoot a few rapids. Okay, that’s a little optimistic.
This isn’t the Zambezi – the “rapids” on the Keurbooms are tame trickles. CapeNature keeps an eye on the weather and closes the trail if heavy rains cause the river to come down in flood. The morning sun catches the hillside above Whiskey Creek. “Feel like another one?” Mark jokes as we drift through the golden water at the mouth of the inlet.
With a good few kilometres of paddling still ahead of us, we dig the paddles deep, gliding past sandy beaches perfect for a summer picnic. Could that be the same fish-eagle we saw on the upstream paddle, perched in the same yellowwood tree? It turns its head, surveying its own slice of paradise.
We round the final bend and the N2 comes into view. The appeal of a paddling trip lies in its simplicity – no motor, no noise and plenty of time to get your head free of everyday worries. My arms are aching, but it’s a good ache. I glance across at Mark and Stu and I can see they’re already discussing a repeat adventure in summer – maybe this time with the wives, less whiskey and some lettuce…
Know before you go
Best time of the year to do it? The trail is open year-round, but it’s best in the summer months between October and Maywhen you can swim in the river without getting hypothermia. You’re not allowed to set off later than 4pm in summer and 2pm inwinter.
How tough is it? The canoe trail is 7km each way and it takes two to three hours in each direction. You don’t need to be Oscar Chalupsky to manage. The canoes are easy to paddle and it’s a great outing for the whole family. Children of all ages are allowed, as long as there are adults to keep an eye on them.
The Whiskey Creek Cabin. This wooden hut has a fully equipped, open-air kitchen, hot-water shower and flush toilet. There are four double bunks and two single beds in a dormroom, sleeping 10 people. Pillows and pillowcases are provided – bring your own sleeping bags. Outside, there’s a big wooden deck with a built-in braai area. You can buy firewood at the start of the trail (R10 a bag). Drinking water at the hut comes from a rainwater tank. Don’t forget to pick up the key to the cabin at the start of the trail before setting off!
What to pack? Warm clothing, sleeping bag, food, drinks, firelighters and mosquito repellent. Canoes, paddles, life jackets and dry bags are provided. Also make sure to pack a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and an old pair of shoes or Crocs – useful for walking over the rocks on the final stretch of the trail. Leave your BlackBerry at home – you’ll lose reception within a kilometre upriver from the N2 bridge.
Make a weekend of it. Most people spend one night at the cabin, but you can book it for longer if there are no other reservations.
How to get there? The bridge over the Keurbooms River is 8km east of Plett on the N2. Turn left at the “Ferries”signboard.
Cost: In peak season (school holidays and public holidays), there’s a minimum fee of R3200 per night for the cabin (up to 10 people). At other times of the year the minimum fee is R1160 per night for up to four people; R290 per person extra (maximum 10 people). Canoe hire costs R80 for a single, R120 for a double. The conservation fee is R30 per person – free with a Wild Card.
Contact: All bookings must be made through CapeNature’s central reservations office. Call 0861 227 362 8873 or visit www.capenature.co.za. For enquiries about the trail, call 044 533 2185.