A hike into the depths of the river valley (Part III)

In July, we spent a weekend in the Riviersonderend mountains, staying in a little stone cottage at Onverwacht Flora, a mountain top farm near the famous Boesmanskloof trail between Greyton and McGregor.

This is Part III, and here are the links to the other parts:

  1. From Cape Town to Onverwacht (Part I)
  2. Exploring the surroundings of our Kliphuisie (Part II)
  3. A visit to the peaceful Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary (Part IV)
  4. Exploring the unfinished road at Die Galg (Part V)

———–

Good morning, World!

An early morning bird greets the sun

After a leisurely breakfast in front of the Kliphuisie, serenaded by a whole flurry of birds, we tightened the laces of our hiking boots, filled a water bottle, packed the rucksack, and tramped down to the viewing site we had visited yesterday afternoon.

What a glorious morning to be out in the mountains!

A steep descent

We soon found the start of the trail down to the bottom of the river valley.

Our hiking route into the river valley (Google Earth screenshot)

Very near the top, we passed this burnt pine tree, which became the marker of our progress down the slope – everytime I looked back uphill to check our bearings, I could see the familiar shape of this tree, sticking up against the blue sky.

Our landmark pine tree

The trail zigged and zagged at sharp angles across the slope, rather than going straight down (thank goodness!), but the individual ‘legs’ of the zigzags were very steep in places. Apart from that, as a result of the recent summer fires, there was almost no vegetation – and thus no handy bushes to clutch onto for extra balance on the steeper sections! Nope, it was just stones, stones and more stones, most of them quite loose and unstable, liable to tumble even further down the slope in mini-avalanches.

It made for exhausting walking, for me anyway, because the need to brake constantly as you walk puts quite a lot of pressure on the knees and thigh muscles. I frequently lost my footing and slid a bit on the loose gravel.

Lots of loose stones on this track – go sloooowly!

Richard graciously acted as a support strut for part of the way – until he found me a makeshift walking stick in the form of a relatively sturdy and straight-ish bamboo-like stick that had survived the fire without crumbling. Even though it soon blackened my hands with soot, I didn’t mind, because it really helped!

A low angle shot

As we descended into the shadows of the valley, it became chillier. It was sooo quiet down here, as though there was hardly any life. Even the wind was holding its breath. We focused inwards, as we walked, concentrating on every step, testing the stones beneath our feet for stability before taking the next step. From time to time, we stopped, to listen for sounds and to reorient ourselves, checking that we were still going the right way. It was quite meditative.

Ruler of the mountain!

Crossing the river

About 45 minutes after we had left the viewing site, we finally reached the river. The path continued on the other side, where it led further down the length of the river valley in the general direction of Greyton. The only problem was that there was no bridge across the fast-flowing water. Hm.

There were some large stones in the river, which must have acted as useful ‘stepping stones’ at some stage, but they were submerged now, and our boots were definitely not waterproof. There was nothing for it but to take off our boots and socks, to roll up our trousers, and to wade through the icy waters barefoot. In summer, I wouldn’t hesitate, but right now, during winter, this was not a happy prospect.

Noticing my hesitation, my gallant husband surprised me by insisting that he would carry me over to the other side, because it was, after all, my birthday tomorrow. 🙂

AND SO HE DID!

Wow.

Richard braves the cold water

Once we’d made it safely to dry land, we sat on the rocks for a while, waiting for his feet to dry so that he could put his socks and shoes back on (we hadn’t brought a towel or anything else that could be used as such).

It was sooo peaceful down here in the valley, with the river singing a cheerful song as it tumbled over rocks and boulders, rubbing them together with a musical clunk and thump, like a bass drum keeping the beat. Occasionally, a bird twittered and chirped in the surrounding bushes, but it kept out of sight so I couldn’t capture it on camera.

When you’re at the bottom of the valley, looking up at these massive walls of rock all around, you feel very, very small and insignificant. It’s quite humbling. The photos just don’t do it justice.

Looking downstream

Hiking downstream

Finally, we were ready to continue downstream. We walked in a roughly southwesterly direction, following the river course along a narrow stony track that hugged the lower slopes of the mountain about 10-20 metres above the water.

That’s where we are going, he says

Unfortunately, my walking stick had broken during the river crossing, so Richard found me a new one that was longer and sturdier, but even more sooty. By now, our clothes and hats were streaked all over with soot from where we had accidentally brushed against the burnt bushes and shrubs, and soon my hands were black with soot too. Never mind, it all washes off!

I am very pleased with my new walking stick – it looks like some sort of bamboo pole. Mountain path, watch out, here I come!

The small patches of green vegetation near the river stood in stark contrast against the fire-blackened slopes. I wondered what this place would look like in a year’s time, and whether it would have recovered fully? There was very little birdlife down here – perhaps they will return once the fynbos has regenerated? I do know that fynbos needs to burn every couple of years:

“Fire is a necessary stage in the lives of almost all fynbos plants, and is common during the dry summer months. Many of the seeds germinate only after the intense heat of a fire. In readiness for fire, most proteas retain their seeds on the bush for at least one year, a habit known as serotiny. They do this in structures which resemble the original flowerheads. In some species these structures are strikingly beautiful and long-lasting, which accounts for their use in dried floral arrangements. Around 30% of plants in the fynbos produce seeds with an elaiosome, which attract ants that carry the seeds into their burrows. In this way, the seeds are protected from fire. This relationship is an example of myrmecochory (the distribution of seeds by ants). Perhaps the continual renewal of the foliage by fire and myrmecochory has generated the explosion of plant speciation in the Cape.” (Wikipedia: Fynbos)

Can you imagine that these slopes used to be covered with a dense growth of fynbos?

However, it is the timing of such fires that is important.

“Fynbos must burn, but fires in the wrong season (such as in spring, instead of late summer) or too frequently (so that plants do not have time to set seed) eliminate species.” (Plantz Africa website)

When we visited Sandra, our host, she explained that the protea bushes we were seeing all around the cottages were actually still alive inside, even though they looked completely charred on the outside. I’d love to see what happens to these in the next couple of months, and whether and how the veld will regenerate. So we will just have to go back!

On the lower slopes, we encountered many of these small yellow flowers, emerging from strong green stems. I don’t know what they are – do you perhaps? They looked so pretty and delicate against the grey-black background.

To me, they seemed to be expressing a promise that nature would recover, that new life would emerge from the ashes, that the seeds buried underground would send out new shoots, and that, soon – soon, the mountain would be flowering once more.

Tiny yellow flowers – brave and defiant!

The path was quite narrow and slippery, with loose stones and gravel threatening to make us tumble down the steep slopes, so we proceeded cautiously and slowly, ducking around and climbing over numerous fire-blackened protea bushes.

The end of the trail?

After about half an hour of walking, slipping and sliding, clutching onto boulders and shrubs, the path seemed to peter out… (We later saw on Google Earth that the path may in fact link up with the Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail further downstream, but we didn’t explore it that far.) I’m sure that we could have continued, if we’d really, really wanted to, but we still had to return up that steep slope to our cottages, and the ole legs were feeling rather tired.

“Enough for the day!” we cried in unison. “Let’s go home and have tea with birthday cake!” 🙂

By this stage, our little path, which looked more like a bokkie track for a klipspringer or a grysbok than a hiking trail, had climbed higher up the mountain slopes, so we were now quite some distance above the river, which was hidden from us by a precipitous cliff. Richard, undaunted and insatiably curious, promptly did his fearless klipspringer act, hopping and sliding down to a prominent boulder perched right above the precipice.

“At least leave the flippin’ rucksack here so I can go for help if you fall!” I yelled after him, crossly.

“It’s fine,” he shouted back. “Look, it’s perfectly safe!”

He leapt onto the top of the boulder, and spread out his arms, like a giant bird about to take flight, while I snapped a quick photo.

Fearless Richard likes to live life on the edge!

“OK, now come back up here, please! I’m not picking up your pieces from the riverbed!” I yelled back.

“That was fantastic,” he exclaimed, eyes gleaming with excitement, as he scrambled up to the relative safety of the path. “I was standing right on the edge of a sheer drop! If I’d taken just one more step…!”

He was teasing me, of course. Sigh… Men…!

Crossing the river – again

We retraced our steps back to the river crossing.

The river tumbles along happily

“I wonder if there’s another way up?” I asked. “So that we don’t have to cross the river and go back up that slope.”

“I’ll go have a look,” Richard offered, evidently still in exploratory mood, as he clambered up over boulders and rocks, in the hope of getting a clear view of the ravine upstream.

After a few minutes, he climbed down again.

“I can see a path on the far side of the ravine,” he reported, “but it’s very faint, and it looks helluva steep. But I can’t see any path down along this side of the river.”

“Oh, okay. I guess we’ll have to go back the same way then.”

This time around, I took off my boots and socks too. We crossed slightly higher up, where the water was shallower and the underwater rocks seemed a little less pointy. Richard took his sweet time walking across, testing the large rocks for stability, and giving a running commentary.

“You can step on this one, … and this one… and this … oh! no! not this one… okay, that one over there…”

Mountain streams are bracingly cold and wet…

I, meanwhile, had started to cross the river too, and the icy water was hurting like hell! And those stones were seriously pointy! Ouch! Ouch! Frickin’ ouch!!

I was about to collide with Richard, who was standing calmly in the freezing water, still explaining patiently which rocks I could step on…

“Um, could you MOVE, please????”

The next few seconds were a blur, as I unceremoniously pushed him out of the way to splash across to the other side, desperate to get onto dry ground, and out of this freezing water!

On this side of the river, though, there was no nice place to sit and dry our feet, so we perched on two small rocks on either side of the path. Our toontjies (toes) were frozen, and aching from deep within their bones. They gratefully absorbed the sun’s rays.

Frozen toontjies basking in the sunlight

A delicious picnic

“How ’bout a picnic while we wait for our feet to dry, hm?” I suggested, opening the rucksack and pulling out the container with the left-over toasted sandwiches from the previous night’s braai.

“Oooh! You brought them!”

Yummy. Toasted sandwiches almost taste even better the next day, particularly when you’re hiking and picnicking. Suddenly hungry, we polished off a banana and an apple too. Then we used our socks to rub the sand off our feet and from between the toes, and put on our boots again. I firmly clasped my new walking stick and raised it aloft.

“The path awaits.”

“Ready?”

“Yep.”

A zigzagging path takes us steeply uphill

The final ascent

I found it much easier to walk uphill, and fairly motored up the mountain side.

Can you see the moon peering over the edge? Perhaps he is curious to see what we are doing down here?

Ever so often, I paused to catch my breath, and to look back.

This sure is rocky terrain

And then I got the perfect shot of our landmark pine tree together with the moon! I really like this picture!

Moon and tree

At last, we emerged into the sunlight at the top of the ridge. It had been a great hike. Demanding and tough on the legs, but great fun too!

Click here to read Part IV!

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