Standing barefoot in board shorts and sliding a borrowed kayak into a river in the heart of South Africa, it felt like a life time ago that I was zipping three layers of fleece inside my drysuit to embark on the ice-coated rivers of Wisconsin. In reality, less than a week spans the two extremes.
Nick and I left the freezing midwest for South Africa’s summer on New Years Eve, and a 16 hour flight and 8 hour timezone jump later we arrived on a new continent, in a new year, in temperatures that made me regret bringing even the light sweater I was wearing. Then, we took a cab to a hostel on the outskirts of Johannesburg, with no plan of where we would go from there.
During the months since we had decided to come to the country, our main goal was to explore South Africa’s famous whitewater — to see the raging waters South Africa’s summer monsoon season is known for. I had corresponded with several whitewater rafting companies about the possibility of visiting, guiding for them and kayaking. Back in October during our email conversations, companies throughout the country were inviting and encouraging. As the dates of our departure drew nearer however, we began to get word that SA was experiencing a record drought, and that all of their usually rain-fed rivers were empty. Even the mighty Zambezi, just north of SA in Zimbabwe and known worldwide for its huge whitewater during southern Africa’s summer, was almost completely dry. No water was flowing over the famous Victoria Falls. Our trip focus of guiding and kayaking seemed to be looking improbable. But, with tickets already bought, what choice did we have but to wing it and go anyway. And while when people ask us why we chose to visit South Africa we would say we were drawn here in hopes of guiding and kayaking, there are many other reasons to visit the country. A chance to explore a new culture, beautiful coastal cities, mountain ranges with endless hiking trails, hostels (called backpackers here), an exchange rate of 15 South African Rands to one US dollar, lots of volunteer opportunities and the benefit of English being spoken throughout the country were just a few values that stood out to us.
A downside, we learned upon our arrival, was a poor public transportation system. For travelers who want to get off the beaten path and not just hit the main cities, everyone advised us that renting a car was the only way to go. After some research while staying at our first hostel, we returned to the airport and rented the tiniest car I’ve ever been in for just $10 a day. So we loaded our backpacks and duffels with all our boating gear into the mini backseat and headed out, onto the left side of the road.
That’s when I realized we didn’t need whitewater. The adrenaline rush of driving on the opposite road was enough.
But, getting back to how we ended up kayaking within a week of leaving Wisconsin. We still had nothing else to do, so despite the fact that the Vaal River was suffering from drought we proceeded to visit a couple who owned a raft company there and who we had corresponded with before our arrival. Just an hour from Johannesburg, Graeme and Karen Addison run The River Man, and welcomed us with a braai (SA’s version of a BBQ) followed by a mountain biking excursion early the next morning.
Then despite how low the Vaal was, Karen took us kayaking down the section that at this time of year would usually have massive waves and holes, but now was largely rocky rapids and flat water. Still, kayaking through weeping willow-covered banks, watching foreign birds and passing monkeys playing on the banks was a nice change from the ice covered shores we’d been kayaking between in the mid-west.