Year in the Wild Blog

Days 56-58 – YITW 2013-14 – Whiskey Creek canoe trail

After my stay at Goukamma Nature Reserve, I headed to the town of Plettenberg Bay, one of the busiest holiday towns in the country. During school breaks it turns into a seriously congested place. Crowds from Sandton and Cape Town descend en masse to the beaches, mountains and rivers in one of the most scenic parts of the famed Garden Route.

I personally hate the place during school holidays, but if you’re like me – a nature lover and wilderness fundi – there are two places that you MUST visit, regardless of the time of year.

The first is the Whiskey Creek canoe trail and cabin in the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve, which is about 8 kms east of Plett. And the second is Robberg Nature Reserve (which I’ll post a blog about soon), which is just to the west of town.

I hadn’t been to either of these small reserves before now, and I want to go back to both! Both are pleasant surprises to the chilled-out nature lover who enjoys simple self-catering accommodation in spectacular locations. I wish I had known about both sooner!

The Whiskey Creek canoe trail is a 7-kilometre paddle on canoes up the Keurbooms River, ending at a rustic but well-positioned cabin which can sleep up to ten people. The Keurbooms River is 85 kms in length, with its source at Spitskop in the Outeniqua Mountains, but the reserve is just 9 square kilometres, situated near the mouth of the river. (The name “Keurbooms” comes from the Western Keurboom tree which is found growing on the edges of the forest).

The magic of the canoe trail and cabin is the unexpected scenery of the Keurbooms River gorge itself. The trail starts near the N2 national highway bridge that cross the river, but within one kilometre of paddling up the gorge, you can’t hear the noise of the trucks and cars, and there are no man-made structures anywhere. The contrast is immense – how can so much beauty be so close to such a busy urban area?

Paddling along the Keurbooms River in one of the supplied canoes, which are really stable and easy to paddle.

An Outeniqua yellowood tree festooned with Usnea lichen, also known as Old Man's beard. Like all lichen, it only grows well in clean, unpolluted air...which Keurbooms has plenty of, even though it's just a few kms from the national N2 road.

What it's all about...cobalt blue sky reflected in cold, tannin-rich river water.

This is the view from near to the Whiskey Creek cabin...the crowned eagles were nesting just to the left of this photo, high up in the forest.

The view up the river, from near the N2 national road bridge...

Instead, as you paddle up the increasingly narrow gorge you’ll feel like an explorer discovering a secret corner of paradise, passed over fortunately by the foresters, miners and property developers. Thick indigenous forests cover the steep gorge. Tall Outeniqua yellowwood trees are some of the most impressive I’ve seen, and there are also stinkwoods and Cape beech trees. (The reserve was proclained in 1980 to protect the Afromontane forest).

Look out for the resident pair of fish eagles, which call regularly, while giant and pied kingfishers, reed cormorants and Egyptian geese are common. (Close your eyes now and again, and listen to the aural symphonies of nature – birds calling, the breeze blowing in the high forest, the water lapping against your canoe, your own breath…although the squawking Egyptian geese might ruin your momentary meditation.)

The resident pair of fish eagles can often be spotted in the early morning, perching on a specific yellowwood tree next to the river, just downstream from the cabin.

The great thing about being in a canoe while bird watching is that you make hardly any noise...so you can drift within metres of birds, before they take flight.

Reed cormorant basking in early morning sun...note the brilliant red around the eye.

The further you go up the gorge, the better it gets. There are a few designated picnic sites along the way, near the small white beaches of clean river sand. The water is dark, typical of Cape rivers, a result of the tannins from the fynbos, but the sunlight glistens off the surface. I drank straight from the river – the Keurbooms River remarkably remains mostly clean and ecologically-functional, even though about 8 million litres are extracted every day for municipal use! The river is also home to four indigenous fish species – Slender Redfin, Eastern Cape Redfin, Cape Galaxias and Cape Kurper. None of these reach any great size, but are nevertheless very important for proper functioning of the river’s ecology.

There are several sandbanks along the side of the river, which are well exposed during low tide. There are picnic sites with braai areas at some of these beaches.

After 7kms you can’t really paddle any further, because of a series of low rapids. Here you pull your canoe out the river onto the bank (remember to drag it at least five metres from the edge of the river, because the Keurbooms River is tidal for 8kms from its mouth, and it’s amazing how high the tide pushes up the system – you don’t want your canoe to drift away!). From there it’s about a 300 metre walk to the cabin, which is located on a bend in the river, high above the river.

I spotted a pair of crowned eagles flying into their nest in the high forest on the opposite bank, and one night I was woken by the booming serenade of a Giant Eagle owl on top of the roof. What a sound to wake up to! Sometimes bushpigs come schnortling under the cabin to dig up roots and bulbs, while blue duiker, bushbuck and Cape grysbok have also been seen. And yes, there are leopard around, but you won’t see them. (If you do, send me a photo!)

The cabin was built by reserve manager Henk Niewoudt and his team, and it’s got a fantastic feeling of comfortable simplicity. It’s basic, but perfect for a self-catering family or group of friends, or even just a couple who want to get away on their own. There is just one large sleeping area, with several bunkbeds with canvas-covered mattresses, so you must take your sleeping bags. (If it’s good weather, sleep outside on the deck!) Remember too to take towels and soap. There are solar lights in and outside the cabin.

The kitchen is outside on the deck next to the huge braai area, looking out over the river and the gorge. A small solar-powered fridge and freezer keeps your food and beers cold, while there’s also a gas hob. Although you can use drift wood in the river for firewood, rather take your own bag or two. The bathroom has a shower, toilet and basin, all of which are clean. Water is supplied from rain tanks.

Inside the cabin...it's simple, but very clean, and very functional! I can imagine it's an awesome place to take kids for a weekend!

Another view of the interior of the cabin...

There is a huge deck with braai area, and great views...

And there's an outside shower as well! (no hot water tho - for a hot shower, you'll need to use the inside shower)

What it's all about...a fire at dusk, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do except crack a cold beer and listen the fish eagles call.

Looking out from the deck and braai area...

There’s not much to do once you’re at the cabin, except chill out, read, sleep, eat and admire the scenery, or go for a paddle on the river. It’s not cold, because it’s north-facing and catches the early morning sun. During summer, when it must get really hot in the gorge, then just walk a few metres down to the river to cool off. Because of the inaccessible terrain, and because there is no other accommodation in the gorge, you can probably walk around butt naked all day.

A few things to know. Visitors should paddle up the river in the early morning before the wind picks up. If it’s windy, it can make paddling seriously tough. The canoes are very stable, and can carry a surprising amount of food, gear and firewood, but dry bags are supplied at the entrance gate to the reserve near the N2. Because of the remote location, and difficulty of access, the cabin is not serviced by staff every day, only after you leave, so try clean up as much as you can before you go. Also, for the first five-odd kilometres, the river is open to motor boats, so watch out for them!

When you paddle back down the river, consider going on to the Keurbooms River estuary at the mouth. It is ranked in the top 20 in the country in terms of conservation importance and ecological functioning, especially as a nursery for ocean fish. It always remains open to the sea, and is home to a renegade population of the rare, endemic Knysna Seahorse, which many mistakenly believe are found only in the Knysna estuary.

The sand spit near the mouth is also part of the reserve, and is an important breeding area for about 1 000 pairs of Kelp Gulls, as well as Black Oystercatchers, Terns (Caspian, Swift and Sandwhich) and African Spoonbill.

To book the cabin, call CapeNature on 0861-227-362 or 021-483-0190 (country code +27). Or email them at reservation.alert@capenature.co.za.

This photogenic succulent was growing in the river bank...

And this grass looked beautiful at dawn...

This locust posed for about half an hour for me...so I snapped a few photos with my Canon 100mm 2.8 Macro lens.

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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