On Saturday, 6 February, around mid-morning, a perfect Covid-inspired storm hit the Northern Cape just 30km north of Kakamas. After a week of rains triggered by Cyclone Eloise in its catchment area, the Orange River was spewing nearly three million liters of water a second over the Augrabies Falls.
The build-up of the river, known as the Gariep in the region, had been in the news for days and people from around the country decided to get into their cars to see what was (rightfully) promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime viewing.
By 10am that Saturday morning, the queue of vehicles outside the gates of the Augrabies Falls National Park stretched a couple of kilometers.
Image: Jim Freeman
“We had our hands full that day,” admits park section ranger Nardus du Plessis. “It wasn’t so much that there were 3000 day visitors,” he says, “it was more that we had to adhere to Covid protocols and, at the same time, keep them all happy.” Imagine the scene.
Image : Jim Freeman
The main viewing deck over the falls can admit about 25 people but, because of social-distancing, this had to be halved. On top of that, people waiting to get to the deck – including those with a posse of children in tow – had to maintain virus-respectful spacing. Everyone wanted to revel in the moment. Everyone wanted at least one “selfie”. Move along now. Move along, please.
The temperature went up to 350C. With Covid restrictions still in place, the restaurant was closed. You could buy a soft drink at the tiny shop but queues there were as horrendous as those at the gate. The potential for bedlam was frightening.
Somehow, though, the day worked. It was probably the almost-Biblical spectacle of the flow, the scale of which, said Du Plessis, “would fill all 44 of Cape Town’s dams to capacity in just over 12 minutes”. For a park where drought is more the order of the day than floods and the usual daily trickle of visitors reflects the flow of water over the falls, SANParks lifted its game to exceptional heights … to the extent of hiring Working on Fire personnel as car guards and meet-and-greeters.
Good morning, sir, you’re in for a bit of a wait: why don’t you switch off your car so it doesn’t overheat? Hello, ma’am, please fill in this form while you’re waiting; it will speed things up at the gate. Even when you got in to the park, you had to park a long way from the main camp and walk. Good thing Augrabies isn’t a Big Five reserve!
Five days earlier when, on a hunch, I got The Citizen Travel to commission me to drive 770km from Stellenbosch to Augrabies, I had no problems wrangling accommodation from SANParks. “No problem,” said regional communications officer Genevieve Maasdorp, “there’s plenty of space.”
She would not have said the same 48 hours later, when all of the 58 park chalets (sleeping a total of 152 people) and 50 campsites (240 campers) had been snapped up. I know the road north from the Mother City rather well, having travelled it heen en weer to Namibia a rather astonishing number of times over three decades.
It’s only for the past six years that I’ve diverted from the N7 onto the N14 to follow road signs pointing to the “legendary” Pofadder and beyond.
It’s a part of South Africa that those in the know call the “Green Kalahari”, so-called because it is the region through which the Gariep winds its way and weaves its magic. As arid as the Northern Cape might be, the Gariep fulfils a comparable role to the Nile in Egypt.
In years of abundance, it brings not only water but also dumps fertile soils onto the floodplains of places such as Keimoes and Kakamas, transforming them into vast verdant vineyards, orchards and plantations. While the area is known for the cultivation of table grapes, there is also a burgeoning wine industry and my first visit to the region was to Bezalel Wine and Brandy Estate at Dyason’s Klip outside Keimoes.
Not only was I enamored of the estate’s products – the Bezuidenhout family has been making wine and brandy for four generations – but I was perversely amused at how the farm obtained its name. Martiens Bezuidenhout, the current brandy-maker, pointed out striking outcrop of rocks and told me: “Back in 1878, there was a tribe called the Korana in this area. Together with the Griquas and a number of other tribes, they rebelled against the government of the Cape Colony.
“One of the soldiers sent to put down the rebellion was a General Dyason and his forces managed to drive a group of Korana into those rocks. “Because it was an almost impregnable position, he decided to starve them out. After a week of waiting, no signs of life were observed and Dyason stood up to lead the final assault. The only surviving Korana put his last bullet through the general’s head.”
On that visit (and every subsequent trip including the first night of this one) I stayed at The Overlook (www.overlook.co.za) in Keimoes, which has three impeccably appointed rondavels looking down towards the river. It’s owned and run by Eric Husing who used to be a member of the CIA – not the intelligence agency but the Chef’s Institute of America.
There’s also a rim-flow swimming pool, vital at the height of summer. Couple that with Eric’s dinners and you’ll understand why I regard The Overlook as the only place to stay in Keimoes. I realized in 2015 the Augrabies Falls were very close and, notwithstanding having learned about them at school, that I’d never actually seen this apparently phenomenal geological landmark.
I returned the next year and was generally underwhelmed; not by the magnificence and immensity of the place (the falls are 56m high and the subsequent Oranjekom Gorge 18km long) but by the paltry flow of the river in what was the height of execrable drought.
The almost-otherworldly rocky landscape with its twisted kokerboom and gnarled thorn trees left an impression, however, and I vowed to return if the Gariep was in spate. I’m glad I did. Instead of making the trip in my Jeep, a colleague and I set out in a spunky little Suzuki Baleno.
The vehicle was comfortable, had lots of space for our camera gear and, most fortunately, an air-conditioned that was both hardworking and effective. It also, we discovered when we arrived at Augrabies, possessed impressive stream fording capabilities: there were five or six we crossed which, because of the rains, presented more of an obstacle than normal.
We arrived in the late afternoon that proverbial “golden hour” and could see where the falls were because of the rainbow arcing high above the veld. The water flow was so massive that the spray from the falls rose high into otherwise still air. After dumping our luggage at the large (air-conditioning throughout) family cottage, we hurried to the falls which were about 300m away.
My colleague, who had his camera with him, hung back but I walked out onto the observation deck and was drenched by the mist. What wonderful relief from the harsh heat of the day! We spent two days in the park, exiting only to immerse ourselves at Die Mas van Kakamas brandy estate and buy what very little award-winning boerewors the local butchery had left in stock because of the influx of tourists.
Naturally, we braai’d both nights, the constant thunder – I know it’s a cliché but there’s no other word to describe it – of the falls becoming so familiar that was like being near the sea. There were periodic breezes coming off the falls in our direction, bearing with them the finest of cooling water droplets. I am constantly exhilarated by the majesty of nature but this ranked high in my Top 10 of experiences.
There’s more rain forecast*. Make time to visit Augrabies if you haven’t already done so. * Time your visit by noting when the upstream dams open their sluice gates; it takes about a week from when the dams overflow till the floodwaters reach the falls.
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