During school holidays, Plettenberg Bay turns into a seriously congested place. Crowds from Sandton and Cape Town descend en masse to one of the most scenic parts of the famed Garden Route.
But Keurbooms River Nature Reserve
– just a few kilometres north of Plett - retains its tranquility amid the insanity. The Whiskey Creek canoe trail is a 7-kilometre paddle up the Keurbooms River, ending at a rustic but comfortable self-catering cabin that sleeps up to ten people.
The Keurbooms River is 85 kms in length, with its source at Spitskop in the Outeniqua Mountains, but the 9 square kilometre reserve protects just the last stretch of the waterway before it flows into the bay.
The magic of the canoe trail and cabin is the unexpected scenery and serenity of the Keurbooms River gorge itself. The trail starts near the N2 national highway bridge, but after paddling a few hundred metres up the river, you can’t hear or see any trucks, cars or people, 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?
As you paddle up the increasingly narrow gorge you’ll feel like a colonial explorer discovering a secret corner of paradise, fortunately ignored by the foresters, miners and property developers.
Thick indigenous forests cover the steep sides of the gorge. Tall Outeniqua yellowwood trees festooned with old man’s beard are some of the most impressive I’ve seen, and there are also stinkwoods and Cape beech trees. (The reserve was proclaimed in 1980 to protect the Afromontane forest).
Close your eyes and listen to the natural acoustics. Fish eagles calling to each other, kingfishers chattering as they hover over the water, 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 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 from the tannins of fynbos, but sunlight glistens off the surface.
I drank straight from the river – the Keurbooms River remains mostly clean and ecologically sound, even though about 8 million litres are extracted every day for municipal use.
The river is also home to four indigenous and increasingly threatened fish species – Slender Redfin, Eastern Cape Redfin, Cape Galaxias and Cape Kurper.
After 7kms you can’t paddle any further, because of a series of low rapids. Here you pull your canoe out onto the bank.
From there it’s about a 300-metre walk to the cabin, which is located on an elevated bend of the river. 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 and canvas-covered mattresses, so remember your sleeping bags. If it’s good weather, sleep outside on the deck.
One night I was woken by the booming serenade of a Giant Eagle owl on top of the roof. Bushpigs come schnortling under the cabin to dig up roots and bulbs, while blue duiker, bushbuck and Cape grysbok have also been seen. There are leopard around, but you probably won’t see them.
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.
During summer, when it gets 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.
When you paddle back down the river, consider going on to the Keurbooms River estuary at the mouth. It is ranked as one of the country’s twenty most important in terms of conservation, especially as a nursery for ocean fish.
The estuary remains open always to the sea, and is home to a renegade population of the rare, endemic Knysna Seahorse, commonly but mistakenly believed to occur 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 canoe trail and the cabin, call CapeNature on 0861-227-362 or 021-483-0190, or email firstname.lastname@example.org