Winter came early in South Africa this year. Or maybe the warmer winter last time around made us forget that it does actually get cold here in the southern tip of the continent. For 9 months of the year perhaps, we are a very out door oriented nation. Actually no its 12 months of the year. But for 9 months of the year the weather allows it and for 3 months of the year its questionable to say the least. So when we decided to go camping in Clarens, in the foot hills of the Maloti mountains at the end of May we didn’t actually give a second thought to the weather and what being outside exposed to the elements would actually entail. A boys weekend camping in the Golden Gate National Park and rafting down the Ash River sounded boss when we thought of it in January. In the middle of summer. When it was still warm and we could feel our fingers.
For me the decision was doubly easy. The Golden Gate National Park is on the list of Sanparks operated national parks that I am busy ticking off in my 3 year challenge to visit all of them. So it would be park number 10 of 21 and I would be half way through the challenge, half way through the time I have allowed myself. A no brainer really. I had been to the park previously so knew that more than anything it was about the landscapes that I would see as the animals are pretty scarce. And not doing it alone would be a bonus for a change. And the landscapes didn’t disappoint!
The foothills of the northern Maloti mountains, the same mountain range that extends into Lesotho, are quite stunning, with different shades of yellow and red and pink standing out. The BrandWag (I think this translates to fireman) Buttress is probably the most striking and stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the Glen Reenen Rest Camp that we camped at. The clear winter air gave my photos a beautiful crisp look in the late afternoon sun. But it also meant the temperature remained crisp most of the day as well and once the sun set that crispness turned into coldness very quickly.
Ok maybe I exaggerate a little bit. It was cold in the last week of May when we visited the national park. But two weeks earlier the first major cold front of winter swept through the interior of South Africa and actually dropped snow in the mountains of the park. Snow in the first week in May was probably early but luckily when we got there it was dry. So it was cold yes, but it could have been much worse I think. The first night (Friday night) was a bit of a shock to the system though. We got there after dark and the weather seemed pleasant enough as we pitched the tent and set about making camp. However as the night went on it became increasingly colder and colder. The time passed though with great conversation around the campfire until it was time to tuck into the sleeping bag with an extra blanket.
The second night was better though, even though the temperature got low enough for frost to settle on the outside of the tent. A large part of it was because the day was filled with adrenaline, white water rafting on the Ash River. It is ironic that sometimes questioning your own mortality makes you feel the most alive. This is most probably the reason so many people jump off bridges and out of planes. Only jumping off bridges and out of planes is drier and probably warmer. The rafting started off dry enough, with a paddle on the out on the still water of the dam at the outlet of the Ash River. But once we were over the dam wall it began to get interesting. We were soaked by the first rapid. Then we had a little time to dry off just enough to feel warm again before being soaked by the next set of rapids. By the time we got to half way we had all questioned our mortality as well as our sanity a few times I’m sure.
But eventually we got to a section of calmer river where the guide said people would normally swim in the summer. When the water was warmer. And it wasn’t two days before the winter closed season began. We were soaked already though. So how much colder could it be right? I found out that it could have been near death colder. I back flipped (or flopped actually) into the dark water of the Ash River and almost immediately regretted it. My body almost immediately tensed up and I sank below the water in slow motion. Like in the movies when anyone falls into the water, the world went semi-mute and the dappled light filtered through. I felt I should not have been sinking so much, especially with a life jacket on. I should have been floating. But I kept falling backwards, shouting inside my own head. Then suddenly I was up at the surface again, half shocked at what I had done and more than half frozen. But fully alive and kicking! Like I said, somehow questioning your mortality makes you feel more alive sometimes!
Overall a great adventure, camping in freezing cold, rafting down through 7 rapids with a great bunch of guys, braaing, campfires and great conversation. And a few terrific shots to boot! Number 10 of my Sanparks Challenge done, 11 more to go!