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Better than a Bicycle Built for Two: Canoeing in South Africa

September 18, 2012

The verdict after all day on the water? Ted and Bethany are way better at team-canoeing than riding a bicycle built for two. (Oh, Victoria, British Columbia! Cycling in Stanley Park really got the better of us…but that’s another story for another day.) This story finds us in South Africa on an August winter morning, unsure of whether we’d be in for a day of sprinkles or blue sky.

We wore our hiking clothes and packed the rain jackets. Canoeing on the mind, we headed for a classic Garden Route excursion with Eden Adventures.

Pulling up to the entry kiosk at the “Ebb & Flow Wilderness Section South Camp” point of the Garden Route National Park, we paid our 22 Rand each (a total of about $5.45 for the two of us) and drove just a bit further into the park. Down by the reeds and the river stood a brown building on stilts, hovering high enough to avoid seasonal floods and provide an overlook to the fifty or so canoes and kayaks waiting down below.

Ted and I parked our little rental car, left all our worldly possessions buttoned up in the trunk, and made our way up to the second story office, oblivious to the muscles we’d be feeling during the same stair-climb at the end of the day.

The last time we’d paddled together was in Washington State at our friends’ lakeside hideaway just beyond the Bridge of the Gods in the Columbia River Gorge. That was the leisurely paddle, paddle, splash, splash pace: one oar per person, one hand gripping the paddle shaft, one hand wrapped comfortably around the blunt end.

This time, we were in for something a little different: two to a canoe, two double-bladed paddles, and the two of us looking like little discombobulated mini-windmills.

A blast, really.

Eden Adventures owner and founder, Chris, met us and gave a history of his project: he opened shop in his home 15 years ago and over passing years expanded and gained a concession with the National Parks to overseeing all canoe rentals for the area.

Together the three of us reviewed the map for route options.

Wilderness is a small community located along the Indian Ocean on the Western Cape, about four hours east of Cape Town. A series of lakes string their way along the coastline, and rivers make their way down from the mountains to the saltwater. Eden Adventures canoe rentals sits just inside the National Park, not far inland, just perfectly positioned to access easy*-paddling on the rivers and lakes.

We had enough time in our day for two adventures: first, a trip with a guide down to Island Lake and a winding route back along the Serpentine River (descriptive, these names!) for bird spotting, then an afternoon trip on our own, up the Touw River to a landing spot where we’d leave the canoe and hike in to the Touw River Waterfall.

Serpentine River
Island Lake

Along the couple kilometer drive down to the launch point, Chris gave us more history. He’s written the Flatwater Canoe syllabus for guides in South Africa, and he’s actively involved in the African Paddling Association and the local sailing club and water-sports community. His passion shows, as does his desire to invest in the future of this stretch of land in South Africa.

Chris is a graphic designer by training and is currently helping the community of Wilderness re-brand themselves. We got a sneak peak of the new logo he’s designed: a swooping graphic playing off the form of indigenous birds and the curving coastline.

Winged wildlife and water: two features aplenty in Wilderness.

The blue sky was winning the day as we piled  out of the van.

First things first. Life jacket? Check. (Oddly: the most comfortable one I’ve ever worn.) Then a quick lesson in the double-bladed oar, a chance to pop our gear into waterproof buckets, and a shove off into the lake.

Handy water-tight buckets for ballast and for camera and gear storage

We were good sports and laughed a lot, but let’s just say the double-bladed oar was a bit of a challenge. (*Remember that “easy” bit?)

Until we’d mastered the rhythm, we dripped (no, drenched) ourselves silly.

This hot on the heels of watching Olympic kayakers make everything look peachy-easy.

Steve, our guide, was a good sport, too, and laughed a lot with (at?) us. He’d helpfully point out which course up the river would offer less wind-resistance, and he’d point out wildlife that surrounded us.

My favorite sight of the trip: The Malachite Kingfisher. So small compared to the the herons and ducks making their homes along the water, but so vividly colored and cheering to spot.

Ted loved the cormorant relatives that took off running across the surface of the water as we approached. (Milan and Tara – our birdwatching friends, we could’ve used your spotting and identifying skills!)

Nothing so beautiful as the little weaver nests built among the reeds…

By lunchtime, we’d reached the end of the Serpentine River route, and Steve peeled off for the clubhouse, allowing us to make a right hand turn and head upriver toward the Touw Waterfall hike.

Two kilometers of boardwalk and stairs are provided by the National Park, making the trip quite easy, and a nice break from sitting and rowing. Not too long later, out we popped at the falls, just in time for a picnic lunch. (Thanks, Ted!)

Our winter-season visit (opposite hemispheres, folks!) meant less wind, less traffic on the waterways, and a private lunch at the pools where they filmed Swiss Family Robinson. (No, not really about the Swiss Family Robinson thing. But it kind of looks like the studio back lot, doesn’t it?)

Rested and bellies filled, we paddled our way back under afternoon blue skies, a bit more in sync, with a few less errant drips from the oars.

Unlike the end of the tandem bike story, we were smiling, in cheery spirits and happy to cheese it up for the camera.

Roaming the world, working on relationship and admiring the beauty of nature: we thoroughly enjoyed our day and by those last strokes, we felt pretty proud of our team-work on the water.

Oars beat bicycle pedals this time around!

Many thanks to Eden Adventures for hosting us for a day of canoeing in South Africa. They also offer abseiling adventures for those who enjoy rappelling down cliffs to land in canoes below and kloofing adventures for water lovers.

Eden Adventures
In the Heart of Wilderness National Park, South Africa, just between George and Knysna
Details: Contact Chris at
Canoeing, Kloofing, and Abseiling: half-day, full-day, guided, custom, and independent adventure tours and team-building activities in the Garden Route.

Tips: Winter season on the Garden Route (June, July, August – as opposed to the Northern Hemisphere) is a great time to avoid crowds and receive personalized service. The bonus for canoeing in Wilderness: less wind, fewer paddlers, and plenty of bird sightings out on the waterways.

On the next episode of Better-than-a-Bicycle-Built-for-Two: Could Ted’s love of coffee and Bethany’s love of adventure find a perfect marriage in warm-weather waterfall-jumping in Cappuccino Canyon? The answer to that challenge must wait for a someday-return visit… Summer on the Garden Route 2022?

For beautiful accommodations just a few minutes down the road, we can’t recommend highly enough the gorgeous Palms Wilderness Bed and Breakfast (see our write-up). They’ve won our “Best Breakfast Award” hands down, and every detail of this tucked away haven is a blissful delight. Whether you’re looking for gardens, poolside lounging, a glass of scotch, or a soft down comforter, you’ll find it here.

This post is part of our €twoOregonians Tour the Cape series featuring quintessential and offbeat South African experiences, one-of-a-kind accommodations and beautiful B&Bs, respectful wildlife programs, social service projects, and landscape photography from the South African Cape. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are our own; many thanks to our kind hosts and partners along the way. It was our pleasure to experience such genuine kindness and hospitality!

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  • Reply Andrew Buck September 22, 2012 at 12:50 am

    All of the bird pictures are great. The photo of the duck just under the photo of the kingfisher is marvelous. Also, what is kloofing? I realize I could look it up, but I figured I’d just ask you. The weather looks great. Sometimes cloudy and calm is better, I think, than sunny and hot.

    Could this affinity for canoes mean that you and Ted are destined to live in Venice instead of Portland? It would be sad to see you go, but visiting would be a “splash”. ; ) har har

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 23, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      Thanks, Drew. All of those Waterfowl Postage Stamp collections were my inspirations for the photographs, you know. (Kidding, kidding.)

      Kloofing sounds like so much fun. Here’s the info from Chris’ website – “Kloofing, also known canyoneering, is a popular summer activity. The fun starts as one negotiates one’s body into a wetsuit. After kitting-up we go boulder hopping and swimming down narrow canyons with lush indigenous forest on either side. For the brave there are always the optional jumps off the cliffs into the cola coloured water below.”

      I think we were spoiled in Venice with the motorboat option, but maybe we’ll canoe again when we’re back in Oregon? You never know…

      • Reply Andrew Buck September 25, 2012 at 12:56 am

        Kloofing sounds like it should be more popular than it is. I seriously could see myself enjoying that so much, though I would be up for canoeing somewhere as well. But the cliff jumping sounds more exciting. ;)

    What say you?