Tag: biedouw valley

Five Days at Algeria


In the Biedouw Valley, nature and the elements conspire to sustain life under extreme conditions

My joining Chris and my daughter Sarah on their planned three-day walk around the Cederberg’s Sneeukop (planned as the final stage of an eight-day ramble including the Biedouw Valley and Heuningvlei) was prompted by my wish to photograph a Cederberg blizzard. A glance at my weather forecaster of choice, yr.no, promised a snowbound day on Saturday, August 11, meaning four days on the mountain. I was hastily included in their holiday plans.

We followed a blissful two days’ braaing and wandering the hills at the Enjo Nature Farm in the Biedouw Valley with a short gear-settling stroll through the beautifully contorted red rocks of Heuningvlei, where we camped overnight. While meandering the path through the rocky reserve beloved by boulder-pad toting climbers, I realised I’d made the potentially fatal mistake of bringing along a new Deuter 65+10 heavyweight hauling pack. A technical backpack needing careful configuration (and loaded to 20 kilograms), I struggled to find the correct settings.

Within two hours, I was in serious trouble – the pack angled painfully into my lower back, causing the nerves in my thighs to seize and shorten my usual loping stride.


Tough decisions and broken dreams on the road to Heuningvlei

By sunset on Tuesday, we’d found a camp site sheltered from the cutting wind and I voiced my soul-sinking conclusion. Rather than throw caution to what promised to be icy, high-speed winds, I’d be a drag on Chris and Sarah at Sneeukop, perhaps endangering them and myself, and had therefore to bow out as being unfit to walk. Put simply, with new and untested gear, I was neither ready or nor suitably equipped.

It was not an easy choice to make – these were shots I was chasing with a passion – but I’ve long known that no-one messes with nature or the safety of others.


Heuningvlei’s colour-suffused rocks reflect nature’s uncompromising beauty

They accepted my decision and, on walking back to the Heuningvlei parking area on Wednesday morning, I found that tightening my hip belt to extremes and shortening the shoulder-support straps to their limit raised the pack and freed my legs. Nevertheless, the damage had been done and my lower back as well as the nerves in my thighs remained intensely painful. Moreover, I couldn’t be certain I’d found the correct settings.

The prospect of four days at Algeria Forestry Station – on the banks of the Rondegat River between the Nieuwoudt and Uitkyk passes – did not faze me in the least. When surrounded by the Cederberg, tranquillity is a given. However, as Chris and Sarah readied their packs later in the day (expecting lousy weather, I’d set up my borrowed “three-man” dome tent on the mountain side of the river), deep disappointment ruled my emotions.


Algeria’s August thoughts of summer

Following mild admonition by Algeria Forestry Station manager Patrick Lane that they were “cutting it a bit fine”, Chris and Sarah headed up the waterfall path to the Middelberg hut at 16:50, leaving themselves two hours of light to reach it. Being an early morning walker, I found some solace in considering the difficulties a slow companion might have presented them. Reassured by my belief that it’s infinitely better to save daylight for emergencies (or slackers) I drifted in to a long sleep on the mellifluous sound of the babbling brook running alongside my tent.

Winter brings frigid nights to the Cederberg and anybody not ready for them should stay at home. With a warming sun rising at 09:30 between Boshoek and Daggavleikop, I spent Thursday peeling off layers of clothes while taking shots of the camp site, chatting to friendly, well-informed Cape Nature staff, and resting my legs which, as the hours passed, began to lose their near-paralysing pain.

Algeria’s secluded layout suits the singular soul. An upmarket clearing house for picnickers, campers and walkers set in a multihued Blue Gum plantation, each shaded site has a power point, water, a braai spot and a choice of picnic tables. The ground is level and the ablution blocks are as good as you’ll find anywhere. Although four or five parties stayed the night on Thursday, abundant space and no night lights maintain a feeling of comfortable isolation. Run by Cape Nature, it reinforces my belief that, by and large (Enjo Nature Farm, Cederberg Oasis and unknown others excepted), our best camp sites are run by parastatals,, e.g. SANParks, Cape Nature and our provincial authorities.

By nightfall, I’d settled in to a near-somnolent relaxation and I assumed my intrepid walkers had safely navigated their second day through Grootlandsvlakte, Groot-Hartseer and Klein-Hartseer to reach the hut and sunset at Crystal Pools.


Prefrontal clouds drift in over the Uitkyk River

Friday dawned with the nagging knowledge of a particularly vicious cold front making its way up towards the unseasonably warm Cederberg from Cape Town. Chris and Sarah were due to make their way from Crystal Pools up Engelmanskloof, along the Agter Sneeukop trail past the Sneeupad hut down to the Sleeppad hut for their third night on the mountain. It’s a long trek and the path on the far side of Sneeukop is not distinct. [I later learnt that Sneeukop’s circumnavigation looked to be a bridge too far on the day. They therefore turned right at the top of Engelmanskloof, crossed the face of Sneeukop and trekked directly to the Sleeppad hut.]

Feeling fit and in contemplative mood, I again spent the day quietly, enjoying – albeit somewhat apprehensively – the last of our short-lived virtual summer. Late in the afternoon, I received an SMS from Sarah:

“Met some hikers. They say the storm may be too rough for hiking tomorrow – we’ll have to see. No cell reception at hut itself, only about 200m from it, so communication will be haphazard.”

I rested easy and fell asleep as soon as I’d pulled on my requisite five layers of clothing accompanied by gloves, scarf, hat and sleeping bag liner.


By Saturday morning, the river is a churning torrent

The storm hit at midnight. Large drops of rain driven by a 40-to-60 kph wind slammed into the tent, waking me. My cheap dome was tugging at its pegs but seemed stable enough, so I went back to sleep. By 06:00, I was up and about. Whereas six hours earlier, the weather bore the hallmarks of pre-frontal rain, the storm was now at full strength. The wind, at a steady 60 kph, had become an incessant roar drowning out the sound of the river and plastering leaves, twigs and insects to the western side of the rapidly-swaying tent.

I figured, with some delight, that what was going on above me at Sneeukop was being replicated for my benefit below. Upsides and downsides, so to speak – nature knows no bias or favour.

Resigned to spending Saturday inside, I tried – while occasionally pushing out the side of a tent seemingly intent on collapse or departure – to find the best way to accommodate myself in my small, wind-whipped shelter. Being tall, I could not lie flat on my back and so either had to curl up on my left or right-hand side. Alternatively, I could sit with my arms around my bent knees or I could cross my legs – left over right or right over left.

Generally, I wouldn’t consider entertaining such exercises in problem-solving, but this was no ordinary day. It was one of contrasts and wildly vacillating extremes.


Blue Gum boughs are flung across Algeria with deadly – and devastating – force

At around 07:00, dawn brought with it a long tearing sound followed by an ominous thud. I stuck my head outside the tent flap to investigate. A large branch had torn off the tree about 20 metres from me and, although it had fallen towards me, slamming into the sodden earth, it remained tenuously fixed to the trunk. I could see my tent pegs had popped and I clambered out to weigh them down with rocks. I also placed some inside the tent. While remaining steady at 60 kph, gusts of 100-120 kph were starting to funnel through the valley.

All but one other party had deserted Algeria. We looked set for a rough day.

The storm – accompanied by increasingly strong squalls of wind – followed a predictable pattern. A lull, followed by a dramatic five-minute reduction of light transmogrified into a ear-splitting cacophony of wind that hammered the tent, pushing it every which way on its supports. Thereafter, a brief interlude of drumming rain preceded another lull. For a ‘leisure’ tent – and given that long use had rendered it not-altogether waterproof, it certainly wasn’t performing poorly.

Every now and then a fierce wrenching sound would signal another heavy Blue Gum bough being violently stripped from a tree and tossed across Algeria. A booming crash signalled a mature tree toppling across the road leading into and out of the forestry station. On a hurried visit to the ablution block, I watched – transfixed – as the tempest tore first leaves and then branches from the wildly gyrating trees before sending them sailing dozens of metres away.


Branches stripped from trees by high-speed winds litter the Forestry Station

Early in the afternoon, my neighbour – a Kilimanjaro veteran whose small daughter remains the youngest person to have summited that peak – popped in to express his concern at the wind’s ferocity. Caught unaware the night before, a newly acquired gazebo straddling their technical tent was reduced to mangled steel. Behind their site, a tall row of Blue Gums defined the horizon. Before the road closure, a couple that had sought shelter alongside them had fled when the wind lifted their tent (and its contents) lock, stock and barrel and hurled it across several camp sites.

Given his daughters’ valid concerns – Kilimanjaro was a doddle compared to this – his wife had asked Cape Nature to bring in the chain saws so that they could seek overnight shelter in one of the chalets. At 16:30, the sound of saws dominated that of the wind raging about us. The road reopened within half-an-hour.


Forestry staff clear a path through the remains of a toppled Blue Gum

I appreciated my neighbour’s concern. Being a Cape Point ‘local’, I’m used to gale-force wind. The Blue Gum plantation in which Algeria exists, however, adds another, altogether more dangerous dimension to a wind storm. A hard wood, Blue Gums crack and snap and their branches are heavy enough to kill. Moreover, the keening of the wind – when channelled through such trees, rises to a disturbing, ear-piercing banshee scream capable of frightening the most battle-hardened camper.

Fortunately, I had it on good authority that the storm would abate by midnight (yr.no) and, after kindly helping me to up-end a picnic nook weighing a few hundred kilograms on the windward side of my tent, my neighbour decided to stick it out for the night. I’m pleased he did, as the family might have felt they’d not ‘finished the job’ had they decided to leave.

After sunset, I too had little to do but ride it out. At around 19:00, a single flash of lighting followed by an immediate, crackling peal of thunder rolling and thundering down the valley signalled the storm’s peak. My small tent had remained upright all day and, not being able to do anything about wind-tossed branches, I lay down to sleep with my head flush to the wet, bucking fabric separating me from the high-pitched howl of cataclysmic forces beyond comprehension. There’s a certain stillness to be found in chaos and it can only be found in accepting a situation over which you have no control.


No camp site is left untouched

I slept solidly and awoke at 03:00 to silence and learned – when a calm and occasionally sunny day broke – that the storm had moved on just before midnight. Twigs and small branches surrounded my tent and snow and cloud-capped mountains surrounded me. Ragged cloud boiled and roiled from their far peaks. The now brown-churned river seethed and the cold called for more clothing. A hot shower followed by a mug of coffee beckoned.


In the aftermath, an eerie calm prevails…

My neighbours departed and I remained to await Chris and Sarah’s return. Given the violence of the storm and a rising apprehension, I was not keen to leave the area in case I received a message from Sarah. It seemed my  stay at Algeria was destined to be restricted to the boundaries of the camp site.

Around midday, Cape Nature’s Patrick Lane suggested sending out a search party at 15:00. I reminded him that Chris and Sarah were late starters and he mulled this over. “I’m taking a ride to Welbedacht (a forestry station near Driehoek) – I’ll speak to you later” he said, before ambling off. About and hour-and-a-half after Patrick’s departure, I received another SMS from Sarah:

“Coming down Welbedacht way to Driehoek with some other hikers. Safety in numbers :).”

I’m not enamoured of cell phones and tend to use them only when necessary. Putting my prejudices aside, I started hammering out a text message to her to look out for the same bearded chap who advised the two of them they were cutting it fine … when I heard “Dad!” shouted above the roar of the river. She and Chris, barefoot but looking healthy, had hopped out of Patrick’s pick-up truck. I gave her an enormous hug and, on looking quizzically at Patrick, received a quiet response, “Just a hunch…”.


A few hundred metres above Algeria, the blizzard had turned Sleeppad into a surreal wonderland

So it goes with Cape Nature at Algeria. They keep tabs on everybody, be they on the upside or the downside – a truly remarkable organisation.

Chris was full of beans – on an adrenal high from which it would take some time to recover. “I want to show you my photographs” was the first thing he said to me (before making a three-bag fire, cooking up some coffee and heading off to the showers). Being made of stern stuff, I could take it. We photographers know that every moment not spent pressing the shutter release button is “missed opportunity”. Still, it hurt. Then I saw the pictures and all envy dissipated. Beneath Sneeukop, nature had given us a storm the strength of which Algeria has not seen in decades. Above Algeria, it had given Chris and Sarah a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience they’ll treasure forever.


Sharp contrasts of virgin snow and brooding clouds are offset by multihued Cederberg stone

I cannot tell their story, but they have allowed me to share their images. They capture the beauty I knew to be there – that I sought to capture for myself. Disappointed? No, not really. At least only until I next get the chance to trap myself in a blizzard on Sneeukop. By then, that backpack of mine will have settled into well-worn and grooved settings, the straps will have stretched, the hip belt will be shaped to my body’s contours and I’ll be carrying only that which I need to. This much I do know – there’s no room for excess baggage in the mountains. Nor do we take photographs for ourselves. We take them to share our awe of nature as she presents herself to us.


A once-in-a-lifetime experience

With the swollen river ensuring another night at Algeria, my now five-day sojourn was drawing to a close. The river dropped the following day and we headed back to Cape Town suffused with that sense of fulfilment given to us by nature when it seems it’s tearing the world apart. It’s not. It’s merely rearranging our psyches – reminding us of that which means most to us.

Sneeukop photographs by Chris Botha. My thanks to both Chris and Sarah Golby for their companionship on this trip.

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