A creative nonfiction tale—A little Africa(an) adventure
When we agreed to go kloofing, we had no idea what we had said yes to.
It remains astounding with how much ease my wife and I, three years into being married, (childless at that stage), had consented to the adventure.
Issa and I didn’t think twice—we trusted the people—our regular hiking group. The two of us had become avid hikers by then. The opportunity to follow a trail on foot, pack on the back, scale rocks and crisscross forests, ever going higher to reach vantage points and enjoy infinite vistas, beckoned with fresh abandon.
The old adage was true: ignorance is bliss.
Kloofing or canyoning is moving down a kloof (or canyon) by means of climbing, jumping, sliding or abseiling.
Our group leader, Benjamin, had made it sound so simple: “There’s this nice kloof called Sokuroro; it consists of seven sections of natural waterslides. All we need are shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. It’ll be great. I’ve done it before!” That sealed the deal. It being a couple of years before the internet existed made it impossible to quickly Google the phenomenon. Trust just had to suffice.
Our kloofing venture would take us to the Sokuroro Falls in the old Transvaal province in South Africa.
As was the tradition of the hiking group, they gathered the Friday evening after nine for a late barbeque, a pre-midnight feast. It was a simple, yet proper affair. Beer in hand, we huddled around the glowing and burning coals, being smoked like salmon pinned to drying racks, breathing the kaleidoscope of flavors bursting from the farmer’s sausages and steaks sizzling on the grill.
Droplets of fat tumbled to below, leading to snaps and crackles and sparks flying in all directions, making us scramble to safety. On an adjacent grill, in a wide, blackened cast-iron pot, the putupap simmered. (Thick maize porridge.)
Came midnight, with everyone fed and watered, the seasoned pickup truck was loaded to capacity. The eight of us, complete with bags and boots, each had to find room. Two bundled into the front with Benjamin who would do the driving—they shared a long bench. The rest of us squeezed into the canopy-covered back; we became bags and bodies, not much different from sacks of potatoes en route to the market.
The plan was to drive through the night and reach our destination by sunrise.
Issa and my objections had fallen on deaf ears—we had failed to convince the group to rather depart immediately after work. The others found the prospect too exhilarating—staying awake, driving through the early morning hours, visiting, getting high on coffee, dragged along in four Thermos flasks.
With both of us working in the hospital, often subjected to marathon sixteen and twenty-four hour shifts, always until the wee hours—we only rolled our eyes at our friends’ childlike enthusiasm. How dared we dampen their fired-up anticipation?
I was grateful for ending up in the back—it allowed for several quick-nap sessions.
Twice during the trip, we played musical chairs at our pit-stops to stretch our legs and empty bulging bladders—we swopped drivers and changed who was to be squeezed in where. I ended up in the front for the last leg to reach the kloof. The front cabin didn’t so much reek of stale bodies, but inundated us with the dying aromas of barbeque smoke, steak, and putupap.
It was only after we had turned off the paved road, bumping down the first gravel path, rubbing thighs and shoulders in the narrow cabin space, headlights slicing the night open, that I grasped my friends’ reason for timing their arrival with the stance of the sun.
It was as if diaphanous veil after invisible veil was pulled away from the bushveld landscape, like a bride given off by her father in front of the altar. First, the hookthorn, then the African beachwood, then the stemfruit, and lastly, the sugarbush, materialized in the nebulous dusk around us.
I wound down the window when we turned onto the final road, by now only a discreet two-tire-track cutting through the rugged bush. The going was much slower. I only had to put out my arm to touch the tufts of tall, coarse turf grass, flanking the trail on both sides.
Ahead of us, behind the hills housing the Sokuroro kloof, first a pale salmon, then a soft rouge, pushed the somber charcoal of the night heavenward. It was not hard to smell each rock and tree and scrub as we swayed and rocked toward our destination.
When we clambered from the dust-covered bakkie, stretching aching limbs, an over-sized ochre ball inched out above the dark hills. The timing was perfect. A Guinea fowl startled us with his shrill tjjj-tjjj-tjjj-chirr as he scrambled for cover. We all laughed at the silly bird.
A cluster of clay houses, complete with an uneven branch-woven cattle pen, tucked between a score of hookthorn trees, was our first stop. The head of the kraal, Ntate Radebe, patriarch of the extended local African family, was the unofficial game warden and caretaker of the area, including the rock waterslides we wished to visit. His blessing was required in order for us to head into the hills unaccompanied and unhindered. It was the right thing to do—trespassing on tribal land was more than frowned upon.
The pleasantries, which were not to be rushed, took up considerable time. Our vehicle, as per the warden’s request, had to be left next to the kraal, in the shade of a grown Acacia. But first, we had to clear the ground of any long white thorns, able to pierce a tire.
By midmorning, following an unhurried and substantial breakfast, we headed out toward the low foothills. We carried little else with us other than water bottles and a light snack, since the actual kloofing-trip would only occupy half-a-day. And given that we would be jumping into rock pools, goodness knows how many times, we didn’t want to submerge any valuable items. We were expected to be back by early afternoon.
“See?” Benjamin reassured, “it will be as easy as one, two, three.”
Only two out of our group of eight had been there before, some years earlier, and not in a leading capacity.
As we traversed the second ridge, the sun peaked in a blistering white dome. We were yet unable to locate the actual kloof to go down in, since some of the narrow gorges in the network of hills were not fit for our purpose, even with ample water. It was imperative to undertake such an outing only following recent rain in the region.
“Ben, are we lost?” I asked at last, tying a bandanna around my head to keep the perspiration from running into my eyes.
Ben, clown that he was, couldn’t beat about the bush much longer. He laughed, shaking his head. He waved at the flora around us. “The kaptein must have planted hundreds of new trees since the last time. He must have thought it a grand idea to established a brand new botanical garden here.” (The captain, head of the kraal where we had left the vehicle.)
Rhonda, a new-comer to our group, a little bundle of energy, eyed the sun, biting her lip. “And the kaptein at the same time transplanted the kloof to another mountain range, Ben?”
Ben raised his hands in defence. “Guys, it’s been four years. As you’ve seen—there are no road signs. Not even proper footpaths.” He pointed at an overhanging rock. “Why don’t you rest here in the shade? I’ll head to the top of the next ridge. I have an idea where we are.” He looked at Gloria for help, a soft-spoken girl who had been there with him years before, but who only shrugged her shoulders in embarrassment.
Phil, a rugby player, solid like an oak, accompanied Benjamin to locate the lost canyon.
We heard Ben and Phil’s hollering echoing off the boulders long before the two reappeared between stemfruit and sugarbush scrubs.
Phil’s arms windmilled, waving us closer. “We found the kloof!”
Only for brief seconds did the cicadas hold their screeching songs when Phil’s baritone overpowered their incessant contribution. It was as if the two o’clock sun only spurred the noisy insects on, saturating the air in the low valley with the heady aroma of klip dassie droppings. (Rock hyraxes.)
We scampered after Ben and Phil with renewed energy.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached the first slide—stood at the very top of the famous Sokuroro kloof. Filled with bravado, we cheered, pumping our fists, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the gigantic rock, peering down into a twisted and shadow-filled canyon, the sun glistening on wet rocks, moss-lined narrow slides, with water cascading down.
The first slide was an appropriate initiation—smooth and wide and easy—only six feet down to the landing for the second slide.
The same went for the second slide—now much narrower, but navigable, nothing out of the ordinary. The slide was about ten feet long, top to bottom. Certain of ourselves, we went one after the other.
It was here, on the landing of the third slide, that we made the discovery: there was no turning back anymore; not without rock climbing equipment, which we didn’t have.
There was only one option: onward!
Between all the laughing and cheering, Issa and I stole many quick hugs, hand-holding, and kisses.
Issa, not trusting the peace, dropped flat on her tummy, right on the edge, peering down into the unknown. That particular landing consisted of a rock the size of a house, across which we had to slide and then free fall a further fifteen feet into the rock pool below. She shaded her eyes against the afternoon sun and glared in Ben’s direction. “How do we know this pool is deep enough?”
She had voiced what each one of us feared.
Ben shrugged. “I’ve been down here before. It’ll be fine.”
“What if there’s a hidden rock under the water’s surface?”
Phil didn’t wait for Ben’s answer and plopped down in the narrow trough from which water cascaded into the pool below. He propelled himself forward as he hollered, “Don’t worry. I’ll be the test-dummy!”
The rest of us held our breaths, waited for the splash as he struck the water, then waited some more for him to resurface.
His voice raced up at us, undaunted. “I’m okay!”
Most of us gave a nervous laugh and followed his lead.
This became our drill: a loud scream, followed by silence, a big splash, more silence, only to be crowned by a triumphant, “I’m okay!”
The shadows lengthened as we traipsed around on the forth landing, rubbing our shivering limbs.
Phil, the biggest and sturdiest of us all, insisted on going first. Each time. Fearlessly, he’d haul himself into the unknown.
Was it dangerous? Without a doubt.
The fifth slide was the closest to a commercial waterslide I had ever witnessed. It consisted of two narrow cork-screwed segments, twirling us around, gurgling with water only to spit us out into the next rock pool far below.
By the time we stood ready on the landing for the sixth slide, direct sun had left the canyon. We were now so far down into the belly of the earth, direct sun failed to reach us. It suddenly felt darker. Ominous even. Issa had sensed my unease and we huddled together in a shivering embrace.
Ben, noticing the shift in mood, cheered us on, “Almost there, guys. Come on. After this one, there’s only one to go!”
Rhonda bellowed from the back, awaiting her turn to go down. “Benjamin Benade, you’d better have counted the slides correctly. Your hide is on the line. We’re buying you a topographical map of these mountains for your next birthday!”
Ben, red-faced, mumbled an extensive apology, implying Gloria should have been the one to help him locate the kloof sooner.
Gloria piped from where she stood, shivering, rubbing her arms. “Benade, you know my internal magnet doesn’t work. I’m not a swallow.”
More than one sigh of relief was heard when we reached slide number seven. The last one. Dusk was setting in fast. Only Phil, out of our entire disheveled group, didn’t shiver profusely. Hunger pains, fear, adrenaline, and a degree of hypothermia was taking its toll. I gave Issa a quick kiss before she jumped down into the last rock pool.
Having encouraged the others to do likewise, I gave my best blood-churning scream as I propelled myself over the wet rock, became airborne for a moment, then plunged to below.
Teeth chattering, our clothes clinging to our shivering bodies, we sloshed, single-file, down the narrow neck at the bottom of the canyon. A flashlight would have been a nice thing to have had around.
Ben, now more certain of himself, took the lead.
Phil formed the rear guard. Soon, his off-key baritone hummed from the back, sure and unwavering, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot . . .” The rest of us joined in, eager for any distraction from our momentary discomfort.
As we slipped free from the bottom of the valley, we stepped into light, as if emerging from a dark tunnel. With renewed fervor we clambered the first ridge in the last light of the eventful day. Scaling the ridge, we could now for the first time hear the melodious voice of Ntate Radebe, calling, guiding us home. He must have become worried. We were supposed to have been back at his kraal between the hookthorn, hours ago.
Phil made a funnel with his hands and answered our host.
Approaching the clearing, the silhouette of Ntate Radebe loomed ahead. We returned his wave. As the magnificent fiery ball cringed behind the tree line, we quickened our pace, grateful the cicadas were content with toning it down. To our left, the underbrush rustled, startling us anew with a crisp, tjjj-tjjj-tjjj-chirr.
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