A River and its Stories: Kayaking on the Umtata
The morning mist starts to recede as we head to the car park to meet our lift. Just minutes earlier a proper bacon, eggs and toast breakfast, accompanied by strong coffee, was duly enjoyed in the Ocean View Hotel’s dining room. While stirring a dollop of sugar into the warm, aromatic whirlpool, I’d wondered whether the river would be similarly dark and enlivening.
Since arriving in Coffee Bay, every day has offered up an adventure. We dodged cows and pot holes in the dark on the way to our luxurious stay and arrived just in time to avoid getting caught in an impressive deluge of summer rain. We’d hiked over lalis, beaches and passed some more cows all the way to the Hole in the Wall and had a day dedicated to exploring the small village of Coffee Bay with its perfect pizzas, one of a kind coffee shop and lush surroundings.
Today, as on previous days, the adventure is palpable. Johmine and I awoke early and had a to and fro about what would be the best gear for tackling the Umtata, also called the Mthatha ─ I don’t suppose it really cares either way. With bathing suits under shorts and t-shirts, and some flip-flops just to get us into the kayaks, we head to the hotel’s parking lot, applying a small reservoir of sunscreen as we go ─ the previous day’s hike left our shoulders and necks with a permanent, let’s call it, “blush”.
Apart from the Ocean View Hotel’s barefoot luxury, attentive staff and excellent location, its network of vetted, dependable and knowledgeable local guides means guests get to know the Wild Coast in a safe way and are ensured a quality experience.
So it is with no small amount of excitement that we meet Mzoxolo (Mzo for short), the owner of Coffee Bay Kayaking, in the hotel’s car park. Mzo is a proud local with a friendly and professional approach demonstrated by his big smile and firm handshake. We get into the neat safari vehicle along with two of his helpers. One of them, nicknamed General, is sporting yellow sunglasses and plays music on a portable speaker. The tunes are quickly turned to Neil Diamond as we get in and I smile at the thought that our DJ has clearly “read the room” and summed us up as the soft rock type.
The trip to the river is an experience in and of itself. The summer rains that have taken the worst sting out of the region’s humidity, has made the dirt road an obstacle course as it twists and turns its way between grassy knolls dotted with bright thatched rondavels. In the summertime, it’s not really an option getting used to the lay of the roads in this part of the world ─ they shift and slither like a living thing with the rains.
As we make our way to the Umtata River Mouth, Johmine and I are treated to a look at village life and my morning coffee wish is granted by the lively scenes around us. Greenery swoops by on either side, we idle patiently as sheep and horses consider giving us right of way, and villagers wave from their mealie patches or from small roadside gatherings. Those on the road have a laugh and a quick conversation with the men on our safari vehicle as we slowly make our way past. Soon the vehicle, like the road, becomes a living thing, breathing in villagers on their way somewhere, and exhaling them at their next stop with a quick honk and a wave. I regret not understanding Xhosa as the joyful banter on the way has put me in good spirits.
Pulling up to the river mouth we are greeted by some more cows. A white building and sign declares that we’ve reached the site of the Umtata Mouth Ferry, established in 1929, which Mzo later explains would ferry passengers from the Kwa Chezi side of the river to Pondoland. With the decline in need for the ferry, it isn’t all that active these days and stands moored some way off. Whatever the ferry’s case may be, as the sun smiles shyly from between the clouds and the bright kayaks beckon for us to come closer, I’m glad we’ve taken the kayaking option.
Johmine and I split up to allow for Coffee Bay Kayaking’s stronger and more adept kayakers to take up the remaining seat in each of our kayaks ─ we’re under no false impressions about our upper body strength. However, we quickly get the hang of it, get a kind of rhythm going, and soon we are on our way around the riverbend heading away from the ocean.
I’m not sure what Johmine and General are chatting about, but Mzo is a wealth of information. As our kayak parts the water in an elegant ripple, I am treated to the region’s stories. Mzo spontaneously takes his cue from the river and I soon consider him its unofficial narrator. When we spot a fish eagle, he relates the heartbreaking life-cycle of this remarkable bird. The differences between white and red mangroves, the beautiful shrubbery framing the river, and the crabs and mud prawns’ dependence on these expertly adapted trees are told in spontaneous fashion.
Soon we are heading for a sand embankment to rest for a while. Though this is usually the ideal spot for swimming and I fondly recall the previous day’s splashing in the river near the Hole in the Wall, today just isn’t warm enough to entice Johmine and me. What I’d prefer is more stories from Mzo and he graciously agrees.
I am struck by the wealth of information he offers about the Xhosa way of life, turning our kayaking trip into a cultural cornucopia. We learn that the mealies growing in tyres on so many of the Xhosa huts’ thatch roofs are layman’s lighting conductors and I involuntarily think of popcorn raining from the skies. Mzo explains that the thatch used for the roofs are only to be cut at a certain time of year as decreed by the chief to ensure this practice remains sustainable. He laughs and jokes as he relates the practice of lobola to us ─ a much more colourful story than the watered down cows-then-vows version one is taught at school. After a while I feel that the Wild Coast with its own indecipherable ways and whims has become a little bit more understandable to me.
Back in our kayaks we head straight upriver. Mzo said we might see some flying fish if we were to kayak side by side. This makes fish swimming between the kayaks antsy and they pop up “on the fly” for a quick greeting. They’re so fast that we’re not able to catch them on camera.
Just before the next bend we beach on the riverside where the mangroves have cleared and are shown how to look for mud prawns. Mzo also teaches us how to fold a mini kayak out of a ten centimetre piece of reedgrass. To this day, my little kayak stands proudly perched on my computer screen.
Though those made of stronger stuff might head up the river quite a bit further, and this is an option, Johmine and I need to head back for our afternoon activities. The way back is enjoyed with less need for photos and so we apply ourselves for the last stretch to the site of the ferry.
We are content when we are dropped off at the hotel, our tiny reed kayaks in hand. Mzo flashes us his big smile before departing. Though we have to get ready for our afternoon adventure, we stop and plop down on the hotel’s trampoline first. The gentle rhythm of the springs is a subtle reminder of the river and so we place our tiny kayaks on the net and watch them bob and dance for just a second more as though watching our own morning’s story from above.
A big thank you to the Ocean View Hotel for their hospitality and all of the arrangements and to Mzo and his team from Coffee Bay Kayaking for a wonderful morning on the river.
Main image: Johmine Croeser
All other images by Adriëtte le Roux unless otherwise indicated.