DEE’S late husband, Bob Richards, had for years dreamt of establishing a canoe trail starting from Cannonville on the Sundays River – a vision that was shared by several other villagers.
The trail, in the end, came about in rather a roundabout way. Bob had spotted a sheep stuck on a farm road while he was driving from Addo and home to Cannonville one day.
He alerted the resident farmer to the animal’s plight and happened to mention his dream – and the problem of securing a suitable site on the riverbank where an overnight cabin could be built at the end of the trail.
The grateful farmer immediately offered access from his land and said Bob could look for a suitable spot along his section of the river.
Bob did just that, found an ideal site and set about roping in sponsors like PPC, which has supported the trail since the beginning.
Assisted by trail co-founder Mark Lawson, Bob and some helpers built the wooden hut and its concrete foundations from scratch.
The Nukakamma Canoe Trail officially opened in June 1998, the name a derivative of “tnuka tkamma”, a Khoisan name for the river referring to “green, grassy water”.
Historians say the name is apt as, despite the arid parts the river flows through on its way from the Sneeuberg mountains to the Indian ocean, its banks are always green and grassy.
In November 1999 the hut, then called Henderson’s Rest after the owner of the land at the time, had to be relocated to another farm, three kilometres further upriver, as the farm was sold.
In 2002 the trail was accredited by the South African Trail Owners Association and in 2008 it received what was believed to be the country’s first Green Flag status for canoe trails.
By the time Bob died in August 2010, more than 9500 paddlers had completed the trail.
Following the sale of the land, yet again, the hut was dismantled for the second time in its history and put back together again at its new site in June this year – only this time Dee had to do it without her beloved Bob.
The hut sleeps 12 people in bunk-beds, has an undercover braai area, a separate “long drop” and a sundeck with an impressive view of the river and surrounding landscape.
Wooden steps lead down to a floating jetty from where the canoes are accessed for the pleasant paddle back to Cannonville.
There is no power or running water – the experience is roughing it at best – but Dee makes sure the hut is always spruced up and clean, and ready to receive its next batch of paddlers.
“My daughter, Barbara Richards, and grandson, Thomas Pritchard, have been a huge help in all of this since Bob passed away,” Dee said.
The hut is stocked with plenty of firewood and fresh drinking water and, in keeping with an idea of Bob’s which he never got around to putting in place himself, there’s a “feather log” where you can place any feathers you pick up, while making a wish.
A profusion of birds including the pied kingfisher, goliath and grey heron and many others, can be seen in the area and there are handy charts at the hut to aid keen birders in the identification process.
“The area teems with birdlife and there are believed to be more than 200 species in these parts,” Dee said.
While exploring the banks, photographer Mike Holmes and I spotted a pair of fish eagles nesting in a tree on the other side of the river. Unfortunately they flew off too soon for us to get a decent picture.
Even the trip back to Cannonville, through farmlands and with Dee and her dogs Sheena and Shep by our side, offered a rare view of three kudu bulls in what is now part of the southern section of Addo Elephant National Park.
Buck are often spotted along the banks, as are leguaans or water monitors and even, occasionally, industrious otters.