Rollin’ on the river in a bird lover’s paradise

S A CITY girl with more of a penchant for stilettos than slip-slops, the idea of canoeing down the Sundays River was somewhat daunting.

But, two weeks ago that is exactly what I did and it’s an experience I will never forget.

Tying my tekkie laces tightly and donning a warm jacket, I set off with a group headed by Crisscross Adventures owner Chris Pickles who, along with guide AD Stander, seemed to know just about everything there is to know about the river, birdlife, fossils and fish found in the area.

Pickles and Stander lowered our canoe into the water, helped me in and gave us a push to get us started.

As my fiance started paddling I was struck by the absolute silence, bar the birds and the splashing of water.

For any bird lover this gentle trip down the river will be pure paradise and for anyone else it is interesting, informative and a tonic for the soul.

As we set off Stander said: “There’s something about being on the river that just clears the head.”

And he was absolutely right.

For three-and-a-half hours we meandered down the river as our guides did a species count.

They were hoping for a record – and they got it.

All in all we counted 60 species – 58 on the river and two on the way back to Pickles’ home.

The whoop of delight and the air punch Stander let out when he surpassed the record paid testament to his absolute love of nature.

Stander and Pickles told us about the feeding habits and rarity of the wildlife in the area. We were fortunate that, aside from the birds (my favourite being the Goliath Heron) we also saw a young leguvaan clinging to the riverbank.

It was only a few months old and we were told it could grow to a couple of metres. I was rather glad the reptile was on the small size – a large leguvaan sidling past my canoe would’ve be more than I could handle. The canoes are comfortable and Crisscross ensures that snacks and juice are available, as are waterproof outfits in the event of rain. Stopping on the banks of the river about halfway through our trip, we enjoyed a quick snack before walking up the hilly terrain.

Once we were up on the banks, Pickles showed us a number of fossils, all marine mollusks, telling us that the banks used to be covered by the oceans and millions of years later the seashells still remained.

Pickles, who grew up in the area, told us he had discovered a piece of ivory embedded in the rockface a few years back. He would tell his river guests that a tusk from ivory hunters of yesteryear remained in the rock but it was only when he investigated this that he found that the joke he had been telling was in fact no joke.

The piece of ivory is now proudly displayed on a wall in his home. Stander played his part imparting wisdom about the indigenous plants found in the area, explaining how aloe had remarkable healing powers and telling tales of hunters who used to sleep encircled by thorn trees to ensure they weren’t attacked by wild animals.

We climbed back into our canoes and slowly made our way along the river as Pickles called out, in a remarkably genuine sounding bird call, for a fish eagle he had spent two years training.

The fish eagle circled in the distance. A visibly disappointed Pickles said Swoop, as the bird had been named, only flew in when hungry.

It ignored the fish that Pickles threw in the river, taunting us a number of times by appearing in the distance but never coming too near.

At the end of our journey I climbed out of our canoe at peace with the world and far more knowledgeable than I had been little more than three hours earlier.

A river safari tour with Crisscross Adventures usually costs R450 a person but this winter, starting now until the end of August, trips cost R250 per person for South Africans.

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