An alluring mountain adventure on the Wildside

PHIL Harrison and Kate Nelson are the owners – although they see themselves more as custodians than proprietors – of a local gem, Wildside, on the Kraai River.

Situated between the charming village of Rhodes and Barkley East, Wildside is a beautifully located campsite they are developing on the banks of the river.

The venue is situated in a Poplar forest sheltered by spectacular cliffs. There are clean demarcated campsites, ablution facilities and safari-style tented suites... and the fishing is great!

The Kraai, the biggest river in the area starts when the Sterkspruit and Bell rivers join at Mosheshe's Ford. All streams draining the escarpment and flowing northwest flow into it. After collecting the Karnemelk outside Lady Grey, the Kraai joins the Orange / Gariep near Aliwal North. So we're actually part of the Orange-Vaal system.

Because the Kraai drains such a large area it is subject to inputs of murky water from its many tributaries but, in spring and autumn, and even summer, there are windows of opportunity when the water flows clear. While all other streams may be low the Kraai still has a reasonable flow and a very clean scoured-out bottom that varies between sandstone bedrock, cobbles and sand.

Phil and Kate are busy opening up access to some amazing and rarely fished water with the "Drift".

Before the winter set in they had just taken delivery of some new inflatable kayaks and invited Anton Walters and I to come and do a recce. The five new Kayaks are two seaters, but will be used as one-man craft for fly fishing.

The day dawned with Anton and myself meeting Phil and Kate on Lower Drumbo, just below the confluence of the Kraai and Joggem rivers.

The boats are very light and being inflatable makes them virtually unsinkable and highly manoeuvrable. With a very shallow draught one is able to travel through water less than the depth of a paddle blade and they require very little effort to propel.

Anton and I were chased upstream to inspect the confluence where Anton was soon into a rainbow or two. We also caught well-conditioned yellowfish. We returned to find the boats loaded and ready to go.

This is not a drift in the classical American style where the guide rows and positions clients to fish from the drift boat. The Kraai is too small for that.

Rather the drift here is about getting to inaccessible and rarely-fished locations. We drifted with the current and whenever we came to a likely looking spot we beached the inflatables, walked downstream and fished the rapid, run or pool from the bank.

The river was flowing crystal clear and the water had a beautiful greenish tinge. The Kraai winds its way downstream through some magnificent landscapes. There are spectacular and massive sandstone formations along the whole course. The erosive strength of water in spate can be seen in hollowed-out rock faces and one even paddles through some of these caves.

We caught rainbows and smallmouth yellowfish. There were also a lot of mudfish to be seen. The muddies were swimming around nervously indulging in their pre-spawning rituals and we were unable to elicit a take from them. Most of the rainbows and all of the yellowfish were sight fished.

The banks of the Kraai are either a steep flood plain or rocky cliffs. We saw no people all day, no sheep and only a few cattle. Many African black duck were spooked as we drifted past their hiding places. An impressive troop of baboons barked at us from the cliffs. We had our eyes glued to the river looking for and watching fish so we probably missed quite a few spectacular raptors in the sky above.

Lunch was provided by Kate who had made delicious sandwiches washed down with a fruit juice, beer or colddrink. I stuck to river water though and it tasted awesome.

This river, being situated in a gorge, offers very few access points and this means that one must spend the whole day on the river. We drifted for about 12km and reached Wildside at dusk. The higher the flow the quicker the drift will be. There will be various versions of the drift with differing start and finishing points.

There will even be a sleep-over version with inflatable mattresses and catering laid on. Phil took us up to see the sleeping cave, locally known as Christmas Cave because local people used to gather here for festive season parties in years gone by. They arrived by ox wagon and stayed for a week.

The Kraai was low and we encountered the odd log jam where we had to resort to portage, not a problem as two persons easily carried two loaded boats at a time.

The only downside I can see is the lack of access points to the Kraai hence one has to cover a lot of water in a day.

This may curtail fishing time, but on the other hand, a slightly higher river would speed up the drift between stops. A funneled headwind may make a bit more paddling necessary, but the lightness and manoeuvrability of the kayaks make for easy work.

One needs a modicum of physical fitness and sure-footedness and it would be advisable to pack a raincoat and warmer top.

We arrived at Wildside as dusk was settling and the kayaks were beached below the cliff face where the bald ibis roost. This is definitely an outing worth adding to your bucket list. We left the river feeling elated and privileged to have seen what we did.

I'll be guiding clients at Wildside and Phil and Kate will also be offering more leisurely scenic day trips for families and friends staying in the area.