Storms River paradise
Guy Rogers goes on a thrilling safari down a gorge rich in history and wildlife
In the dark maw of the Storms River there’s a cave filled with bats and the fish congregate around the lip of the cave to feed on bat guano that falls into the water.
You leave the surge of the waves behind as you paddle up under the famous 77m suspension bridge and by the time you pass Bat Cave the tannin brown water is glass-smooth and ancient cliffs tower on either side of the river, leaving just a sliver of sky overhead.
Now and then below the surface you glimpse a yellow flash as an eagle ray glides past. The tranquil mouth of the river acts as a nursery for young stingrays and then they return as they mature to rid themselves of marine parasites, Untouched Adventures excursion leader Evaton Juries says.
Clustered in the big cave in their thousands, the Egyptian fruit bats and insect-eating Cape horsehoe bats fly out in a dense mass in the evening and, after foraging all night, return sated at dawn.
Juries called us closer – my sons and I in a pair of two-man kayaks, together with an exotic assortment of tourists from Holland, Fiji, New Zealand and the UK in half a dozen other boats – and painted a picture of long ago.
At the end of the 1800s, the settlers started to harvest the indigenous hardwoods from the surrounding forest but transporting it out was difficult. So they devised a strategy in which the logs were dragged to the edge of the Storms River gorge, lowered by means of an aerial cableway and loaded on the coaster ship Clara which was anchored at the mouth.
One of the first people involved in this pioneering timber industry was German settler Jakob Mangold, who later established a prominent engineering firm in Port Elizabeth and whose name is a familiar one in the Bay even today.
We paddled on up the gorge, alternately racing and splashing and just floating listening to the echoing calls of our companions and the whistles and squawks of birds.
After half an hour we stowed our kayaks and changed to custom-made lilos, launching with a dive and skudding away over a big pool.
We practiced standing up on the lilos surfboard-style until we tired of falling in and then pushed on with a different perspective, hugging the surface.
The lilos gave us better buoyancy and manoeuvrability. We paddled until we hit a sandbar and then turned back to do some cliff jumping into a deep channel before reclaiming our kayaks for the exit trip.
A white-bellied cormorant perched on the bank ushered us out of the mouth and onto the sunlit swell of the sea. We weaved back in single file, pulling confidently and, in the distance over my sons’ heads in the boat in front of us, I saw a whale breach.
Untouched Adventures is based at the SANParks Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, which is the headquarters of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, one of the jewels in South Africa’s complex of national parks.
The park’s marine attractions are underpinned by the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area, the oldest entity of its kind in Africa and one of the oldest and largest in the world. Established in 1964, it protects 32,300ha of coast and ocean.
In December 2016 the late environment minister Edna Molewa controversially ruled, despite an outcry from the scientific and conservation communities, that 20% of this protected area must open for fishing by local communities.
But even with this action, the pools around the rest camp still brim with life and in mid-December when we were there dark bait balls of prey fish were drifting offshore, raising the excitement of predator species to fever pitch. From the veranda of our oceanette, we watched the dolphins somersaulting clear of the water and surfing huge rollers. On one occasion amid this display of joyousness, another, bulkier animal, a bronze whaler shark, rifled out of the water and twisted its white belly towards me.
The bustle of wildlife is equally intense on the adjacent rocky coastline and in the grey-green forest that curls like a whale’s baleen over the dunes, home to bushbuck, baboons and friendly flocks of francolin.
Untouched Adventures founder Marthinus van der Westhuizen described how three dassies, common camp residents, were loitering ahead of him on a path one morning when a caracal exploded from the bush and dispatched them all seemingly with one blow of his paw before fleeing from the human in a tawny flash.
There was something of a latter-day Great Trek about the Storms River camping area as the regulars rolled in and gathered in comfortable lagers and families who had not seen each other for the year greeted like old friends. But unlike the old exclusivity around white Afrikaner culture, the new binding force, it seemed to me, was an appreciation of nature, environmental protection and security.
Surrounded by wild riches, the kids could whizz from one end of the rest camp to the other on their bicycles and families could kuier, braai and hike in safety. With the main holiday crowd about to descend when we were there, there was a comforting sense of care and oversight, with honorary rangers patrolling and teams of SANParks staff trimming and painting.
Garden Route National Park manager Paddy Gordon said the recent fires that had ravaged the park had posed a challenge but the good news was that the key tourism areas were still open to the public.
The fires were snuffed out by the vacuums in the deep ravines and, unable to penetrate the moist deep forest, they were mostly contained to commercial plantations, forest edges and fynbos.
Gordon said relatively few anglers had taken advantage of the new marine protected area ruling, with the precipitous, rugged terrain discouraging all but the most ardent anglers and nullifying conservation concerns.
Work on the long-delayed new restaurant, gutted in a November 2016 fire sparked by an electrical fault, should begin early in 2019 and would take 18 months to complete, he said. Visitors had started to enjoy the temporary restaurant marquee erected on the rocks but it was not sustainable as big seas had already swamped it on three occasions.
We spent most our time at Storms River Mouth Rest Camp snorkelling in gorgeous pools encrusted with brown mussels and laced with seaweed, starfish and anemones. On one occasion Ben emerged breathless after coming face to face with a small shark. The pools were interlinked in places by sandy trails where we picked up the spoor of Cape clawless otter.
At the end we walked the Waterfall Trail and spotted half a dozen pools we had not tried, each more enticing than the last and crying out, we decided, sometime soon, for a snorkelling safari.
To get to SANParks’s Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, HQ of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, head west from Port Elizabeth on the N2 over the Storms River gorge bridge at the Total Petroport.
The sign to the rest camp comes up 9km later. Turn left there and drive a short distance through a pine plantation area to the gate, where you must park and check in.
Remember to take a book and prepare for a possible wait as your documents are processed. Park management is in the process of trying to source new software and to streamline the input data required from visitors and both measures should speed things up, but at the moment it takes a while.
Then wind down the beautiful entrance road through the forest into the rest camp, which is laid out along the edge of the coast.
If you can take bicycles, then do. There are some good cycling routes in and around the park and in the camp, which is mostly flat, you’ll love having a bike to get around on.
The Untouched Adventures office is situated in the camp above the beach. They are contactable at 073-130-0689 or 076-959-2817 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can book online for Storms River Rest Camp at www.sanparks.org or by calling (042) 281-1607 or (012) 426-5000. – Guy Rogers