Water, that precious liquid

On the Ratelberg a cup of tea is especially appreciated

High on Ratelberg on a hot, dry summer evening, I was part alchemist, part master chef.
My boys pressed close and watched with narrowed eyes for any signs of spillage and unequal distribution as I gingerly lifted the varkpan off the gas cooker and poured the boiling water into two half-mugs, each one holding a rooibos tea bag.
Ben and I would share one, Nic and Jude the other. We paired off into two standing huddles and sniffed the steam ecstatically. The hot water turned a deep cherry red as the tea infused it. We gazed in awe and then sipped, rolling the heavenly liquid around in our mouths for maximum saturation before swallowing.
When you’re thirsty, you’re thirsty.
Our celestial tea experience began two years earlier on our first trip to Kouga Wilderness. On top of the Waterfall Trail, we looked up at Ratelberg and decided that, next time we came, we would camp on top.
The memory of our idea and how the mountain looked stayed with us and grew more vivid as it matured, metamorphosing into an adventure just waiting to happen.
It was late afternoon by the time we passed the shepherd’s hut at the top of the long descent into the valley where Kouga Wilderness is situated on the sixth-generation family farm Kleinrivier, owned by Nico and Melodie Ferreira.
Arriving at Heuningkrans hut, where we had stayed before, we were reminded how it got its name. The setting sun was shining on the cliffs on the east side and had painted them a warm honey-brown colour.
Dogs are not much good at unpacking so they got to dash around sniffing all the exciting smells while we did the hard work. Then we celebrated our arrival with a dip in the nearby waterhole, a pool of the icy Kleinrivier which flows past the hut below the cliffs.
The Klein is a tributary of the Kouga River, which we had crossed during the drive in from Joubertina. The Kouga River feeds into the Kouga Dam, on the eastern edge of the Baviaanskloof, a key supplier of water to the Gamtoos Valley farmers and the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.
The Kouga River is a good place to fish for black bass and that’s just one of the many things you can do during a visit to Kouga Wilderness.
Located higher up the system and deeper in the mountains, free from the predations of alien bass, the Klein is home to indigenous minnows like the redfin and the rare Galaxias zebrata.
On a recce the next day we pinpointed the last spot where we would be able to fill up water bottles. Our big dog, Mbashe, tried to scramble up a steep face unaided and took a tumble, thankfully plunging into a pool and emerging unscathed but we knew we would have to take special care at that point.
The next morning after some argument about how much we would need to eat and who was going to carry what, we set off, the dogs ranging ahead.
The river was very low up the kloof, disappearing now and then beneath the ground before reappearing in pools smeared with gashes of thick red-brown clay. Frogs plopped and water boatmen skated. The tree canopy closed high over our heads, thick tree roots layered the path and bright orange lichen bloomed on fallen logs.
It took us just more than an hour to climb out of the kloof and into the fynbos belt. It was good going and the bulk of the day lay ahead of us. But the heat and the amount we were drinking was clearly going to be a challenge. We were carrying as much water as we could, but there would be no more refills from this point on.
The path looped around the plateau before beginning the ascent up Ratelberg’s southern shoulder. After a few kilometres it petered out, however, and we had to make our own trail. The direction was not difficult, but the terrain was deceptively steep with a jumble of rocks and woody fynbos that scratched and scragged.
Two hours later we halted for lunch. Nic did an assessment of all the water left and worked out how many millilitres we had left, and therefore how many gulps we and the dogs could expect to receive over the next 24 hours.
The statistics were sobering but manageable. Our mouths were dry, but we felt like we were on the cusp of something extraordinary. At worst we could descend much quicker.
On and up we tramped, with each crest revealing another slope ahead. The beauty of our surroundings seemed to grow more luminous and textured with each step: rock and veld and sky; white-grey, brown-green and blue. But the air was like an oven.
We passed a grove of alien hakias like fleshy green Christmas trees waiting for removal by Working for Water, but otherwise it was pristine fynbos and mountain grassland as far as the eye could see.
In the mid-afternoon we decided that the water we had left would not sustain us to the top and this was in fact the perfect spot to pitch the tent. Everywhere was stony, but we picked a bivouac and spent some time stamping over it, removing knobbles and bumps.
Then we laid out the tent and the boys, working together like a well-oiled machine, banged in the pegs and secured the guy ropes. There seemed to be a possibility of bad weather approaching from the east so we banked up the rucksacks under the flysheet on that side and made space on the lee side for the dogs.
The boys were so thirsty they were actually hoping for rain and the mist was descending, which made it look hopeful. To the south it had shrouded the Tsitsikamma Mountains, leaving only Formosa Peak exposed and to the east it was rolling down the slopes towards us.
We served the hounds their pellets and ration of water, and ourselves our coup de gras of rooibos tea. Then I positioned all the cups and bottles upright in the rocks around the tent.
Night fell and the lit tent looked like a tiny spaceship in the immense sea of dark beneath the star-spangled sky.
Inside the tent, using his headlamp, my youngest son, Jude, 14, read to us from his latest Spooks novel about blood-consuming water witches.
The next morning I woke with a hummock of grass I thought I had flattened mushrooming in my back and listened for the first tweet of a bird. Outside dawn was still an hour away. Birdsong circled softly around my head, and I sat on a rock in the cool air and counted my blessings.
We descended Ratelberg early before the sun got too hot, had a long swim in the waterhole and, for the rest of the day, drank copious amounts of liquid. We felt no side effects from our privations, but we would never forget the value of water.
How to get to Kouga Wilderness
One of the many attractions of Kouga Wilderness is that dogs are allowed.
But the problem was that we were spending the first part of the holiday at Storms River, the Tsitsikamma headquarters of the Garden Route National Park, where obviously hounds were not welcome.
Travelling all the way back to Port Elizabeth to pick them up seemed unviable – so what to do?
After deliberating over various possibilities and permutations, we heard that the Humansdorp SPCA offered reasonably priced, good-quality kenneling.
So we dropped them off there on the way out, on the first leg of our journey, and picked them up after loading up with provisions at Humansdorp Shoprite.
We could not have been happier with the care. The kennels were immaculate, and our dogs were happy and raring to go. So we headed west again on the N2 and about half an hour later turned right onto the R62 up the Langkloof.
Remember if you’re travelling with dogs, especially in summer, keep a dog bowl and water bottle at hand, and be ready to pull over regularly onto farm roads to give them a leg stretch and time to relieve themselves.
By the time we got to Kareedouw we were famished so we spoilt ourselves with quiches from Altelekker, which were delicious and easy to eat on the road.
At Joubertina we drove past Joub’s Diner and Farm Stall (where we treated ourselves on the drive out four days later) and at the bottom of the hill took the signposted right turn to Kouga Wilderness.
The 28km dirt road takes you across the Kouga River, and then up, over and down into a remote valley where Nico and Melodie Ferreira’s family farm, Kleinrivier, and their Kouga Wilderness outdoor adventure getaway are situated.
It’s a rugged drive, but was do-able even in my Vivo and my eldest son, who has his learner’s licence, took the wheel in the less precipitous areas.
Besides the hiking and swimming we enjoyed, there are also 4x4 and cycling trails as well as rock climbing, kloofing, fishing and in harvest season (which it was in mid-December when we were there) picking apricots.
Humansdorp SPCA can be reached at 042-295-2814.
Kouga Wilderness is contactable at 042-273-9903 or e-mail kougawild@telkomsa.net..

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