Canyoneering in Nuy River Gorge, South Africa. Photo by Stormy Sweitzer.

Following the second pitch of a five-pitch descent, I made the mistake of being overconfident on flat land. I tripped and landed hard on a rock on my left shin and hand. The pain was intense, but it was only when I sat up that I realized the extent of the damage.

I could see a small spot of blood through my pant leg. That’s not so bad, I thought to myself. Pulling the pant leg up, though, exposed the wound. I had fallen on a sharp part of the rock, and the blood from the wound pumped rhythmically down the side of my leg, pooling on the ground below.

Shock set in. My husband, the three friends we were traveling with, and our guide through South Africa‘s Nuy River Gorge, Jurgen Wohlfarter, swarmed around me. Jurgen pulled out the first aid kit from his pack and with the others’ help cleaned my leg up. Meanwhile, I looked away to steady myself.

With my leg nicely bandaged and after taking something for the nausea, I sat for a minute to recover. That’s when I noticed that my hand, turning purple, was too bruised to grip.

I had two choices: deal with a bit of pain for the next eight hours or climb back up and out, ruining our opportunity to continue kloofing, a.k.a, canyoneering, through the almost-untouched landscape of Simonskloof, a family-owned property of 2,000 hectares that encompasses a beautiful canyon river and scores of wildlife.

You’re Almost There
Most visitors to the out-of-the-way Simonskloof Mountain Retreat come for the peace and quiet. We were one of the handful of groups each year that come to get their hands dirty. It was also an attempt to see an unvarnished side of this beautiful country on foot after 2 weeks of polished excursions and before returning to the snowy winter awaiting us back home in the States.

Our rental car took a beating once we left scenic Route 62 at the town of Montagu, where we’d stocked up on the food and drink we’d need for a couple of days. We headed north towards Simonskloof, eventually turning onto a dirt road full of dips and twists. At least half a dozen signs, each pointing in a new direction, encouraged us to continue our ride “just a little farther” into the Langeberg mountain range where the Koo and the Nuy Rivers meet.

The Orange Cottage at Simonskloof Mountain Retreat. Photo by Stormy Sweitzer.

We arrived at dusk and were led the last half mile by a black and white dog who was as much a guide for us as his master, Jurgen, would be the next day. Jurgen booked us in and showed us around the Orange Cottage, a cozy place with a propane-powered fridge, wood-burning stove, paraffin lanterns, compost and recycling bins, and gray water management – all reflective of Jurgen and his wife Mareletta’s desire to live simply and responsibly.

In addition to basic cooking supplies, our “self-catering” cottage had also been equipped with a French press and a corkscrew, items reflective of Jurgen’s native Swiss hospitality. We rose early the next morning to take advantage of low-tech luxury, drinking our fill of coffee. After a hearty bowl of muesli, we headed over to the main farm house where we were greeted enthusiastically by four border collies and some rather large chickens.

Jurgen heard the noise and with the help of his dogs corralled us into the dining room. There we we divvied up food, helmets, harnesses, ropes and the other gear we had packed for our daylong trek into South Africa’s back country.

Kloofing the Gorge
A bumpy mile and a half drive in the back of an old pickup got us to our starting point. Our path was overrun with scrub that had taken over during the winter months when no groups go into the gorge. Bush-whacking our way through it, I was glad I’d worn nylon, zip-off pants; my friends’ bare legs did not fare well against the brambles

Leopard tracks littered the sand along the trail. It would have been thrilling to see one of these threatened creatures, but the leopards kept their distance that day, as did the more-plentiful baboons, dassies (a type of marmot) and otters that inhabit the area we explored.

Descending into Nuy Riber Gorge. Photo by Chiao-ih Hui

One hour in, we hit the drop-off into the gorge and harnessed up. Introduced to climbing in Switzerland over 25 years ago and with additional training under his belt, Jurgen was thorough in his instruction and gear inspection. One of my friends, also a climber, volunteered to act as safety for the rest of us. She abseiled (as rappelling is known locally) down first and managed the ropes from below.

For some members of our group, this was their first time in a harness. And, despite my many years enjoying Utah’s mountains, rivers, and deserts, it had been at least 20 years since I’d last been in climbing gear. Inexperience aside, we lowered ourselves once, twice without incident, until, off rope and on foot for the brief walk to the next pitch, I took my violent fall.

Despite how things looked, there was nothing wrong with my leg and hand that a bandage, a couple of pain killers and a little compensation with my right hand couldn’t solve. Shortly after I was solidly back on my feet, we continued our descent.

In rotation, we rappelled deep into the gorge, arriving at the canyon floor by late morning. We packed up our gear and made a quick change into water sandals before starting up the river, crisscrossing our way over boulders and through prehistoric-looking plants that, in November, were still in spring bloom.

Having spent a great deal of time in the canyons of Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Escalante, I was amazed by their similarities with the Nuy River Gorge, but also their incredible differences. I felt at home in the gorge and appreciated why Jurgen so loved this terrain that he and his brother had hiked and climbed for years.

The Journey Home
Soon, the sun was high and our stomachs were growling. A jut into the rock wall provided shade for our lunch, a make-shift picnic of salami, a block of farm cheese, a tin of sardines, crackers, hard-boiled eggs from the chickens we’d seen in the yard that morning, and cherry tomatoes and dried peaches from the garden. Like much of the food we’d eaten during our trip, the farm-fresh flavors could not be beat.

Taking a brake for lunch during the hike. Photo by Will Swanepoel.

Over the next few hours we boulder-hopped our way through the river and scrambled along the canyon wall, my tender hand put to the test when I used it for balance or to find handholds among the crags. Every so often we would run across the remains of an otter’s crab dinner or hear the cries of an African fish eagle. As with the tracks and scat we’d run across throughout the day, we were witness to the evidence – but never the presence – of these creatures.

The afternoon wore on, and warm shadows emerged. We were closing in on the end of a great day. Given the distance we’d dropped and the fairly level path along the river, we were nowhere near the elevation we needed. I struggled up the 100 or more steep concrete steps that took us back up to the edge of a dam, just half a mile from our starting point. At the top, quads burning, hot sun on our necks, we made our way back to the truck.

Jurgen trying the fix the car with a Swiss Army knife. Photo by Chiao-ih Hui.

Mentally prepared for the short ride back to the cottage, we groaned in dismay when the day was made just a little longer by an uncooperative Nissan truck. Even Jurgen’s trusty Swiss Army knife couldn’t coax the little bakkie to go further than a few yards before giving out.

We walked the rest of the way home tired and dusty, and ready for a hot shower, cold drinks and a big meal with old and new friends. Nine hours in the gorge had proven to be challenging, but also a great way to wrap up our two weeks in this beautiful country.

Visit the Simonskloof website for details on accommodations, camp sites and kloofing excursions, near Montagu.

Other South African Adventures
South Africa’s Eastern and Western Capes offer numerous ways to get your heart pumping that are easily accessible by car. Contact kloofing, tubing, game, and shark diving operators in advance to ensure a reservation for the day of your trip.

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