By KAREN WATKINS

Cape Town - No rapids – what a relief! Especially for those of us who haven’t paddled much. After all, the Berg River is internationally known for its murderous four-day iconic marathon.

We were on the final exploratory trip, paddling 30km from Hopefield to Velddrif. It was also the official opening of the five Cape West Coast Biosphere trails: the Darling Stagger, Five Bays Trail, Eve’s Trail, Wheels of Time and the Canooze.

Having been asked to meet some distance from the river, at the West Coast Fossil Park, we were curious to know why. After scones and introductions, guide Wendy Wentzel pointed to a map and remarked that five million years ago the Berg River took a different course from the one it travels today. Not only was the sea level 90m higher but short-necked giraffe, African bears and four-tusked elephants roamed forests and vleis here.

Arriving at Kersefontein guest farm it felt like we’d stepped back in time and should be in ox-wagons. Eighth-generation farmer Julian Melck welcomed us with his sister Sue, who was visiting from Cape Town. Over drinks in what used to be the bakery, now the Turn and Slip pub, she regaled us with stories of their childhood, holding a dead skaapsteker and chasing a governess down a passage, or locking another in the school room (now one of the guest rooms).

Dinner was a regal affair, with us seated around a family heirloom in the Victorian dining room. On the menu, roast boar washed down with Niet Voorbij from Muratie, a Melck farm in Stellenbosch.

The next morning was masked in a veil of mist as we explored the farm and came across three lambs, umbilical cords still attached. High on a hill is the cemetery for the Melck family, who have been on the farm since 1770.

The solitude was rudely broken by people arriving for the opening. We tucked into a delicious breakfast before joining the others on the lawn for speeches and brunch prepared by women from Mamre, Darling and Langebaan.

The send-off was wet. Have you ever tried to get into a canoe? Nervously climbing onboard and trying not to embarrass ourselves in front of photographers and the crowd, we set off.

The initial stretch was narrow as we negotiated broken branches from above with others protruding through fast-flowing water. It is lined with gum trees in the process of being cleared by land-owners. Soon we heard our first fish eagle. We also saw a night heron, pied kingfishers, snake-necked cormorants, pelicans, dabchicks and a noisy family of Egyptian geese.

Lunch was perfectly timed, prepared by Cape Biosphere guide Morgan. Okay, so we’d only eaten a short time before, but we’d worked up an appetite and tucked into buffet-style local fare served from the back of a bakkie.

The morning paddle had been shrouded in trees but the afternoon stretch opened up to reveal a plain of wheatfields and distant hills. A highlight was two pelicans preening in the shallows.

Dinner at Doornfontein’s rambling farmhouse was another festive affair, with soup made of dried porcini mushrooms followed by lamb shank and orange crepes for dessert. Exercise, fresh air, delicious food – it’s no wonder we slept well.

Fortified with another delicious breakfast, it seemed all too soon before it was time to leave. A highlight of the Canooze are the people. We had come as strangers and they embraced us into their world, making us feel like we belonged.

Setting off from Melkplaas lower down the river we did not paddle far before siting a goliath heron. According to specialist river operator Ant they have a 2.5m wingspan. Shading his eyes with one hand he said this changes to 1.5m when they fly into the sun… argh!

The river was wide, the water shallow in places and the riverbank lined with wild flowers; we stopped often to regroup, chat and identify birds.

At the popular fishing location De Plaat we spied spoonbills, stilts and red bishops. The highlight was a distraught fish eagle parent protecting a juvenile from an unidentified bird that mock charged it.

Passing under a railway bridge we watched a seemingly endless iron-ore train go by on its way from Sishen to Saldhana.

After taking on water and deciding his body was not made for canoeing, first-time paddler Matt and his partner Denise opted to miss the final stretch. Here the river was dotted with houses and jetties as we paddled past islands inhabited by hundreds of red-knobbed coots.

The estuarine stretch is lined with flamingos; some resemble musical notes on telephone wires against a thunderstorm sky. Awesome!

The estuary breaks up, and entering Bokkom Laan we stopped to watch an aerial display by three pied kingfishers.

We reached Velddrif’s bridge, dubbed the “Portals of Agony and Ecstasy” by exhausted and elated competitors in the marathon, when the heavens opened. Thankfully a hot shower awaited us in a chalet at the Riviera Hotel, followed by seafood platters in the restaurant.

Wessel Rauch of Darling was impressed with the food and the dedication of those who prepared it; their personal casual attention and professionalism. Having done much canoeing he felt like he’d achieved something, although his back and bum were sore.

For Sakkie de Villiers it was the mix of hospitality and nature as well as the heritage and sense of place at Kersefontein.

Denise said the farms were stunning and the distances and stops just right. At times the river flowed strongly and paddling was a breeze, while on the wider stretches the wind made us work.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye and transfer back to Kersefontein. The Canooze is suitable for the whole family.

l To book for the trail, call 086 1872 457, see www.capebios phere.co.za/trails

l Watkins is the author of Adventure Hikes in the Cape Peninsula and Off the Beaten Track. - Cape Times