Able seaman Lionel Whatley organised this wonderful trip. Photo: Karen Watkins

Crunch, crack, creak – not something you want to hear when paddling up a creek in a canoe. We were somewhere on the Bot River. Just the two of us; separated from the rest of the group, wondering if we’d make it back to them afloat.

Our day started off like any other in Africa. Woken to the hoo hoooo of an owl, we sleepily drank coffee while packing padkos.

According to Windguru the velocidad viento (nudos) would increase from 4 at 8am, to 10 at 2pm. And the rachas viento (nudos) from 5 at 8am, to 9 at 2pm. It’s a mystery why the weather forecast at Fisherhaven Lodge is in Portuguese. It turns out that nudos is knots and the first measurement is wind speed and the second is wind gusts. Hence the early start.

Down at the jetty, the only sign of life was flamingos, heads down, digging out grubs and honking like hippos. Gold and crimson tinted clouds suspended over an amphitheatre of hills mirrored on still water in Benguela Cove.

Unfazed and manoeuvring the biggest moon bag known to man, or woman, Lionel Whatley deftly unloaded canoes and safety gear from a trailer.

Handing out pdfs (personal floating device, aka life-jacket), able seaman Whatley assigned the canoes. Lisa and Tony were in the Penguin, a Mohawk, used on the Orange River; Eddie would be alone in Titanic II and Lionel and I were in the Trapper.

Apparently the Victorian shaped Trapper sank on its maiden voyage here in Fisherhaven. Today was its first time back in the water after undergoing an R850 overhaul. Instead, it was Cathy Wright in a plastic Fluid on its maiden voyage.

About one hour later we were off, startling a pink-and-black jet stream of long legs and necks. Flamingos look less elegant in flight.

Cormorants, egrets, herons, Egyptian geese and even a fish eagle perched on a stick were all there, screeching and flapping in an orthographical avian display. It couldn’t get better, but it did. The river looming ahead, suddenly the unmistakeable high-pitched, rattle-like cry. A pair of Blue Cranes imperially marched by, their slate-grey tail feathers curved gracefully, resembling streamers.

Silently, Lionel pointed to a small herd of springbok living up to their name as they jumped across mudflats before darting into reeds. On our return, a never-ending flock of sheep trod in their footsteps.

Our goal was to paddle upriver, something we had never done before. “The water level is low now that the estuary mouth has been opened,” said Lionel. Bot River is one of the top 10 most important estuaries in the country in terms of its botanical, fish and bird biodiversity.

Mostly managed by CapeNature with stakeholder participation, the mouth of the Bot Kleinmond estuarine system was artificially breached near Meerensee early on Saturday, August 24, last year. Its connectivity to the sea is critical in preventing it from turning into a freshwater lake, thereby threatening estuarine biodiversity and its vital connection to the ocean.

Paddling up Bot River.

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Estuaries form transition zones between rivers and oceans. In the past, mass mortalities of fish have occurred when the salinity dropped below an average of 6 parts per 1 000. Last year prior to opening the estuary, the average salinity was double this and was one of the triggers for opening the mouth.

Another trigger is that the Bot Estuary is an important nursery area for juvenile fish. Spawned at sea, they apparently recognise estuaries where their parents grew up. So it’s important that young fish “taste” this freshwater plume that enters the sea through the open mouth so they quickly enter the estuary. Because there’s plenty of food they grow and then return to the ocean as large fish. There they mature, then breed, and their young return to the same estuary. This is an essential cycle that must be maintained, but only healthy estuaries can do it.

Apparently the estuarine long snouted pipefish, Syngnathus temminckii, occurs in the Bot Estuary. It belongs to the same family as the Knysna seahorse and has the same tube-shaped “snout” – as its name implies – but lacks the seahorse’s bulging belly and arched back. Instead it has a skinny eel-like body that tapers down to a small tail fin. Like the seahorse, though, it is the male that goes through “pregnancy”. The female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where fertilisation takes place and the embryos develop. This small fish is a protected species and serves as “fodder” for the estuary’s piscivorous birds and predatory fish.

Fish life in the lagoon is now good, evidenced by plops and ripples; in fact we would not have been surprised to have fish jump into our boat. No wonder there are so many fish eagles.To our right were vineyards, to the left the Arabella Hotel and golf club.

Suddenly we hit a sandbank, climbed out and dragged the fleet behind while avoiding sinking into mud. Re-grouping we watched a security guard approach.

Continuing up-river we passed more wildlife, this time cows and calves, ears decorated with colourful bling. With traffic hum rising we paddled beneath Honeymoon Bridge, the R43 between Bot River and Hermanus, where some rested while Lionel and I continued.

Now we motored, following twists and turns in the river before coming to a noisy stop. Back-paddling, accompanied by more crunching, cracking and creaking we retreated hoping no damage had been done. It would take more than a tree to sink the Trapper.

On joining the others the wind made its appearance, creating waves and spray, especially for Cathy and Eddie, their crafts spinning in gusts.

After taking a break in a bay we set off on the final stretch with me taking over from Cathy. Eddie might be a strong paddler but he quickly returned to shore, his calls lost in the wind. Suddenly he overtook me. It turns out that he’d added ballast to his boat by loading some rocks.

Meanwhile, I was stuck in the middle of Benguela Cove on the equivalent of a stationary paddle machine. I was eventually relieved when Lionel came to my rescue, towing me ashore.

Sunday began with the same pattern except that Cathy, Lisa and Tony had other plans.

Lionel, Eddie and I paddled in the opposite direction, realising that the best way to see birdlife is from a canoe.

In the narrow stretch at Zeekoegat we watched hundreds, if not thousands, of swift terns Thalasseus bergii subspecies, screaming their harsh staccato cry, crammed onto sandbanks shared with herons with outspread wings, ballerina-like flamingos and a single African black oystercatcher. With sun glinting off the water they exploded in flight surrounding Eddie in a dazzle of wings and beaks.

At the estuary mouth and buoyed by the beauty of it all I stripped off to swim in a deep narrow channel between sand-dunes and the open sea where trawlers trawled and dog-walkers gawked. Turning back I watched my clothes wash out to sea by the rapidly changing tide.

Watkins is the author of Off the Beaten Track.