There’s little that beats floating down (or up) a river on a sunny afternoon, especially an Eastern Cape one, with its singing-beetle bush, so familiar from my childhood holidays in Port Alfred and varsity days in Grahamstown.
Floating on a river does something to one physiologically, I’m sure of it. It’s almost like your body realises it’s no longer on level ground and your blood moves more languidly (in a good way, not a medical emergency way), a bit like the river below, filled with scaly creatures, flapping fish and other secret rivery things with whiskers that lurk down in the muddy bottom.
It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been on a boat. Wheelchairs and boats are not, generally, best friends. The Sundays River ferry, ably captained by Les looking suave in his captain’s hat, is, however, a friend of the wheelchair, having been designed thus (and the jetty adapted). This is because Les’s wife, Maggie, had a brother in a wheelchair.
And that’s how I found myself gently puttering first up, then down, the Sundays River on a sunny afternoon during our recent visit to PE. And it was the beautiful and gentle and quiet that I remembered … that one that only being on water can offer.
Les has been running the Sundays River ferry for over ten years. Moored on a jetty in Cannonville (next door to Colchester which, as a child seeing the turn-off as we headed to Port Alfred, I thought was the cheese capital of South Africa, imagining the whole place built of Colchester cheese … I stray) across the road from the guesthouse they run, the ferry is a big, flat boat with a canopy and seats on both the lower and upper levels.
The Sundays River source is way up in Graaff Reinet, in my beloved Karoo, and it grows and widens as its winds its way down to the coast, finally passing through Addo National Park and then on to the Indian Ocean where it pours itself into the sea.
From Cannonville, it’s navigable for 15 km upstream (from where you can see Addo) and 7 km down. We headed up first, turning the bend with the Cannonville houses watching us pass, going under the huge bridge with the N2 above our heads and out beyond civilisation. Here, we were watched by a plethora of birds, a sandbank on the right – about 10 foot-or-more high, aquiver with gorgeous bee-eaters. Their sand-coloured homes in the bank reminded me of the higgledy-piggledy stone houses balancing precariously on the hillsides in Sicily.
Beyond civilastion we came across a legevaan – colloquially known as the ‘Sundays River Crocodile’, who had – somehow – snagged himself a ray and was trying, rather toothlessly, to eat it. Les switched off the boat and we sat for fifteen minutes watching as he finally managed to flip it over and get some of its intestines out. Fascinatingly gory.
Heading back we floated downstream for a bit, a bend in the river revealing dunefields shimmering in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun. It’s on these dunes that Les also offers sandsledding, an activity that we adored on the steep sand dunes of East Beach in Port Alfred as kids.
And that’s, really, what it was like, being on a boat again after so long. It was like being a kid again: buoyant, carefree, the river below, the breeze blowing, the smells and sounds of nature and the gentle puttering of the engine accompanying that familiar bush and a Fish Eagle on a dead tree, to end off a magical afternoon.
The boat itself is completely accessible (the bottom bit). It’s large and flat, with plenty of room to manoeuvre and sit.
Getting to the boat: Les has keys to the gate, so you can drive the car over the large grassed field between the river and the road and park right next to the jetty.
The jetty is a normal, wooden-slatted jetty, with two small steps. At low tide, the gradient is quite steep, but Les helps, and has devised a ramp that removes one of the stairs. It’s totally doable but if you’re a nervous traveller, might be a little nerve-wracking getting on. It’s worth it, though. The river is just beautiful.