-Free in the wild-

The flexing beauty of Parys

Entering Parys feels like an equestrian guard of honour. Galloping thoroughbreds are a common sight on farms here.

Parys is beguilingly close to Johannesburg. With just over 100km to the south of the commercial capital of South Africa; lofty travellers can easily overlook this Free State province town. But as I was to find out, it is not the distance that matters but the adventure in the distance.

We set off on the wrong morning peak hour on a black Friday, literally, due to load shedding. With traffic lights not working, it’s survival of the most skilled on the road and breaking out of the Johannesburg logjam was mission impossible. I was teetering on the edge of insanity. There was no dialogue in the car and my two travel companions could sense the tension. It was both my own internal conflict and apprehension over the camp we are to set up before our glamping travellers arrive.

The skyline is playing a pun too, making it worse. It’s not clear if it would rain, remain cloudy or fortunes would change. I could not fathom the possibility of rain on a weekend with everything lined up and paid for. The apprehension escalates to trepidation of what I was to partake. For the first time in my life I was going to do river rafting in the fabled Vaal River. Being a novice swimmer – self-consoling euphemism for a non-swimmer, I have a lot of what ifs playing out in my mind.

The workshop that my mind is overworks as I weigh different scenarios. If the rafting boat capsized, will I be really safe with the life jackets? I asked myself. Did they do a thorough, empirical research that there were no crocodiles in that stretch of the Vaal? If so, who did it, and how?

This state of self-interrogation plays out as the engine hurtles forward.

The road is lush. Recent rains have transformed this place. The last time I did a trip here was on a glamping reconnaissance and the land was visibly thirsty. The grasslands were patchy and grey. Trees were shedding off the last of the discolored leaves they had. Livestock in farms along the N1 highway looked frail. Some were drinking from the muddy puddles. It was not looking good. All that has changed. There is life; the hillocks are elegant and green. Streams that didn’t exist are flowing and birds flying to rest on green tree branches. Leaves played to the tune of the breeze, flapping like prey ears attuned to footfalls of a lurking predator.

Entering Parys feels like an equestrian guard of honour. Galloping thoroughbreds are a common sight on farms here. The small town appears like a coordinated quaint establishment. Deliberate arty old pillars, sometimes, rusty artifacts define the town. Restaurants such as French Café, Die Eiffel Coffee Shop and La Vie En Rose are hallmarks of the intriguing origins of Parys. The name is an Afrikaans translation of Paris. History has it that Germany surveyor named Schilbach saw striking similarities between the location where Parys stands today and Paris, so as the Vaal River and River Seine.

The quest for meaning of life and religion later saw human life building Parys. The distance between other Free State towns and Johannesburg was huge and residents of nearby farms needed churches nearby. In 1876, Parys was established. It went through its evolution; from a bustling town during the Witwatersrand gold boom in Johannesburg and the traumatic guerilla warfare during the Anglo-Boer war.

We are officially in the Vredefort Dome zone, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A huge crater was formed at least two billion years ago when a meteor the size of Table Mountain descended on what is known as the Vredefort Dome. What we see from our Dimalachite River Lodge base are rippling remnants of this. Outcrops of quartzite rocks define the west side of the Vaal River. From a distance they look like a gait of a slow moving elephant. Moving clouds that partially obscure the sun transform these outcrops into hazy, imaginary elephant holograms. To the north, the Vaal quietly bellows like a bull elephant in distress.

 The water is optically deceptive. It looks stagnant. It’s only the rapids that sang a different chorus, in sync. This was to be our soundtrack of the weekend. I looked at the river in both awe and nagging anticipation of what was to come the following day, rafting in this mighty river. The what ifs continue to haunt me, this time more pronounced as I stood by the banks. An incredible semi circle rainbow cuts across the Vaal like a colour palette on cue. The reflection from the river makes it a complete circle. It was the motivation that would drive me the whole weekend with a group of intrepid travellers, sometimes philosophical and at best taunting, laughing beings.

We laughed all the way to the river on a Saturday morning. We were to conquer nine rapids with weird names such as Captain Morgan, Look Sharp, Paradise, Stepping Stone and Theatre. We laughed even more uproariously when our guides warned that during the eight kilometer stretch, some will capsize without drowning, some would hit the river banks and emerge with little bruises. In a heavy Sesotho accent, he warned that in the river we should not laugh when colleagues encounter such a misfortune. We should help, he emphasized, with the countenance of a village elder.

 It was a fairy tale foretold. It became reality and no laughter was heard, at least in the river. We took off like a discordant swam of bees. We all tried to get into rhythm and establish chemistry with our partners. With a pair in each boat, the front paddler was mainly for direction; the back paddler being the propeller. It was a cacophony of “Right, left, right” The responder would answer in shaky assurance, “Right, you say?” “Yes, right.”

One glamper, on a ferocious rapid, Captain Morgan fell off and held on tight to a rock like a tick. The front partner, oblivious of the situation, innocently paddled away with the confidence of a water sports champion. It was to become a camp joke later. The other pair paddled into the bushy riverbank. The wife, constantly yelling, “baby, paddle left, baby.” The husband replying frantically, “Yes love, left.” He paddled right. The more he paddled the more the boat hit the riverbank dry shrubs with the rustling sound of pods hitting her face. It was a comical incident reenacted during review discussions over drinks at camp.

What also became the top of the news was the short but tough hike we took after lunch of the same day. It was particularly hot day and it took special skill to convince weary glampers that hiking is still a good idea. The sluggish line of hikers with ages ranging from seven to 44 years moved up like a millipede. The Kommandonek Farm outcrop is both a revealing and energy sapping adventure. It’s a steep climb. It does so without warning. There were a lot of “uh, ahh” as this hillock flexed it muscle. The more we groaned upwards the more we sized each other with Kommandonek.

Getting to the summit, also known as the River View spot is an achievement worthy all the effort. Mountains are particularly notorious for their condescending nature to anything at their foot. As one goes higher, Kommandonek fails to do this. Instead, it reveals the majesty of Vaal River. This river emerges as a snaking wonder from the top. We momentarily forget all the pain and the fact that we are still to descent. It dawns to me why this and other hillocks in Parys were used as observation points during the Anglo-Boer strife.

We emerge from Parys with impeccable respect for its place in history and its role in shaping the trajectory of South Africa as a country. A small town that can easily slide into obscurity but still projects its voice from the vantage hillocks to be heard and the permanent roaring sound of the Vaal River that visitors keep chasing to raft away and novices like myself conquering our water fears. Parys is as breathtaking, accessible without either breaking the bank or leg.

“This is what we seek to achieve; to enjoy the country and in the process learn from it,” said Gugu Sithole of Glamping Adventures, co-organiser of these glamping retreats around South Africa.

VIDEO: Glamping Adventures in the Vaal River