Today is an important day. Today…we kloof!
Erm, what is this “kloof” I speak of, and should you be scared?
YES! Yes you should (or I should, rather), but in the best way. Kloofing is South Africa’s version of canyoning and cliff jumping. So today—even though it’s quite chilly—we’re up-and-at-’em nice and early, throwing on our swimsuits and gym shorts, our highly fashionable, highly overpriced water shoes, and running around making breakfast together in the little houses we share (sounds fun, but I have twenty eggs to cook this morning…twenty). After this rather stressful breakfast endeavor, we head out.
The drive to the kloofing location is short and when we get there, the nerves are palpable. We’ve all got on our life jackets and helmets (oui, très chic) and we mill about nervously, hopping up and down to hide the rising panic and chase away the cold. Graeme picks the groups, so our Masebe squad gets split down the middle, but given we were about to go kloofing through the Blyde River Canyon, nothing can bring us down (except gravity…what? No, I’m not nervous…).
Our kloofing guide’s name is Trompi, and he’s one part camp-counselor enthusiasm, two parts badass. He, apparently, has been kloofing since the tender age of eight. But his kloofing isn’t like our kloofing, it’s the real, locals’ kloofing (read: rock climbing to the ceilings of caves and then dropping). We have another guide joining us, too. He’s young—probably about our age or younger—and he’s wearing a NY Yankees cap (yeet, go Yankees!).
We have no time to waste, and we set off down a path that crosses under and alongside a big, ugly overpass. Little puddles lie stagnant on the concrete, filled with filth and trash. I eye them nervously, hoping the kloofing water isn’t like this, too.
I have nothing to worry about—within seconds we’re at our first jump and the water is beautiful and clear. We were told earlier that our jumps were to be 1m, 3m, 5m, and 11m, in that order, and as we walk up to the edge, Trompi looks at me and says “If you want to be first in line behind me, you jump first.” I smiled—works fine for me. So I launch myself right in. This jump is the smallest one, and the water isn’t even that deep, so when I pop up to the surface (spluttering and cursing at the cold), I’m grinning ear to ear—if one meter is this fun, I can’t wait for the rest. I doggy-paddle to shore and stand in the cool, breezy shade and wait, watching the rest jump. Despite the cold (made worse by the fact that we’re all soaked now), we are unbelievably amped.
We hike on, marching through the dense jungle-like bush, feeling like Mowgli from the Jungle-Book and fighting the urge to sing Hakuna Matata as we duck under tree branches and pad over the soft riverbed. Green trees and grasses shoot up all around us and vines droop low around the path. The mountains tower over us, just barely visible behind the dense vegetation. The river babbles happily as we walk alongside it, but it’s awfully shallow here, and I can see the worry in some of my friends’ eyes when Trompi says we’re almost to our next stop. It makes me a bit nervous, too, though I know there’s bound to be a deeper pool up ahead.
We reach our next destination and to the much to my relief (I’m really not as brave as I pretend to be), it’s not our next jump yet, but rather a beautiful waterfall with a small pool around it. Trompi directs us to scale the rock face that rises out of the surprisingly deep pool and scramble our way under a small overhang that the waterfall pours over. One by one, we slip and scamper over, crouching under the algae-covered stone, the mist creating a cool little cloud and raising goose-bumps on our skin. All around us the falling water warps the view of the world outside, turning it to stained glass. Back against the wall, head brushing the ceiling, hands slipping between rough stone and algae, with the ice-cold water splashing off everyone’s helmets onto my face, it’s like I’m Peter Pan. It’s unimaginably beautiful in here, and with all fifteen or so of us packed into this tiny little alcove, it isn’t even that cold. After Trompi snaps about a thousand pictures of us, though, we all hop off the slippery rock floor of our alcove into the frigid pool and wade back to land.
Our next two jumps we complete with only minimal nerves. They count down for us before we jump, and it’s very helpful. There isn’t anything quite like it: standing there with this huge gap between you and the water below, the mossy ground underfoot and the trees hugging the path. Half your friends stand behind you, the other half wait by the pool below. You step off the cliff and drop like a rock, sandaled feet breaking the smooth surface first, the cold water rushing up your body until you’re completely enveloped. Then comes the rush of knowing you did it, and the soft pull upwards as life jacket propels you towards the surface, helmet floating up like a parachute.
Though these two middle jumps came in quick succession, we have quite a long hike ahead of us before the fourth (and final) jump. We’re all shaking from the cold, trying to sit for as long as possible in every sunny area we come across to get warm. Luckily, we’re starting to climb higher and higher into the mountains, and are starting to spend more and more time in the sun. Before long we come out alongside a waterfall one hundred meters up the side of the mountain. We all inch our way up to the edge, careful not to get too close to the drop that would absolutely, undoubtedly, be fatal.
The view from up here is unreal. The mountain sweeps down from either side of us into the deep, forested canyon below. The waterfall punches its way into the center of it and the river winds it’s way through, too. We hop into a cold, muddy pool up here for yet another photo-op, and though I’m now freezing again, I can’t deny this is a pretty sweet little infinity pool. The entire canyon lies before us as we shiver in the little stone pool, smiling tensely as Trompi grins mischievously and says, “One more! No, one more!”
When we get out, we enjoy the view some more and try to soak up the sun and the warmth of the rocks before we start off on the next part of our adventure again. As we all sit there, gaping at the height of the drop and the gorgeous view, Trompi jokes that this is the next jump (ha ha). He laughs at his own joke and then points instead to our actual way down from this enormous cliff. Though we think he’s joking again, he’s not.
And so, one by one, with only a rope tied around our waists, we cling to a rickety red metal ladder bolted to the side of the mountain and slowly descend this dizzying precipice until we reach an area about twenty feet down. Then, we take one more ladder down (this one half broken and made of wood…cool), and we arrive at the entrance of a cave (ok, actually, it’s really cool). This sort of precarious descent obviously takes a while to get fifteen people down, so we wait in the shady mouth of the cave for the others and sip on some water that Trompi and the other guide brought.
The entrance to the cave is incredible. Its big maw gapes out at the bluebird sky up above, stalagmites hanging down like teeth up above, and huge jagged rocks sitting at the base of the walls like sentinels. We were under strict instructions to not touch anything, which I was confused about at first, but now that we’re down here, I understand. Apparently, a local church does a lot of ritual ceremonies in these caves, and so candles, wax, and other seemingly random items litter the cavern. A spoon stands at attention on a tiny little rock that juts out of a wall, and it’s obviously been placed with such care and precision, I know it must be very important (though I can’t imagine what for). The rest of the gang, the guide, and Trompi all soon get down to the cave, too, and Trompi tells us that spoon is probably used to stir a spiritual tea. Once a spoon is used in this sacred place, it can’t be used again, so it’s carefully placed and left here in this incredible cave for eternity.
Our guide collects our water bottles and we set off into the cave, Trompi leading the way with a flashlight. Apart from the small circles of light made by our guides’ torches, the path through the cave soon becomes pitch black, and all we can feel is the soft silt underfoot, and the rough, damp rocks around the path. Though there’s a slight downward slope in the path, it doesn’t get steep until the end. There, where we can literally see the light at the end of the tunnel, we have to butt-slide our way down a muddy stone face to get to the path that exits the cave. Finally, on firm ground, with the sun brilliant and blinding up ahead, we smile ecstatically and stumble towards the exit, praying for warmth.
We leave the cave and find ourselves in a small clearing. While we wait for the others, we do a little exploring, trying to find warm rocks and sun after our long trek through the cold, damp cave. We walk a little ways down a nearby path towards some nice, hot-looking boulders surrounding a beautiful blue pool hugged by small cliffs. A few people wonder aloud if this is the location of our final jump, but given the fact that the water couldn’t have been more than a meter deep, we all decide it’s probably not.
We’ve been around the pool for no more than a minute or two when the guides shout anxiously for us to come back. They tell us sternly that we can’t just go exploring without strict permission from them. A reasonable rule, given all of the sharp rocks and deadly drops around here, but perhaps an unreasonable implementation of the rule, given we were lying on sunny rocks at ground level trying to get warm. Oh well, what can you do?
Luckily, we don’t have to stay in the shade too terribly long. Soon, the entire group is out of the cave and we head a few meters down the path to a shallow pool (no more than a foot or two deep) that sits directly underneath the waterfall we’d just been at the top of. Awed by this strange check to our perspective we splash around in the cold water, rinsing off the caked-on mud from our journey through the cave and wading over to the base of the falls. The water shoots down from the mountain up above and ricochets off an enormous rock overhang. Trompi says we’ll be here for a while, waiting for Graeme and the other group to catch up to us, so we enjoy ourselves in the meantime. We all make our way over to stand under the overhang. Here, thanks to the mossy stone ceiling overhead, we’re (mostly) safe from the water. All around the outcropping, the water plummets down in crystal-clear blinds, chunks of water slapping the surface of the pool loudly. I’m starting to get chilled from the shade and the mist under the overhang, but I’m not about to pass up an opportunity like the one pouring down in front of me. So I walk directly under the falls, letting the water slam against my shoulders and head, bouncing off in every direction. In hindsight, leading with my head—and I’m speaking only literally here, of course—through a 100m waterfall with no thought as to how immense the force of the water would be, was probably pretty dumb. But, lucky for me, after hitting so much stone on its way down, the water—though unbelievably powerful—does not knock me flat (hooray!), and I walk through safely, giggling and smiling because it’s just so incredibly cool. Now happily soaked and frozen to the core again, I go stand in the shallower area with the rest of the gang, hoping to thaw out in the sun a bit.
After about twenty minutes, Graeme appears up on the path we just came from. We shout “hey!” and “how’s it been?” back and forth, surprised to see him alone, but before long Trompi leads all of us, finally, to our very last jump (duhduhDUHMMMM).
Our hike up to the final cliff is short and sweet—just a fun little scramble up a smooth boulder face and here we are. The cliff itself is, well, a really really big slab of mountain rock with a huge, precipitous drop. There’s jungle bush to the left, right, and most of the area behind us. Up ahead (if you dare inch your way to the edge to look), are gorgeous green trees and vines that drape their way across the stone walls of the mountain. Of course, the greenery isn’t really the focus. The focus, rather, is the little grotto below. It’s ten to fifteen feet wide and about thirty feet lengthwise—the water is nice and deep directly below, shallower off to the left (where we’ll presumable exit after we jump), and faced with a dead end against the cliff faces on our right. Along the mid-to-back section of the pool run two rubber pipes that transport water to the local villages at the base of these mountains, and they hang languidly at different heights, draped in moss and riddled with cool, rune-like graffiti. The water is a beautiful, crisp blue-green color—very inviting (apart from the fact that it’s a solid thirty-five feet below our feet).
Jill and I wanted to be the first two to jump but, alas, we were so eager to get to the cliff, we took the wrong path up and wound up being last in the line of people who weren’t still plucking up the courage to take the leap (not that I wasn’t nervous, too…35 feet is really tall). Before long, though, it’s my turn, and after a little bit of charging and balking, I ask our guide to count down and then jump. The drop is phenomenal: the feeling of the wind whooshing past, the exhilaration of the free-fall, the pride of the leap, the water rushing up from below. When my body finally slaps the surface of the water, though, I realize my excitement has left me a bit unprepared, and my butt takes the brunt of the impact—ouch. What impact my butt doesn’t take, my brain does. I got so excited during the drop, I let go of my nose and half the pool is now straight up my nose. Mmmm…brain freeze.
Believe it or not, a 35+-foot plummet was enough to make me sink pretty deep. Luckily, my nifty lifejacket pulls me up by my bootstraps—my helmet shooting up like a cartoon character’s eyebrows—and soon I’m blasting through the water’s surface, gasping and sputtering and grinning from ear to ear. I did it!
After my first leap, I can’t get enough. Ali and Jill and I race up a small rocky path back to the top and launch ourselves off again and again—each leap just as nerve-wracking and just as fun as the first. Jill is a pro at this—toes pointed, body rigid, she makes almost no splash every time. I, meanwhile, get so giddy at having just leapt off an enormous cliff that, though my form is perfect when I first jump out (legs straight, nose plugged, arms crossed over life jacket), as soon as I catch sight of that beautiful blue water, I let go of my nose, kick my legs excitedly, and more or less just look down at the water, grinning madly.
Oh well, brain freeze won’t kill me, right?
Trompi and Graeme jump last—waiting until some of us have already jumped two or three times. They more than make up for their late start, though. They jump together once (which is adorable), and as they plummet side by side, Trompi pushes Graeme away from him in midair, seemingly out of childish playfulness (apparently it’s to keep from landing on top of each other, though). They both go again, this time solo, and Trompi’s jump is incredible. He launches himself about five feet out and three feet up, whooping in exhilaration when at last he drops out of his enormous arc and plummets into the water below, making a surprisingly small splash.
We could’ve stayed there all day long, jumping again and again and again. Sadly, though, we have to make room for the other group to come jump, so we head off together down the path, smiling enormously and gushing excitedly about the cliff, still jacked off the adrenaline from our four jumps. I look around our group with pride—every single person jumped at least once (most twice or more), and we all had an amazing time.
As we walk further and further from the final jump’s location, the dense undergrowth turns to the familiar dry, scruffy bush, and the overhanging jungle turns to open sky. We make our way through a small village, marching along in our wet shorts, filthy sandals, and kloofing gear like strange, colorful little penguins. Little kids watch us curiously, most waving but some just watching suspiciously. One little boy sees all of us in our swimsuits and slaps his hands over his eyes, and his sister giggles, walking over and trying to convince him he can uncover his eyes.
When we reach the very end of our kloofing journey, we’re greeted with coolers full of snacks and a bakkie waiting to take us back to our accommodations, all in the shade of an enormous baobab tree. The tree is astounding—it’s bigger than the average two-story house and Trompi tells us, based on its size, it’s likely over five hundred years old. A family sits nearby on the roots of the baobab tree, and seeing them there I can’t help but envy their lifestyle—their ability to have a place like this to meet up and relax with family, a life in a culture where a tree like this inspires awe and respect instead of annoyance or greed.
We can’t fit our entire group into the first bakkie back to where our bus is parked, so I decide to wait with some of the others for the second transport. We sip our sodas and relish the taste of our well-earned victory granola bars, talking amongst ourselves and asking Trompi about his life and his experiences with kloofing. He tells us that the kloofing he does involves a lot of climbing with ropes and gear (either up the sides of cliffs or across the bellies of caverns). After each climb, they unstrap and drop into the water. Even though he takes scarier jumps than what we just did whenever he goes with his gear, he tells us that without all his ropes, he thinks it’s a much scarier, much more raw experience.
We marvel at the mountains sprawled out around us, and he points back towards where we came from, telling us that the waterfall we saw is one of the few in the world that isn’t eroding the mountain, but actually building it up, depositing sediment at the base and allowing it to continue to grow larger and taller. Pretty cool.
Eventually, the second bakkie comes for us and we drive out of the village and back to the meeting area where we’ll wait until the other group arrives. We’re all happily exhausted—like little kids after a day at the beach. We all brought a change of clothes and a packed lunch, and after I hork down my PBJ and change into sweatpants, I snooze on the rocks with everyone else.
We’re soon reunited with the other group, and we bus back to base and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing together, recovering from the nerves- and adrenaline-induced exhaustion of our action-packed morning.
Today, we hiked up and down a mountain, journeyed through a sacred cave, and plummeted a total of 130+ feet—all before four o’clock. Just an average day in the life of an ISVolunteer.