Parys is a budget-friendly paradise for adventurers
Whitewater rafting on the Vaal and a tough hike make for the perfect glamping weekend, writes Davison Mudzingwa
Parys is beguilingly close to Johannesburg. Just over 100km to the south, travellers can easily overlook this Free State town. However, as I was to find out, it is not the distance that matters but the adventure in the distance.
We set off for our glamping weekend with Glamping Adventures on — literally — a black Friday, due to load-shedding. My two travel companions could sense the tension. For the first time in my life I was going whitewater rafting on the fabled Vaal River. Being a novice swimmer, there were many "what ifs" on my mind.
If the raft capsizes, will I really be safe in a lifejacket? Are they sure there are no crocodiles in the river?
The roadside was lush. Recent rains had transformed the country. The last time I was here was on a "glamping" reconnaissance and the land was visibly thirsty.
The grasslands were patchy and grey, trees were shedding the last of their discoloured leaves. The livestock on farms looked frail with some drinking from muddy puddles.
Now all that had changed. There was life. The hills were elegant and green, streams were flowing and birds flying to rest on leafy tree branches.
Parys appears like a co-ordinated quaint establishment. Restaurants such as French Café, Die Eiffel Coffee Shop and La Vie En Rose are hallmarks of the intriguing origins of Parys.
The story is that a German surveyor named Schilbach saw striking similarities between where Parys stands on the Vaal and Paris on the River Seine in France.
We were officially in the Vredefort Dome zone, a Unesco World Heritage site, where a meteor the size of Table Mountain hit the Earth two billion years ago, leaving a huge crater.
What we saw from our Dimalachite River Lodge base were rippling remnants of this. Outcrops of quartzite rocks define the west side of the Vaal River. Transformed by clouds passing in front of the sun, they looked like holograms of elephants.
The Vaal appeared to be stagnant. Only the rapids sang a different chorus. This was to be the soundtrack of our weekend.
I looked at the river in awe and with nagging anticipation of what was to come the following day.
The "what ifs" continued to haunt me, only more pronounced as I stood on the river bank. A rainbow cut across the Vaal like a colour palette, making a complete circle with its reflection on the river.
On Saturday morning we were in high spirits all the way to the river. We were to conquer nine rapids with weird names such as Captain Morgan, Look Sharp, Paradise, Stepping Stone and Theatre.
We laughed uproariously when our guide warned that during the 8km trip some of us would capsize and some would hit the river banks and emerge with some bruises.
In a heavy Sesotho accent, he warned we should not laugh if our colleagues encountered such misfortunes. Instead, we should help them, he emphasised, with the countenance of a village elder.
It was a fairy tale foretold. We took off like a discordant swarm of bees, trying to find a rhythm and establish chemistry with our paddling partners.
With a pair in each boat, the person in front directed while the rear paddler was the propeller.
It was a cacophony of "Right! Left! Right!" to shaky response of "Right, you say?"
On the ferocious Captain Morgan rapid, one of the rear paddlers fell out of the raft but managed to cling tight to a rock like a tick. The front paddler, oblivious to the situation, paddled away with the confidence of a water sports champion. It was later to become a camp joke.
Another pair paddled into the overgrown river bank. "Baby, paddle left, baby," the wife shouted.
"Yes, love, left!" the husband replied, paddling right. The more he paddled, the more the boat hit the river bank, the rustling seed pods hitting his wife's face.
The moment would be re-enacted over drinks back at the camp.
After lunch on the same day, we took a short but tough hike up an outcrop on Kommandonek Farm. It was particularly hot and took special skill to convince weary glampers that hiking was a good idea. The sluggish line of hikers, ages ranging from seven to 44, moved upwards like a millipede.
The climb was steep. There was a lot of "uh, aah" as the hillock flexed its muscles. The more we groaned upwards the more we sized each other up.
Getting to the summit was worth the effort. It revealed the majesty of the Vaal River, which, from the top of the mountain, emerged as a snaking wonder.
We forgot the pain and the fact that we still had to get back down again. I realised why this and other hillocks in Parys were used as observation points during the Anglo-Boer war.
I emerged from Parys with respect for its place in history and its role in shaping SA — and for helping me conquer my fear of water.
Parys is breathtaking and accessible and does not break either the bank or a leg.
"This is what we seek to achieve," said Gugu Sithole of Glamping Adventures.
"To enjoy the country and in the process learn from it."
• Visit glamping-adventures.co.za.