By Garth King
Photography by Garth King, Robert Hewetson and Peter Haarof
‘Robert had no support team for the duration, and was not an accomplished kayaker when he started the voyage’
Earlier this year Fish Hoek mechnical engineer Robert Hewitson, 42, completed a solo 51-day, 1 656km kayak voyage from Durban to Cape Town. He arrived on Fish Hoek beach on 15 January and was welcomed back into the loving arms of his family, Sylvie and their children Hector, 5 and Claire, 7.
I interviewed Robert and his French wife at their home recently and he shared some of his stories of the voyage, which proved that:
1. Inexpensive adventure for not-so-young men is there for the taking
2. Free food from the sea is simply glorious
3. People are often friendly and happy to share a meal with strange sojourners
4. You’ve got to be mental to do what he did.
Of note is the fact that Robert—who lost seven kilograms during his adventure—had no support team for the duration, and was not an accomplished kayaker when he started the voyage. Fishing for his supper was routine, and he fed himself royally this way until he reached Plettenberg Bay. “After that the fish kind of disappeared,” he says.
Born in Springs, son of a South African Air Force pilot, he attended Pretoria Boys’ High “where I was useless at sport”. Later, studying at UCT, he took to the ocean quickly and soon started diving and spear-fishing regularly—developing a lust for deep diving: “At one stage I wanted to be the first guy to dive to the wreck of the Oceanos (which sank to 90m off the Wild Coast in 1991) and retrieve the ship’s bell. I went full out to do that.” He eventually had to abandon the caper because of a serious diving accident involving the bends (decompression sickness). “No more deep diving,” his doctor had insisted.
Later, still lusting for adventure, and while working in Newcastle in the UK, he was prompted to buy an old British Army Land Rover and get ready to drive it all the way down Africa to Cape Town. “I was told by so many that I would probably be killed en route”. Opposition to this idea was so fierce from family and friends that he gave up the idea.
Frustrated once again, he cast about for another rough epic, and he proposed the Durban to Cape Town kayaking trek to his brother Michael, who was keen, but eventually his work commitments ruled him out. A proposed solo trip became increasingly attractive, and Robert worked hard to make it happen. And indeed it did.
What was the routine of each day’s kayaking? “I’d get up at 5.30am, make myself a good cup of filtered coffee (he had brought along a special device for this vitally important ritual) and a bowl of cooked oats. I would look through the chart and GPS co-ordinates for the day and study the coastline and the next landing spot.
“By 8am I had packed my tent and stored my gear in the kayak. For much of the journey I had a tailwind, and on occasion I raced along at about 11km/h. On average I covered around 50km a day.”
Once on the ocean he had several rituals to keep himself going. “At the top of each hour I would stop for three minutes and have a break and reward myself with a small sweet.” At around noon he’d have “lunch”: two sweets and a five-minute break.
At the end of his first stop Robert realised the kayak was overloaded—it was too low in the water—and he had to dump 30 kilograms of his supplies, including rice, lentils and bully beef. Water was a must-have and he had to carry at least 10 litres of it every day, sometimes up to 26 litres, depending on available water sources at the end of each day.
“As I paddled along the Wild Coast I had a lure out and I caught fish daily—bonitos and dorados usually—and tuna.
Once I caught a 16kg tuna with my short rod—it took me two hours to bring it in.” Once on the beach he would, on occasion, do some spear fishing: he caught a yellow-belly rock cod and steamed it in a pot with rice. “Ghost crabs were also on the menu at times, as were octopuses. They were delicious.”
Of course, there were some outstanding and gritty experiences. At Nyameni, on the Wild Coast, he was landing his kayak on the beach when in the surf the trailing lures (which he had forgotten to reel in) hooked into his right and left leg, hobbling him painfully. It took some time for him to get some pliers to prise the two deeply imbedded trident hooks out. Bits of the hooks remained in his muscles for the rest of the journey.
“At a braai on the weekend after my arrival back home a medic friend—as a form of post-dinner entertainment,” laughs Robert, “carefully removed the pieces of hooks still lodged in my legs.”
Robert also faced particularly rough surf lines at the notorious Woody Cape. Following the swell along the Wild Coast meant a lot of leaning backwards to avoid the tip of his kayak digging its nose in and vaulting him over the top. Worst of all, at Pinnacle Point, his beloved kayak was broken in two on rocks in rough surf and he lost some of his kit. It took some time to organise a replacement kayak.
Wherever Robert went he was met with kindnesses and courtesy. “At Kidd’s Beach near East London a little old lady suddenly arrived at my tent at 5.30am in the morning and gave me a flask of coffee and sandwiches. Quite often I was invited to braais, and people on occasion brought me food.”
At the end of each long paddle, Robert would alight at around 5pm, set up his tent, make a fire nearby and—if no restaurants or the like were close by—he would make some coffee and cook some rice and fish. Before settling down to sleep, knackered as usual, he would use a satellite phone to check in with Sylvie, consult with her on projected weather patterns for the next day, and then set up his “security system”—cables staked out around his tent which if moved activated an alarm.
They were never activated and every night Robert slept like a baby.
“I’m very happy Robert managed to finish his adventure,” says Sylvie, “and was still in one piece. It was a real relief to be able to speak to him every night. I knew what Robert was like when I married him, so there was no surprise when he told me about his kayaking plans.”
It seems that sea-trekking wanderlust is not over for Robert: “I need to be back at work for a while, but for sure I would love to kayak along the Wild Coast again. Next time, I won’t be in such a rush. I’ll take my time.”