There’s no snoozing on the Swartkops River

 
 
 

Mteteleli Biko rubs the sleep from his eyes. He’s awake before most of Port Elizabeth, stirring at the crisp air. It’s a routine ingrained in his body. Daylight peeks over the horizon as Biko makes his way to the boathouse. There are only a handful of people at the Swartkops River. Once Biko sets his boat on the water, he’s right at home. “For years I’ve been coming out here,” Biko says. “This place has some of the best sunrises.”

When Biko began rowing in his student days, he got to know the river intimately. It’s not only a central feature of the Eastern Cape, but of his life. “Powering through the Swartkops, I feel alive,” Biko says. “It’s just me, my boat, and the water.” The river is said to get its name from the surrounding slopes, translating from Afrikaans into ‘black hills’. In summer, the estuary homes over 10 000 waterbirds, many of which migrate from as far as Russia, while thousands more flock to the adjacent salt pans.

Near this haven is the Swartkops Valley Nature Reserve, providing further opportunities for exploring the dense landscape. Flowing into the Indian Ocean, the river leads to the extensive coastline where people can fish, swim and windsurf. As the light reflects off the deep waters, Biko is reminded of why his early mornings are worth it. “It’s one of the most peaceful places on earth,” he says. “There’s nothing you can compare it to, it’s just you and the elements.” To witness this kind of beauty, sometimes you have to sacrifice those extra minutes in bed.