It is safe to say that paddling in Africa is different to most parts of the world. It has its own unique challenges and graces. For instance, many paddleable rivers are remote where the nearest hospital is, at best, a 4 hour drive away; and at worst medical help is not accessible at all because the nearest road is a 4 hour drive away where walking is the only option. That said, I do not own a heavy duty drytop due to the largely warm nature of the rivers (although at times I wish I did thanks to the Ash and Cape rivers). Yet, even the Cape Rivers are like hot tubs when compared to the snowmelt I experienced in Canada.
So it seems there is a flipside to every coin; and I am happy to be on the remote, warm water side of it. Of course this side of the coin also relies entirely on rain to fill the rivers which can be severely frustrating at times. Not this time, however. After having a spectacular trip to the Transkei and spending a wonderful Christmas surfing the warm waters of the North Coast, I found myself in land Natal. One of the most famous regions for its whitewater (if you have seen Wicked Liquid II or Wet House you’ll know what I mean).
I met up with long time paddling friend and well known South African kayaker, Luke Longridge on the banks of the Umzimkulu river just above the famous Thrombosis Gorge. Probably the most well known technical whitewater stretch in SA, Thrombi is where paddlers come to cut their teeth (so to speak), to gauge whether they are ready for class IV – V whitewater. But even for the seasoned boater this stretch of river is fantastic, it boasts a number of technical rapids before becoming continuous read & run and finally ending with an impressive 9m/30ft waterfall. Both being familiar with the run Luke and I made good time down the gorge, and we were often reminded that no matter how accustomed one is to this stretch it can still dish out a beating or two. Even the waterfall - the drop I have run most out of any other in my paddling career - kept us humble: I nearly copped a beating at the base and Luke was a bit too close to the undercut for comfort. Nevertheless, we both came out fine and all that was left to do was to make the climb out of the gorge after which it is named. After the Pot gorge however, Thrombi wasn’t too bad.
Luke had been spending the past week teaching his friend and house mate, Kate Comrie, how to kayak. Within the week she had managed her first few waterfalls as well as an overnighter on the Deepdale stretch of the Umkomaas. Kate’s family were kind enough to put us up for the night after our run of Thrombi, which was a godsend because it rained all night and camping would have been a nightmare.
After a very comfortable night, Luke and I rose early to make the 40min drive to the put-in of the Deepdale section. Our mission this time was not the overnight run, but to Park n’ Huck the 15m/50’ falls that mark the put in. The waterfall is split by an island in the middle of the river, essentially creating two very different waterfalls. The left side is slightly lower with more volume. While the levels were ideal for the run it was just a little low for this side of the waterfall. So the higher, more technically demanding drop, was left open to us.
I was thankful to have Luke with me as he is one of the few who has run the drop before at a lower level. He knew the technical lead-in to the falls which is the worry when tackling this drop. After a ferry to the other side and setting up safety and the camera’s Luke was ready to go. I noted the line he took, eddy next to the island, left of a shelf, right of the first hole, and clip the right of the second before lining up the lip right behind it. He went over the lip in the right spot and stuck a great line all the way to the bottom.
Getting into my boat I found myself unusually nervous, maybe because of my last experience on a drop of a similar size. Nevertheless, once I was in the current and heading for the eddy all doubts were banished; which is a good thing because once you reach the eddy you are at a point of no return. After concentrating so hard on the line I almost forgot that I had a 50’/15m drop waiting, so it was a bit of a shock to reach the lip and I quickly had to shift my thoughts on the coming freefall. The landing was much softer than the 50’er on the Inxu, something I was incredibly thankful for. I rolled up with the same idiot grin I always get after sticking a big drop.
After the short hike back up to the cars, Luke and I parted ways. He was heading back to Joburg where the Vaal river would soon be flooding; I would join him for this but not before I headed back to AD and Angela’s place in the Transkei, the Falls Backpackers, for some more creeking.
The wet season in South Africa really is a kayaker’s paradise if you’re lucky enough to be around to experience it.