WW kayaking guide to rivers in South Africa

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Polela / KwaZulu-Natal / South Africa

Polela River

Polela River
Grading +IV (V)
Levels / gauges Level gauge is out.

Check level as you cross the Polela on your way from Bulwer to Underberg.

Level is hard to pin-point but work on teh following:

Do-able: River is bank to bank and just starting to burst the banks at the bridge.

Pumping: Water is brown and over the banks.

Put-in 29°50’2.64″S ; 29°38’53.87″E
Take-out 29°53’24.48″S ; 29°39’31.28″E
Estimated time 2-4hrs
Length 10.6km
Gradient 22m/km for first 6km. 15m/km.
Portages One
Hazards / Notes Waterfalls
Fun factor 4.0 / 5 (Full it is a 5)

The Polela is likely to work when Thrombi is pumping at about 40cumecs.  Best way to know if it is working, is to drive out and check it.  There use to be an old stormwater pipe that was used to gauge.  If the water is well over the pipe, then it was good to go.  Low water on the Polela means walking and scraping (especially the last couple of km’s to the take-out) so rather hit Thrombi or something else.

The put-in is at the bridge.  For the take-out, drive towards Bulwer and take the D-3 dirt road on your right.  Carry-on with this road for about 9km until you cross-over the Polela.

The Polela is best known for two things: Waterfalls and T-bone/V-bone.  The action starts off with Horseshoe drop.  The normal line is on the right and launching from right to left.  Other lines exist on the left, but be cautious of running the slot.  Hazards such as logs can be hidden from view.  The waterfall is about 2km downstream of the put-in bridge.  A 3-4m drop is the next waterfall.  The line is easy and you can scout from the right bank.  After the second waterfall (about 200m) you will get to the portage.  Portage on the right.

For about 1.5km you will have rapids leading to the next waterfall set.  The landmark is a house on the left bank.  Scout from the left bank (easy to portage as well).  After this you will get to T-bone/V-bone.  The rapid has a steep lead-in which ends in a micro pool above a slot.  Scout your line from the right bank.  There is a big pool below the drop.  This rapid has dished out in the past to kayakers messing up their line and things are unlikely to change.  With higher levels, things don’t get any easier.

From T-bone/V-bone onwards the river looses gradient and you paddle through easy class II/III rapids lined on the side by black wattles.

The Polela is great at a high level for competent paddlers.  It is also possible to do Thrombi in the morning and Polela in the afternoon run.


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Bivaan / KwaZulu-Natal / South Africa

Bivaan Gorge (Below Paris Dam)

Bivaan Gorge
Grading +III
Levels / gauges Dam level @ Bivaan at Paris Dam (Usutu and uMhlathuze)Low – 10 to 20

Medium – 20 to 40

High – 40 to 50

Pumping – 50

Put-in 27°31’15.18″S ; 31° 3’17.74″E
Take-out @ Ithala Game Reserve on Pongola 27°27’57.04″S ; 31°16’37.99″E
Take-out @ confluence 27°26’50.50″S ; 31°12’14.62″E
Estimated time Easy overnighter or 6 – 8hrs one day.
Length 43 km (Can be 10km shorter if you take-out at the confluence)
Gradient 10m/km
Portages None
Hazards / Notes Wildlife / isolated gorge
Fun factor 3.0 / 5

This  section of the Bivaan River forms part of the annual Ithala Challenge.  You can get pretty good info on the river section  on the race website.  The race is usually held in late November and is open for K1’s and K2’s with some guys opting for kayaks.

The put-in is below Paris dam.  It is within a reserve and you need to pay for access.  (The turn-off is on the R69 between Vryheid and Louwsburg).  The take-out is within the Ithala Game Reserve.  Again you need to pay for access. The Ithala Game Reserve is located outside of Louwsburg.  The conventional take-out is the same as for the race, which is actually on the Pongola River.  An alternative take-out is at the confluence of the Bivaan and Pongola Rivers.  Take note that you need a 4×4 to get down to the river via the jeep track (check with park officials for details and condition of jeep track).

The majority of the section is on the Bivaan River.  All rapids are good to go in a kayak.  The nature of the river is within the easy class III type rapids with pools in between.  This  section is good for an easy overnighter  and raft friendly (2-man).  There are mainly three rapids that might need you to up your attention levels and they are located at 12km, 20km and 24km mark.  The rapids are easy to scout from the banks or from your boat (if you know how).

The river level is dam dependant and you need to check the dam level and possibly the outfall level.  You can try and get hold of the dam operators and see if they can give you any feedback.

The section is pretty isolated so make sure that you prepare and pack accordingly.  Hand paddling 40 odd kilometres can suck.  Note that there are some flat-dogs in the Pongola River.  Don’t hang around in pools and get the last 10km on the Pongola behind you.

What the Bivaan lack in difficulty, it makes up for in scenery and is well worth a paddle.

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Steelpoort / Mpumalanga / South Africa

Steelpoort River

Grading III+  (IV when the water is high)
Levels / gauges Steelpoort @ Buffelskloof (Olifants)

Low – 10 to 20

Medium – 20 to 35

High – 35 to 50

Pumping – 50 up

Put-in 25°16’39.66″S ; 29°48’56.37″E
Take-out 25° 9’29.96″S ; 29°50’35.38″E
Estimated time 5 – 7hrs
Length 34km
Gradient 10m/km (There are slightly steeper in the middle)
Portages None
Hazards / Notes Continuous III / long day on the river / wildlife
Fun factor 3.5 / 5

The Steelpoort is located close to Gauteng which makes it easy for paddlers in this area to head through for the day.  It takes about 2 – 3hrs to get to the put-in from Johannesburg.  From Middelburg take the R555.  From the R555 take the R579, 8km from the R579 turn-off onto a gravel road on your right (district gravel road).Follow the gravel road until you cross the Steelpoort and the pu-in.  To get to the take-out, carry-on over the Steelpoort and turn left at the t-junction.  Follow the dirt road until you cross the low level bridge (river will be on your left) and then look-out for Bon Amanzi lodge.  This is the normal take-out.  Pay for access for take-out here.

The Steelpoort is not a technical river since all the rapids are easy to boat scout, but the section is long and fairly continuous (it really picks-up when the water is up).  The rapids are generally in the class III range, but the long day on the river and the continuous nature pushes it into the low IV’s.  Creek boats are commonly used due to the length of the section and for comfort sake, but there are some mild play waves on this section.

At the start there are a couple of trees you need to look-out for (specifically after a flood), but it should be easy to spot strainers and eddy out in time.  Something that is constantly changing on the Steelpoort is fences across the river.  The fences are put-up in the dry season to keep live-stock in-side the properties.  DO NOT CUT ANY FENCES.  Keep an eye open for fences crossing the river and portage/duck-under where required.  Check for updates on fence positions and statuses.

The largest rapid on this section is Tonsillitis.   The main line is on the right which is a pour-over with a bit of a suck-back.  The line is open if you have a solid boof to clear the suck-back (safety best on river right).  An easier line is on the left (portage on the left-hand bank).

The Steelpoort is whole lot of fun and worth heading through if the water is up.  It has become a great river for intermediates looking to get exposed to some continuous, but easy to read rapids.

One last thing about the Steelpoort; the local farmers have mentioned that there are hippos on the section of river.  Now I don’t know if the locals are taking the piss out of the kayakers (I haven’t seen any hippos on the section, nor have I heard of other guys running into them), but keep it in mind and just look-out for any activity.

Besides the scenery and the continuous rapids, the other highlight about the Steelpoort is the view and cold beers at the end.


Umtamvuna / Kwazulu-Natal / South Africa

Umtamvuna River – Port Edward

Grading -IV (V) (High water IV+)
Levels / gauges *   Gauge is down at the momentUmtamvuna @ Umtamvuna WTW (Mvoti to Umzimkulu

Low – Below 15

Medium – 15 to 25

High – 25 to 35

Pumping – 35

Put-in 30°53’39.80″S ; 30° 7’5.85″E
Take-out 31° 4’1.06″S ; 30°10’51.33″E
Estimated time Overnighter (12 hrs – 14hrs) or long one day.
Length 32 km
Gradient 18m/km
Portages None
Hazards / Notes Ledge holes / isolated gorge
Fun factor 4.0 / 5 (Classic 5 if the water is up)

The Umtamvuna is located on the boundary of Kwazulu and the Eastern Cape.  The section is within an isolated gorge which is spectacular.  The isolation ups the level of the run as well, with proper preparation required to ensure that a walk-out does not become an option.

The put-in is at the pumpstation for the Umtamvuna WTW.  To get there, drive along the Izingolwene Road (when entering Port Edward from Durban, it is the road to the right at the traffic lights).  Have a chat with the guys at the water works.  They can give good info on the water level for future paddles down this section.  The take-out is either at the Old Pont resort or push to the beach.

This section is great because there are no portages (can change if there is wood) and a competent paddler can boat scout almost the entire section.  The action starts as you round the corner from the pumpstation.  The nature of the run is fairly continues with ledge holes and some tight lines.  At higher flows, swims should be avoided due to the continuous nature of this section.

This section has been done in a day, but you need to get on early to allow for enough daylight.  You know you are well over halfway when you pass a large tributary coming in from river right.  Other action in this section includes a ledge drop of about 2-3m.

There are sections that you will have to scout.  A competent paddler class IV (which should lead this section) will spot the hazards and/or horizon lines.  Note that there are higher graded rapids on this section and this is why the (V) in the grading section is there.

This section is fun, but the water levels are fickle.  Best to do this run when you are in the area or if you have confirmed info on the water levels.  The section does not hold water for too long, so you need good rains probably one to two days prior to the mission.

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Tugela Canyon / KwaZulu-Natal / South Africa

Tugela River – Canyon section (Colenso to Weenen)

Tugela River – Canyon section
Grading -IV (V)
Levels / gauges Tugela @ Colenso (uThukela)Low – Below 70

Medium – 70 to 160

High – 160 to 300

Pumping – 300 and up.

Put-in 28°42’3.21″S ; 29°49’38.44″E
Put-in Alternative 28°40’37.32″S ; 29°52’19.42″E
Take-out 28°45’25.23″S ; 30° 9’1.14″E
Estimated time Overnighter (12 hrs – 14hrs)
Length 53 km
Gradient 15m/km (sections where gradient increases significantly, but flats take it up on average)
Portages Yes (2)
Hazards / Notes Holes / Semi-isolated gorge
Fun factor 4.0 / 5 (Classic 5 if the water is up)

The Tugela Canyon section is a classic run and best to it as an overnighter.  Put-in is at the Onderbroek-spruit on the road towards Ezakheni (turn right from the R103).  You will see an railroad bridge over a little stream and the Tugela River in the background.  This is the put-in for the complete section which includes Hartshillfalls and Little Augrabies.  An alternative put-in to skip the portage and the waterfall is to get-in at the pumpstation (see alternative put-in coordinates).   For the alternative put-in you need to drive toward Ezakheni.  When you cross the railroad, immediately after that you will get to an intersection.  Take the road to the right (double back along the road you came in, but on the other side of the tracks) and carry on until you get to the waterworks and then the pumpstation.  You can use this also as a take-out if you want to run the top section and the section below the pumpstation.

For the take-out: What we have done in the past differs.  You can either organise with Zingela (Lodge on the banks of the river) for a shuttle (cost involved).  Alternatively you can leave a car at their house in Weenen (arrange with them first) or at the police station in Weenen.  Carry-on to the take-out at the bridge and then either catch a lift into town with a taxi (road is semi-busy) and get the car for the pick-up.  Don’t bank on the police to help out with logistics.  You are lucky if you bum a lift.  It is always a good idea to get hold of the guys down at Zingela and just let them know that you are paddling down.  (Note – great place for seconds to stay).

Once you are on the river from Onderbroek-spruit:  The first obstacle is Hartshillfalls (10-12m) and is about 1.5km from the put-in.  At low flows you can scout the falls from the edge, alternatively you need to bundu-bash on the left bank.  The line is towards the left of the river.  On the right it forms a messier cascade type falls.  There are however numerous lines and the pool at the bottom is generally deep everywhere.

For 1.5km it is more than drop, but then you will enter some small continuous rapids building up.  Get out on the left bank before you go down too far.  This is the portage, Little Augrabies.  Do not eddy hop until then end, because you run out of eddies very quickly and you do not want to go down this thing.  A swimmer at this point is a problem.  Portage on the left and get in below the falls and run the last couple of meaty holes.

The next landmark is a pumphouse on your left with a weir stretching across the river.  This is Colenso Falls.  It totals in the region of 30m.  The lines on the right is out for now, but on the left there are several smaller drops and slides with multiple lines.  There’s a drop on the bottom right (about 7m) that starts to work at higher flows.  If you are not keen on this, portage on the left (old way was to portage down the centre island, but this can be a mission).  About 500m below the cascades, there is a playhole good to go.

Below Colenso Falls you start to enter the gorge.  Everything from here-on is good to go with the odd scout required.  It is a good idea to push past the Klip River (biggest river coming in from the left) if you are doing an overnighter.  The Klip joins the Tugela 11km downstream of Colenso Falls.

The commercial section starts about 10km upstream from Zingela Camp.  The land mark is pretty difficult to spot, but there is an old farmhouse on the right bank (About 500m from the river bank) and you can also see powerlines on the hill on the right.  The section includes Frog’s playground (big holes and waves at high levels – 200up), Washing Machine (Need to scout this rapid on the right hand bank) and Liquidizer.  After this you will spot Zingela camp on river right.  The section to bridge and take-out is milder and you the gradient drops.

Note – Camp on right bank of river. The gorge is pretty isolated and a hike-out will be a crappy option.  Take the right equipment and group for a trip like this.  This section is also ideal for rafts.

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Nels / Mpumalanga / South Africa

Nels River – Nelspruit section

Nels River – Nelspruit section
Grading III (IV-)
Levels / gauges Nels @ Boschrand (Inkomati)Low – Below 7Medium – 7 to 12

High – 12 to 17

Pumping – 20 and up.

Put-in 25°24’50.24″S ; 30°56’51.59″E
Take-out 25°26’3.79″S ; 30°58’11.15″E
Estimated time 2 – 3 hrs (You can push it in 1.5hrs)
Length 7.2 km
Gradient 15m/km (steeper sections with middle 4km, 20m/km,  taking up the gradient)
Portages Yes
Hazards / Notes Logs / Thick tree growth on banks
Fun factor 3.0 / 5

The Nels River is perfect for a run on the way to or from a weekend away.  It is located within Nelspruit and the take-out is at the region shopping mall.  There are only a couple of rapids on this section, but the length and the nature of the rapids make it worthwhile.  You can get down this section in less than two hours if you have done it before.  The section can be made longer by paddling to the confluence with the Crocodile River at the botanical gardens (Warning – access is a problem to get out so you will either have to sneak it or walk back along the top back to the shopping mall).

To get to the put-in, drive out on the R37.   When you cross under the N4, carry-on for 2.5km and you will see a turn-off on your right (there is a railway crossing sign).  Go onto the dirt road and keep right at the split.  After you cross the railway there is a parking spot on your left and you can walk to the weir from there.  The take-out is at the back of the shopping mall.

The put-in is at the top of weir.  This is hippo country so get in right at the weir and don’t hang around upstream of it. You can run the sloped weir pretty much anywhere, but it will depend on the water levels.  When in doubt, get in at the bottom of the weir.  There is also a put-in a little further down the road at a bridge.

The first set of rapids is a nice warm-up.  The first rapid worth having a look at is also a portage on lower levels due to a pinnacle rock right in the middle of the slot at the bottom.  The rapid is about 500m downstream of the bridge.   You can scout it from the left and also portage left.  The next rapid is also a portage due to a tight slot at the end.  It has been run to right above the last drop (tight slot) with live-bait to catch the paddler (desperate measures).

The next set of rapids is a sequence of slides.  This is the reason to paddle this river.  Best is to scout from the right hand bank.  Note that when the water is up, it gets pretty difficult to see your line.  This is when the flow is around 20cumecs.

After this the river starts channelling through trees, so be careful of strainers and keep a good following distance.  You can get out at the highway bridge next to the shopping mall or continue on to the confluence with the Crocodile River.  There is a set of rapids right at the end worth checking out if you have time. Getting out paddling down to the Crocodile River get tricky and you might have to hike back along the Nels to the shopping mall.

The Nels is nice in the sense that you can sneak this run in either to or on the way back from other rivers.