Usuthu River – Bhunya Section
|Usuthu River – Bhunya Section|
|Grading||+IV (V) – Grading lower if water is low.|
|Levels / gauges||There is no sure way either than contact with guys in Swaziland.
Possibly dam level on South African Side.
Check rain prediction for area.
|Put-in (at four-rapid-gorge)||26°31’57.29″S ; 30°55’39.78″E|
|Put-in (at slides – you can chose from here)||26°32’36.94″S ; 30°51’20.38″E|
|Put-in (at tributary)||26°30’2.59″S ; 30°55’2.16″E|
|Take-out||26°32’10.49″S ; 31° 0’23.31″E|
|Estimated time||4-6hrs (on proper section)|
|Length||Four-rapid-gorge to end: 12km
Slides to four-rapid-gorge: 9km
Tributary to four-rapid-gorge: 4km
|Gradient||Proper : 20m/km (steeper sections with)
Slides : 21m/km (slides section steeper)
|Portages||None (some low level bridges on the slides)|
|Hazards / Notes||Siphons / low level bridges on the slide section|
|Fun factor||4.5 / 5|
The Bhunya section of the Usuthu River has become a real classic when heading to Swaziland. The section contains some solid rapids such as steep boulder gardens, slides, slots and a waterfall (4m). Scouting will be required and you need to be a competent paddler and lead paddler if you are doing this section for the first time. Watch for gradient and get out if you can’t see the line down the rapid. Everything can be run if you are on the right line, but beware that there could be some serious consequences of you go off it.
For the put-in: There are three major put-in possibilities for this section. The normal put-in is just above four-drop-gorge (more about this later). This put-in allows for little warm-up before the action starts. One alternative to this is to put-in on a tributary to the Usuthu (coming from the west). This river joins the Usuthu couple of hundred meters above four-drop-gorge and gives time to warm-up. To get to the put-in at four-drop-gorge and on the tributary you follow the MR16 in a westerly direction. Take the gravel road on your left about 2km from the round-about at the paper mill. Follow the dirt road and stay on the main dirt road with the river on your left. After being on the gravel road for about 6km you will get to a split with the proper road going to the right and a more rustic track continues on: If you want to get onto the tributary you need to follow the proper dirt road. This road will carry-on through a saddle between two hilltops. As you cross over this, you will see the tributary. Carry-on with this road until you get close to the river and walk down to get in (about 3km from coming over the saddle). If you want put-in at four-drop-gorge, carry on with the rustic track at the split. The river will be on your left. Keep left all the way along this road for about 2km and walk down the river.
The put-in at the slides, you cross over the Usuthu at the paper mill. Crossing the bridge, take the first proper dirt road on you right (river will be on your left). Carry-on with this road for about 10km and finally get to a junction. Depending on the water level (higher levels it will be possible to get in higher) you can start looking for access points with the river on your right. To access the upper parts, take the road to the left at the junction. The road follows the river so check and decide where you want to put-in.
The take-out is at the bridge at the paper mill.
Tributary: The section is about 4.5km long to where you join the Usuthu River. The slope is mild and easy for a warm-up (about 10m/km). This alternative put-in a great if you are paddling with a group of different skill levels and you still need to suss things out. You can get the weaker guys to get-out at four-drop-gorge, if you have a driver.
Slides: For the slides to work you need a lot of water. The more the better and it is likely that you will portage four-drop-gorge due to the high level. The slides are easy to scout and you can actually do this as a separate section to the proper Bhunya Section. Either scout on your way up to the put-in or while paddling down. You can take-out where the road (on the right side facing downstream) gets close to the river – after four-rapid-gorge.
Bhunya section proper: The description for this section starts just above four-rapid-gorge. Four-rapid-gorge is pretty easy to spot. The gradients picks-up and the river forms one channel. There is a lead-in rapid of class II/III right above the gorge. If you do not know the run or haven’t been down here for some time, get out on the left to scout/portage. The gorge consists of four rapids. The first is a steep boulder garden type rapid with some ledges, siphons (exposed at low water) and undercuts. The typical line is to boof the first two drops entering centre left to centre right, but the line will change with water levels. The next rapid is a slot. At high levels it can dish out a beating so have a look before you run it. Best to scout this rapid from the right-hand side bank. The two last rapids can join into one rapid at high levels (the pool gets shorter and pushier between them). The third rapid is a slide with the typical line centre to exit left. The last rapid is a drop of about 2.5m. A rock island splits the flow (more at higher flows) and the drop on the left forms an L-shape with the cliff on the left. Good news is that there is not a undercut along the left wall. Bad news is that it can get messy if you stuff up your boof. Low level line will be straight over the middle of the drop. At higher levels you can go for a line along the leg of the L on the right and then boof in at the end, or take the slide on the right of the rock splitting the flow. The best is to scout this one together with the slide before on the left bank.
The character of the river is short steep sections with longer easy sections in between. All the rapids are runable; however you will need to scout some of the steeper ones. After about 2km from the four-rapid-gorge, the river will widen out and start to channel. Look for where the most water is going. You are likely to start out right and gradually move to the left. This section is about 2km long, after which the river narrows again.
There is a tricky rapid at the 6km mark (down from four-rapid-gorge). It is steep and at low water can be tricky and nasty if you miss your line. At higher levels a pour over forms in the middle of the rapid. You will spot it since there is a significant increase in gradient. Most of the water flows right and seems to flow directly into a cliff wall. You can either scout this one from the left or right. Important – the rapid after this has a siphon directly in the main line. It starts out nice and easy with some slides, but feed directly towards the siphon. Scout from the left. The siphon is about halfway down the rapid.
From the siphon rapid, carry on for another 2.5km until you get to a weir (close to the left bank). The weir is runable, but scout your line downstream from the weir. The section below the weir can get manky at low water. About 2km from here you will get to Bhunya falls. Get out above the falls and scout. The line is fairly easy, but check at higher levels that you will be able to get past the rock at the bottom of the falls when you exit the pool. An alternative line is the slide on river right (fast as). The section from the falls to the take-out bridge is great. Scout the rapid below the falls from river left. The next rapid (you can see it from the bridge) is a weir with a line far on the left side. This leads into the last rapid. At higher levels there might be some holes, but it is fairly clean with a big pool at the bottom. Take out on river right below the bridge and scramble up the rocks to the road.
The last section from the falls to the bridge can also be done as a short section and great for spectators.
Best way to know if this section is working: Check latest rainfall, confirm with the local guys in Swazi. If you are heading to Swaziland you would have done some confirmation of water levels. If everything is pumping high, either head way up the slides on this section or head for some big volume runs on the commercial section.