WW kayaking guide to rivers in South Africa

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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.


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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.

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Sabie / Section U1 / Mpumalanga / South Africa

Sabie River – Upper Sabie (U1)

Sabie River – U1
Grading IV-
Levels / gauges Sabie @ Emmet (Inkomati)Low – 7 to 14Medium – 15 to 25High – 26 – 30

Pumping – 40

Put-in 25° 2’22.20″S ; 30°57’35.63″E (Get permission from  25° 2’30.43″S ; 30°58’7.20″E)
Take-out 25° 1’48.56″S ; 31° 1’32.31″E (Get permission from Induna Adventures)
Estimated time 4 hrs
Length 10km
Gradient 12m/km (Longish flats)
Portages Yes (2)
Hazards / Notes Logs
Fun factor 3 / 5

The U1 is the classic run.  The run starts at the take-out of the U2, alternatively you can get lower down and cut out a large part of flat water (grade 1 rapids).  Get permission for the put-in from the coffee shop across from Induna Adventures.  The put-in at Siphon falls is flat for about 3km.  The alternative put-in cuts out about 3km of flat, but you need a high clearance vehicle to get down to the river and even a 4×4 if the it is wet.

This section has changed in terms for bang for paddle time since you cut-out the section from Tanamara Bridge (now part of U2 section).  The better part of this section is the middle 3km.  The first rapid worth mentioning is similar to lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels.  The rapid ends just above a waterfall that you need to portage so set-up safety at the bottom of the rapid.  The rapid is easy to scout from the right and also to portage.  Get out immediate after the rapid on the right and portage past the falls.  If the water is high one can run a rocky line that drops into the pool below the portage waterfall (about 3 to 4m high).  Get in at the pool below the waterfall and run the drop below.   The drop below the portage is good to go and you can launch into the pool right at the top of the drop.

After the first portage (about 1km downstream) there is rapid marked by a weir that channels water to the left.  The weir does not stretch the whole width of river, so as you are coming down the main channel, get out on the island in the middle of the river and scout the rapid from there.  There are a couple of channels, but the common one taken is to the right of the island.  It is a fast shute that continues into a horse shoe drop.  At high levels the drop after the horse drop forms a natural weir.  It can dish out a beating if you are too relaxed.  You can easy skirt it on the sides or shoot the shallow channel on the left just before the drop.

The next portage is marked by a flat rock in centre to left of the river (about 6km in from the U2 take-out).  The river main flows to the right and forms a waterfall which lands on rocks.  At high flows the flat rock forms a large island with most of the water running right to the waterfall and some water running left to form a steep gutter run.  The main channel to the right consists of four drops in total. The first being un-runnable since it lands on rocks.  Portage down the middle and check out the last three drops.  There are lines open on all of these, but scout the second drop (below the waterfall falling onto to rocks) properly.  The last two waterfalls can be run by getting into the pool below the second drop.  The eddy surges at medium to high flows.  The line is either to the right cutting back to the centre of the run or from left to centre.

The last 3km is flat with small rapids.  Check with locals for hippos or crocs on the last 3km.  Take-out is at the confluence of the Mac-Mac, Sibaan and Sabie rivers at Induna Adventures.

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Sabie / Section U2 / Mpumalanga / South Africa

Sabie River – Upper, upper Sabie (U2)

Sabie River – U2
Grading IV+/- (V- for high flows)
Levels / gauges Sabie @ Emmet & Sabie @ Sabie (Inkomati)Low – 7 to 14Medium – 15 to 25

High – 26 – 30

Pumping – 40

Put-in 25° 3’45.73″S ; 30°54’28.27″E
Take-out 25° 2’22.20″S ; 30°57’35.63″E
Estimated time 5 hrs
Length 8.5km (7.4km)
Gradient 20m/km
Portages Yes
Hazards / Notes Logs
Fun factor 4 / 5

The U2 holds water well and is a good bet if water is low in the area.  This section can be paddled in mid winter with flows of around 5m3/s.  High flows for this section is considered 25 to 30 m3/s and things start getting a bit more interesting at flows higher than 40m3/s.

The put-in is at low level bridge next to the Sabie/Hazyview road.  The first 2km is pretty flat and an easy warm-up.  The actions starts with a slide rapid leading into a 90 degree bend to the left in the river.  All the rapids are easy to scout from your boat or jump out and have a look.  The first major obstacle is a log jammed waterfall (3m).  Best way to spot it is when the gradient starts picking up and the river gets a bit more continues in terms of bigger rapids.  When the water is up, watch out not to try and catch the eddy just above the falls since this gets smaller and pushier.  Have a look at the drop.  There are runnable lines and it all depends on whether there are logs or not.  If you portage, seal launch from the side of the rock shelve.  The rapid immediately after the portage is worth having a look at.  The line is towards the right and the shoot back to the left.  Check for logs in this rapid.

From here the section starts being worth it.  The big slide is around half way.  Run on the left or try the gutter run from right to left if the line is open.  The big slide follows into double drop which can dish on the day.  The big rapid of the section is Hugh-twice.  Best way to spot this is for a large boulder in the river (roughly 3m tall).  You can run the first two parts of the rapid and eddy out above the main section to have a look.  Two things to look out for: logs and the siphon on the right at the end of the rapid (set-up safety for this one).

After Hugh-twice there are two gutter rapids that should be scouted on lower levels (both rapids’ line are from right to left).  After the last gutter rapid you will get to a bridge.  Do not use this as take-out since the land owners get pissed-off.  The rapid after the bridge, you need to hug the right hand back.  From here you will get Jeff’s rapid and then Lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels.  Set-up safety at the middle pour-over, this can end up in a nasty swim.  Siphon falls has two lines.  The normal line is down the falls on the left and the other is a slide river right when the water is super high.  The take-out is either at Siphon falls or less than 1km downstream on the right.

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Sabie/ Section U3 / Mpumalanga / South Africa

Sabie River – Upper, upper, upper Sabie (U3)

Sabie River – U3
Grading IV- (V- for high flows)
Levels / gauges Sabie @ Sabie (Inkomati)Low – 5to 10Medium – 10 to 15

High – 15 to 20

Pumping – 20 and up.

Put-in 25° 4’26.10″S ; 30°51’2.97″E
Take-out 25° 3’45.73″S ; 30°54’28.27″E
Estimated time 5 hrs(can be done in 3hrs if you know the section)
Length 7.2 km
Gradient 20m/km (steeper sections with middle 4km taking up the gradient)
Portages Yes
Hazards / Notes Logs / Thick tree growth on banks
Fun factor 3.5 / 5

The U3, as it is known in SA paddling circles, is not the popular of the three upper Sabie section probably because of the portage around a waterfall.  There is some pretty good action on the stretch and can be combined with the U2 to make it worthwhile.

Access is easy and along the Sabie/Hazyview road.  Put-in at the low level bridge.  If the water is overflowing the bridge then the water is high.  Best to run this section in a group of three (because of the portage), where large groups can take a long time to portage.

First real obstacle is a weir (about 900m in).  The weir is sloped and can be run, but scout first.  Best place to portage is over the logs on river right.  After this you get to a bridge (900m).  The section to here is pretty flat except for the weir.  The gradient picks-up from here and scout/eddy hop down the rapids.  A fairly steep rapid leads into the portage rapid.  The portage starts on a sharp bend to the left.  The rapid at the bend looks runnable, but after the rapid you are boxed in by the walls and the waterfall follows.  Get out at the 90 degree bend to the left.  Scramble up the cliffs and follow the over grown path along the river.  To get back into the river, follow the river to about 100m downstream on the waterfall itself.  There is a short abseil of about 5m back into the water.  The water is shallow so don’t jump.  If you wade a bit upstream, there is a little island to regroup and have a look at the falls.

Immediately after the portage there is a runnable waterfall (6m).  The drop can be scouted from the left.  Note that the waterfall is a must run and can dish out a hiding if you are off line.

The last significant rapid is a slot rapid.  The rapid is also at a sharp bend to the left in the river.  Scout from the left.  There is a nasty undercut on the left in the last section of the rapid.  If you line-up your entry, you will breeze through the rapid.  Otherwise opt for the dodgy seal launch from the side to portage the rapid.

There are some sweet rapids on this section that can be scouted from your boat.  Most of the logs are trapped above the weir, but take care and have a look when in doubt.  The last 1km is pretty tame and flat to the low level bridge.  Take out is at the next low level bridge or carry on and do the U2.