Mutale River – Crocodiles, Hot Weather & Huge Baobabs in the Remote Northern Region
Wednesday morning 12 March 2008 and Luke Longridge and I were back in his car and on our way up north again. Our journey through South Africa’s northern most regions wouldn’t take us to the Zambezi this time, but to a little known and rarely paddled gem in the furthest corner of the Limpopo province. The Mutale River has only been paddled a handful of times and the majority of kayakers have never even heard of it. That is probably because it exists in a low rainfall region that is very remote and is also home to some monstrous crocodiles!
The plan was that Luke would pick me up at around 11:00 but we left a little later than that. That wasn’t a problem as we had loads of time and a quick pit stop at Dischem to stock up on pain killers and away we went. The drive had only just begun when it almost ended. As we were cruising on the R21 towards Pretoria (opposite those two Engen garages) we must stumbled onto a probable cash in transit heist! It looked like the truck that was a few cars ahead of us rammed a Fidelity Guards vehicle and the green van hit the anchors and flew off the road and onto the island separating the two sides of the highway in an attempt to do an emergency u-turn. Luke stomped on the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of us and the back door flung open wildly of the van as we passed it. I jumped out of my skin as we had almost come short, both of us had jumped. Yip, another day in Johannesburg. It’s not billed as one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the world for nothing!
Leaving my house that Wednesday! (old house now actually as we no longer stay there)
To me, the most beautiful tree in the world is the baobab. This was taken just before sunset on the lonley road in. Not a car to be seen!
The remainder of the way was a lot more uneventful. Shortly before we arrived in Polokwane, formally known as Pietersburg, it began to rain. The heavens opened and it bucketed down. By the time we arrived in town there were huge pools in the roads and water was flowing down the streets like crazy. Before we reached Louis Trichardt the rain had stopped already. The clouds around us were thick and dark and we hoped that it would make an impact on the river. We took a turn to the east before Mussina (formally Messina) and soldiered on. It was now getting late in the afternoon and soon darkness would overtake us. The road was very quiet and only the timeless baobab trees kept us company. By the time we got to Masisi it was pitch black and Luke drove a bit too fast, almost taking us out on some cattle sleeping on the road. He was only going at about eighty but on a narrow, dark road with loads of potholes and some bends, it was quite dodgy. We proceeded with more caution and made our way to the Pafuri Rivercamp, situated on the Mutale River itself. Here we were greeted by Sybrand, the camp manager and his friendly wife whose name evades me now.
It was only fitting to have a beer with them at the bar and we met another interesting character called Dries who seemed to just be a friend of Sybrand’s and there on a visit. Then there was Vince, who would be our driver and another random couple. The one beer turned into two beers and soon the second transformed into a third. The wife of the random couple was quite interested in what we were doing there and peppered us with questions. As the beers flowed the answers got more elaborate and soon they disappeared well satisfied with the answers we had provided. Our attention was now averted to paddling the Mutale River and it soon became apparent that there had been a miscommunication somewhere along the line. This was Africa so we ordered more beers and discussed the issue a little further. It seemed that Luke had been in contact with the owner of the camp and they had quoted us a price of R150 each to be dropped off and picked up again at the respective put in and take out points. Luke had been specific that we wanted to paddle the gorge but when the owner had contacted Vince she had perhaps forgotten to add some information or more than likely she didn’t have a clue where we wanted to go. To cut to the point, where we wanted to be dropped off was far further than what they had thought. A deal was a deal though and rest assured we would be taken to where we had to go. Vince is a volunteer from the UK, teaching the kids in a local school English, so he has nothing to do with the lodge except for knowing the people there. He just happened to be available, had his own vehicle and knew, roughly, where to go.
A tiny little gecko on our door frame to our room up in the trees.
We poured over some 1:50 000 maps and the conversation hung around the stretch in question and of course, the crocodiles. When they offered to show us an inflatable raft that had been attacked by a crocodile we kindly refused the offer! Jeepers creepers, attacked by a croc? That didn’t sound like fun to me. The people in the croc were not hurt but a massive crocodile had taken a bite out of curiosity I guess. A few more beers seemed to calm the nerves somewhat. There had been a huge crocodile in the gorge at one stage but after he ate many of the local’s goats and cattle he was eventually shot. He was easy to spot as about a metre of his tail was missing. When measured, he came in at a whopping 5.5 meters, excluding the missing tail section!!! He was shot only a few years ago. There are only a few crocodiles in the gorge now but there are a couple of large ones upstream of the gorge. The river is very flat and broad here with lots of reeds, making it the ideal hunting grounds for a crocodile and providing ample space to hide. Downstream are loads of crocs and once the river enters the Kruger National Park, hippos are found too. So in theory, it wouldn’t be too bad in the gorge and hopefully they would be intimidated by us.
We then started talking about the Luvuvhu River and the good rapids it contained in a gorge high up. This had never been paddled but also ran through an area thick with crocodiles and hippos and ended in the Kruger National Park. After a few drinks this suddenly seemed like an excellent idea and seemed to stoke the evening and fire up our fuel consumption. Eventually the talk of the crocodiles during the bush war, as Sybrand has been a member of the Selous Scouts, sobered us up from attempting something stupid and of course quite illegal. We would have to investigate that another time. There are loads of rivers up in the Limpopo Province that still have never been paddled. Unfortunately one has to time a descent with proper rains and then more than likely deal with challenging logistics and invariably lots of lovely crocodiles and hippos!
Luke cranking the lantern for the camera. Amazing I could still hold the camera so still after our welcoming party! :-)
The Pafuri Rivercamp is exactly on the border of the Kruger and the night before we came there had been a young elephant bull in camp. The camp itself has no electricity so the full African experience is guaranteed. This is a must for tourists, although I do admit that even as a South African it’s great to be sitting in the bush in silence. To me, there is nothing better. After another beer or two and a huge bowl like size of Amarula on a bed of ice, Luke and I headed to our tree house type accommodation and lugged our gear up somewhat haphazardly up the stairs. It was still very hot even though it was now midnight and we decided to go for a swim. Being at virtually the northern most tip of South Africa makes for some hot weather. The bar was now deserted and we enjoyed a quick cool down before wondering back to our spot, listening out for any elephants as they tend to stray into camp on a regular basis. The tree house structures are basically a raised platform that extends into the trees and on top is a canvas made tent over a wooden frame but complete with a proper wooden door. Access is via a wooden ladder which Luke managed to fall down once, luckily not breaking any bones in the process. Underneath the platform is a full on kitchen with fridge (gas powered) and everything else one needs. This is fenced off with mesh to keep out inquisitive animals. There is a warning sign for crocodiles at the edge of our spot. With us hitting the welcome party a little too hard, sleep came easily.
The view from our room up on the platform. The Mutale River was right there. Ah, Africa, gotta love it!
Our room looking rather busy!
Some sort of species of king cricket. There are millions in Namibia but they only found in really hot regions of South Africa. Not as aggressive as the 'parktown prawns' that Johannesburg gets! Those thing are terrible!!! When we finished this trip I was only a few seconds away from getting one of these beasts climb onto my back at the swimming pool...
Luke loading up Vince's car.
A young elephant bull had wrecked the fence! This is the border with the Kruger National Park.
Unfortunately we actually had come with the intention of paddling so the next morning our alarms went off early and groggily we came to life so that the day could begin. I felt rougher than a donkeys arse and knew it was going to be a long day. Why do we do this to ourselves? We loaded up the Land Rover of Vince’s’ and started the long journey. It was a very long drive and inside of the car it was deafening. Metal clattered on metal and I was now really regretting the previous nights’ antics. The way there is virtually only on gravel roads and they are very hard roads impregnated with loads of rocks; ideal for shaking the hell out of anything, especially a dehydrated brain. We stopped for directions at a store and the lady there drew the most amazing map I’ve ever seen. With that map, we were sure to find our way... See below.
This was a VERY useless map. Oh well, at least the lady at the shop tried.... We got horribly lost for almost two hours anyway.
So armed with the most useless piece of advice known to man we drove along the road which we thought would take us to where we wanted to go. On the map it looked simple, in reality, it’s a nightmare. Take a reading from Google Earth and put it into a GPS. This will save you a lot of time and frustration but it will still be a challenge anyway so not all the fun is lost. At one point we stopped a bunch of kids catching locusts and asked them for help. Vince can speak a bit of Venda and we gathered enough information to convince us to turn around. Everywhere there were people armed with a stick and a glass jar. They root the locusts out of the grass with the stick and then stuff them in the jars, frying them later in a little oil. Apparently they taste a lot like peanut butter and as would be expected, have a crunchy feel to them. Sustaining themselves primarily on a diet of maize, the locusts provide a much needed protein boost for the locals.
The Venda people really impressed me. Their villages are very neat and not much litter is lying around. They build smoothed out verandas with low walls and intricate pathways. When we stopped for help, they gave it. Not once did any of the people, young or old, beg for money. They did not hold out their hands like the people in KwaZulu Natal do. It is quite remarkable and immediately one can feel that these are good people with high standards. Eventually we found the spot where Luke had put in and unloaded the car. Luke had run this stretch with Hugh du Preez many years ago but he had forgotten most of what had happened.
The spot where we left the vehicle and walked from.
We attracted a crowd of curious children and they watched us with a keen interest as we loaded our dry bags with all sorts of items for the overnight trip. Eventually we were good to go and because it had taken almost three hours to reach the put in, my hang over was a lot better already. I would imagine that vibration therapy is the next big thing in hangover remedies. The sun was baking hot so I decided to drag the boat behind me. A young chap volunteered to carry my paddle so I let him. To have this honour bestowed on him clearly made an impression and he beamed from ear to ear, smiling all the way while he clutched onto his prize. After a few minutes we got to the water’s edge and it was obvious that the river was very low. Oh well, there was nothing we could do about it now and we were committed to the full 21.5km section over the next two days. We didn’t have very far to paddle so we knew we could also take our time and relax. The put in was truly a splendid example of rural Africa and it felt almost as if we were the first explorers to embark on this journey.
Luke Longridge (left) and Adrian Tregoning (right) just before we climbed onto the river. Photo by Vince Mehers.
The kids ran along the bank for a few hundred metres and then with lots of cheers and waves, we left them behind. The rapids were small and the level low but it was good to be paddling again. I had scoped this area out and knew that it was quite remote. Should something go wrong we would walk off to the right as that’s where there were some villages. It’s always a good idea to know beforehand which way to walk. This is not Europe where there will be a house and a road just over the next hill. What people find quite unusual is the distances we paddle in South Africa. For us, a short section is anything from 5 to 15km, typically around 8 to 20km and a long section would be anything from 20 to 35km as a day trip. I’ve managed almost 51km in a day once but that wasn’t fun at all and would be considered unusual. When I paddled in Scandinavia the runs were all around 5 to 10km. Only one run was 16 km. Some runs are much less than 5km but take several hours because of scouting and setting safety etc.
The frist little rapid in the background with the children running across it. This photo looks super full size on a big screen...
The first few rapids were a bit of a disappointment and the low water level didn’t do much to lift the spirits but after about twenty minutes I actually started enjoying it. We could only make the best of the situation and have a great time regardless. So that’s exactly what happened. The scenery was really great and quite different to paddling in other regions of South Africa. I think if anyone comes to South Africa on a serious paddling mission they will really enjoy the diverse conditions with which they will be faced. We have a wide variety of climates and rock types within the country and every single area has some unique characteristics that make it special. I really love paddling here. If there is water, it’s a great place to paddle and hard to beat!
The Mutale River gorge. Nothing really around there, no roads, no farms, nothing. This picture thanks to Google Earth.
Eventually we came to a spot where the river steepened a touch and we got out to look. First off were two little drops and then a sweet slide on river left. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough water on the slide so we took a channel on the right. Luke ran the first little drop and then went back into the hole for some fun. He took the camera from me to get the second drop and I ran both of them. They were really easy and uneventful but I’m sure with more water they would deliver the goods. Luke said when they ran the gorge there was a lot more water and on a couple of spots there were some beatings that occurred, resulting in swims. As I got to the bottom I looked back at a nasty siphon that could cause trouble should someone take that channel at higher levels.
Luke Longridge deciding to go back for a surf in his new medium Fluid Solo.
Adrian Tregoning running the first drop and then the second. Too bad about our low water levels. Photos by Luke Longridge.
Luckily we didn't take the river right channel...
...nasty little siphon with a quick lead in.
Luke Longridge boofing the second drop.
We hadn’t gone for more than a few hundred metres when we paddled around a boulder and this crocodile just appeared in front of me, about four metres away! We both stopped paddling and Luke was still to my left and slightly further back. As he said, “There’s a crocodile!” I had seen it already. All three of us froze and as the croc took one last look at us, he disappeared below the surface of the water. There were some weird aquatic plants that covered some regions of the river bed and this was one of those places. Seeing as though the croc had been facing slightly left, I decided to paddle right. The water was not deep and strangely enough we didn’t paddle fast at all. If he was going to take us, he probably would have stayed on the surface and come right for us. We went at a steady pace for a few metres before we glanced back to make sure we weren’t being followed. And then just glancing back a few more times to be sure... The croc had been about three metres long with a head almost as broad as my boat. He was uncomfortably large but I seem to have come to terms with crocodiles. They don’t bother me as much as hippo do. I feel I stand more chance against a crocodile. Whether this is true or not I don’t ever want to prove or disprove!
Not far from here we found a small drop with a boulder separating the flow. We looked at it and I said we’d go right rather. Luke agreed and hesitated but I went in. He had thought that we would run it right and was wondering why I hadn’t set up for some photos. I had meant to run another channel and avoid this drop as it seemed tight. Oh well. We avoided it and ran down this other drop which was very boring and uneventful. Looking back at the photo, we could easily have run it and I don’t know why I didn’t decide to in the first place. I guess in real life it didn't look as good and it was our miscommunication and the fact that Luke was keen for the right side but of course we meant different ‘rights.’ Communication ladies and gentlemen!
An interesting little rapid.
There were plenty of rapids and the pools were not long at all so it wasn’t too boring. The only thing which surprised me was how quiet the bush was. Usually there are loads of birds singing and insects buzzing but here it was very, very quiet. It reminded me a lot of northern Zambia. When my dad still worked there I was lucky enough to visit him twice in a very remote region on the north western part of Zambia and there the bush was unbelievably quiet. (So remote in fact that when my mom was there they had never in their lives seen a white woman! Think about that for a moment.) The reason for the silence was quite simple. The locals had eaten almost everything. There were poachers there and they had wiped out virtually everything. So bad is the need for protein for these people that they jumped off the back of a pickup truck to kill a mole as it was coming to the surface. Luckily my dad saved the poor thing. When the shooting at night stopped my dad enquired as to the reason. “It is because you have employed the biggest poacher in the area” they replied. Stanley was a good man and a smart guy too. I don’t advocate poaching but I can see that behaviour like this is brought about because of need and not want. He was my old man’s right hand man for a long time. A great guy for sure.
After about two hours we stopped for some lunch and to drink some water. With it being very hot it would be easy to dehydrate and that would ruin the trip. I cracked out some traditional sardines and relished them! Lekker stuff. We sat in what little shade we could find and marvelled and what lay in front of us. It was so, so good to be out there on this river. I wish I could be there right now. I would say that this trip was perhaps the best trip I had had for 2008 thus far. Even though the water levels were ridiculously low, it was just the relaxed nature of the trip, the river and of course the first class company that made it so incredibly awesome. That lunch spot could have been a place where I could just sit and relax and do absolutely nothing. The river seemed to have had a severe fire that swept through it at some point in the recent past. The stark figures of left over trees were to be seen in the river bed and it seemed to almost only affect the area adjacent to the river; quite strange.
The spot we stopped at for lunch. Luke trying to find what little shade there was in this HOT region of South Africa.
Downstream of our lunch spot. Note the burnt trees.
The rapids stayed roughly the same and there were some longer sections that were slightly more continuous, making it quite fun, even though the water was desperately low. The entire time we kept a sharp lookout for crocodiles too. As we got more into the gorge, so the sounds of the bush became more noticeable. Kingfishers flirted with us, hovering over the river spying out tasty morsels that lay beneath the surface, only having to move on as we approached. We saw birds of prey circling ominously overheard and the bush had a feeling of being more alive. As we were fascinated by the amazing colours of a pair of malachite kingfishers, we charged down a channel on the left and followed them. Suddenly there was a huge tree with a diameter of around one meter, lying across the river, in a rapid, with only a small gap below it. We held our position upstream of it and could have climbed out with some effort but Luke looked at me and as he was slightly downstream of me, gave him the nod and he went towards it. Going super low over the deck, he scraped underneath. I did the same thing but I guess I must have been floating a little higher in my large Solo and my right shoulder caught the trunk a little. With some pain it dragged me underneath, twisting the boat but I made it out. Not the smartest of decisions on our part but oh well.
Less than a kilometre downstream, we found a guy fishing along the banks. I decided to greet him from a distance and yet he still started. On our Steelpoort trip I had waited till the last minute to let out a large yell of delight first to a couple washing their clothes and later a dude herding some cattle and I think it took a few years off their lives. This guy had probably never seen anyone come down this river so would not expect it. His could not speak English but I motioned a jaws of a crocodile and he pointed downstream, laughing. Ingwenya is a Xhosa word for crocodile and seems to be understood quite clearly by most people even though he was Venda. Another kilometre further we found a few girls with a fishing net, standing in the river. I’m not sure how successful they were but there they were, a far way from home and trying their best to catch something. Home for them would be over the hills, to river right. Because it was so hot, we stopped for a break on some flat rocks just downstream and before long three curious girls came walking across the river to gawk at us. Somehow they found us incredibly amusing and couldn’t stop smiling and laughing amongst themselves. We decided we needed more peace and headed on downstream. Maybe it was our helmets matching the colour of our boats, who knows? Within another kilometre or so we found another group where a woman was bathing topless on the left. When she saw us she quickly covered herself and the guys on the right bank hooted with laughter at her. I couldn’t believe how many people we were seeing. That would be the last time we saw people that day.
The view from our second stop later in the day. Just on the left, under that dead tree, is where the girls were fishing with the net.
Another baobab tree along the river. One of many...
Our break in a little shade on the hot rocks was soon disturbed by the some of the girls who were fishing. I guess they had probably never seen anyone on this river. Note the green boat matching green helmet and orange boat matching orange helmet! What a combination!!!!
A cow and her calf next to the river. We saw a couple of donkeys too. Here is my tip for the day: If there is such a thing as coming back to earth, and you have a choice - don't come back as a donkey in Africa.... Trust me!!! All the cows in this region wore bells. Something you won't see too often elsewhere.
We continued for a while still and eventually came to a first class camping spot. There was a small rapid next to the camp so we could swim and get water without fear of crocodiles. There was enough sand and some grass growing on the sand which wasn’t too bad for setting up a tent on. Loads of flat rocks to spread our equipment on and also ample firewood. Life couldn’t get better. The water was lovely and we swam for ages, just chilling and doing as little as possible. Once out, there was no wind and the hot air was just lekker!
It's amazing how much gear on can take on a trip! We had everything; tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, pillows, wine, two glasses, cheese, biscuits, rolls, sardines, mussels, oysters, 1 litre of Old Brown Sherry and a host of other items!!!
Adrian Tregoning cooling off between rapids at our camp. There were no crocodiles here, we hoped! Photo by Luke Longridge.
A monkey fruit, about the size of a tennis ball but rock hard!
I decided to paddle to the river right bank to check out a baobab tree and get a few photos. I paddled across and left my boat on the rocks. There were fresh human footprints in the mud on the far side. I climbed up the steep banks, keeping my eyes peeled for snakes and carefully placed my hands as up I went. The tree was magnificent and well worth the effort. The roots were really amazing and one thick one spread out in a large semicircle showing on the surface. We only get one species of baobab in Africa and it is aptly named the African Baobab. There is one species in Australia and a couple in Madagascar. There is a tree in the Limpopo Province with have an average trunk diameter of 15 meters and will take about 155 steps to walk round the base of it. It is huge and considered the be the largest baobab in the world. As we drove to the put in we drove past the entrance where one goes to visit the tree but that was another 35km in, and would then have taken another 35km to get out and we didn’t have the time that morning. These trees are usually hollow in the middle and can store up to 120 tons of water in their swollen trunks. They are well adapted to dry weather conditions and live for a very long time. Most people claim thousands of years, but as they don’t produce growth rings, it is impossible to prove. Word is that they don’t really live more than 400 years. Either way, you and I will never live long enough to find out the old fashioned way. They are really beautiful and of all the trees, they are my favourite.
Looking back to my boat once I had crossed to the other side of the river and climbed up the other side.
Looking up the trunk of a baobab tree.
The baobab opposite our camp I went to visit. The largest baobab in the world is in this region, it is huge!
When I got back to camp it was time to make a great day even better. Luke had stylishly paddled down a bottle of red wine and I had paddled down a litre of Old Brown Sherry but because of the previous nights party there was no danger of drinking it all. Still, Luke cracked out some cheese and biscuits and demonstrated how to overnight in Africa, in style. For good measure we had each packed in a long sleeved shirt and tie but because it was still very hot we couldn’t even wear them. In the end we put them on anyway and took a few photos of each other dressed the part, in the middle of nowhere. It was really lekker to sit under the bright stars on a warm night and stare into the fire. It is at times like that when I am at my happiest. Nothing can beat an overnight trip whilst kayaking.
As I got back to camp the sun was getting lower and the scene looked brilliant. This is one of those places that only a kayaker can get to. Fantastic.
Luke dining in fine style on the banks of the Mutale River. This is overnight kayaking at it's best....with the best camping spot ever.
A VERY weird flame coming out of our fire. I've never seen anything like that before.
Luke sitting alone at the fire, or is he? What's above him? Looks like some sort of freaky face... Wonder how that got there. Probably (hopefully) some light catching the lens. BRRRR...!!
Luke in the middle and Adrian on either side. Playing around with a 30 second exposure. Something still looking down at us from above the fire though. Go away man, leave us alone!
Two Luke's and two Adrian's. More fun and games!
Usually one would write the text as one would see it and then the result on the photo is in reservse. The photo is flipped in PhotoShop and then it works out perfectly. But in this case it would have reversed the name Fluid.... So Luke had to write the mirror image of the writing, quite tricky! It was VERY difficult to get this photo right and we took a long time getting all the settings and combinations right. The different colours were a mission too. Nice one Luke. Thanks for the patience with me... The result we created is awesome!!!
Luke Longridge (left) and Adrian Tregoning (right). It was too hot for our little mission we had originally planned so we couldn't stay dressed like this for long. Like I said, we packed in a lot of crap into our boats. But why not? They can take even more.