On the Sunday we awoke to finally see the river in day light. We had stopped on the bridge that night and looked down and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but now in daylight, the full magnitude of it all was pretty obvious – it was bloody high. Good times we assured.

(In case you missed the first article, check under the Mpumalanga section to see the Steelpoort River that Luke I had paddled the day before.)

The river under the bridge is about 500m wide and it was water, every bit of it. The so called ‘Town Wave’ had flushed totally and only swift moving water could be seen. Luke had his medium Fluid Nemesis and the old Riot Glide but I had contacted Celliers and asked if I could borrow a medium Nemesis from the factory for the day. He said no problem and we drove over and I collected a brand new pink Nemesis that was destined to be a demo boat anyway. Each time I visit the Fluid factory, something always changes and things are just getting better and better there. If you’re ever fortunate enough to know someone to take you around then it’s a real treat, especially for a mechanical engineer, such as myself. But even as a paddler, I think you’d enjoy seeing how your boat was made!

Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_215_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_216_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_218_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_219_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_220_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_221_E1 copyThe mighty Vaal River the night before taken with some long exposures. It’s big.


King Bling – the finest shop in Parys.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_224_E1 copy

Luke Longridge with his ‘take me serious’ sunglasses. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_225_E1 copy

Getting ready to hit the river.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_226_E1 copyLuke, now totally ready to hit the river! 

With that we readied ourselves to paddle this beast. There was some concern though. First concern was that Luke had paddled the section from town down to Gatsien rapid with Scott Reinders a few days before at a slightly lower level and they had had a very near miss on the middle line of Theatre, which is a rapid just above Gatsien. They had both paddled into a hole some twenty metres or more wide and gotten beaten for a very long time. Swimming was not an option as the hole flows into trees directly afterwards. Luckily they both got out, after about 30 seconds of torture, and missed the trees. 30 seconds, it always seems to be the industry standard for beatings. But I’m not being funny because I saw that hole later and it’s a miracle they even came out. It was ultra nasty. Second concern was that taking the right line at Theatre would mean a huge ferry to the river left to avoid right and also river left has the awesome surf wave/hole. A guy also drowned on the right line of Gatsien about a week before this. I believe they were rafters and not properly equipped. Either way, right side of Gatsien is bad news. Then thirdly the left line of Theatre had about five large holes and waves directly after each other and Hugh du Preez had been beaten in some of them with some other guys so we knew the river left line would be tricky and potentially ugly too. Please note that it was impossible to scout any of these lines. The river has numerous islands separating channels and at these levels water was flowing swiftly through them. Our plan: to go left, but then ferry hard right to avoid those bad holes and hopefully make it. It wasn’t a great plan, but at least we had one.

With that in mind we got on just below where Town Wave should have been and paddled under the main road bridge, the R53. The river was flowing fast and there were two play waves just after the bridge which spans a length of about 500m. We missed the waves but carried on. Our group comprised of me, Luke Longridge, Paul Prinsloo, Dewald Swart and Zane Enslin, and one more chap who’s damn name I can’t remember now! I only knew Luke, obviously, but it was lekker to meet some new faces on the river! We soon passed a group on the banks of a calm section and they had no plans to join us or head further downstream, except for Jarrod. The river was at a 15 year high flood and around 2000 cumecs, almost 71 000 cfs for the American readers. The islands which are normally everywhere, had water rushing through them. The river mostly moved quite quickly, even though the rapids were very easy and flat. But swimming was NOT an option and you’d find yourself in enormous trouble if you did!!! It was weird to paddle with that much water and we went through a rapid known as Big Daddy and there was pretty much nothing there. A bridge we usually paddle under on the left channel and clear by about four metres now had water about 5cm of clearance underneath it! It was a definite portage! After that we noted the odd house with water trying (and succeeding) to get in. It was unlucky for them. No doubt the river can get higher than this even and then what? Insurance turns around and says sorry mate, you built under the 100 year high water mark – good luck.

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This bridge usually has a gap of 4 or 5m underneath it. Bear in mind, this is only a channel of the river… Photo by Luke Longridge. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_240_E1 copy

Yep, some places were in trouble.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_242_E1 copy

Here I am, smiling at someone else’s problem!!! Hahahaha. Photo by Luke Longridge.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_243_E1 copyYep, this is what I call, well, not good times… Photo by Luke Longridge. 

Shortly after this our group got smaller. Jarrod, Zane and the dude who’s name I still can’t remember (sorry) went far right to take out at Rocky Ridge as they didn’t want to paddle Theatre and Gatsien. Us four carried on. To be honest, we all felt pretty nervous about what we were about to do. One could not turn around and there was no scouting, no portaging, no stopping. We had climbed onto a freight train of a river and now it was time to look sharp and be positive. The waves on some sections now were enormous and even though many didn’t even have foam piles it was just fun to paddle over then and pull out a few kick flips and wave wheels.

Then we dropped down a left channel and appeared in front the left side of Theatre. It was now time to put down some power and make that ferry, or get eaten. We all took ourselves mentally off that menu and gave it horns. As we headed right over some huge waves I looked left and saw the first of the holes. Oh man was it unpleasant - definitely not the place to go. But if we hadn’t been warned by Hugh du Preez, we wouldn’t have known they were coming so thanks Hugh!!! The first two or so looked very bad, and then the others looked like fun surfing waves. Very wide, probably 30 metres wide each I would guess and big, as big as 12b, each. We made it on our line and headed straight into Gatsien. Dewald managed to get the eddy on the left just above Gatsien but that hadn’t been the plan. By the time we saw him, it was too late. I was next in line with Luke behind me, and Paul behind Luke. I was the only one who hadn’t been down there at this level and when I saw this HUGE green wave (much bigger than 12b on the Zambezi) with a bit of a foam pile and I thought this was the Gatsien wave. I turned around the paddled hard upstream so that I could catch this beast and surf it! As I went up the face it flushed to green and off I went. It was then that I turned around and discovered, to my horror, that that was actually not the Gatsien wave/hole and I then looked down into a massive foam pile, perhaps three metres high and I just corrected my angle with a stroke and ducked to try and melt it. If you’re not familiar with the word (a melt down or melting a hole) it means to sneak under the hole and the theory is that the ‘green’ (non-aerated) water flowing underneath the hole will take you through. Of course this doesn’t always work. The water engulfed me and I got thrown around violently for perhaps two seconds and then went deep and felt myself moving through the water – it had worked. I can’t remember if I came out upright, I’m pretty sure I did but I must have had eyes the size of saucers when I came up – the adrenalin was pumping for sure! Luke said he was laughing to himself when he saw me try to catch that first wave as he knew what lay right behind it. I guess I should have asked him before we left. 

A hard ferry to the left took us slightly around the corner and into an eddy that was in the trees. We paddled upstream through the trees and eventually walked the rest of the way up to get photos of Gatsien. Luke, Paul and Dewald ran it again, Luke twice I think but I decided to give it a miss. I wasn’t feeling it and maybe was still suffering from shock at my sudden discovery – I surfed it later that afternoon anyway on our second run. When we got back to the boats Paul was gone. I guess he must have gone off downstream after his second run which was strange and we hoped he was ok. The last rapid was quite mild and we paddled down to Hadeda Creek.

When we got back to town Luke and I paddled down to the bridge and joined up with some old faces. My good friend from when I lived in Johannesburg came down on his motorbike (Sean Jackson) and it was awesome to see him again. He was quickly given the role of photographer from the bridge as we quickly had a play session. Dave Joyce was there and enjoying surfing the waves. The only thing is, is that one had to walk back up. Luckily the walk wasn’t far and the grass perfectly cut so it was easy. Luke’s freestyle surfing was really good and in general I’d say the guys from Johannesburg are really way better play boaters than the guys here in Cape Town, which is strange. I managed a few moves here and there but nothing like what Luke could do. I guess he’s also been paddling a fair amount longer than me. It was still great fun. Eventually we decided to hit some boerewors (a thick, fatty sausage on a roll with mustard and tomato sauce, typically) and something to drink. We felt lazy but Luke was fired up for another run. I decided to join him as I hadn’t flown up for nothing and was flying home the following morning and Luke is always telling me to HTFU (Harden The F…. Up). Hahaha. So down we went, just the two of us.

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The first wave above Gatsien, which I thought was the real deal wave. Wrong. Look at the next photo to see behind it.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_253_E1 copy

Gatsien rapid. It was huge. I thought I’d surf the front wave. Oops. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_257_E1 copy

Looking up at a small part of Theatre. All that water heading through all the trees, not nice. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_258_E1 copy

Another section of Theatre looking from Gatsien.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_259_E1 copy

And once more looking at Theatre. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_267_E1 copy

A section in Gatsien.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_269_E1 copy

Luke walking up.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_270_E1 copy

This is where the river is most narrow, believe it or not.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_288_E1 copy

Luke surfing the top wave.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_308_E1 copyPaul Prinsloo in the thick of things, surfing the main hole at Gatsien. Gatsien is an Afrikaans word and basically means ‘see your arse’…

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Luke Longridge getting aerial with a sweet blunt on the monster wave/hole thingy.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_321_E1 copy

Luke just afterwards.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_328_E1 copy

Middle of Gatsien looks interesting. Note, the water level is about 4 to 5 metres above the river bed. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_330_E1 copy

Luke about to surf the entry wave. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_333_E1 copy

Luke getting in a blunt before the wave flushed and turned ‘green’. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_336_E1 copy

Luke just downstream of the meat.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_338_E1 copy

Below Gatsien. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_344_E1 copyHadeda Creek was experiencing some flood issues in their camp.  

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Good to see Dave Joyce styling it on the river still. Photo by Sean Jackson. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_357_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_358_E1_CR copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_359_E1 copy

Luke Longridge. Photos by Sean Jackson.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_361_E1 copy

Just below the main road bridge. Photos by Sean Jackson.   Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_369_E1_CR copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_371_E1_CR copy

Adrian Tregoning. Photos by Sean Jackson.   Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_376_E1_CR copy

Luke Longridge. Photo by Sean Jackson.   Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_383_E1 copyMe on the left, then Dave Joyce, then Dewald Swart and finally Luke Longridge on the right. Photo by Sean Jackson.

Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_402_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_403_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_404_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_405_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_406_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_411_E1 copyAdrian Tregoning. My Nemesis is actually orange but I borrowed this from the factory for the day. It’s actually a damn cool colour!!!! Photos by Sean Jackson. Shot mate, much appreciated!

Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_417_E1 copyThe two play spots below the main road bridge. Most of these playing photos were taken at the wave right at the very bottom of the shot, some of the others on the one behind, which was more retentive, but angled so one always flushed to surfers right (ie. river left)   

It was business as usual except this time he had this crazy idea to run the middle line of Theatre to see the hole that almost ended him and Scotty a few days before. I wasn’t thrilled but he assured me he knew where it was, I prayed he was right. The lead in rapid had gigantic waves that went on forever. The sun was behind us and it produced these slick, grey monsters that silently marched downstream. It was weird because they had no foam piles and were so silent. I’ll never forget those moments. Then it was action time and we did some tightish ferries to get into position past some other holes. Eventually we missed the evil hole by about a metre to the left, and then paddled more left to avoid the trees. We had missed it – yes!  There would be no getting out of that hole with ease and a swim from there could be potentially fatal. We went down to the left of Gatsien with a long ferry and both avoided the meat but almost found ourselves in more trouble. Back up into the trees and we missioned upstream. This was bloody dangerous actually and I think swimming in the main current would have been far safer than paddling there. Eventually we got out on the bank and walked up. I went first and Luke took photos. I was nervous but felt a lot better about the big water now that I had gotten used to it during the morning. I punched the first wave and dropped in backwards. For a moment I almost flushed off the corner but I managed a fun front surf. Even though the wave is huge, it’s quite easy to surf and very friendly, even gentle I’d say. Which is strange, because it’s a damn big foam pile! After a bit I carved surfers right and exited the hole. I had to ferry hard right to avoid some trees and that was that. Again I paddled into the eddy with the evil trees and walked up to photograph Luke. It was an excellent day for sure. One I will never forget!!!

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Gatsien later in the afternoon. River right is very bad. Stay away.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_435_E1 copy

See the river right side. A guy died going through here a week before I took this photo, at a slightly lower level. Such a shame. I can’t be certain what happened, but it’s horrible.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_436_E1 copy

Sunwa under water. Serves them bloody right. The owner, Jannie, was dumping sewage into the water. Ever heard of Karma? Oh ja… The joy of flood.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_437_E1 copyLooking up at Theatre.

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Luke about to enter Gatsien. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_440_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_441_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_442_E1 copy

Luke punching the entry wave. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_443_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_444_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_445_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_446_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_449_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_450_E1 copyLuke surfing and then out. What a colossal beast of a hole, and so friendly.


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Adrian Tregoning about to head in. Photo by Luke Longridge.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_455_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_456_E1 copy

Me punching the first waves, but almost not. I went a touch left… Photos by Luke Longridge.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_466_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_467_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_470_E1 copyI finally got my surf in. To be honest, I was pretty nervous about going in, but it was really very easy and friendly, don’t know what was wrong with me!!?? Although it doesn’t look it. Glad I went for it. Photos by Luke Longridge.   

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Luke drawing a map of where the evil hole is in Theatre.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_472_E1_CR copy

Me, smiling after a great day, and an excellent weekend! Photo by Luke Longridge.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_474_E1 copy

Luke Longridge enjoying some beer after another tough day in Africa :-) Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_481_E1 copy

Me also enjoying some beer. Ahhhhh. Pic by Luke. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_484_E1 copyAlmost back in Parys. Just perfect. 

From Gatsien we took a new channel down the middle, or at least more right of where we had been down in the morning and paddled down another beast of a rapid that had a massive play wave which Luke just missed out on. Ferrying on such a big river is hard work and takes a long time… At the take out Dewald picked us up and greeted us with cold beer that we eagerly knocked down. We also still had a bit of brandy left from the original bottle I bought on the Friday night from the Engen garage. Eventually we drove back to Luke’s house and drank some special stuff he had bought in Corsica. It was damn good and after finishing the bottle and watching some kayaking footage on the television we were quite toasted. Next morning, we were up very early and then off to the airport. I flew back to Cape Town with a smile. What a weekend! A massive thanks goes to Luke for the bloody great times… It was worth every single cent to go up and score those two rivers. If you look at the photos from this article and the Steelpoort one I think you may be inclined to agree.

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Photography by: Adrian Tregoning. Unless otherwise stated.
Words by: Adrian Tregoning.

Next article: The Sumatra series is over now in case you didn’t know. There are some cool articles in that section, go and look. Up soon will be surf kayaking shots, some river action from last year (and this year already) and also the Fluid Kayaks Team Trip that we had on the Mzimvubu River in South Africa with 12 of us hitting that, including Will Clark and David Arnaud. Articles will appear quite often as I’m trying to get on track and get ahead as our river season has started here… Stay tuned!