Ash River – New Angles, an Amazing Hike and Some Carnage


Oh no, not another Ash River article. You’ve probably seen too many already. Well, yes you have but this one will be a little different. With some other rapids being photographed you will get another perspective into the river and also get to enjoy some other photos. Of course there is some carnage at the end for your viewing pleasure. Bon appetite.

Another Friday, another drive down to Clarens. Arriving late that evening we hit Friends (a sweet restaurant with live music) and had a bit of a party until after midnight. Dion joined us a bit later on and had some catching up to do… Back at the Odyssey Backpackers we lit a fire and carried on until about 02:00. Taking some logs into the dorms fireplace with a spade, the room was soon nice and cosy and sleep came easy.


The petrol stations were very, very busy as it was a long weekend!


The following morning the effect from the previous night made itself known and climbing out of bed before seven wasn’t a good feeling. Wihan, Hendrik (the German) and I made our way to the barrel restaurant place where you can have any breakfast as long as it’s a big bite barrel or an English barrel or farm barrel as long as it’s a barrel breakfast you can have it. This whole run down so far is the same way every trip to the Ash goes. But we are beginning to realise that the backpackers is no fun on a long weekend when it’s busy and the alcohol consumed is not good for the following days’ paddle. And no, we’re not alcoholics, just your average Ash paddler trying to de-stress from the goings on in Joburg.


Unfortunately Dave and Neil would not be able to join us. They had the really fun task of getting a new clutch fitted into Neil’s car. What a shame. We offered to pick them up from Bethlehem but they opted to have it fixed ASAP because the following day was Sunday and then the Monday would be a public holiday. Staying there without a car for a few days didn’t seem like a fun idea.


At the put-in we met up with Kallie from Outrageous Adventures and it was good to see him after many, many months. Looking tanned and relaxed Kallie had a large group with three six man rafts on the river. We had decided to take it really easy and take photos where we usually never take any. This would be Dion’s second ever river trip and at that stage none of us knew this.


The first rapid went down well and Dion made it alright but then the eddy at the bottom flipped him over and a swim resulted. This would often be the case and a few things can be learned from this. Have a good roll before you get on any river, be honest with yourself and tell people what your abilities are, know how to get into and out of eddies, ferry across the current and practise these on an easier river until you have them down. But Dion emerged with a smile every time and I would warn him of any dodgy rapids and advised him to portage the odd drop and he willingly listened. He really paddled very well and a big thumbs up to him! With a bomber outfitting job to his boat and loads of practise on some easy rivers he’ll be soon on his way to having a super time.


Kallie with a group of rafters on the first drop.


Adrian on the first rapid. Photo by Wihan Basson.


Dion running another rapid nicely.


Wihan running Alles Verloren.


The trip down was really relaxing and ‘the German’ instructed Dion on eddies and ferrying as we continued down. I refer to him as the German in a light hearted manner so don’t take offence. My entire family is German so I know the drill and so does Hendrik. Of course we have to mock Hendrik a bit because he has been paddling longer than I have been alive and being a national champion in wild water racing and slalom in Germany means he is an excellent kayaker even though his boat leaves much to be desired. Yes, the pink ‘long donkey’ as I like to refer to it is a real eye sore. But hey, what can we do! It works and he makes it look really easy, that’s the worst part.


Alles Gevinden was quite nice and the large, sharp rock that has hurt some people and boats in the past is now not an issue at all. It seems to have disappeared. There is a nice little hole at the bottom. It’s easy to run anywhere but not far right next to the bank. There is a rock there that causes a small eddy to form a part of the hole and feeds back into it. I’ve been there once when I thought the right was good to go and had a brief moment but luckily got out. Check it out before hand.


Wihan entering Alles Gevinden.


Adrian on Alles Gevinden. Photos by Wihan Basson.


Up to the first bridge went down without any major mishaps although my shoulder was already beginning to ache. I had over done some exercises the previous week and now it was becoming rather painful. What an idiot I was. The beers from last night were coming back for revenge at the lack of respect we had given them and when Fish Pond arrived I decided to portage. Wihan followed my line walking along the bank as did Dion. It was the first time I had portaged it in almost two years but we weren’t feeling too well and didn’t want to risk getting spanked. The shoulder was a concern too. Wihan had already bought tickets to Uganda to paddle the Nile a few years back when he dislocated his shoulder here. Needless to say this was the week before he was meant to go and Wihan and his mate ended up not going and loosing the money. I didn’t feel like injuring myself further and this was a good place to get creamed if you’re not on your game. Excuses, excuses Adrian. Oh well I’m not that bothered. When I first started paddling I would be plagued about not running something and I was really hard on myself. Now I find it easier to portage anything if I don’t feel that I can be upright and be going exactly where it is that I should be going. Perhaps that need to ‘prove myself’ has gone and now I just enjoy the time on the river with good friends. Or perhaps I know what happens when you get it wrong through more error than trial…


Fish Pond is still a funny rapid and although I’ve had to roll twice in it I’ve never been beaten, yet. But I think that every time I’ve ever been there I’ve seen people get beaten, break skulls, bust paddles, get dragged upside down the slide and swim in the bottom hole. It’s really fast, narrow and pushy with powerful eddy lines and some big boils. I think the big thing is where it really narrows up before the slide. You don’t want to be upside down there. The large eddy on the right is not a fun place to be but not really dangerous, but that’s quite easy to avoid if you know the line from the top. If you get the line at the top right the rest of the rapid is very easy. Most people mess this up, even though they’re upright and stroking but it leaves you too right as you go down the drop that turns left. Wihan has vowed to also drink less and says that was the last time he would portage it. I agree. Hendrik ran it without any hassles and the German had a nervous moment on the eddy line on the right on the centre section but made it to the bottom upright and going where he wanted to go.


Hendrik running Fish Pond with the 'long donkey'.


The next section is uneventful between the two bridges and the one rapid that is usually there is once again getting smaller due to erosion. The heap of boulders just before the second bridge was as annoying as ever but luckily no one had any trouble.


Wihan (left) and Hendrik (right) on the rapid between the two bridges. Now it is not as steep as it used to be.


Dion running the same rapid.


Big Surprise came and went but I missed Wihan with the camera. Next time Wihan! He seems to have super bad luck and has never had a photo here. As I was standing there taking photos I saw Dave and Neil. They had gotten a new clutch for the car and were ready to paddle. They would meet us below the class V rapid. The hole at the bottom of Big Surprise seems to be getting larger. The rapids on the Ash are changing all the time and you’re always kept on your toes.


Kallie with his group running Big Surprise.


If you're in Clarens why not join Kallie. Click here!


Adrian running Big Surprise. The hole at the bottom is getting large and more retentive than what it used to be. Photos by Wihan Basson.


Wihan on the rapid above the horrible class V.


Construction of the power station.


This is where the water will leave the river and be diverted into a channel that goes down to where the turbines will be. Right below the two metre drop.


Dion got out early above the class V and the rest of us paddled down to just above it. The earth works here for the power station are well under way and you can check out the photos of what’s happening there. Dion decided to call it a day here after numerous energy sapping swims and Dave and Neil joined us. We bombed down the slalom course and up to the two metre waterfall. Wihan had taken a huge beating here two weekends prior to this one and had swum into the undercut on river left. We can now officially state that it is indeed severely undercut. We’ve always thought it would be a really bad place to swim but Wihan has now confirmed it. He says it started to get dark and he was pushed gently into the undercut. Luckily the force of the water is not overpowering. There were lots of logs and sticks down there and he pushed off against them and swam towards the light coming out at the base of the trees and climbing out. He has had more close calls than I think anyone I know! One of his first trips resulted in him and a mate getting sucked into some pipes at a low level bridge with both of them almost blacking out, getting the boats and bodies damaged and almost drowning. Without further question he portaged and so did the rest of us. Except the German who took to it with the long donkey. Hendrik had a brief moment where he was close to getting eaten but made it down.


The German getting the long donkey over the two metre and luckily not getting eaten. It was very close. Read the story above to appreciate the danger on the left here. Soon this drop will be dry. You better hurry before the power station is complete...


From here on I stopped taking photos and we just paddled down all the rapids without stopping. Below the weir with the long slide is a sweet rapid with a nice wave train and some stoppers. I dropped down and caught the tail of the eddy on the right. I should have pulled out totally but decided to casually paddle backwards into the main current. I think I underestimated the speed of the current and somehow lost my balance and went over as I was turning downstream, backwards. I had a super fast tuck and roll and I was back in business. A mate of mine has swum here and encountered numerous rocks with his backside and that seemed to cross my mind as I went over. Neil was very close behind me and probably had a good laugh at my expense. I was now fully awake again. It was a good time on the river and I love paddling with great people on a river, no matter where or what the river is like.


After this there are only three more rapids worthy of mention and there were no hassles as we lazily drifted down. It had been a long day on the river and because of all the photography and swims it had taken us more than five hours. With no scouting and no photos you can run the entire roughly twenty kilometre section in three hours. UndaG E and Dion met us at the take-out. Ernie had some ice cold beers waiting for us. Thanks for the beers Ernie, by then we were in need of a ‘reg-maker’!!!


That night at the backpackers it was packed to capacity. We headed off to Friends again, had a quiet meal and a drink outside and drove back. There were even more people there and a couple of us decided to hit the sack early. The lights came on and off several times during the night and next time we won’t be staying there on a long weekend. It’s just too busy. Wihan, Hendrik and I had decided to do a hike the next day so at 05:30 I switched on the lights and packed my stuff. I heard some groans from the other people in the dorm but the revenge from the noise and disruptions the night before was all too sweet. They weren’t kayakers and just some rouge bandits… Wihan, Dion and Hendrik had slept outside in the garden with Hendrik right next to a cock. (male chicken) From 02:00 he had started his nonsense but Hendrik crept up to him and sorted him out. At 04:00 he was in full force again and I could hear him from inside the dorm. Suddenly a roast chicken for breakfast sounded like an excellent idea.


We left at six and just after seven we were at the Caterpillar and Catfish and enjoyed a good breakfast. Then down the pass and into Royal Natal National Park. We managed to get a spot to camp and proceeded to the car park to start our hike. We would walk up to the Tugela Gorge and also through the so called ‘Tugela Tunnel’ and beyond. I had done the hike up to the tunnel before and knew it was a good one. Note that this is not the Tugela Gorge that is found many kilometres downstream. This is just below the falls which happens to be only a stones throw upstream. At 948m this is the second highest waterfall on earth and I’ve stood many times at the lip of this beast. I highly recommend a hike up onto the escarpment and it’s best to sleep at the top to really appreciate the beauty. Just watch out for the Basotho people from Lesotho that are quite bad with cutting your tent open while you sleep and carefully remove your shoes, your equipment and basically anything they can get their hands on. Windy, rainy and especially misty weather is when they mostly come down from the surrounding hills with their horses and I remember the cold feeling when a mate and I were sleeping in a nearby cave and saw one guy on a horse down below us. The unmistakable blanket wrapped around him meant only one of two things. Trouble or just a dagga smuggler. (dope, marijuana, turbo-twak, ganga etc. you get the picture) We kept watch that night but were also armed with a pistol. For those that don’t live in South Africa it may seem strange to hear of people hiking armed but yeah, we do it. Us South Africans are a little different to most people… Or maybe it’s just me.


Some tree with some beautiful flowers on the way up.


A Chacma Baboon eating some fresh grasses. Please DO NOT FEED these animals. It only leads to trouble, people getting harassed and hurt and at the end of the day them being destroyed. I only took a small lens with and was pretty close to him. Leave them alone and they'll leave you alone. They're a lot stronger and far more aggressive once provoked than you think.


Right, back to the story. So we did the entire stretch, up to the tunnel which is only about fifty metres long but truly spectacular. In summer you cannot go through here as the Tugela River is too powerful and after a thunderstorm the river thunders through this narrow slot carved into the rock. We carried on for quite a while still upstream until we got to a sweet pool where Wihan and the German went for a refreshing swim. Next time I want to go even further to get to the bottom of the Tugela Falls themselves. I believe there are more pools there that are worthwhile. The river was incredibly low and had not seen a drop of rain in months. The source of the river is basically about three kilometres upstream on Mont-Aux-Sources. The water was cold and refreshing though.


Sentinel Peak in the background standing proud at 3166m above sea level. There is a route up the back of it that requires a climb of about fifteen metres (with ropes), then a long and very steep scramble and then a final thirty metre climb again. (bring all your trad gear) Too bad we had bad mist that day and I'm not the best when it comes to that sort of thing... If you have the balls you can tackle the front face. I've also seen a guy base jump off the back of it. You can start your hike from the Sentinel car park.


The very narrow 'Tugela Tunnel' which is not really a tunnel but just a very narrow and tight winding passage. Imagine when two to three metres of water comes rushing through here in summer!


After hiking many kilometres at a very brisk pace and checking out the area, six hours later we returned to the shop and bought some food and beer. We were the hobos of the camp site and turned out to be too lazy to even pitch a tent and slept outside. Of course the German had to do things differently and slept up in the forest behind us at the Mahai camp site because he said it was too light where we were. When Wihan took a local from the camp into a nearby village to buy some more quarts from a Shebeen I knew the evening was going to be another interesting one. We hardly had any food and shared what little we had. A word of warning. Do not sit two people on those gum pole fences. They are pretty rotten and couldn’t handle the weight of Wihan and me. We came crashing to the ground spilling beer everywhere and had our neighbours in stitches laughing at us.


Another sweet pool upstream of the tunnel. The Tugela Falls would be up there on the left but cannot be seen from here. South Africa, a land of extremes and so much variety it's unbelievable!


The German is all his glory. Sorry but this photo was too classic not to put up!


Downstream of the tunnel. Note how low the river is.


A Helmeted Guineafowl in the Mahai Camp.


Hendrik (left) and Wihan (right) at the Mahai Camp. Note how organised we are with chairs, tables etc... not.


The following morning we woke up before sun rise again. Wihan had slept on the grass with only his sleeping bag and eyed out my Therma-Rest enviously after having a rough night on the grass with no mattress. Back at the Catepillar and Catfish by seven we had another good breakfast. Then through Golden Gate National Park and back to Clarens. The German had infected us with his germs and none of us were feeling too well. My shoulder was not feeling good and I was quite concerned that it may not be strong enough for my November adventure. Ruan and some of his mates were there to paddle the Ash but we didn’t join them. Instead I took some photos of Gideon getting creamed and then swimming down Fish Pond and Ruan doing the same. With a very swollen ankle and bleeding hands Ruan went back to run it again. This time he made it just having a little trouble with the bottom hole; a big thumbs up and respect to him for running it a second time right after getting spanked. I’m sure most people would not have run it again after that beating.


Gideon getting creamed in Fish Pond. His boat stayed in the hole for quite a while.


Have you ever seen someone take a swim and then climb back into a boat while going down a slide??? Take a look at the picture above. You better believe it. He didn't want to get worked in the hole and decided to hold onto the boat so it would drag him out.


This time Ruan managed a lot better only getting a little messed up by the hole at the bottom. As you can see the water is not brown as it was a few months ago.


So our last day was a bit of a write off but we enjoyed it none the less. We took a chilled drive back to Johannesburg and avoided most of the traffic which I heard from some other people turned out to be very bad. I hope you enjoyed the little adventure and the photos too. It’s too bad that the German is moving to Cape Town now. We will miss his good humour, great company and his ability to probe difficult rapids without batting an eyelid. At least we’ll be able to join him on the Wit during our winter season and check out the other rivers there too.




Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated. A big thanks to Wihan for swopping over with me from time to time. Shot boet.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.