Buffalo River – February 2007


Friday the 9th, what a crazy day. Originally there were fifteen paddlers, six drivers and as many 4x4 vehicles all ready to go off to Lesotho for a trip on the Malibamatsu River. On Thursday evening, all plans changed due to the low water levels. Phone calls between people revealed only depressed voices and a severe lack of enthusiasm. The only option was to quickly surf the net and see what was happening in Natal. Ah, ha! There was water. The Bivane looked up, as did the Umkomaas, Umzimkulu and the Buffalo.

Friday morning turned out to be one phone call and sms after another as plans were roughly made. By midday the only ‘plan’ was that Robin would drive to Middelburg and pick up Ronny, his driver, and then they’d hit a Vryheid pub and wait for whoever was keen to paddle. From Vryheid we could either drive to the Bivane and do an overnighter, which most people were keen for, or head a little further to Dundee and see how the Buffalo was doing.


To cut a long story short, out of the fifteen original people, only a few pulled through and Dave Rice and I went along in Adrian Vroom’s car, and a few Hansa beers which I carefully looked after up front. Philip Claassens and Aimee came up from Richards Bay and we met them at Dee’s, a kind of a pub/restaurant in Vryheid where Robin and Ronnie who had been sampling the beer for a few hours already. We decided to paddle the Buffalo River the following morning. A few more beers at Dee’s and a good dinner led us to realise that Vryheid was pretty useless as far as cheap, backpacker type accommodation was concerned. Natalie, our waitress for the evening, was quite surprised when we asked if we could take camp in her back garden. I mean, would you be concerned when a group of rowdy Joburgers with weird plastic things on the roof’s of their cars wanted to camp in your garden! She obliged, after a call to her mom, we pulled in to “the best piece of lawn I’ve had in a while” according to Robin. That and the company of the dogs sleeping outside with us made it a fairly unique experience.


The hang over the following day was evident but not enough to dampen spirits. The drive to Dundee took about an hour and as we crossed the Buffalo it looked pretty swollen and active, a very good sign indeed. Adrian Vroom had Ben Vorster’s number from Camp Buffalo and we took a drive down to Elandskraal, a short distance from Ben’s place. Ben and his wife, Liezl, run Camp Buffalo and it really is an amazing place. If you don’t paddle as often as you should because of your girlfriend/wife, take her here. One of the finest valleys in South Africa and it has some incredible wildlife too. Giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, impala, zebra are just a few of the animals that call this 3000 hectare piece of beauty home, and also the only park in Natal to have Gemsbok.



Apart from the fauna and flora this is also the area where many a violent and bloody battle was fought between Boer, Brit and Zulu. This area has the highest concentration of battlefields in South Africa. Famous people such as Prince Louis Napoleon, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Louis Botha are just some of the people involved in the fighting around here many years ago. The famous Battle of Blood River (16 December 1838) took place nearby too on the Ncome river and we crossed this river on the road between Vryheid and Dundee. The Voortrekkers, led by Andries Pretorius, defeated an army of Zulu’s here and the river was renamed to that of Blood River!


The Battle of Rorke’s Drift (22 January 1879 and the same day as the Battle of Isandlwana) is another famous one and Rorke’s Drift is used as the put-in for the serious section. Here 100 British soldiers fought off about 4000 Zulus in a long 12 hour battle. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, the most in a single engagement ever awarded in the history of the British army. If memory serves me correctly, this is the battle where hundreds of Zulu warriors jumped across the Buffalo River at a spot in the river where it is only about 2 metres wide, depending on water level. This rapid causes a huge keeper hole for kayakers. So the next time you decide to tackle this one, think of a couple thousands bloody thirsty Zulus jumping over the river ready to lay down their lives for what they believed in. What I do know is that they crossed near Rorke’s Drift at a place the Zulu called KwaJimu. That is fact. It could have been the gap and someone local to the area also told me that it is the narrow slot. I haven’t been able to find out what KwaJimu means. The only thing I could find out is that it means ‘at Jimu’. So Jimu was probably a place, possibly named after a person.


In fact the name Rorke’s Drift is after the natural drift which forms a rocky outcrop enabling the river to be crossed by foot provided of course that the river is not in spate. This geographical consideration was important in these battles as the river would have been difficult for the warriors to cross at any point downstream because it enters a gorge some 4 kilometres below Rorke’s Drift. No mention is given to any narrow slot but I’m sure they would have used this as an easy point to jump across and nail the British.


In any case, Zulus, Boers, and Brits aside we managed to have a much less violent experience and pulled up to the bustling metropolis of Elandskraal. Here we met up with Ben and it was decided we’ll do the easier section first. Ben described the tough section as straight fives and sixes and the easier section as fours and fives at this water level. Not bad. I’ve paddled the harder section, the one from Rorke’s Drift to Fugitives Drift before at a lower level and it is a nice juicing section. I had my heart in throat several times but good fun. This section has waterfalls, a huge, probably 100 metre ‘slide’ type rapid, the narrow slot and many other interesting drops. The ledges as one enters the gorge can be super nasty and most people sneak them river left.


The section below this one starts at Fugitives Drift and ends at Camp Buffalo. Ben had arranged that we pick up a key from the lodge at Fugitives and then we could drive down to the water. A 4x4 vehicle might be necessary if there has been rain or if too many boats and people are inside otherwise I’m sure a car with a differential lock will suffice. Maybe even without one. Worst case is, if you arrive and your car cannot do it, walk down. It’s a nice solid walk downhill all the way, might take twenty to thirty minutes. That said, have a vehicle with high ground clearance in any case as the take-out is a little bumpy.


We loaded up Robin’s Land Rover with all our boats and everyone climbed or rather, squashed in. The sun was beating down on us and my phone had already read 36 degrees in the car by about 10:00am. No dry top for me as another rash rest only trip was about to follow. Africa’s a great place. J


 (pic by Ronny Seymour)


Finally we could have a look at the river from ground level and it was obvious that the river was at a good level. Not medium, not super high, just high. Most folk looking at the photos would say it’s flooding but the Buffalo is a big, brown, beast of a river and I’ve seen some awesome photos of it when it really floods.


Philip, Robin, Dave, Adrian V., and I started on down the river and the first few rapids were huge waves and crashing holes. There are hundreds of waves to practise wave wheels on and on Monday my muscles were really feeling the effect of all the clowning about. Some of the rapids were intimidating and still we didn’t scout too much. When we started paddling, Philip asked, “Do you want to have a safe trip, or a fun trip?!” He’s an absolute nutter and enjoys just bombing down anything without scouting at all. In any case, we’d often scout a wee bit while Philip would be the probe. His years spent on the water and confidence becomes obvious on large water like this.


To describe any rapids is impossible, there are just way too many of them. There are plenty of nasty spots to avoid and some rapids have horrible, exposed rocks. Rocks that are just below the surface cause large holes and bad pourovers. Mostly it’s just keeping some speed, being upright and avoiding rocks, holes and pourovers. Sounds simple doesn’t it? The Buffalo is not the river to swim in. Really, swimming would be highly unpleasant and dangerous. While some channels are deep, others are more bony and a rough ride would be guaranteed. Foot entrapments are also highly possible and because of the colour of the water, you would not be found. One person unfortunately already died on the upper section - not a foot entrapment though. That section has some bad undercuts and siphons too. Be careful and don’t paddle these sections if you’re a beginner. Apart from the rapids, the river is pretty remote and a walk out for help would take hours over steep and rough terrain.


One of the first drops was a very long rapid that dropped nicely. Philip ran it first, leaving the rest of us wondering how bad it was as he disappeared most of the time. Turned out to be good fun and luckily we missed some horrendous holes. Too bad no photos were taken during the rapid. I grabbed the eddy on the left and then looked up. Decided to move to river right to quickly jump out and shoot one or two photos from the bottom up. The eddy line, combined with some boils, made for some fun as it sucked my entire boat down to about chest level and slowed spun me more than a full revolution. It was very good fun at these water levels.


A bit further on, an excellent rapid was found. Philip ended up on river right and the rest of us on the left. A big pourover was calling Philip but he wanted one of us to be there with a throw bag. It looked, how should I say, fairly terminal if you missed your boof. And swimming down the rest of the way would be bad. Robin and Dave decided to walk the rapid while Adrian and I had a good look. We elected to give the pourover a miss, even though Philip was keen to see us get munched! Running far left was fairly easy. I managed to mess up my line a little. I underestimated the kick of the hole and it took me too far right. A small eddy, half cushion allowed me to change my plan and I went down the right of the rock. 



(sequence by Dave Rice - Adrian T in the white/blue Wave Sport EZG60 and Adrian V in the orange Necky Chronic)


I took the main drop of the rapid first and looked at Philip on the right bank. He was comfortably perched on a rock with a huge smile on his face. Because Adrian and I had only scouted on the left, we couldn’t see how bad the holes were through the main flow. The run ‘looked’ to be fast and straight through the centre with some holes on either side to punish any mistakes. I made my line nicely and the ride was super fast! Adrian followed smartly too and I managed to get a photo sequence of Philip before it was too late. A very good adrenalin rush indeed.



Rapid after rapid after rapid followed. The whole stretch has some of the best scenery I have come across. There are vertical cliffs that close in on the river at times and then it opens up a bit. A very special place to be paddling. The entire time we saw only a few people on river the left bank, maybe five or six. I rate the scenery similar to the Olifants and better than the Bivane. Even better than Deepdale Gorge on the Umkomaas or further upstream above Lundy’s Hill. The bonus to this is the lack of people around and the fact that animals can be seen while paddling down. A true African experience to be remembered. The site has loads of readers from North America, Europe, in particular the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Finland and I highly recommend a visit to the Buffalo. Once in the area you can hit the Tugela River, South Africa’s second largest and also loads of others further west towards the Drakensberg mountains. Swaziland is also just north of the Buffalo.


Some of the holes were very big and at one stage Adrian went straight into this hole which none of us had seen until it was too late. He managed to side surf out and Philip was lucky enough to find a window on river right and escape unharmed. Dave was ahead of me and disappeared. With a width of more than ten metres, this thing meant business. As I dropped in I realised this would be tough to punch and I consciously took a deep breath. I didn’t make it and it worked Dave and myself for a few seconds. Not as bad as it looked. Robin came from the rear and saw Dave’s boat, as well as mine, being tossed around. He was the only one in a creek boat and his Fluid Solo Expedition punched through one time.



Adrian Vroom in the above sequence.

 Adrian Tregoning in the above sequence.


The section is not too long (about 21km) but the constant manoeuvring and avoiding nasty spots can take it out of one. One particular rapid had a nice wide ‘natural weir’ on it and I opted to portage this one, along with Dave and Robin I was having a very good day and didn’t want to ruin in by getting hammered in there. Adrian Vroom and Philip ran it, almost getting eaten in the hole. I took a video of Adrian and a photo sequence of Philip. In case anyone was wondering, Philip was paddling a Wave Sport Project 62 and Adrian his old Necky Chronic.





Philip Claassens in the sequence.

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A video of Adrian Vroom in the same rapid.



A drop that ate Philip. He wanted us to follow him as he ran it without scouting but we were wiser after Vroom spotted him getting a good couple of ends in there...


Eventually we made it to the take-out. It has been a long sometimes tricky and very hot paddle but one which was really loved by everyone. We drove back to Ben’s place and some people stayed to watch the rugby and a couple of us headed into Dundee to buy some food and what ever else. It rained very heavily and electrical bolts hit the ground around us and in the distance for several hours. The river would be up tomorrow for sure.



The view from opposite Spar in Dundee.



That night we stayed at Camp Buffalo, in the chalets. They are magnificent. No electricity, only kerosene lanterns in the chalets and a few neon tubes at the communal area that are solar powered. The camp consists of two, chalets equipped with 2 beds and en suite bathroom and two chalets with 4 beds sharing bathroom facilities in a separate building. No fences around the camp and a herd of impala had already settled in for the night when we arrived at around half past eight that night. The view from the camp and especially the municipal area is excellent. Set against the hills one is provided with a view of the surrounding hills on the far side of the river.



The following morning arrived thankfully a little cooler than the previous day. Discussions were made as to what section we wanted to paddle. Ben would be joining us for the paddle and eventually Adrian, Philip and Ben decided to do the upper section. With the rain from the previous night adding to the already high level I decided not to paddle the upper section. I guess I was being a bit of a chicken. Oh well, I had paddled it before at a medium level and it was really good. The higher level and the fact that my trusty creek boat was sleeping at home in the garage made me a little nervous. Looking back I should have joined them.


Philip and Adrian said it was very good. They sneaked some of the first couple of big drops/slides and the going was good, scouting quite a bit. Next to the serious waterfall, that I believe has only been run twice, are two small roughly 2 metre waterfalls. Both Ben and Philip got properly worked on the first drop. Adrian decided to portage after that. The narrow slot below these drops was washed out but there were no takers because of the beating only minutes before. The huge slide was running high but the chicken run was taken by all 3. Philip said he would want to come back and run the main lines in a creek boat. A play boat on this section is not a good idea! The sloping waterfall of about 4 metres high was not either run as the hole at the bottom was massive and the standard run on the right would probably meant being pushed into it. An excellent run with plenty of other good rapids being run.


Dave, Robin and I decided to do the commercial section, in the hope of an easy run and some playing. The run was good fun but I thought maybe a little boring compared to the previous day. We didn’t manage to find any waves. I suppose the level was either just a little too high or too low for some spots.  


 The above two pictures by Ronny Seymour. Bottom one, Adrian T on Rocky Horror.


The take-out was a little confusing as Ben had said if you see the power lines, you’ve gone too far and will have to walk back about 500 metres. We caught a glimpse of them and then started looking in the bush for a road. Eventually, after Robin took a nice half hour walk back upstream, we found the take-out was only about a hundred metres down and right by the power lines! The final rapid, Rocky Horror, was a fun little one to finish it off and easy to spot by the huge amount of big, sharp rocks. The drive up was good and a vehicle with a differential lock or four wheel drive capability is needed.


The Buffalo is a large river and a tributary of the Tugela River, South Africa’s second largest river. About 450 km from Johannesburg, it is much closer than some of the other more popular rivers in Natal such as the Umkomaas and Umzikulu Rivers. Put-in and take-out are not tricky if you arrange it with Ben. Give him a shout before you go. This will make life much easier and then you can stay at Camp Buffalo which is central to the river and an excellent place to stay. 


The commercial section is fairly easy and as a beginner, this would be a nice little section to paddle on. The going is fairly easy as the rapids are of the pool drop type and the section is not that long to paddle. The other two sections are not for beginners.  Once on the river, walking off would be very unpleasant and would involve walking up and over big hills through thorn bushes and more than likely temperatures in excess of 30 degrees. The section from Rorke’s Drift to Fugitives Drift is more technical and tougher than the one below but all rapids are fairly easy to scout and not too tough to portage. My advice, go and do it. You won’t be disappointed!


An ancient Lutheran church. Awesome!



The view from inside the church.



Leaving the valley...


BY: Adrian T.

Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated. Thank you to Ronny Seymour and Dave Rice for their valuable contributions. 

For more photos of this trip click HERE! and a previous trip with Billy Harris, click HERE!


This story is not really meant as a guide, so don't blame me for any errors. If you'd like add your own description of this spot then please contact me. Thank you.