Thrombosis Gorge - The Seldom Run Full Section

Another standard weekend, another epic adventure, what would we be in for this time? The plan was to paddle the full twenty five kilometre section. Many people run Thrombosis Gorge but I’m sure about 99% of paddlers take out at the falls themselves and thus only actually paddle just over five kilometres. Beyond the falls was a mystery to me too so I was really stoked about this one.


The five of us left my house at a respectable time on the Friday afternoon and we arrived at the Umzimkulu River Lodge at about 00:30. We stayed at the so called ‘Giant Cabin’ (after the beautiful Giant Kingfisher) which sleeps 11 people. Two double en suite bedrooms and three twin rooms with a futon in the lounge. I decided to sleep on the futon as it was right by the patio door and I could listen to the river as dreams of tomorrows paddle passed through my mind. Ah this was the life. Luxury accommodation for us, for a change! We met up with Marius du Preez, who had been there since 15:30 that afternoon, and he had kindly negotiated a better rate for the six of us. This was excellent news indeed.


A short walk to the first rapid, Tonsils or also known as Sweet William and we noted that the water looked fairly low. Lower than the level we had had during the X-Fest in February but not too low. I had run it lower than this so I wasn’t too bothered at all. Slot Machine looked easy too and we walked back under the moon light.


The following morning we got up and I walked down again to the rapids to have a better look during the daylight. It was looking good. Wihan and Marius drove to the take-out and left Wihan’s Land Rover next to a shop. The take-out, if you don’t know, is at the confluence of the Umzimkulu and Polela Rivers. The Polela is a fantastic pool drop creek with some amazing drops. You can see photos of this creek of Steve Fisher and Dale Jardine on Desre Pickers’ site by clicking here. This little river needs far more water though and at the level we had on the Umzimkulu it would be almost impossible to run.


The Umzimkulu River Lodge. A fantastic place to stay!


Take a bath with a view onto the river... ahhhhhh   :-)


Some Fluid boats waiting for the action to begin.


More than an hour later the car returned and in the mean time Dave Joyce had joined us. He had a get together with some varsity mates in Mooi River and had decided to join us for Saturday’s paddle. The seven of us would be paddling down.


The first drop, Tonsils went down without a hitch and then we got to the infamous Slot Machine. It lived up to it’s named and flipped a couple of people over in the slot. Otherwise there were no major mishaps. Just a word of warning quickly – the rock directly downstream is undercut and paddles have been lost here. I’ve never seen anything bad happen here but there’s always a first time. Don’t be stupid and paddle up to it. The water does push towards it and over millions of years that’s the reason its undercut. Quite logical if one thinks about it…


Ernest Vosloo (aka Ernie aka UndaG E) about to enter Slot Machine. The entry rapid can be seen just above him and Tonsils right at the top of the photo.


Ernie managing the slot in Slot Machine.


Stafford about to check out the river bottom.


Marius du Preez running Slot Machine smartly.


There is another small drop below Slot Machine, then a pool punctuated by a slightly larger rapid that has some bigger holes during high levels and then the entry to Super Tube. It is a super fun rapid but not great at low levels like we had. The entry is quite bony and we run it in the centre on the first drop, then more towards the right on the next and then either far right or back to centre to make your line at the end. Just paddle towards the wall, last stroke (boof) on the right and the water turns you left. Not too bad but can be tricky at a low level. Watch out for the little eddy on the left after the main drop and try not to flip. More than one person has got some stitches in their skulls as a result of going over. If you’re not going to run this then rather portage on the left, well above the rapid, it is far easier.


Marius on the lead in to the crux of Super Tube. Photo by Dave Joyce.


Ernie about to drop down towards the wall - Super Tube. Photo by Dave Joyce.


Wihan negotiating the last bit of Super Tube. It's always fairly pushy after the drop. Photo by Dave Joyce.


Next up is a small rapid that we run far right and then a pool leading to Boof-O-Matic. This is a very short rapid with a drop of around two metres. It’s called Boof-O-Matic because if you don’t have an automatic boof, you land automatically on the rock. What rock you ask? Well, at the levels we had it can’t be seen and we don’t run that line but at higher levels one can run centre. Directly below that is the rock. At low levels the line is right but not far right as you can paddle directly into a deadly looking slot. Just to the right of the exposed rocks in the middle. It’s not as easy to boof as it seems and I recommend a right side boof stroke. Wait for it and reach over the lip. I think I was a fraction early but most people don’t get much of a boof in at all. A left stroke brings your boat more to the right and you will probably flip immediately and also gets you more downtime as your boat lands facing right where a lot of water is coming out of from under the rock and it is very aerated. Just my two cents on the run, use it, don’t use it. There is a photo of Neil in the gallery. He has a sweet line but is also a touch early on the boof. Drops with slanted lips are much harder to boof than straight up drops and require an extra bit of patience for the timing. Otherwise make the easy portage on the right.


Adrian Tregoning running Boof-O-Matic. Photos by Dave Joyce.


The view downstream from Boof-O-Matic. The gorge walls are still very small on this top section.


Below Boof-O-Matic are a few other drops and then my favourite rapid probably in the world – Ski Jump. Paddle to the right of the huge rock in the river with a slight left to right boat angle and paddle hard. Then the most important thing to do is to stroke hard and long on the left hand side before your bow gets turned downstream. Or at these levels let your bow turn a little downstream before giving it a huge ninja sweep. If you don’t stroke at all and follow the water around and to the left you run the risk of bruising or breaking your ribs. Ask Stafford and Clyde about that when I ran it with them at an even lower level. Once you have completed that stroke lift up with our left knee and get the boat to change from one edge to another. This is the hard part and most people don’t paddle their boats outfitted enough to get this sort of control. Padding on the outside of the knee really helps with edge control and in this case I lift with the left knee and push down with the right to change that angle and land facing to the right on a right stroke and/or brace. This gives one a fantastic feeling of getting a little air and also clears the hole at the bottom. Not that the hole is a problem at these levels. At higher levels you can paddle right off of the ledge and it only gets better! This is a fantastic rapid and not to be missed!!! Portage on the right or try the ‘chicken’ line of the far left. But a word of warning – that so called chicken line is that that easy and is hard to scout. In fact it’s probably harder than running the main line.


Adrian running Ski Jump. I had to make these shots a little more 'high contrast' because of the way they were shot ie. water over exposed. Good job anyway Dave and thanks for going down to get these shots! Photos by Dave Joyce.


Below this are some steeper rapids that you can scout if you don’t know the lines. The drop directly below Ski Jump is run far right and then from there on I only know the lines once I’m there. There is one where you start left and it’s quite easy and then into a tiny pool and paddle right to avoid a really nasty spot that exists to the left. It looks like a siphon or something, and then the rapid after that run far right over the thin branch at the top that has been there for months, at these low levels. When in doubt, scout. We only scouted the bigger ones as we know the river but watch out for logs as they could easily come and go.


From that last steep drop are a few small rapids and then a short pool. Here the river starts to drop into a continuous set of rapids and I’m not sure if they’re the proper start of the Golf Course. So let’s assume they are and call it the first nine. Some technical rapids, not too steep but the potential for disaster if you’re a beginner is very high. In fact, beginners should stay away from this entire section totally. Even if you have what is considered a good roll it’s not going to help you much when your head and body is getting pounded by rocks. My first ever river trip was this gorge and after swimming at Slot Machine I also took a long and ugly swim on the Golf Course. I highly not recommend doing what I unknowingly did. You can read about the experience in the new book that Celliers will be releasing soon.


There is a calm pool to collect oneself and then it starts dropping down and to the right as the river makes a big bend. This can be considered the second nine to the Golf Course section and is far longer than the first. There are some sweet rapids and it’s generally quite fun. The last rapid has a bit more meat to it and it found as the river takes a slight turn to the left and then there is another larger pool. This is the end of the continuous section. Below this are two more rapids worthy of mention but you can figure them out for yourselves.


Watch out for the natural weir near the end but its nothing at a low level. Extreme left has a sweet run too. There is one more small drop that goes under the trees as the river turns right and then a calm pool. Get out on the left, above the next rapid. I’m not sure what this rapid is called but Wihan describes it as a cheese grater. Mike Pennefather says there is a theory that says it’s considered bad luck to run this rapid as you’ll hurt yourself and then you’ll be in a bad mood and won’t want to run the waterfall. Needless to say he demonstrated this to us the one day and managed to tear his spray deck and damage his dry top and came out with a bleeding elbow. Consequently he didn’t run the waterfall that day.


I had a look at it but didn’t run it. Neither did anyone else. It’s not that bad but because it’s right above the waterfall you tend to forget about it and focus on rather just running the waterfall. When I say just above, there is enough room to collect yourself or your equipment should you really mess it up. Should you decide to run the cheese grater drop feel free to remain upright. It is super shallow after the drop. At high levels it is super powerful and very pushy.


Walking around on the left we got up to the waterfall. It looked fine and I didn’t scout too long and found out who was running and who was not. With that said I was still quite nervous even though I had run it four times prior to this run. Once I was in my boat the nervous feeling had gone and I just concentrated. My run was quite sweet. Perfectly on line and I tucked nicely, right at the end. I felt I could have had a bit more of an angle but I guess it wasn’t a bad thing to plug in seeing as though the volume was quite low. I won’t get into explaining this waterfall too much and you can rather read my account on the X-Fest in February where I have written a few lines explaining the undercut on the left etc. When I plugged in I felt myself go quite deep and could hear the roar and felt my ears squeeze a touch. I tucked and wasn’t sure if I was on the surface but rolled anyway. Once upright I was moving towards the right wall at a fast pace but it was nothing too serious and I back paddled out. Ask Adrian Vroom about that right wall… I’m sure you’ll get a dirty look followed by my name being mentioned.


Adrian Tregoning running Thrombosis Falls. Photo by Wihan Basson.


Below is a short video clip of the falls. Why only a short clip? Well, Ernie managed to somehow ERASE ALL OF THE FOOTAGE OFF OF HIS VIDEO CAMERA!!! NOOOOO.... So only this clip survived from Dave's digital camera! Enjoy...


Dim lights Embed Embed this video on your site


Next up was Ernie and he was right on line. He over rotated a little and landed probably just over vertical but managed to roll nicely and made it upright before the wall. The view from the bottom is really awesome and the effort in staying near the base of the falls was well worth it for me. Neil came next and was probably about a foot too far to the left on the lip. He dropped down smartly and plugged in. As his boat resurfaced it hit the top of the undercut on the left and he rolled nicely. Please note that even though the undercut is visible and just out of the water, there are more underneath that. First time I ran this I took my last stroke on the right and got a little too far left. I had some serious downtime and could feel and hear rocks slowly scrapping on the bottom of my hull while I was underwater. I resurfaced about fifteen to twenty metres downstream of the base of the fall. At high levels the main undercut is far worse. Watch out. Dave was next and he was more than a foot off line to the left. He dropped in and emerged also needing to roll and got pushed to the right wall. No upright runs for any of us but it is quite possible I can assure you.


Dave Joyce running Thrombosis Falls. Photo by Wihan Basson.


Wihan decided not to run the falls as he had run it a few times before and also once in a small boat where he ended up hitting the bottom! So he portaged, along with the other two and decided to finally make the effort to fetch his Solo from Parys where it’s been sitting ever since their trip to the Cape.


I had never paddled further than the waterfall but at least Marius and Wihan had. Wihan took the lead in his fearless style and the rest of us followed. The first few rapids are quite easy and then the river turns left. Here, it gets really steep and is much steeper than any of the other bits on the top section. Not big drops but steep, technical boulder gardens. At these low levels it was quite challenging to hold a line. The shallow rapids made for some interesting moments but luckily we didn’t have any major mishaps. 


Just to throw in some perspective I have seen from Google Earth that the top section drops about 60 metres in 5.3km giving a gradient of 11.3m/km and the overall section of exactly 25 km drops 325m giving a total gradient of 13m/km. This section where the river turns to the left is very steep and I think it drops about 50m in the first kilometre. It is also important to note that the last stretch, roughly 5 or 8 km is fairly flat with only a few small drops and then something larger every now and then. So the total average gradient of 13m/km is actually not bad then at all meaning that the middle section is far steeper. Please note that I don’t claim these figures to be perfectly accurate and they do appear to be a little different on the 1:50 000’s that I have in digital format. Best bet is to go there and find out for yourself. I can guarantee a great time, especially if the waters up.


The river here is fairly continuous and good group dynamics is essential. This becomes more important on more difficult rivers and it is now that I must criticise the trip a little in an indirect way. Hopefully this won’t be seen as a bad thing but rather as some constructive criticism.


What people do is they tend to run rapids and once at the bottom catch an eddy at leisure and then look back to merely see what the others are going to do. Don’t paddle another one hundred metres beyond the bottom of the rapid. If someone needs your help it won’t be one hundred metres down the line. Or, someone will catch the last eddy right above the drop and get a good view into the rapid but then not move away and run the rapid so that someone else can take that spot. They prefer to watch the action from their vantage point. I’ve seen it a couple of times that someone catches that last eddy which is barely big enough for two boats and then when the second boat enters either that person misses the eddy or forces the other person out. This then results in either one of the paddlers usually running the rapids backwards, not an ideal situation but this particular situation didn’t happen because no one was stupid enough to catch the already cramped eddy. Moral of the story, don’t take up eddies downstream of your mates and then expect them to come down so you can get a better view. Rather don’t go that far down or get out and scout.


Good communication in the form of whistles, hand and paddle signals are very important and become vital on steeper, more challenging rivers. With proper signals it is possible to paddle far more rapids without scouting provided everyone is in the know. When someone is safely down a rapid then some sort of signal needs to be relayed upstream. I strongly advise people to have a look at the hand signals that Willie and Johnnie Kern invented. They are clearly explained by Corran Addison on his excellent DVD, ‘Legend of the Falls’. You can then run far harder rapids and relay information upstream so that the rest of the group know what to expect. Of course everyone needs to know these signals and seeing as though I’m the only one that knows them it would have been pointless. I guess we need to get together and practise them.


Well, our trip wasn’t too bad and we still managed but it’s always good to get into the correct habits on easier runs so that running rivers that challenge you can be made a touch easier in at least one aspect.


One last aspect I’d like mention – if you scout a rapid, take your throw bag with. I am guilty of leaving my bag when I got out taking photos at Slot Machine but then not again. This I one habit that I have gotten into but I see 98% of paddlers not doing it. What use is your throw bag sitting in your boat thirty metres upstream via some thick bush or rocky terrain when your mate is getting creamed in a hole or pinned somewhere or even about to swim down a long rapid?


I guess the only way for people to know what they’re doing wrong is by letting them know. I felt there was no point in a confrontation on the river. We all enjoy our paddling and must remember that ultimately, we are all responsible for our own safety. Group dynamics are however, still very important. With that over and done with time to move on with the story.


My memory isn’t too clear about the next stretch but I’d know it if I went back. There are some bigger drops that are all comprised of boulders that are strewn across the river bed. There boulders constrict the flow and form the flumes and chutes that one has to negotiate making life difficult but at the same time interesting at these low levels. One in particular dropped almost as much as the distance it covered but we didn’t scout. In fact, after the waterfall, I don’t remember scouting anything really.


Ernie smiling. Just look at the surroundings. I'd also be smiling!!!  :-)


The group! (of Dragons I believe...) From left, front: Ernie, Adrian. Back: Dave, Marius, Neil, Stafford and Wihan.


There are hundreds of rapids over the twenty kilometre stretch and some of them are really good. At one spot the river narrows up and the entire flow goes through a gap less than two metres wide! There was a small hole at the bottom, followed by a fast flowing pool and then straight into another narrow drop followed by a rock directly downstream. Nothing too tough and no one had any problems. Somehow Wihan had climbed out to have a better look once he had run the first half and Stafford must have also climbed out, but before running it. Stafford came down and flipped on the first drop. He tried to roll twice and then bailed, swimming through the second drop. Ernie and I paddled towards him and I was about to grab his paddle when it went underwater towards the rock and never resurfaced. Stafford managed to get to the left before the next rapid but his paddle never came out. We approached the rock from downstream and Neil volunteered to climb onto it. I took his paddle and we took his boat to a nearby eddy. By sticking another paddle down he said he could feel nothing. Neil gingerly sat on the rock and put his leg down but pulled it back and said there was a siphon there. We looked downstream of the rock and some water could be seen returning to the surface, along with some bubbles. From the downstream side Neil could feel the siphon but he said exit of it was very small. With that, we left the paddle and considered it jammed into the siphon and lost forever. At least Stafford didn’t swim and stick an arm or leg into it.


The rapids continued and at some stage we took lunch, I’m not exactly sure when. More and more rapids followed and there were some close calls every now and then with some tricky rapids. I managed to get knocked over in a shallow boulder garden but kept my head out of the water as my elbows, shoulders and paddle dragged and bashed on the bottom while I tried to get up. Eventually I got up with only a banged up hand and the shaft of my paddle sporting some new battle scars. About a year ago I probably would have swam straight away in the same situation. Perhaps it was luck or my unwillingness to take yet another swim down some shallow stuff.


On one particular rapid Dave got creamed in a pourover and Neil was close to going down. After a few seconds Dave took a swim. Neil somehow managed to catch the eddy above it and consequently climbed out to put in further upstream where he could enter the water again and miss the pourover. Luckily I looked at the right and it didn’t look good and opted for the left line which turned out to be far better. When I had come down I hadn’t been aware of the action and Dave was swimming already.

With that we moved on and the pools got longer and the rapids generally smaller. Right towards the end it got to be a real slog and the rapids started to get broader and quite shallow. The section felt a lot longer than twenty five kilometres but measuring it on Google Earth revealed that is was exactly that!


After eight long hours we finally got the confluence of the Polela and we climbed out right there. It had been a very long day and the technical nature of the main run, combined with long flat pools and shallow rapids towards the end had taken their toll on us. I’m not sure how quickly I would run the entire section again at such a low level but with a little more water it would be magic! It is definitely an awesome section going through a really spectacular gorge. The rapids and the scenery about a kilometre after the waterfall are truly world class. There is only one mistake we made; taking too much time taking photos on the upper stretch and nothing on the lower stretch. Oh well, just another excuse for me to go back and take some lekker photos of the bottom twenty kilometres.


Wihan’s car was still there and the locals took great pleasure in staring at us as we packed seven boats onto the roof. The shop or should I say ’shop’ wasn’t too well stocked as Wihan went in to give the owner a little money for looking after the car and to buy some refreshments. Apart from a few onions, they didn’t have anything like Fanta or even Coke but at least they had some Black Label quarts (750ml beers for those Europeans reading this) which went down like a home sick mole. I started hitting it hard and there is nothing better than some ice cold beer after a long paddle, especially if you’re a bit dehydrated. Then you really get your monies worth.


Wihan's car still at the 'shop'.


For more photos of this trip, click HERE!


Dave left in a hurry to join his cronies and then it was time to unwind from the stresses of the day. Being a kayaker in Africa is tough! Back at the Umzimkulu River Lodge I took another beer and ran a hot bath. Ah, this was the life. I was so relaxed I almost fell asleep there. Most of the guys hadn’t brought along any food so we had to go out and eat somewhere else. I had brought meat for a braai (BBQ) and didn’t really want to go out. It seemed a total waste to not even spend any time at the accommodation we had booked and paid for and enjoy it more. I also knew that we would party a lot and I’ll just blame Wihan for that. He has a naughty look to him! Hehehehe.


On the way to Underberg we narrowly missed hitting one of Satan’s little helpers – aka: a cow. Wihan had seen that the reflectors on the barricade had disappeared and he started braking hard. Just as well as we swerved and missed this black beast as he/she ambled across the road! On we went through Underberg and then to have dinner at some place in Himeville. We had to wait for a table and hence I started on my favourite drink, double Stroh Rum and Grapetiser. Eventually we got a table and enjoyed a good meal. After that we hit Bulwer and visited the Mountain Park Holiday Resort Hotel. I have camped there three times before and love that place. There is a bomber bar there and I had written my name on the roof (proudly) in cokie, crayon and chalk! When we got there it was reasonably quiet and the roof and walls were free of graffiti. They place was under new owners and the bar had recently had a fire so they had to repaint the place. What a shame as it really gave it a lot of warmth and character.


We got home after midnight after some hard parting with Wihan, Marius and I giving it horns while the others slept in the car! The following morning we were up at six (thanks to Wihan who is in the bad habit of getting up at the crack of dawn) and I felt quite bad!


The plan was to paddle the gorge again but to try and make the walk out less painful and also obviously not the full stretch. So we did exactly that with only Stafford opting to test the waters with his fly rod and not paddle. The five of us paddled down, not scouting anything and not taking any photos. We had reasonable runs but nothing as clean as the first day. We all had stiff muscles and turning the boat felt like a mission. We got out just above the natural weir as Wihan had left his car there. If you take out at or near the waterfall you HAVE to phone Mr Craig. He is very friendly and doesn’t mind but just please phone him before you drive onto his land. Best is to phone him during the week and ask him then. Leave all open gates open and all closed gates closed; pretty simple stuff really. If I ever win the Lotto I’ll be sure to offer him a couple of million for that piece of paradise.


With that we packed up our stuff and drove off. We filled up with diesel in Bulwer and luckily we were driving slowly as the cops were trapping just at the end of the petrol station. We were driving at about 120 km/h about three kilometres outside of Bulwer when a man ran into the road and ran down the middle of it making a bee line for us. It all happened in a second and as we approached Wihan threw out the anchors and this dude ran directly for the car and at the same time lifted up his hand and threw a rock bigger than a brick towards us. I ducked behind the seat in front of me and Wihan swerved, also ducking and somehow we missed this idiot while the rock hit the car. He threw another large rock that hit the car behind us too and we stopped, as did the other car. Wihan did a hurried u-turn and we were now fired up to beat the crap out of this guy. The man was walking casually towards a nearby mud house and was shouting in his language on the top of his voice. He was incredibly angry about something. Wihan opened the door and I suddenly said to him “Are you sure you want to do this?” He straight away reconsidered. Usually I am the first person to avenge something like this but this guy looked wild. There were five of us and we could have easily put him in hospital but what would be the point. The chances of him having HIV/aids were extremely high as between 800 and 1000 people die everyday in South Africa with almost 2000 people getting infected daily! Something to consider before jumping someone else… The car seemed mostly undamaged by some stroke of luck. The rock had hit the top of the roof rack and chipped the paint there before hitting into the tail of my boat and some of the others. Luckily it was some shale type rock and it disintegrated quite nicely. If it had hit the windscreen it would have been a different matter entirely.


After that and me shouting some cuss words to him we drove back to Bulwer to the police station. The woman there was useless and when Ernest explained the situation to her and said we want to open a case she said in Zulu to her friend that it’s Sunday and that we were annoying her. Luckily Ernie can speak and understand fluent Zulu. Let me openly state this. No wonder our crime levels are so damn high because we have useless people like that working in the police force. Would they prefer us to become vigilantes and murder the guy ourselves for ‘justice’ to be served, I think not. But the time is fast approaching.


Our next option was to go to the cops who were catching people for speeding and the cop there was very helpful. He was pretty busy writing out tickets but after that he drove back with us to where this idiot was. Low and behold there he was, just like I thought. He was much further up the road now but still walking up and down without his shirt. There were many old puncture and stab wounds on his stomach as well as a long cut almost a foot long. He had clearly lead a far harder life than any of us. He didn’t even run away and when questioned by the police he kept saying that he was the man and that we was from jail and non of us could touch him and that was the man and that he was on top. Without even being handcuffed he climbed into the front seat of the cop car and sat down, muttering to us and looking angrily out of the windscreen. He clearly wanted to go back to jail as there at least he had food and a roof over his head. If we had driven him over and killed him we would have actually done him a favour. Cruel you say, no just an honest thought. What ever you do in life is your choice. I always say, you make your bed, sleep in it. This guy had clearly made several incorrect choices in life.


The experience still baffles me and I wish I knew more about this dude. The rest of the drive was a lot more chilled. I can assure you that this does not happen often in South Africa. Something like this has never happened to me and I’ve driven across this country many times to every single part of it as well as to Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique and gone to many places throughout my life and never has this happened. So don’t be put off. It was a dodgy way to end a great trip and it makes one think how lucky we are to paddle a river just for fun. Not to gather food or wood or anything like that, and not for transportation or to get somewhere because we have to. Just for fun. We truly are privileged…



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.