Upper Umkomaas River

So after the Deepdale trip on the Thursday and Friday I made my way to the Mountain Resort Inn in Bulwer and idled around for the remainder of the afternoon. I was to be joined by a few other people for another overnight trip on the Umkomaas. This time the section would be much higher up than Deepdale Gorge.

Being too lazy once again to pitch my tent, I slept in the back of my bakkie. This time round was pleasant with the temperature much more bearable and no mosquitoes to bug me. At about midnight I was awoken with the familiar hum of a five cylinder VW motor. It was Kallie from Outrageous Adventures, having just made the standard slog from Joburg. Carl was here too, being a bit miff about missing the second Deepdale trip. I guess some people have to work… There was another chap in the mini bus too, we’ll call him John***.

Conversation revolved around paddling, everyone getting excited about the news of good water. This didn’t help when trying to sleep an hour later. The next morning (saturday) two more guys joined us for the trip. Scheepers and another Adrian, Adrian Vroom. The six of us gathered gear and belongings and climbed into the Kombi for the hour drive to the put in. Umlondi would be the driver again. A local in Bulwer, he had driven for us on previous occasions. Getting to the put in is very simple. As you leave Bulwer on the main road back towards Pietermaritzburg, turn left at a dirt road to Impendle about 300 meters out of town. Keep going straight until you reach a t-junction and then turn right. The river will be clearly visible from the junction and on your right.

We pump up the ‘croc’ (2 man inflatable raft) and lash all the basics and luxuries to the raft. Kallie will be piloting the croc all the way down. Everyone gets used to the water and warms up. I notice that the water here is a bit clearer and also colder than the water further downstream in Deepdale. John seems pretty nervous and it soon becomes apparent that his Eskimo roll is virtually non-existent. This is going to be an interesting trip. The section is about 38 km long and fairly isolated. A walk out would be a long one. There are many rapids with some continuous sections and the water is up to a good medium level.

Carl, Kallie and I have done this section twice before with rafting clients (Carl and I in kayaks) and know what to expect. So Kallie goes off ahead on the croc followed by Scheepers and Adrian, who are more than capable. They both surf any waves and holes they find along the way and just enjoy the scenery. Carl and I devise a plan whereby I will paddle in front. John will follow my line and Carl will take up the rear. This works well and every time John flips over he abandons the paddle and somehow manages to keep his head just above water. I then try to reach him as soon as possible and bring him right side up. This seems to be the norm and we carry on.

Outrageous Adventures rapid from the bottom looking up.

The first large rapid is encountered and Kallie, Carl and I have already named this one Outrageous Adventures, from the previous trips. A fairly straight forward rapid but with two holes about 4 or 5 meters away from each other and they are frowning holes. These two little beasties are located at the end of the rapid. On our first run down this stretch the second hole caught the 6-man raft and surfed it for over a minute. A little worrying but at least the clients got their monies’ worth that time. John decides to portage and Scheepers cruises down no worries.

The second hole.

Carl sneaking the hole on river right.

Scheepers trying to get into the second hole.

I follow and as the rapid turns left I mess it up and go over. A rock brushes over my back and I roll quickly, right into the first hole and sideways. The hole works me nicely for several seconds and I try to escape out the ends. Somehow I get out and straight into the second one, sideways again. This one tries to strike up a conversation with me and by the looks on my face it was not being friendly. I try to endo out and manage to do so. Ah ha. I am out and the adrenalin is pumping and I am laughing. Scheepers is in the eddy on river right and almost had as good a time as me enjoying the show. The holes at a higher level are less retentive than at a lower level. Adrian Vroom goes in and gets the hugest air off this small exploding wave. He skirts the holes on river right and has a sweet line. Carl too has a nice line and everyone is smiling. Now it’s Kallie left and we’ll soon see how his run goes. Smooth, no problems at all.

Kallie with the precious cargo!

Scheepers on a small wave below Outrageous Adventures.

The river continues its journey and so do we. Another interesting rapid is encountered. S-Bend. To go into the bend one needs to start at extreme river right, against the cliff. The water accelerates quickly and turns a ninety degree left going through some waves. Then the flow joins the main current again and one goes with the flow turning right into some big waves. I eddy out with Scheepers who is keen for a surf. Looking behind me, I see John swimming again. We’ll miss this wave now as we enter into the main current to chase after him. The river becomes more continuous and we encounter a rapid with a nice little ledge/pourover. On a previous trip Kallie pointed to the pourover and Carl and I thought that was the line to be taken. Needless to say it involved both of us paddling hard and almost being eaten. Somehow John gets ahead of me and goes straight in. For somebody new to padding he can throw quite a few ends and goes down in style taking another swim.

Another hour or two and we are at another rapid that requires a quick scout. We had named this one Hornets Nest thanks to Donovan (from Vryheid). On that occasion I was leading the way and walked right through a hornets nest. The hornets took a few seconds to come to their senses but when they did they came at Donovan who was right behind me. Stinging him a few times on his face, even on the inside of his mouth. Not the kind of stuff to encourage you for the next rapid.

Anyway Hornets Nest was fine, portaged by John and run by everyone else. The rapid after this had a huge pourover singing its song of death as we whipped on by on river right. Most people didn’t even notice it. We came to a good lunch spot and I managed to climb into John's play boat for a small surf session. The pools now became longer and we continued on down. John taking some monster swims in rapids I would not want to go over in. Mainly big wave trains with a few holes and usually rocks strewn all over the place. All the necessary ingredients for some bumps and bruises. John also did not have proper buoyancy in his boat and this made recovery very difficult for whoever was towing the boat.

After quite a large pool and usually some local fishermen on river right, the river begins a slight gradient and as it turns to the right a tricky rapid is encountered. Being aware of this one I get out early and portage it. Coming back to help get the raft around. There is a chicken run on the right and is actually pretty easy. Just miss the large rock with the cushion wave. A small hair raising moment with the croc almost flipping but we manage to get it around to run the last stretch. I set up for some photo’s of the boys and everyone styles it. I should have run it but am too lazy to walk back. I’ve opted to carry all of my own gear except some refreshments…

The left line with the undercut rock on river left.

The chicken run on river right.

Kallie goes on ahead and leaves us behind as we deal with a few more swims including one with John’s boat almost going into a siphon followed closely by Carl. We arrive at camp with Kallie having arrived about half an hour before. John is battered and bruised but after some super juice is ready for another 10 000 kays. This time we have tents and I am super happy after Thursday nights epic. The rain decides to say hi but our fire is good and those with meat manage to have a good braai anyway. After 3 beers Kallie is now on fire and Carl and I are doing pretty well on our ‘karate water’ en coke. This is the life! The setting of the sun signals the end of our evening and the rain does not stop. Gee, what’s new.

Somehow I don’t sleep well and keep thinking that the river is getting louder. The sound of water rushing by seems to activate my bladder and I step out for a leak. The fire is out but the logs have been moved. That is strange. I don’t remember anyone putting it out. The rain is now extremely light so I stand outside and breathe in the fresh air. As I look back to the tents I notice a line of sticks and leaves running parallel to the water on the land but now about 4 or 5 meters away from the water. The water had risen and fallen again!!! I wake up Kallie, and John comes too. All of a sudden he notices his boat is gone. Bloody hell, what a trip for the poor man. We set off down the river looking in the eddies but our head torches don’t penetrate the thick darkness and we soon give up. This must be a nightmare for John. I really pity him as we lie in the tent, a light rain breaking the silence.

Scheepers carefully packing his boat the next morning.

Adrian Vroom and our trusty tents.

Morning arrives and it is obvious that the river is up. The water is dirtier now, holding more silt than the day before. John doesn’t look too good but Kallie has good news. His boat has been found. It was found about 10 meters upstream from where he left it and around some rocks. The eddy must have circulated it there. Now that’s what I call LUCKY.

Kallie cooks breakfast with his usual gusto and we all walk away well satisfied. Our homes are packed away and we get the raft sorted again. The camp was about one rapid above another tricky one and John decides to not even consider running the chicken run. I go ahead and run it river right. No problem. So does everyone else. John walks it and I consider this a mistake as it is a super easy line on the right and walking this does not do any good to his confidence. On our first trip we ran the main line. Carl had a close call, Donovan in front of me went over, lost his paddle, went over some severe rocks upside down and managed to hand roll. I luckily had a nice one. His paddle was never found.

The rapid mentioned in the text above. Stay clear of the upstream side of the rock on the left hand side of the picture.

So we continued after this our muscles still a little stiff from the previous days paddling. The second day is a lot more chilled than the first day but John was not feeling confident and made silly mistakes. I have a good memory when it comes to running a river a second time and as we get to this natural weir I shout to John to get to river right. Too late he is swimming already. This weir was fine at this high level but at lower levels it can be much more dangerous. John swam straight through.

Another interesting rapid was coming up and I knew there was an ugly rock that was hidden behind a little drop. This rock would have good pinning potential. As I cruised down I stopped paddling to make sure I led John down the right line and get my bearings. Probably being nervous he decided to keep paddling and went past me on the left. Exactly to where I thought the rock was. Problem. He swam above that point and the ledge hiding the rock had become a hole at this level on both sides of the rock and John went right past the rock. Luckily no injury or anything like that. By now things were not looking up for him. John portaged the next simple class 2 rapid. He had given up and luckily we had a few curious onlookers at this point and he decided to walk out then and there. John promised two guys some cash and they carried out his boat and drove him to the take out.

We set off now at a better pace and to the waves I had promised Adrian and Scheepers were just around the corner. Several promised corners later we finally got there, but with the increase in volume of the river, the waves had washed out. We passed the bridge where the R617 runs and carried on like usual. The rapid above the long pool before the weir is usually a good one. Going through a narrow little section about 5 meters wide this one usually has some nice diagonals and waves. With the increase in flow the features had washed out.

The big weir is visible from the road and scouted on river left. Run left of centre where the bottom of the weir smoothes out smartly. Just scout first in case of trees and make sure you can punch the holes below. The slide after the weir is about 20 or 30 meters long and a fast ride. At this level I touched the bottom once and the holes were not a problem at all. One more rapid and the river turns right and arrives at the second bridge which is also the take out. The bridge is a little side road off from the R617 and only a few hundred meters from the main road anyway. Turn off at Lundy’s Hill store to get there.

The end of another good trip. Thanks guys. Only thing left to do was head back to the cars in Bulwer, shower and drive back to Johannesburg.

The road back to Johannesburg taking the scenic route after Estcourt away from the N3.

Sterkfontein Dam (left) and after Harrismith (right).

And John, well I’m not too sure what has happened to him. It is unfortunate that he landed up on a river way above his skill level. Also his fault as he said he could roll most of the time. In any case what’s done is done. I hope to see you again on the river soon John. This story was not meant to criticise you or make fun of the situation. Only to tell the story as it was and perhaps learn from it. To anyone paddling. Be honest about your paddling ability, know your limits and always have buoyancy in your boat.

Kallie from Outrageous Adventures.


Adrian Vroom.

Carl van Wyk.

BY: Adrian T.

Photography by: Adrian T.

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.

***name changed