Umkomazana – An Unusual Run


The Umkomazana is a river that you probably have never heard of. Perhaps you’ve read about it in the book Run the Rivers of Southern Africa or perhaps you’ve only heard of someone else running it, but chances are you know little about it and even after the reading the description you may be tempted to go in search elsewhere for more action. Mike and I decided to try this little river and even though the water level was very low we still had a great time and saw a lot of different types of birds and other wildlife.

After breakfast we made our way from the farm, past Bulwer and on the dirt road towards Impendle. The going was quick and the roads in quite good condition. I was in my old faithful VW Caddy (ok, so maybe not that faithful; reliable but troublesome. How does that sound?) and Mike in a Toyota Tazz. No problems. Even a BMW would handle the road if you have half a brain.


On the tarred road still with Mike driving in front of me.


When we arrived at the take-out the level looked low. Ok so it looked really low. Mike reckoned that we should try something else but I was keen to run this river as we had both never done it. I had no idea how steep it would be but I had optimistic hopes that it would be steep enough to provide some action. Mike had similar thoughts. We left my car up at a hut and told the dude there we’d pay him R20 to look after it. With that we drove up to the put-in and got ready. I’m not certain anymore what time we climbed on but it was quite early, maybe around half nine or ten.


The view from the put-in. Looking very low but the scenery was something different at least.


The first few rapids were very bony and small and the pools long but the scenery was quite pleasant and we were having a good time. Within fifteen minutes we had seen four different types of Kingfisher. Pied, Giant, Pygmy and Malachite. We also saw Half-Collared later on. Throughout the entire trip we saw many, many Kingfishers and also a lot of other birds and ducks, even a Gymnogene and a couple of other birds of prey. The river seemed to be teaming with life and this was really sweet. I had never seen this much wildlife on a river before. Around every corner we startled Kingfishers and a variety of ducks and even geese that tried to camouflage themselves in the dense growth hanging in the river bank. At this point I must warn you that there are a lot of strainers on the river. They are quite manageable but beginners would need to really watch out. Mostly they weren’t a hassle though. At higher and also, high levels, it would be an entirely different matter.


Shortly after the put-in. Flat pools but plenty of birds etc.


Mike feeling hungry on the river!


Our new found friend leading the way on Mike's small Solo.


Another shot of the flat in the beginning. It doesn't stay that way though...


The first few kilometres are quite flat and there are a few pool drop type rapids then the river picks up a little with more action and has a fairly steady gradient. There are some longer rapids and also some sweet boulder gardens where the water channelled quite nicely. There is nothing that stands out as anything major or big but I am assured by someone else that it is fast with bad strainers and holes at high levels. It is class 5 at high levels even though you’re probably laughing by looking at the photos of our trip. Well, maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to get some good water on this river and see what it can deliver. It certainly has potential and the scenery and unusual character of the river with bring me back to this one.


Adrian running a rapid near the beginning of the trip. Photos by Mike Pennefather.


Looking downstream from the rapid photographed above. Photo by Mike Pennefather.


We made an effort to take at least a few photos on some of the rapids otherwise we would have taken nothing. At one particular rapid I encountered what was probably a green mamba (snake) where I wanted to take photos. I waited and watched as the green beast cruised into the bush next to me and I could then stand on my intended rock and take photos in peace. Glancing every now and then at the bush next to me to make sure I wouldn’t be surprised. Mike and I spotted three large leguaans during the trip and we also found a small lizard swimming in the river which Mike played with for the camera. Later on he spotted another snake.


Mike on another rapid. The snake was still somewhere to my right while taking these photos. Maybe we should call this rapid Snake Pit....?


Adrian on the same rapid with Mike braving the Snake Pit. Sounds scary doesn't it? Photos by Mike Pennefather.


While on the subjects of snakes I feel it might be interesting to share a quick story with you. A while back, I was paddling the Bushmans River with a few friends. I was surfing a small hole when my mate, Sean Jackson (who was a total beginner and actually has never paddled since that trip. Long story.), came from upstream and I couldn’t get out of the hole in time. We collided, we both flipped over and he swam as he couldn’t quite roll. His boat moved downstream until it got stuck on the side and I stayed with my mate while he swam to the side too. Scheepers started paddling towards the boat and out of the corner of my eye I saw a very large black mamba moving towards the boat, next to the river, at full speed.


Now, for those that don’t know this snake let me explain. It is Africa’s largest venomous snake and also the second largest venomous snake in the world!!! It is also the FASTEST moving snake on earth… Many snake experts regard the black mamba as the most aggressive snake on earth and it has been known to attack without provocation. Its venom is extremely potent and once bitten you will probably die within 20 minutes! They are to be taken very seriously and to be avoided at all costs!


Now at that stage I saw what was about to happen and screamed to Scheepers to leave the boat. He seemed confused and looked at me while still paddling, again I screamed for him to leave the boat and I’m not sure if he ever saw the snake but he left the boat and we drifted down in the fast current away from the snake. If I had not have warned him the trip may have turned out very differently. Sometimes one can get lucky. I don’t want to put people off paddling in South Africa but just keep your eyes peeled and use common sense. It is the only time I’ve seen a black mamba next to a river while paddling and snakes are not that common but just be aware.


Even though the levels were very low we still managed to have a super time. It was just what the doctor ordered, a relaxing and chilled trip with not much thinking involved. Just taking in the scenery and enjoying kilometre after kilometre. Chatting in the pools and just idling down.


Adrian on another interesting rapid. Photos by Mike Pennefather.


More sweet scenery next to the rapid pictured above. Photo by Mike Pennefather.


At one stage a group of kids spotted us from the banks and followed us for a long, long time, perhaps more than forty five minutes as they ran and walked along the bank, peering down inquisitively at us. Throughout the journey the river is mostly about two or three metres lower than the banks. There was a lot of evidence that the river gets far higher than what we were paddling as there was a lot of debris stuck in the trees next to the river.


There are also a couple of rapids that drop down and then turn sharp as the water flows directly into a small cliff. These cliffs are mostly undercut and a couple would be really nasty at higher levels. Not the place to be and definitely not the place to be upside down. Watch out. There is also a very low hang bridge across the water just after seeing some huts on the right bank and even at our levels we almost had to portage. Lying back on the decks of our boats we just, just managed to scrape underneath the bridge. This was around halfway, although it is hard to tell now as we were half asleep most of the time and in a dreamy state just enjoying being on a river. Towards the end there were some really long rapids and I would imagine they would be fun at high levels, being more open with lower banks and less strainers.


One of the rapids that runs right into a cliff. The rapid is to the right of the picture although it can't be seen from this vantage point. At high levels be very aware! Photo by Mike Pennefather.


We stopped for lunch just by sitting in our boats in the shade. The undercut bank can be seen in the background.


I would recommend this river to anyone who is in the area and wants to try something new. At low levels most people can run this river, just use your common sense but at high levels stay away unless you know what you’re doing. There is no doubt in my mind that the action would be fast and a lot more continuous. My memory is bit hazy now but I think it took us about six hours to paddle the 17 odd kilometres but we also didn’t paddle very hard and used the minimum amount of energy as mentioned already. I’ll be back on this one, no doubt about it. The logistics are easy are it’s not completely out of the way.


The bridge at the take-out and some goats crossing the road. Note the mountains in the background.


The little drop at the take-out. If it is even only slightly lower than this, don't bother.


As we took a lazy drive back to the farm I managed to take a few on-the-move photos from the car and I’m sure you’ll enjoy those too. We took a drive up to the top dam with Patrick (Mike’s dad) and the dogs and had a look there. What a fantastic place to live! It’s unfair that some of us live in such ugly places in comparison to the dairy farm they live on. Ah, for now I can only dream. It was an excellent way to end three consecutive days of superb paddling. A big thanks to the Pennefathers for their hospitality and for having me there. It was super! Next time Brett… next time…


I took these shots while driving back. It just makes me want to go back right now...  :-)


On the farm. Fantastic place!


Jersey cows on their way back from milking and to the fields to do what cows do best, eat.


The following morning I headed off back home, stopping past Howick Falls. The level was super low but it’s still a beautiful waterfall. Wagendrift Dam was overflowing and even the Tugela was flowing nicely.


Howick Falls.


The road was suddenly closed on the other side of the highway and just look at how many trucks are backed up, for kilometres on end. Our rail road system is on the verge of collapse so our roads in South Africa are infested with trucks!


Wagendrift as viewed from the N3 highway and taken at 120 km/h. The Bushmans was flowing better for a change.


Everything was going well until I hit some traffic and the car began overheating. So here’s a little tip in case you didn’t know. If you’re heater is not of the very modern type and works off your engine coolant system then turn on the heater on maximum and the fan on full blast. This cools the engine down and helps stop the engine from cutting out; if you don’t have fuel injection. This is after VW tampered with my expansion valve in the radiator when I told them it was just the gauge that wasn’t working. It works well but of course it raised the already hot temperatures to close to fifty degrees Celsius inside of the car. Not a pleasant experience as my poor feet went through the pain barrier. Here’s my final tip for the day then – Never, ever, buy a Volkswagen if you live in South Africa. The factory is churning out cars that are extremely troublesome (trust me I have a lot of references if you don’t believe me including someone who has had three brand new Golfs given to him within a couple of months after loads of trouble) and of course the after sales service is really disgusting. Well, I could write a ten or twenty thousand word essay on the subject which I’m sure you don’t want to hear as I feel very strongly about the subject. So I’ll stop. Till later…



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated. Thanks for taking the photos Mike!

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.

Next article: Kaaimans River in flood… (Western Cape Province of South Africa)