Injusuthi River – Mini Epic

The scene was set. Luke Longridge, Dave Joyce and I would be heading down to the Thrombi X-Fest armed with three green Fluid Solo’s; one large, one medium and one small. Our mission would take us first to the Injusuthi River, then the following day to either the Waterfall Section on the Umzimkulu or, water permitting, the Polela and finally then the X-Fest at Thrombosis Gorge itself. It was assured to be a super duper weekend and water levels were predicted to be up.

The drive was uneventful and quite pleasant actually. We were wondering whether we’d have enough water for the Injusuthi and the atmosphere electrified when we stopped at Winterton to visit the Spar for a few provisions and noticed that the Little Tugela was pumping! That Spar is awesome, genuine wooden floors which is quite a novelty in South Africa. It needs some attention but probably worth more than the building itself. Once out of town we were soon driving alongside the Injusuthi (by the way, there are many different spellings to this river. Even on the road signs!) and it was looking really good. I couldn’t believe how much water was pumping down it. The source of the river is only a few kilometres upstream.


Luke Longridge playing the fool for the camera. This shot was taken opposite the Caterpillar and Catfish.


A crazy pilot in a crop sprayer. Ask Mark Basso about this dude... hehehehe. Buzzing houses at the crack of dawn!


The Little Tugela in Winterton at a good level.


We checked out a sweet waterfall on the lower stretch and wondered if someone had run it already. It was easy to get to so we could only assume that it had been run by one of the few local paddlers down here. The road wound its way up and it was in a really poor state and at one point a bridge spanning a tiny stream was half washed away but we managed to carefully pick our way across it. Once at the put-in it was obvious that the river was at a good level and that satisfaction was now guaranteed. It was wisely decided that we get a camp site or chalet first so we carried on with the road and found that because it was a Thursday still, we’d get a good rate on a chalet which is much less than the weekend rate. With that we paid for it and dumped some of our stuff into the room and readied our kayaking gear. It was closing to midday and the trip would take us around three to four hours, depending on how many photos we would take.


The sweet drop we saw low down on the Injusuthi. Far below the standard 'upper' section.


The road leading to Injusuthi is terrible. I wonder when they'll fix it...


A little piece of Norway in South Africa.   ;-)


The view from the car park at the put-in. The unrunnable rapid is on the left of the picture.


A closer look.


Luke at our chalet. There were three green Solo's sitting on the roof, three green Solo's sitting on the roof and if one of those green Solo's were to accidentally...


The put-in is simple to find. As one drives into the reserve, through an unmanned gate, there is a small (about 4 cars worth) grassy parking area next to the road on the right within about four hundred metres and a sign saying something about a hike down to the swimming pools. We left Dave’s car there and decided we’d just hitchhike back or try and find a taxi. We weren’t sure on the take-out but Adrian Vroom had told me that it was just after the last serious rapids where the valley opened up with a road leading down. Although he said we probably wouldn’t be able to see the road from the river, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t miss it. He had also warned me about a few things but my usually sharp river memory was failing me, something about the very first rapid...


Down at water level there was a big rapid with the main flow landing on an almost unavoidable rock. This was a portage unless you are into pain and/or breaking boats/bodies although you could be very brave and try far river left. Far right may work too and misses the rock entirely through a rocky side channel. The path leads down to below this rapid making it more of a mission to actually run it. With my gear on and the sun beating down I had built up a massive sweat and was eager to cool off in the cold mountain stream we were about to tackle.


Luke at the put-in. What an awesome start.


Luke had gone down and had scouted the first rapid from the right. He came back, said it was good to go and just a simple boof was required. Adrian Vroom had said something about not running the first rapid. I was now uncertain as to which one he meant and I was confused. I asked Luke if he was sure and again he said it was easy. Luke decided to run first and I would take some photos of him and Dave and then I would come down and probably swap the camera with Luke once he had made it. It looked like a straight drop but the boulder on the right was undercut and I was fairly sure that it could be a siphon. As I stood there I thought of Vroom’s warning and doubt began to creep into my mind. A lot of water was rushing towards the rock. Luke’s run was very sweet, with a good boof by the looks of things and he seemed to be enjoying the Solo. He was using my small which I had recently got as he hadn’t ordered his medium yet. I saw him at the bottom and he indicated a thumbs up.


Luke Longridge paddling the first drop, past the siphon... Luke, you know what I'm about to say  ;-)


Dave walked back to his boat and the rock was still bothering me a lot. I warned him that he should stay well left as I thought the rock may be a siphon and I walked back into position. Dave came very close to the rock and it made my heart skip a few beats. I cursed myself for not scouting this rapid myself. What was I thinking? I did trust Luke though and his judgement had always been impeccable on every other trip. Dave went over the drop and it didn’t look like he had gotten in a good boof. He didn’t emerge out at the bottom and Luke indicated a problem. I stood there and waited. After what must have been almost thirty seconds, Dave appeared and he was swimming! I assumed the hole at the base must have worked him. They both disappeared behind the rock on the right which had concerned me and I hoped that Luke would be able to deal with the boat. Dave was paddling a medium Solo and the boat was thus far only about 40 seconds old. Ouch, rough start for a brand new boat!


Dave Joyce brushing up next to the rock I thought was a siphon... and it was. Oops.


The boat on it's way downstream already.


The exit of the siphon closest to the bottom. Luke, did you see that....?  :-)  hehehe.


What had happened to Dave was that he was pushed up against a rock on the left and wasn’t actually beaten in the hole. Got to watch those evil eddies! It wasn’t a pretty place to be but somehow he didn’t roll up and Dave kicked himself for bailing out. Being able to hold his breath for an exceptionally long time he could have hung in for a while but thought that he’d easily get to the bank and decided to pull the deck. Oh well, these things happen to everyone.

Now I had a choice, paddle down the same drop or portage. Again I cursed myself for not scouting as now I was seriously beginning to doubt Luke’s judgement. I could see Luke paddle around the left and he was after the boat. The choice was obvious; portage. Still hot and sweating I ran back to my boat and picked up the beast and began the hot and stony walk around. Once on the downstream side of the rock, it was as clear as daylight that the rock was indeed a siphon. Ah, ha. So this was the rapid that Vroom had said we shouldn’t paddle. Oops. I couldn’t climb in here and so had to walk further downstream. Dave’s boat was stuck in a small hole and it was now that I realised that Luke wasn’t wearing a rescue vest and was unable to clip into the boat as it was gone down a relatively calm section. Dave was high up on the right bank and clutching his paddle. At least he was ok and hadn’t swum very far. I got down to the water, put my boat on some submerged bushes, put my Pelican between my legs, stretched the deck over the boat and breathed out as I took my left hand to splash my face in order to cool down. I had only scooped once when I saw this black snake about four metres away coming towards me at high speed on the water! $*#^@!!!! I grabbed my paddle and threw in a strong ninja (anti-snake) stroke on the left and took one last look at the snake as he veered slightly towards my tail in response to my paddle stroke. He was at that stage only about a metre and a half from me and with every ounce of my strength I paddled and shoved my way off those submerged bushes and into the current. Within a split second I was off like a bat out of hell. Without looking back I powered away and after a few power strokes I turned around to make sure he hadn’t climbed aboard.


I climbed onto the grass patch on the right of the photo, where the snake then came towards me. Yikes!


There wasn’t much time for thinking about snakes and I was now very rattled from everything that had happened with the bloody snake as I entered the first rapid. Luke was nowhere to be seen, Dave’s boat was now gone from where it had been stuck in the hole and I was paddling alone. Jeepers this trip was turning bad quickly! I almost came short in the first rapid and realised that I had better concentrate properly on the task at hand. An island split the river and I took the right option. Down I went and quickly I eddied out in a tiny eddy with Luke on the left. The river would have been fun at any other time but things had just happened too fast and now we were in scramble mode. He didn’t have the boat and took off in the lead with me somewhere behind him. I couldn’t believe some of the holes that we paddled past and had to punch. A little river like this sure had the goods, no doubt about it. Without stopping or scouting we charged ahead. It was like being in an extreme race down some reasonably serious rapids without ever having scouted beforehand. The rocks were still there though and the technical nature of the drops wasn’t helping our conquest as we bounced and survived a few rapids. Suddenly the river got even steeper and I shouted to keep going when Luke back questioningly. It dropped through some holes and turned slightly left at the end. It was the kind of rapid I would usually scout and more than likely get a couple of photos on. There was a hole at the base and the left wall was potentially undercut and by skill (luck?) we both managed to finish the drop on the right and avoid a dodgy spot.


Luke was shaking his head and I knew exactly what he was thinking. This cowboy paddling was dangerous and we both knew it. I consider myself to be a very safe paddler and would usually not have taken off but sometimes chasing a boat can be an exhilarating and also necessary, to a degree. There was a very swift flowing pool with a small horizon line and he eddied out on the right. He didn’t want to paddle any further and I fully agreed. This was nuts. We could have paddled past the boat already or it could be far ahead of us. None of us knew what lay downstream and paddling down without scouting like this could lead to injury or something worse to either of us. Just as well we didn’t paddle down the next little drop. Super easy on the left but if we had gone right there was a slight hole with a bad pressure area behind it and a recirculating eddy to help things along. Not a good place to be I was pretty sure. The undercut nature of the rocks was not looking good either. Luke went down a little further on the bank but could see nothing. Dave wanted us to keep going but we decided to pull out. It was after midday already. I think the EXIF info on my one photo says I took the last picture at river level at around 13:30. We didn’t know what the river would do below us. Vroom had said there were some serious rapids downstream and we weren’t keen on a radical boating mission down into an unknown gorge. We would play it safe and rather walk off and go down on foot to see what we could see. Dave left and disappeared without a word while we were getting our boats out.


The little drop at the end where we stopped and the ugly area on the left of the pic.


The last rapid Luke and I bombed down without scouting before we realised this was getting a little hairy.


Not a dangerous undercut really but they are there, in a lot of bad places further downstream I'm told too.


Another look at the little pressure area.


More undercuts showing the nature of the rocks in the river.


Luke with his hands up in defeat on the top right of this photo.


"Adrian, maybe it's that side!"

"Er, nope Luke, I thought you had the boat..."


From here on Luke and I had to walk out of the river valley and back to the car. The going was very steep and we had to use ropes twice to get out as it was too steep to carry a boat and even without a boat it was a struggle on the second spot. Then there was this small issue with brambles! I’m not actually certain if they are proper brambles but it doesn’t actually matter. They are these small bushes that have needle like thorns on them that scratch the crap out of one and quickly draw blood. They seem to grow in certain patches and are unavoidable when walking through what at first looks like a lovely open field but soon turns out to be walking through a living hell. I did my best to avoid them and ended up with the least battle scars but still my legs were stinging that night and full of cuts. Dave would win the award for most licks to his legs.


STEEP sides leading down to the river.


A tired and annoyed Luke, and that was only about a third of the way through our painful hike with the boats.


So after a long walk which I think was worse than the walk out at Thrombi and probably more than an hour later, Luke and I crossed a small stream, just down from the road. We quickly ate some food and drank water. We hid the boats there, grabbed our throw bags, all rescue gear we had and headed back to this fence where we had walked along. We climbed over the barbed wire fence and over a hill covered in brambles, then along a hill with more brambles and eventually down towards the river where more brambles kept us company. At one spot we found Dave’s foot prints and realised he was ahead of us, on a cattle path. We carried on for a little while and then dropped down to river level and started walking back, as close to the river as we could. The going was really unpleasant and had us doubled over while we missioned through some thick bush and more brambles. The vegetation was very thick down there and made for slow and painful progress. We couldn’t even see the river many times and we realised our efforts were pretty fruitless. At long last the jungle mission was over and it was back to more open, grassy fields covered in, yep, you guessed it, brambles.


Back at the boats we gathered our gear and carried with the painful walk out and enjoyed the last of the brambles. The walk down the road felt great after the struggle through the long grass we had endured. It was late in the evening already and when we arrived back at Dave’s car we ate the last of our food and drank more water. I paddle with purification tablets in the lid of Pelican case and this proved quite useful as we got water from the tiny stream on the hike out. Being dehydrated is not very pleasant and something one has to watch when paddling in South Africa.


Of course being back at the car was not very useful as Dave was nowhere to be seen and yep, you guessed it again if you read the Steelpoort in flood article, the car keys were in the boat! Lekker!!! One would think that we had learned our lesson the previous trip when Dave lost the boat, but no, we don’t learn even from our own mistakes.


Luke still managing a smile after our own mini epic.


The sun started hiding behind the mountains while we waited and waited.


A rather large storm built up and then came down heavily on us. Note the weird hole going up into the clouds! Amazing...


After sitting on the warm tar road and waiting for the threatening clouds to release their load onto us, Dave appeared, on his mountain bike. He had half hiked/half ran the entire stretch to see if he could get his boat but could see nothing from high up on the banks. After wading through a massive weed plantation at the end of the river valley he made his way back to the road where a guy gave him a lift back to the camp. There was nothing else to do but to carry on waiting while Dave cycled back to the camp and there he would ask the same guy if he could pick us up. Eventually the heavens opened and the wind and rain lashed down on Luke and me as we sat, back in our dry tops and wearing every item of paddling kit we had to keep warm. It was cold and miserable but at least we still had our boats. The song of 100 green bottles hanging on the wall was quickly changed to, ‘3 green Solo’s, sitting on the roof...’ I wondered where Dave’s boat was.


About thirty minutes later, Dave and the kind dude arrived to pick us up. It was pouring down still and we loaded our kit in the back of his canopy, hid our boats in the bushes and climbed into his car, soaking wet. What a really genuine and kind guy. I guess the Natal people really are the business. Shot!


Thank goodness we had booked into the chalet and a hot shower and some ice cold Captain Morgan’s were in order! YEAH! They went down very well and even though we had to cook our meat in a pan, Dave and I managed to finish off a mostly full bottle of the potent liquid. Still, I’m not sure it was enough to help with the fact that Dave had lost his boat and his car keys, split paddle, rescue gear, throw bag, Pelican case complete with digital camera and some float bags. Bad times.


Shortly after supper Dave had to make another mission to try to give someone a call so that they could take a drive down from Johannesburg down to where we were, some 400km away! Luckily we knew Ernie was coming down for the X-Fest and thought he would probably be able to give us marooned kayakers a helping hand. So Dave took off, in the rain and went back to the guy who had given us a lift and asked if he could drive him to the gate to see if he could get cell phone reception. The dude gave Dave his car keys and said take it! Unbelievable! The gate was locked and Dave was forced to climb up a sizeable hill to make the call. Ernie got the keys from Dave’s girlfriend and said he would bring them to us. A mighty kind gesture and one which would take them on a big detour to bring us the spare car keys. Thanks Ern! You are the MAN!


The following morning the keys arrived and all was good to go. We paddled the Waterfall Section on the Umzimkulu that same afternoon and everything was shanana. But I won’t end the story here...


The day we left to go to the Waterfall Section.


Satan's little helpers along the road. Watch out for these damn cows. They're a one way ticket to your grave should you be speeding.


Typical scenery.


After the X-Fest, Mark Basso paddled down the same stretch and low and behold, found Dave’s boat in a bad siphon! That was then about 6 or 7 days later. After more than an hour struggle he managed to remove the boat from the siphon. His Pelican case was still in the boat and the camera was still dry and in working order, as were the car keys! Algae was growing on the Pelican case already. One of his split paddles was there but the boat was totally flattened. According to the message I got on Facebook from Mark, the boat resembled a discarded banana peel. The bulkhead was mangled badly so he threw that away. There were several missing things but he tied onto the boat and paddled it down a quarter of the way down. The final tricky rapid had a siphon in it and Mark forgot about this and when the boat got stuck at the top of the rapid he let it go and saved himself. As luck would have it, the boat headed straight for the siphon and got pulled in, with only a little bit showing out. He then had had enough and left the boat right there and then, I don’t blame him.


So there was only one thing left to do and after trying to unsuccessfully summon some troops to help with the rescue mission, it was Dave, his older brother Mark and me that drove down to now retrieve this possessed boat. We packed in all sorts of rescue gear. Long lengths of static climbing rope, throw bags, PFD’s, helmets, the whole shebang. We picked up Mark and one kayak from Jackie Fourie’s house and made our way down to the river. As we arrived at the water’s edge there was the boat just lying in the river on a shallow gravel bar! I couldn’t believe my eyes. What luck??? Mark paddled upstream, walked along the bank and pushed the kayak into the stream. We had completed our mission with the minimum of fuss. All the gear and preparations almost for nothing. Oh well, I guess it was better that way as the siphon was in the middle of the river and we would have battled to get someone onto the rock according to Mark. We never actually saw the rapid and the boat was apparently only a few hundred metres downstream of it when we stumbled across it.


The boat was just lying there! It was so, so LUCKY.


Mark Basso in his boat while Dave's brother, Mark Joyce wades in the water to intercept it.


Mark Joyce with the boat. I couldn't believe how well it had withstood the punishment from the creek. It still looked like a kayak!


Mark Basso laughing at how easily we had found the boat again. Pure luck.


A local boy fishing in the river using locusts as bait.


Stopping past Sterkfontein Dam on our way back from a serious day trip to the Injusuthi and back. Boat recovered. Around 900km driven. All in about 10 hours or less. Not bad at all.


After taking the boat to the Fluid factory it was decided that the boat shouldn’t be repaired. It would never be as strong and considering the habits of dangerous Dave it would be better to rather get another. Dave has bought another medium Solo now and this time an orange one. The nose of the boat was dented in, as was the tail. The top of the tail had a big dent in it but that popped out while on the roof on the way home. The tail had a crack in it and also another one in the front. The front pillar was gone as was the back band and all the ropes that come with it. The hip pads were still hanging in but the seat pad was gone. The boat had only been paddled for about 30 seconds and then it was written off. What a shame. I must say that I cannot believe how well the boat withstood the punishment. Once a boat is full of water and goes bouncing down some class 4 for several kilometres, the forces involved are absolutely astounding! I was expecting far worse but Mark said he also couldn’t believe how the boat had popped back into shape and looked like a boat again. The Fluid plastic sure is bomber. I can’t think of a stronger boat than the Solo. It’s my favourite boat. Thanks for your effort with the boat Mark. Much appreciated!




Photography by: Adrian Tregoning.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Umzimkulu River – Waterfall Section, high level.