On Friday 29 January 2010 I made a hurried decision. With an ever decreasing bank account, no employment and no rain in Cape Town, I bought an air ticket to fly up to Johannesburg. I made that choice at about 10:00am, I flew out that night. Johannesburg had received loads of rain and the rivers were flowing nicely. The Vaal was at around 2000 cumecs (for my American friends that just under 71 000 cfs!!!) and this was something of a fifteen year record. The plan was to drive to the Steelpoort River on Friday night straight from the airport, paddle it on Saturday, then drive later that evening to the Vaal, paddle the Vaal on Sunday and fly back Monday morning early. That’s exactly what we did. This first article covers only the Steelpoort with the monstrous Vaal coming up in the next one.

I landed in Johannesburg at about midnight to meet my good mate Luke Longridge. He had kindly organised a small Solo for me, taken his medium Solo and then also his medium Nemesis and an old Riot Glide just in case the levels on the Steelpoort were low. We left the airport and on the way past the place where I lived for 13 years, I organised a bottle of brandy from a very special Engen Garage (petrol station – this is illegal in South Africa of course with our over strict liquor laws) and carried on with our mission to the Steelpoort River, some 350 or so kilometres away. We arrived very late, I think it was about 03:30 or 04:00 in the morning after Luke almost ended us on a very muddy section of dirt road (it was a straight section I might add) that he was gunning it down on. The next morning, our zig-zagging tracks could be seen and I think Colin McRae would have been proud of Luke’s driving. We had slept maybe an hour and a half at most, short night! The owners of the Bonamanzi Lodge (http://www.bonamanzi.com/ ) were very kind and the chap there offered to drive us up to the put in as we had only vehicle and this really saved us a huge mission of trying to hitch-hike on a road that would have maybe two cars per hour if you’re lucky.

At the put in we met another group of paddlers but we were on a mission and didn’t want to be potentially slowed down by a larger group, or didn’t want to slow them down because we would be taking quite a few photos on the way down. So we got on and bombed. The river was high, not very high but high enough to be fun.

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Luke picking me up at Johannesburg International Airport. In fact I think it’s called something else now. OR Thambo I believe. It’s an amazing place. The only construction site in the world with an airport on it ;-) You figure it out… Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_003_E1 copy

Luke at the lodge.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_011_E1 copy

Luke, smiling. Little did we know that the brakes didn’t work on this bakkie. No wonder the driving was gearing down. Oh the joys of Africa – I love it, I really do! Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_013_E1 copy

The road up to the top.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_023_E1 copy

Boats at the put in. Spot the best brand. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_031_E1 copy

Luke Longridge with his faraway dreamy look he gets for the camera on special days like this.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_032_E1 copyA sleepy section of the little Steelpoort River.

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Luke heading downstream.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_054_E1 copy

Luke carving it up in his medium Solo – he now paddles a large. Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_067_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_082_E1_CR copy

Me (Adrian Tregoning) surfing the small Solo I got for the trip. This is actually Scott Reinders’ old creek boat. Photos’ by Luke.Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_084_E1_CR copy

Smiles, good times, and I just rolled up before this strainer after surfing. Hehehe… Photo by Luke.Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_095_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_098_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_099_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_100_E1 copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_101_E1 copyLuke enjoying himself on a rapid just below what we call Quad Trouble, and it’s a pity we didn’t take photos there.


Me coming down some random section. Photo by Luke Longridge  (Luke’s camera)DSC_0192

Me chilling out at lunch and taking it real easy. Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera) Dsc_0193At lunch the other group came past us, one of their members were swimming. More good times! Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera)

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Luke Longridge through an excellent section that just keeps on going.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_128_E1 copyAh yes, the scenery. I love the bushveld. Give me a farm here any day!

Dsc_0215 Dsc_0217Me heading through a spot just downstream of the above shots. Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera)     

I’ve paddled the Steelpoort at several water levels and also in flood but this was a great level to just enjoy and mostly relax. It started off very gently and Luke and I were almost a bit bored. It wasn’t as good as we’d remembered it to be. But eventually the action started hotting up and there were many holes which you would want to avoid at all costs!

When we got to the biggest rapid, Tonsillitis, Luke ran the chicken line first, followed by me. It was still a respectable line I might add. Then Luke decided he was going to be the first person to run the main line at a good level. He went up and gave an excellent boof, not even getting his hair wet. Luke is just paddling better and better and in case you didn’t know, he is now a Fluid Team paddler too. I always enjoy watching him rip it up. He also enjoys his paddling so much the times we have on and off the river are always filled with nonstop laughter and 100% fun. Flying up was well worth the money just to paddle with Luke again!

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From here the river still has some excellent rapids and the hole directly after this was working quite nicely, just ask Cliff Andrews :-) Luckily he got out, eventually. Luke managed to snap away with his camera while I got the throw rope ready. Good times. In case I didn’t mention, they had caught us during lunch and we paddled together up until the end then as Luke and I had taken enough photos.


The first rapid below Tonsillitis sports this ugly hole, be careful.  Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera) DSC_0257

Some people were not careful.  Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera) Dsc_0262 Dsc_0268 Dsc_0280Clifford Andrews getting worked in here for a long time. Maybe forty seconds or more. Probably more. But he hung on and never swam – lekker! Just out of interest, this hole has caused three swims, two of which ended with people climbing out into that tree (one got stuck) and another one the boat went downstream and was lost for some time… Not good…  Photo by Luke Longridge (Luke’s camera)

No matter how many times I do the Steelpoort, I could never get bored of it. With good water, this river is simply one of the best runs in South Africa. It is very continuous and it boasts some long rapids, and fun play waves. But because it’s a 35km paddle, you won’t be doing much playing in reality. And with a play boat, you won’t be able to skirt all of the holes so be ready for some beat downs if the river is very high. There are more than likely no undercuts, and only two siphons, only one of which is a mild concern. The river bed is mostly very safe, although strainers could be a problem. Know your story at high water. A swim means more than likely lost equipment and walking out will be a long and thorny affair through the bushveld. A real gem though - check this river out.

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The view at the Lodge is awesome. At higher and flood levels there are great play waves here with eddy service. Check it out! Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_188_E1_CR copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_189_E1_CR copy Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_191_E1 copy

Luke with more rally driving!!! Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_196_E1 copy

A local to the Steelpoort River.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_202_E1 copy

Scenery on the way out. Great place to paddle.  Steelpoort_Vaal_30_31_January_2010_205_E1 copyLuke “Oli” Longridge chatting to a local. 

By the end of the day, we were extremely satisfied and also quite tired. It’s a 35km stretch that drops 350m, a lovely average of 10m/km so that’s quite fun when the river gets up.  It probably took us 6 or 7 hours because we stopped a fair amount to take photos. But we were very satisfied. Then it was time to drive to the Vaal River and this probably took us around four or five hours, I think it was five. Luckily Luke’s car is very fuel economic! We arrived at around 22:30 or 23:00 that Saturday night, too tired to throw any kind of party with Dewald which was a real pity because the place was swarming with ladies and everyone looked rather festive, to say the least. Instead we were taken to a house next to the river and slept on the floor. The next day we would face a river far larger than a low level Zambezi and way more dangerous. It was going to be a fun day for sure!

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Photography by: Adrian Tregoning. Unless otherwise stated.
Words by: Adrian Tregoning.