Steelpoort – Epic in Flood!

It had been raining for a few days already. The unusually overcast and miserable weather had been taking its toll on most people. We are not accustomed to such horrible weather for so long in South Africa. So it’s fair to say that when most people were wondering what had happened to the sun, we kayakers were wondering what was happening in the river valleys.

Carl van Wyk picked me up at my place at about 04:00 that chilly Saturday morning and Dave Joyce, Brendan Bosman and Adrian Vroom were in Dave’s car. We drove in convoy and eventually stopped at the Shell garage, just other side of the toll gate after Witbank on the N4. A wholesome meal from Steers left us well satisfied as we carried on towards the river.


I had only paddled the Steelpoort once before at a very low level. That trip was with Brendan and Adrian Vroom, whom I’ll refer to as Aqua-man to prevent confusion between him and me, and that was also their only trip on this river. We knew it was a long paddle, and we knew it was extremely continuous but what we didn’t know was how high the river would be. The stretch is 34.93 km long if I use Google Earth and it drops a total of 325 metres in altitude from put-in to take-out. This gives an average gradient of 9.3 m/km. Given the fact that the first half has less gradient than the second half and that there are almost no pools for the entire 35 km stretch, you can be assured that the river is action packed, all the way.


When we approached the bridge, which would serve as our put-in, I could tell from a distance away that the river was high. From the low seating position of our car I could see the water running in the grass on the right hand side! It was flooding quite smartly and my heart beat increased at the thought of what lay downstream. Once on the bridge I looked to my left and there was a bit of a wave train and a large hole immediately below the bridge itself. This looked like a totally new river to me. On my previous trip the pool below the bridge didn’t even look like it was moving and was almost as calm as a lake. A somewhat different picture to what lay before us now. Carl was the only one with a river running play boat and I couldn’t resist the temptation for a few jokes about it. The rest of us had brought creek boats. This proved to be a very wise choice indeed.


The five of us stood on the bridge and looked at the scene in front of us. I had clearly remembered how the calm pool had snaked through some grass further downstream and that it had been so calm and quiet. Now, the water roared angrily as it made its way down with the indifference of a runaway steam train and we had to raise our voices above the rush of the Steelpoort thundering below our feet.


The view upstream from the put-in.




The view downstream from the put-in bridge.


LOW LEVEL PHOTO. Note that the wave train is now gone. Nothing, almost like a pool.


To be honest, we were all nervous. Three of us had paddled it before and knew that there would be some tricky rapids downstream. Robin Kock had paddled it on the Thursday and had told us that it had been very high and that the two of them had had the time of their lives. Getting beaten in several holes and avoiding some strainers. The lady at Bonamanzi told us afterwards that they had paddled it at a lower level than us. Robin assured me that he would never paddle it any higher than what they did it at. At that stage, I wondered if this level was higher or not. It looked very high.


After running the shuttle we got down to the river and climbed on. Cutting into the current my boat lifted up and accelerated as I edged downstream and the familiar feel of power under my hull came flowing through me, the sort of power that only a river can deliver, unlike riding a powerful motorcycle. The river was moving incredibly fast and around the first bend things were already quite fun. At these high levels there are a lot of play waves and a hell of a lot of holes. And I mean plenty of holes!


Dave Joyce (green boat) and Brendan Bosman (orange boat) at the put-in. Note the big log jam blocking off the flow of water.


There are a few short pools and I’d say the longest is probably just over a hundred metres long. Even then, it moves quickly and you can just drift into the next rapids. If you hate flat water, then this is the river for you.


Taking photos was a problem on this river, at this level. The eddies next to the banks were small and not that quiet and usually viciously guarded by strainers directly behind them. Not an ideal situation and hence there weren’t many photos taken on this trip. The banks are also infested with thick bush and even once on the bank, photos would be limited to what’s drifting past the lens as looking up or downstream is not really possible with the bush. So use your imagination and I’ll try my best to describe the river to you.


The first couple of kilometres went off quite smoothly. The going wasn’t too hard and the holes not too unfriendly. If you were a beginner or even an intermediate paddler you probably would have been battling a lot. In fact you would have come short many times and probably decided to walk back to the car already. Before the trip started I warned the guys; if you swim on this river, you have an excellent chance of losing your boat. Watch out! There were a lot of holes and waves and some we avoided and some we punched. Nothing life threatening but several would have loved to have pulled us over for a speeding ticket and a small chat.


We had been swapping the lead between Brendan, Aqua-man and me in a casual manner and at one stage Brendan was up front. The river took a turn to the right through a rapid, followed by some fast flowing water and then through another small ledge drop. His line looked to be through the meat and not a good one at all as his boat veered up and shook a little and he looked back at what he had just paddled through. I went for the right and found a sweet window between two holes and Aqua-man and Dave followed. Somehow, Carl had thought my line must have sucked so decided to follow Brendan’s line.


I glanced back to see what someone was shouting about and saw Carl in the hole. Yup, he had paddled right into a small but rather sticky hole. It was sucking back from about two metres and it didn’t look like he would be leaving in a hurry. I paddled quickly to the left bank, popped my deck and threw my boat on a pile of drift wood. I hoped that no snakes were resting up in the dead wood and grabbed my throw bag, taking off the karabiner as quickly as I could. During this time I had glanced back, only to see Carl either upside down, side surfing or throwing some ends. He was putting up quite a performance for us. As he went over again I could tell he was swimming and out he popped, thankfully. His boat charged off downstream but he swam strongly towards where I was standing. Carl is a strong lad and made it easily to where I was standing, rope at the ready. It wasn’t necessary to bag him and I always try to not use a rope as ropes in moving water are always dangerous and only complicate any rescue. If you haven’t been on a swift water rescue course then I highly recommend one. Even if you have been it won’t hurt to go again.


The drop where Carl could not escape from, just left of centre in the photo is where the hole was at its strongest.


Aqua-man paddled down and around the next corner after the boat, as did the others. I stayed with Carl and told him it was safe to assume that his boat had landed up on river right. His paddle was left by Brendan within fifty metres downstream from us on the right bank, in any case. He drifted to the top of the eddy and swam strongly to the other side. The speed of the water was very apparent as he was swept quickly downstream. I stayed upstream of him the entire time and kept a watchful eye on what was happening. Once he had made it to the bank I paddled down to see what had happened to his boat. It was safely ashore and still intact. Nothing like a bit of action to put everyone back on their toes! Swim number one.


With Carl ready for another ten thousand kays we put onto the churning river and headed off downstream. I took the lead and we paddled a couple more rapids. The river was really fun and we were having the time of our lives. There were some big holes, some great wave trains and the odd twist and turn. My memory of the rapids on any river I run is usually good and I shouted back to someone that there would be ledge drop coming up soon. If memory serves me correctly the river turned through a right hand bend and into a ledge drop. As I approached it I could see that it was forming a massive, river wide hole. It seemed to be smaller on the right so I paddled hard to change direction and then straightened out to punch it squarely. The backwash of the hole was powerful and the boat veered left and right as it slowed down but I made it. I indicated immediately to the other guys coming from upstream to get to the right and to paddle hard.


One by one they made it through, coming through like lemmings with wild abandon except for Carl, the only one in a river runner. The hole caught him and worked him thoroughly. Luckily there was a small pool immediately below the drop so we didn’t bother to climb out. The hole was retentive but didn’t look bad enough to hold a swimmer. We watched with an almost sick fascination as he pulled out all the stops to give us another winning performance of hole riding and the techniques of exiting them with little chance of success. At one stage he almost made it clear but then it sucked him back again and a few more ends and window shades ensued. Eventually he bailed, swimming straight out. His boat stayed for a while in the hole but then that too flushed out. Another boat emptying episode and we were good to go. So far, it was turning out to be quite a day indeed and we hadn’t even paddled to the halfway mark. Swim number two.


I looked quietly at Carl and wondered how the rest of the trip would turn out. We had only covered not even quarter of the distance and the river would get steeper just after halfway.


A random shot showing the speed of the water even in the easy sections as pictured here.


Brendan punching one of the many, many holes on the river.


Adrian Vroom, aka Aqua-man, aka Ginger Bread Man, aka Oupa. Some people never grow up...   :-)


For quite some time we didn’t have any major incidents. The river carried on and on, dropping steadily along its journey. From start to finish there are almost no pools. Only a few fast flowing sections all under one hundred metres long. It is possibly the most continuous section of river in South Africa and absolutely world class. There aren’t any big or vertical drops but there are hundreds of really awesome rapids which are of a really high quality. It might not appeal to everybody but if some medium volume river running with a fair amount of technicality is your thing, then this is ideal. If I were to rate this river compared to what I’ve paddled so far and give it a rating out of ten, I’d give it an 8 out of 10. It is that good. Although it would be unfair to compare it to a lot of other rivers I've done as it would be unlike comparing apples with apples. Of course with less water it wouldn’t be as good and once down to a certain level it is actually a very easy river to paddle, dropping down several notches in the skill required and fun to be had. At flood level, it is plainly awesome; ask anybody who was on the river that day.


Eventually we got to our previous lunch spot and climbed off for a small rest. We had flown down the river and arrived there in just over two hours, a record time. I munched on a small packet of salted peanuts and raisins and also a tasty tin of sardines; nothing like some fish to keep the gills in good condition. Aqua-man and Bosman had a few minutes of shut eye and then we were ready to hit it again.


Lunch spot around halfway with Carl van Wyk in the foreground in the red dry top and Dave hiding behind him wearing the silver helmet.


Looking back at another section.


It’s hard to explain this spot but just after it are the longest rapids on the entire river. I think the first one is more than a kilometre long and because of the flood level, virtually no eddies. Many holes to avoid and punch and also some sweet ones to play in and lots of lots of play waves. The play section of the Sjoa River in Norway has a few play waves and is supposed to be really good, and it is, but the Steelpoort would beat it hands down. Perhaps not in size (and clear water), but on sheer quantity and variety, and also some quality waves. It was pure bliss to just paddle down the rapids at full speed, manoeuvring the Solo in between holes and around the bends and going up and down in the waves.


Eventually we came to a rapid that didn’t look worse than anything we had paddled, except for the steam at the top of the rapid. One look at that and we decided to scout. Aqua-man got out first while I was still struggling to find a spot where the current wouldn’t take me downstream. He casually remarked from his vantage point next to me, “Actually it isn’t that bad, there is a line to the right of the hole at the top, and yeah, also one to the left, but right looks easy. Two holes but just keep right”


“What comes after that?” I looked up at him, still seated in my kayak.


“Just a couple of small wave trains.” He replied with a half hearted flick of his hand. Hmmm, that sounded quite easy. Before the others could have a look at it and perhaps give a second opinion I decided to show them the line and with a big smile peeled out and headed down, keeping far right. I trusted Aqua-man enough that he wouldn’t give me bad advice.


As the hole came into view I glanced into it and realised it would be really bad to go in there so I fixed my gaze towards the right and punched it smartly. The second hole was also very meaty but I managed to stay right. Done, I had made the two holes. With my boat pointing slightly to the left and the current starting to accelerate me downstream again I looked at the ‘wave trains’ that Aqua-man had spoken about in the way a mouse would to a cat. Jeepers, these weren’t wave trains but two more holes! I immediately stroked hard to avoid them as the boat surged forward and missed the first hole. I caught the second hole on the left corner and it stopped my boat dead. I threw in some desperate strokes on the right but it made almost no difference. I lost my balance and went over, rolling on my right and throwing in some more ninja strokes. After a few nervous moments I had cleared the backwash of the hole. It had been a close call.


The others hadn’t seen my near miss and were probably still under the impression that the end held a few waves. Dave came down next and the second of the top holes grabbed him. With almost the entire river feeding those holes they packed a lot of power. It’s not everyday that you can see someone throw ends in a creek boat as large as a large Solo but there was Dave. Throwing some moves for us as I saw flashes of green. I held my paddle up to prevent anyone from coming downstream but it was a futile attempt. From their eddy they could not see the bottom and when Brendan appeared on the horizon it was too late to warn him that the hole was already occupied. After what must have been close to twenty seconds, Dave got out and rolled up. He just missed the bottom holes and joined me in the eddy. At that time Brendan had just been flipped over by the top holes but luckily they hadn’t grabbed him. As he came downstream he rolled up before the bottom holes and the very last one grabbed him into a violent, thrashing side surf. Twice he was window shaded with such a force that I was amazed that he still had his paddle but he doggedly held onto it. After a few seconds he flushed and rolled up with big eyes. This rapid had surprised all of us.


The rapid with the 'wave trains' at the end...  yeah, right. The holes at the top cannot be seen from this vantage point.


Next up was Aqua-man and the second of the top holes got him, bringing his creek boat into a stern stall before flipping him right over. He executed a roll and took a path wide of the bottom holes. Check out his smile in the photos. He knew it was a close call and the rapid had some teeth actually. Bigger teeth than what he had nonchalantly described. Carl had decided to portage and given his boat I think that was a wise idea.


Aqua-man getting flipped by the second hole at the top but executing a quick roll...


...and avoiding the bottom holes. Sneaky bugger. To the left is the first of the bottom holes. Quite trashy.


The next rapid loomed in front of us with just a view of tufts of grass and a roar of water. Aqua-man was leading and luckily he went far right and eddied out. I had remembered this rapid and thought it may require a scout. If he had paddled it blindly he would have been in for a surprise. We climbed out and looked at it from through the trees. It was tricky to scout, climbing through long grass and thick bush. We had to sit on our haunches to see the rapid through the branches over our heads. It didn’t look too tough except for a wide ledge hole at the bottom, on the right. The ferry above it would be really hard and I wasn’t sure that we would be able to do it. Brendan and I opted to portage while Dave still came down to join Aqua-man. In the end, we all decided to portage. The hole looked really ugly and we were too far down the right bank to set up for the left line. Even then, it too, had a hole near the top which didn’t look good at all.


After bashing through some long grass Brendan and I came to an island on the right with Carl just behind me. Dave and Aqua-man came past in a side channel and we cursed them as they’d found a short cut. At these flood levels, water was running down the sides. They paddled through a tight channel and Dave got stuck in front of a strainer but it didn’t look too bad. The water was flowing swiftly but I knew I’d make it. Leaving the others behind, I paddled down on my own and through the tight channel. It was very tight and thickly guarded with strainers but I made it without any hassles through a few twists and turns. Dave and Aqua-man were on the opposite bank and already making their way down to have a look at the next rapid.


The rapid after the one we portaged. Lots and lots of water! Note Dave and Aqua-man scouting in the water on the left.


I didn’t think Brendan and Carl would have a problem and paddled downstream of the guys on the left bank and joined them. The next rapid looked ugly and a big rock in the middle hid something behind it. It looked like it was probably another hole. As I got back to my boat, Brendan arrived and he looked like he was in a bad mood and threw his boat up on the bank and tossed his paddle. I saw that he was using a split paddle and asked what the hell happened to his original paddle. He explained that he had been broached into the strainer at the top of the side channel and had lost his paddle there, having to exit the boat and climb out onto the log. Swim number three – ok, so a technical exit then!


I asked where Carl was and he thought that he was with us. Brendan and I hurried back while Aqua-man grabbed Brendan’s tail of his boat as he tried to paddle away, only fuelling his temper. Typical stuff that happens! Brendan went ahead of me and suddenly Carl appeared. He had portaged the entire thing and didn’t look impressed to have bashed through all the grass and bushes, barefoot. There is a lesson to be learned; never paddle without shoes! Are you listening Carl?


Once we had all re-grouped we decided to take the ‘chicken-line’ through the next rapid on the left. The large boulder in the middle was hiding something ugly and we couldn’t be bothered to scout from the other side so we took what we could scout. Dave and Aqua-man said it looked ok and so without scouting, the rest of us lined up again and down we went. It was a fun line with a nice two foot boof off of a ledge.


More rapids followed and the bed of the river became solid granite again. This section of the Steelpoort is almost like the stuff in Norway in many ways. Clear, granite bottom for much of the way and continuous rapids that are way up on the fun scale factor. Only the brown, muddied waters and thorn trees bristling on the banks snap one back to reality.


From my previous trip I knew that two river wide ledge/slides were coming up soon and I eddied out to get my bearings as Aqua-man came past me. Brendan and Dave followed him down and then I went down the first one and signalled to Carl that all was clear and that only a boof was required. He came down the drop and sunk away into the fluffy water of the hole but managed to clear it. I streaked ahead and caught a glimpse of Brendan getting worked in the hole at the bottom of the slide. There was a shallow shelf under me where I could stop my kayak and so popped my deck and got the camera out. Carl then went past me and I got a few photos of him. His line was good, as was mine.


Carl running the second slide! I took this photo while still in the water, in my boat, just balanced on a shallow rock shelf. The background is typical of what the river looks like when it is a little wider. It doesn't get wider than what is shown here.


The group eddied out to the left and I told them that Tonsillitis would be coming up soon and that we should not miss the eddy above it, on the left. With that I took the lead and paddled down a few rapids when suddenly trees blocked our field of vision with a torrent of water flowing through it and the main channel obscured. I paddled down on my own and ferried to the right, above the trees, using the backwash of a hole to help my ferry to the river right side of the river. From here I signalled all was good and then bombed down ahead. The large rapid must have been close so I just went ahead on my own until I found it. The eddy was easy to catch but I climbed out with the throw bag at the ready, just in case. Everyone else joined me and there were no problems. There was a smouldering fire on the rocks next to the rapid and an empty Sasko Sam bread packet. Someone had been here not too long ago.


The entry to Tonsillitis. Most of the water is flowing on river right in a deep channel.


LOW LEVEL PHOTO. I took this photo standing river right of centre. At high level this was covered.


Tonsillitis is a short but mean rapid. The real line is far right but at most levels it forms a big, bad hole. It looked very different on that day than when we ran it far right at a super low level. Looking back now, we could perhaps try that line but then would have to eddy out on the right and have a good look. There is a small dragons back on the far right which might work. If not, a bad beating would result. Rescue would naturally be from the river right side. There is a pool below that where the pieces can be picked up but at these levels you’d have to be lightning quick as it moves into another long, narrow and steep rapid. More on that beast now…


I decided to demonstrate the chicken line on the left and headed up to my boat, leaving my camera in the ‘capable’ hands of Carl. The entry is a little bumpy but that’s about it. The only thing is to stay left and not go into the middle where a nasty hole, backed up by a rock, awaits. Once in position at the top, one just needs to go straight, off of a one foot ledge and down into the almost non-existent hole on the left. My line was perfect, which is more than I can say for Carl’s photographic skills. Come on Carl, next time don’t stand behind a bush! Hehehe. I just always have to give old Carl a bit of stick for old time’s sack. I’ve known Carl for many years now so I know he won’t mind the comments and would gladly give it back to me. Next up was Aqua-man and he too delivered a neat set of moves, easily making the line.


Adrian Tregoning running the chicken line on the left. Photos by Carl van Wyk. Next time don't stand behind that bush....!  :-)


Adrian Vroom (Aqua-Man) running Tonsillitis.


Dave decided to go next and came down nicely but then his nose caught on a shallow rock, slowing his progress and allowing his tail to twist out from behind him, taking him almost into a nasty little slot where a mean hole awaited in eager anticipation for him. He dropped sideways into a meaty hole (which doesn’t look too bad in the photos) and totally disappeared. I caught quite a fright and stopped taking photos but then he popped back up a touch downstream and you can see the photo where he emerges upside down, tail first. The hole itself is not too bad that he dropped into but the vast amount of water coming in from the right really churns and aerates that water and he got some downtime. After rolling he came up looking rather serious. Luckily he didn’t go into the slot more to river right. It looks really ugly and I wouldn’t consider that even a line.


Dave Joyce getting it wrong and getting lucky halfway down...


LOW LEVEL PHOTO. Adrian Tregoning running the far right line. This was the ONLY part of the rapid that had water running through it. Photo by Stafford Robinson.


From our previous trip I had remembered the rapid that followed Tonsillitis and had thought to myself how mean it would be with strainers and holes at a higher level. Aqua-man went ahead of us, as did Brendan as I warned them quickly about it but they hardly listened. I warned Dave and Carl about the rapid again and told Carl that he should watch out for trees and paddle very hard as I anticipated some bad holes.


I went first and dropped down, the river turning right and then left. It looked pretty ugly and I moved to the right to skirt a hole, just avoiding some trees to my right that flanked it. Suddenly I heard a scream from my right side, “My boat! My boat! Get my boat!” I stole a hurried glance to my right and saw Brendan in a bush. How peculiar I thought to myself. I wondered how he had gotten into the bush so quickly. Within a few seconds I saw his bright orange boat in front of me and was glad that he too always paddled with float bags in his boat. It’s amazing how many people don’t. Swim number three, another technical exit because he got swept into a strainer and climbed out from his boat straight into it!


The rapid itself was dead straight from there on but the entire river pumped down a channel only about six metres broad and shouldered with bushes that were in the water at that stage. The waves were massive and almost bigger than what I had seen on a full Buffalo River once. There were some ugly holes too and I skirted these if I could but most of them I had to punch because they were too close to avoid. I could not see what lay behind the next wave and I prayed that it was nothing beyond my capabilities. At that stage I was the only one running the rapid. It demanded all of my concentration to keep on track and also to keep an eye on the boat drifting with me. If it got caught in a strainer I would want to know roughly where it had gone. About halfway down I saw Brendan’s split paddle hanging virtually out of the water, in a bush. It must have been tossed up there with the pulse of the river in this pushy and confined region.


As the rapid became a little less steep I could see the bottom and looked once more at the boat and then accelerated ahead of it. Once in the pool I didn’t have to wait long for it to reach me as it swirled on the eddy line. One shove was all that was needed and I had it in the eddy where I clipped my cow’s tail into the boat and brought it to the bank. The adrenalin was now subsiding a little and I considered my options. It would be a while until Brendan caught up with me so I decided to climb out. As I thrust down my paddle the water there was very deep and the grass and bushes growing there would normally be high and dry in normal flow conditions. Eventually I half fell out of my kayak and ended up standing in chest deep water. I pushed my boat up onto the bank above me and balanced it precariously there while I attended to Brendan’s boat. Now that it was full of water I could not get it out so I opened the drain plug and climbed into the vertical bank that sat about a metre above the water. His boat was incredibly heavy but I managed to drag half of it onto the bank. Strangely enough though something seemed to be blocking his drain plug and the water was not coming out as it should have.


Just then Aqua-man arrived asking if I had seen the other boat. “What other boat?” I asked in astonishment and suggested to the boat I was dealing with already.


“Dave took a swim and his boat went down!” I hadn’t seen his boat but told Aqua-man to go downstream to see if he could find his boat. Aqua-man is a very competent paddler and I knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid in his effort to locate the boat. Carl then also came down and I told him to keep going to find Aqua-man and the boat. Swim number four.


My boat was hindering the removal of Brendan’s boat but after struggling for another minute he arrived. With his help we dragged it clear and emptied it out. Dave passed us and I asked what had happened to him. He had been caught in a bad hole and even once he had bailed out of the boat the hole had held him. For about seven cycles he was worked in the hole until he finally came out. I told Dave that Aqua-man and Carl had gone downstream to find his boat and that he should walk down to see if he could find them. Brendan asked if I had a split paddle and I did. I then told him about his paddle and we set off upstream to try and find it. We had covered about forty metres when I felt an incredible pain in my foot as two thorns came straight through my shoe and into my boot. Whimpering, I sat on the floor and painfully removed the offending shoe. The thorns were clearly visible and with a knife I had to cut part of the shoe to remove the stubborn intruders and then we were good to go. Brendan walked a few metres with me in his wake when he turned around and said, “Screw it, leave the blades. I’ll get new ones."


With that we went back to the boats. I climbed into my boat with the utmost care, balancing sideways on the ledge when I lost my balance and dropped into the water. My shins banged against the cockpit rim but I managed to hardly take on any water. A few dips with my sponge and I was good to go, followed by Brendan who was now on his third paddle, using my splits!!! At that point in time the trip had seen four swims, three lost paddles and now a suspected lost boat. Worse still was that Carl’s new digital SLR camera was housed in the hatch in Dave’s boat, which was now missing. And best of all, BOTH sets of car keys were in Dave’s boat. Carls’ keys were in his Pelican, along with the camera and Dave’s keys were in a dry bag, also in the boat somewhere. At that stage I didn’t know that.


Brendan and I set off with me in front. We paddled more big rapids without scouting anything, all the time keeping a sharp lookout for Dave’s boat or any sign of Aqua-man and Carl. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I noticed two otters in the water. One was sitting on a strainer with a huge toad in its mouth, almost as big as its head, and the other one was bobbing in the water in front of it with only its head showing. In a weird moment the four of us all eyed each other out, they didn’t move as we drifted past. Otters are very rare to see on any river and I had never seen one from this close. The only other time I came really close was in Thrombosis Gorge, just near the end of the Golf Course section. I will never forget that odd moment when suddenly things just slowed down and we had a fleeting moment, pausing the chaos around us for a few seconds.


Then it was back to business of avoiding more bad holes and surfing over the top of waves. At a calm section we found Carl on the right bank on his own. I asked where Aqua-man was but he pointed to his boat lying on the opposite side. Aqua-man had gone upstream to see if he could find the boat. We quickly spoke and because Carl didn’t know the river I said to him that Brendan and I would paddle down the rest of the way to see if we could find Dave’s boat. It was impossible to tell where it was and there was a good chance it had gone down already and that we would catch up with it, either caught in a strainer or circling in an eddy on one of the corners. I assumed that Carl and Aqua-man would wait for Dave to join them on the river bank and then make a decision from there. They were about one and a half kilometres from where we had last seen Dave. The bush was very thick but he would make it down, eventually.


We sped off into the current and paddled the first couple of rapids. Rapids, is actually an inaccurate statement as there is almost one rapid that just takes one to the take-out. It started off fairly gently. I kept out in front and looked back every now and then to make sure my wingman was with me. When I had a view downstream from the top of a wave and saw something, I would quickly indicate, without looking back, to make sure he would change his angle. It was about ferrying left and right across the river, sometimes punching some bad holes. Then the river started dropping a little more. What followed is described by Brendan as the best hour of paddling of his life. I’ve had some good days and seen some good rivers but I’ll probably be inclined to join Brendan in that statement. It was pure bliss. We were on a mission to find the boat, sweeping our eyes left and right to see if we could catch a glimpse of the boat and all the while running every rapid blindly and at full speed. These rapids we wouldn’t have scouted anyway but would have proceeded with more caution, weighing up the options from the safety of an eddy. It was what I would call fast, scary boating, nothing too scary but with enough gradient and obstacles to get the adrenalin flowing a little and sometimes even in vast amounts! I remember one particular hole that got me totally vertical and with a quick slap stroke and I was good to go again; the kind of hole where one takes a big breath before dropping in.


After countless rapids and a couple of close calls we spotted the road again. At this point a small stream joins from the right and the road crosses over it. I started in the middle and then paddled hard to the left, shouting for Brendan to do the same. We both missed the hole in the centre and carried on down. We would later hear that Aqua-man took a brief beating in that hole when they came down.


The rapids were a lot more chilled out and still we searched for the boat but found nothing. We came across two river wide ledges that formed big holes but managed to punch both of them quite easily. Having faced worse stuff upstream this wouldn’t upset us too much. Of course once in a hole like that it would be an entirely different matter. I knew there was one last rapid that had formed some low ledges and I wasn’t sure what the line was.


As it approached I dropped down the first half and eddied out in the middle to see what options we had. From there decided to pick a line down, right of centre and avoid another small hole. We both had sweet lines and then I knew we couldn’t be far from the lodge. There was one more wave train which had about four sweet waves to surf but we were still on our mission and didn’t stop. The lodge came into sight and aroused the people sitting seated on the deck high above the river. Like two shipwrecked sailors we had arrived back at shore. I climbed out and then gave Brendan a hand. At that stage I thought we would be in for a long wait.


The beautiful view from the waters edge at the take-out.


Three play waves/holes, with eddy service, right below the lodge!


“I’m going to open up a tab at the bar. What do you want?”

“I’ll have an Amstel,” I replied to Brendan’s smart thinking. With that he charged up the stairs to the bar and came down with two ice cold beers. Life was good.


We hadn’t even sat there for ten minutes when suddenly Carl and Aqua-man arrived, without Dave. “Where the hell is Dave?” I asked them.


“I thought you told him to walk off!” Carl replied, surprised at my question. Now, why the devil would I have told Dave to walk off? Brendan and I had seen him walk downstream and at that stage there was still a chance that we would find his boat. I assumed that Carl and Aqua-man would wait for him to join them and then make a plan from there. Brendan and I had completed our mission but hadn’t found the boat. There was no logical reason for me to have told him to just abandon ship and walk off. We wondered what Dave would do as I looked guiltily at the almost empty beer in my hand. Oh well, I shrugged it off. What ever happened would now happen. Dave was probably walking, about fifteen kilometres upstream from where we were, in some thick, thorn inhabited bush and we were already taking bets as to when he’d arrive. The only option left to do was to sit back, wait and have another beer. We’re good friends aren’t we?


Waiting for more beers. Aqua-man (left) and Carl (right) sitting at the Bonamanzi Lodge overlooking the river.


We only had one problem and that was that we had two cars and no keys for them. Brendan called his dad and managed to organise that he would pick up Carl’s spare keys and then go past Dave’s girlfriend’s house to get his. He managed with Carl’s but there was no one at Dave’s house.


The people at the Bonamanzi Lodge are super friendly and even the local farmers that chill here on a Saturday are also great. After waiting a while, Brendan got a lift with one of them and they took off along the dirt road to see if they could find Dave. It must have been about two hours, perhaps two and a half hours when I saw the forlorn figure of Dave paddling down the river. I couldn’t believe it, he had found his boat! While Aqua-man and Carl raced down to help him I took a few photos from the balcony before joining them.


Dave returning after he had been left to the dogs. What an awesome river! Note how the water level had dropped. The black line on the left.


Dave and his kayak. No one thought we'd ever see that boat again.


Dave had his own story to tell. It seems he just kept on going downstream for about four kilometres, half walking, and half running right next to the river where the bush wasn’t quite as thick. On top of a hill he looked back down at the river and caught a glimpse of the ‘Fluid’ badge and a patch of green. Mostly submerged, in the middle of the river in a reed covered island, was his boat. He back tracked upstream and jumped into the river, aiming carefully in the fast current to meet his stranded boat. Standing in chest deep water and emptying the boat he found that his split paddle was amazingly still there. Dave took his car keys out and wrapped them in a dry bag and thrust them into his pfd. If something else happened at least he could swim to shore and have the keys at hand. From there he paddled the big rapids on his own, scouting a few and portaging some others. Luck was definitely on his side! Carl’s car keys and camera were still intact and he was greatly relieved to be reunited with them again. I think we all were. We called off Brendan’s dad who was now well on his way with one set of car keys and told him to turn back; a big thumbs up to the man for kindly offering to help us reckless kayakers. We really appreciate the effort. Hopefully there isn’t a next time…


We loaded up everything on Dave’s station wagon and headed back to Carl’s car. Here we changed two boats over and Carl and I drove to Middleburg to join the others at the KFC. With that we bid our farewells and I got hold of Neil O’Leary to start my next adventure. Carl dropped me off in Witbank and I changed my gear over again, this time into Neil’s new bakkie. We would be paddling the Olifants the following day with Karl Martin. Another day, another adventure.


Middleburg, taken from the KFC to prove a point. Carl said I would never be able to capture the blue in the sky. Not bad without a tripod and in a hurry. Come now Carl, any more bets? I need some more cash...   :-)



What’s that? End of part one you say. Ah, the Olifants trip now. No. I’ll cover that in a separate article. The following week we came back to paddle the Steelpoort and I’d like to briefly touch on that story. Another epic, also at flood. Read on…


So there we were, driving back to the river that had given us the ride of our lives. From the car it looked even higher and this time I felt even more nervous than before. When we stood on the bridge it was a touch higher. No more than ten centimetres but a little higher none the less. Wihan Basson and Robin Kock did not want to paddle the river at all. Greg Howard neither. Brendan Bosman, my previous wingman on the last trip wasn’t either keen, although I was working on changing his mind. We waited for the others to arrive.


Ernie Vosloo and Karl Martin arrived. As did Maarten van Wyk and Joe Klopper. None of them wanted to paddle the river. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! We had just driven 250km and no one wanted to paddle, unbelievable. To say I was pissed off was an understatement. They had all brought play boats and I had even told Wihan the night before to bring his creek boat. “This is a play river boet!” Wihan had cockily sms’d back! Even with creek boats the entire group climbing onto that river at that level would not have been a good idea. We had had plenty of rain and on the Friday the river had more than doubled in volume within about six hours according to the station downstream. With those two facts alone it was obvious that the river was going to be either high or in flood. At the end of the day, each person has to decide for themselves whether or not they should paddle, and I respect that. I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be paddling the full stretch as we drove down to the take out to paddle the last two and a half kilometres of water.


Once there I finally managed to convince Brendan to join me, but there were no other takers. Brendan was not happy to paddle it with only me and I can’t really blame him. We both knew what lay downstream. Looking at his GPS and the contour maps we tried to find a place where we could perhaps paddle the first half of the river. It seemed feasible but the farmer there had a serious game fence and we knew his reputation from the people at Bonamanzi. He doesn’t like people on his land, quite understandable. I wasn’t keen to be parting his fence and forcing my creek boat through if he drove past in his bakkie. It would probably end with a pair of thick forearms tightly wound around my neck!


So the plan was to paddle from where the dirt road brushed next to the road down to the lodge, with only two rapids worthy of mention really. The two ledge drops which I knew would be interesting and then around the corner another shelf drop rapid on the smooth granite and then also a fun wave train with some sweet waves to surf. Everyone paddled except for Greg Howard. We readied our equipment and Brendan and I were a bit annoyed that we wouldn’t be getting our monies worth, but hey, what could we do? I left my split paddle and even my throw bag. Brendan did the same. I couldn’t be bothered about that and knew it was only about two kilometres down to the lodge. What could possibly go wrong?


I lead the group down carefully and I had almost forgotten about the two ledge drops when I dropped through and punched the first one. Brendan was behind me and it stopped him dead. He put down some power and cleared the backwash and we had a bit of a laugh. I paddled down through the next hole and looked upstream. I knew the other guys were probably going to get creamed and I was quite right. Wihan was doing a few ends and battling to get out when more people dropped into the river wide hole. There is rock in the river after that with some water pushing up against it and I paddled left to avoid it, catching a glimpse of more carnage upstream as the river just took me further downstream. Wihan was free but two or three more boats were getting hammered in the sticky hole. Brendan and I eddied out on river right and saw Karl swimming with his boat and paddle. He was really lucky and managed to self rescue everything into an eddy. Maarten joined me and reported that Joe was getting beaten properly. Oh damn. I hadn’t expected any swims on this stretch.


Just then Joe’s boat came past but no one wanted to clip into it as it was headed straight for some strainers. It got caught there and sank a little below the surface, forming a small pillow wave where it rested against the branches of a bush. It looked firmly seated and in a tricky spot.


We only had one throw bag between all of us and one split paddle. Ernie had taken the liberty of packing in both of these items. I am embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t take my throw bag and I think every other person on that trip, except for Ernie, should also feel the same way. I’m usually a stickler for that and always carry it with me when scouting rapids. I guess if I wasn’t that peeved with the situation I would have packed it in. Lesson learnt; always pack in a throw rope, no matter how short the run.


To cut a very long story short, Joe, Brendan, Robin and I attempted to rescue the boat. In the end we resorted to throwing rocks at it and eventually Robin gave up and we walked away. But then I thought that we just had to get it off and Joe, Brendan and I tried again and again throwing large rocks at the trees behind the boat. Brendan took a branch and tied the rope to it and tried to snag the boat or the trees. He managed to inflict some damage to the branches and eventually we did actually free the boat. I blew my whistle sharply to alert those downstream but they ended up not being able to get it as it whipped past them and into more rapids. Just before the next shelf type rapid, which is actually very simple, Ernie and Maarten climbed out at the recommendation of Robin and Wihan and the boat was lost.


I waited for Brendan to get into his boat as he had a tough climb on the cliff above me and eventually we set off. We then learned that they didn’t get the boat and charged down, paddling the shelf rapid easily and finding Maarten and Ernie at the bottom. They had portaged the rapid, which wasn’t actually necessary, as already explained. We all paddled down to the lodge with Joe walking down the bank. Once at the lodge we heard from a bystander that Robin had paddled down on his own. This was turning out to be a real cowboy trip. Brendan and I paddled down, beyond the lodge and into the unknown. The water was shunting through the bushes and trees that grew next to and in the river bed. It was another boat scouting mission as we flew downstream. After about a kilometre we heard Robin whistling and we climbed off. At that stage we weren’t sure where Wihan was. He was supposed to have followed us but suddenly wasn’t there. I hoped that he didn’t paddle down but he did. Brendan and I walked back to the lodge, dragging our kayaks through the grass and having to chase away an inquisitive cow that didn’t seem too friendly, which is unusual, while Robin waited to see if he could see Wihan.


To cut another long story short, Wihan missed Robin and paddled beyond that. He was swept into a strainer at some point and got stuck. While trying to get out he hit his elbow on something and low and bloody behold there was Joe’s boat! He had by pure fluke chanced upon it. He also found his paddle! After that he also got swept into a fence which took him about fifteen minutes to remove himself and then almost into the low level bridge which I believe is just downstream. Another cowboy move by old Wihan Basson! Naughty, naughty. Just remember, one can always buy new boats and paddles but not another Wihan, or Robin or even an Adrian!


The luck with the bad luck. It’s amazing how much action could happen in such a short trip. The Steelpoort always delivers.


I’d just like to add one more thing. Paddling flooded rivers is a dangerous activity with potentially life threatening consequences. Although most rivers are pool drop and may be viewed as ‘doable’ even in flood because the rapids may be easy to portage, watch out for the Steelpoort. It will surprise most people in the fact that it is so continuous and once things go bad, they really go bad fast. If you are not an experienced boater and are confident in running continuous class III and IV water then do not attempt this river at a high or flood level. But do not be put off. At low levels, it turns into a class II and III run. Really easy with very small rapids. Being so close to Gauteng I think this river will begin to see a lot more action in the near future. Be safe, have fun and always take enough split paddles and each and every person must carry a basic rescue kit.


Take a look at the graph below. This is a station on the Steelpoort about 100 km downstream from where we paddle. We paddled it on 12 January in this article (part one). On 20 January we got there and it was about 10 cm higher at the put-in and that’s when there were no volunteers. It’s very difficult to determine what type of flow we had as the water is obviously dropping by the time we got to the put-in. There probably are a few small tributaries that would increase the volume of the water further downstream but not too many I would imagine.


Taken from DWAF.



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Olifants River, from low level bridge inside the Kingdom Farm down to well below the Wilge confluence. Featuring a close encounter with a crocodile…