Crocodile Gorge – Hippos, a Close Brush with Death

After another cramped drive through the outskirts of Barberton, up through the mountain pass which I have so many fond memories of as a child, through Nelspruit and finally we had arrived at the head of the Crocodile Gorge. A foreboding place to be. We had managed to get to the southern side, on a road between the railway line and the river. It had been decided that we would drive down a little to see what the river was about and to see how much water was flowing down. The river seemed placid and peaceful and so far, no sign of hippo. This was quickly proved untrue as we found fresh hippo tracks at the put-in. I glanced upstream to the flat water and small rapids and was glad that we had missed out on about a kilometres worth of river.

The logistics were simple. Adrian Vroom (Aqua Man) and I would be paddling the river and Karl Martin would be driving the vehicle for us, a very kind gesture and one which was also based on the reputation and dangers that the river would hold. There were some larger boulders downstream from where we stood and I wondered what surprises they would hold. If you read about this stretch in the book by Celliers Kruger, Run the Rivers of Southern Africa, you quickly get the idea that it actually isn’t the wisest of ideas to be paddling this river. With that in mind Aqua Man and I slipped into the water and began our paddle. We were both fairly quiet and didn’t say much. We agreed though that we’d take our time downstream and really be extra careful.


Looking upstream from out put-in spot.


Looking downstream from our put-in spot.


The first few rapids weren’t too bad and it was apparent how low the water level actually was. It was very, very low indeed. I was paddling my brand new small Fluid Solo and it was a very different boat to the large that I usually paddle. It seemed a novel idea to try it down this stretch but now I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision. Because of the low water levels the many siphons were clearly evident. Stacks of drift would be jammed into the upstream side of a rock where water would flow terrifyingly through. At other places there would be no wood and only the sucking of water disappearing under the rocks. To say the place is seething with siphons is almost an understatement. They are absolutely everywhere! The river is wide, with many channels to choose from. Rocks, the size of houses, are seated in the river. Smaller rocks fill the gaps and between these, water. It was a rather scary place to be and I was glad that we were doing the river at this low level. At a higher level one probably cannot appreciate the full extent of the siphons. There is no doubt in my mind that if one were to swim in almost any of the rapids the chances of being killed would definitely be quite high. This is a dangerous river and one which holds the gravest of consequences, at every rapid. What else would one expect given the nature of the river bed?


To complicate matters there is this concern about hippo lurking on the river and we were warned from Jaco Lubbe that they had encountered hippo in several spots along the river. They had also been warned by farmers that the hippos here are very aggressive. A truly inviting thought! This gorge itself has only been paddling about 6 times according to a very reliable source and I can see why.


With all of that said it must also be mentioned that the rapids are short, steep and although some are difficult they are mostly quite paddleable, but one must realise the consequences they carry...


The first few went down and I was still getting used to the lively feel of the small Solo I was paddling. My confidence was not super high but things were working well paddling with Aqua Man. He is such a pleasure to paddle with and a highly competent paddler. His calm and even temperament is something which is also a bonus on testing rivers. On one of the rapids we encountered, we found we could not scout the rapid. Left was a rapid that dropped steeply and a rock in the middle of the flow was actually a siphon, surprise, surprise. It would have been stupid to run this. Right of that looked ok, although we couldn’t see much and further right looked totally blocked off with the water going underneath the boulders. The only way to scout it would be to walk downstream with ones kayak and then paddle around some rocks and look upstream. The massive rocks make scouting extremely difficult and this adds to the problems on most of the rapids! We observed the flow from upstream of the drop standing on some rocks in the river, and it seemed to be clear. We weren’t worried about a bad hole just that it could land on rocks. It was short and simple enough anyway. There was no doubt that we were both nervous. I decided to take my small Canon A700 with in favour of my usual weapon, the Nikon D80 as it was far safer to have a small camera at the back of the boat than a big, expensive camera between ones legs. Aqua Man took my camera with him and went down the drop. He appeared at the bottom and hand signalled a basic instruction while getting into position for a photo. It looked good to go. I walked back to my boat, paddled to the final eddy, blew my whistle and counted to twenty as we had agreed. I then stroked for the lip and boofed it beautifully. I looked back almost disappointingly at the drop which looked so high from upstream! Oh well, it was far better to be careful.


Left looked like an option but the rock blocking the direct path is actually a siphon.


Adrian Vroom (Aqua Man) having a look at what lay downstream from us. This was the easiest spot to view from but didn't give us the full picture.


Adrian Tregoning boofing the drop which we had been overly careful of... Photos by Adrian Vroom.


We proceeded with more caution, running a few rapids one by one and scouting the odd drop. At one point we managed to get to a massive rock with a lot of water flowing directly towards it and then left. Aqua Man managed to get right above it, in a tiny eddy and climbed out to have a look. He crunched up his face and tried to shout something to me about a hole. He didn’t look convinced and said I could run it but said it was dodgy, so I decided I would rather have a look myself. I managed to get to where he was and climbed out. The entry was a little tricky and there was a large hole at the bottom; large enough to beat the hell out of out one. What we were really concerned about was the massive rock that towered about ten metres out of the river as the water flowed straight into it and made a ninety degree turn left, and into the waiting hole. Thoughts of a siphon crossed my mind and we both decided to portage. We could not see what lay downstream and should the first person to run the rapid swim, it would be trouble!


A rapid that Karl photographed while we were on the river. Some bad siphons at the top of the picture which I remember passing early on into the trip on a calm section. Photo by Karl Martin.


The portage was tricky through the thick, ravine type bush and we had to help each other to get the boats down and around some massive boulders. It was a truly special place to be and I must mention that the scenery is absolutely world class. The way the rocks are seated in the river and the way that theme seems to continue on the towering hillsides is something to see. We came to the next rapid and actually ended up portaging it by mistake, looking back, we could have paddled it. But we hadn’t reached the weir yet and knew the clock was ticking. The weir was supposed to be the halfway mark.


Can you spot Adrian Vroom and I in amongst the maize of rocks?? These are the last drops before the weir. Watch out for that last one! With more water, a serious place to be kayaking... The tall rock to the right of the most obvious person standing there is the rapid where the water hits into it and turns right. Watch out for that one. Photo by Karl Martin.


Adrian Tregoning (left) and Adrian Vroom (right) paddling the pool leading to the weir. What an awesome setting! Photo by Karl Martin.


The next rapid looked totally blocked off and I wondered if this was the spot where the entire river just dropped off into siphons and disappeared. We headed off to the left bank and I wasn’t convinced we’d find a way through. Aqua Man went further left while I made sure we didn’t go down one eddy too far. One of us would have to remain upstream in case the other could not leave the river. This is highly possible because of the massive, rounded boulders which make climbing them impossible. He shouted that he could see a way through and after watching him go first, he confirmed this and I followed. We paddled around some absolutely monstrous rocks and then in between then, in some quick moving current. It was an unearthly place to be! I got Aqua Man to take a photo or two of me under the rocks that we exited through.


Adrian Tregoning exited in an unusual way just before the weir. Watch out for the last rapid above the weir! It is almost totally blocked off with siphons. Photo by Adrian Vroom.


Below us lay a pool and a large looking weir spanned the river. We knew to paddle it on the right and so I paddled to the lip. It looked huge and I couldn’t see it properly from my vantage point. Karl was standing on the right bank and tried in vain to tell me something using hand signals. In the end we decided to scout from the left where some guys were fishing. We avoided them and climbed out slightly upstream. Fresh hippo tracks were deeply imbedded into the soil. I wondered when we’d finally see them and quietly hoped we would not. The weir is massive but the line on the right is pretty fun and easy to run. I went first and there were no problems. Aqua Man came next and his line was hundred percent too.


Adrian Tregoning running the weir. Photos by Karl Martin.


Adrian Vroom on the slide. Photo by Karl Martin.


The next rapid looked bad so we quickly scouted from the left. Once on the bank it turned out to be super simple and we wondered what we had seen initially. It was reasonably straight forward and we made it easily. I think we paddled another rapid although I can’t be sure, and then got to something a bit more solid. Karl was on the right bank still with the camera (my Nikon D80) after driving down a bit and he gave the thumbs up. We peered down and it seemed good to go. Karl pointed that we go right after the drop. Aqua Man decided to go first and when he hit the hole at the base he shot out and disappeared left. Karl seemed concerned and I wondered what was happening. Next thing I saw Aqua man back paddling as he dropped down and disappeared again. Karl looked concerned again and indicated that Aqua Man was getting worked in a hole. I wondered why he had gone right. Perhaps we should have scouted? Oh well. Too late now! (Not really but I still thought it would be good to go)


Adrian Tregoning on the rapid below the weir. Photo by Karl Martin.


Adrian Vroom on the rapid below the weir. Photo by Karl Martin.


I paddled into the rapid, a little more nervous than what I had initially been as Aqua Mans run had put me on my toes. My line was ok (I could have been more right) but I think I was a little too relaxed after seeing that it was a simple drop. I didn’t put any boof stroke in as the drop was very slanted and when entering the hole I relaxed more, not throwing in a left stroke. The boat went down and I felt the stern load up as the boat pulled into a stern stall. Damn. I knew it had back endered and it pulled me straight into the hole. Before I had gone down into the hole I had glanced downstream and in the back of my mind I now knew that Aqua Man had gone right because of a siphon just downstream. While underwater I tried to get into a position to roll. The thought of swimming occurred to me and I realised that this was a situation where it would almost be better to risk drowning in ones boat, still in the hole, than swim above the siphon. Eventually I managed to roll and was clear of the hole. The hole wasn’t too bad luckily. I exited and it pushed me towards the siphon. With a few strokes I cleared it and now the hole that spanked Aqua Man was my next concern. I stroked powerfully and punched it, regaining some confidence in this short boat that I wasn’t used to paddling. Life was good again.


Adrian Vroom with an ok line but having to reverse out to avoid the siphon and then he got creamed in the hole to his right for quite a while. Should have scouted it! Photos by Karl Martin.


Adrian Tregoning with a bad run, a short beating but at least punching the hole at the end... Yep, should have definitely scouted this one! Photos by Karl Martin.


We left Karl and that was the last we’d see of him. The next big rapid was a beast with some bad spots in it and we made our way around the right side of it. At one spot there was a large plume of water spraying out between three massive rocks and dropping almost two metres into the river. A truly beautiful siphon! If such a thing can actually exist. A few rapids down we paddled right next to a severe undercut where water was charging in at right angles. We brushed past and Aqua Man said it brought flash backs to his mind of a bad undercut he had been in, in Chile! Not cool...


A rapid where the main line had too little water and was too dangerous to attempt. We took a rockier but safer route.


We paddled more rapids and got to a steep one where we couldn’t quite see down. We paddled down as far as we safely could and then portaged some shallow stuff and paddled the rest on the right. These rapids were what I would consider not really possible to paddle with so little water. Within a few rapids we were at another steep drop and it was hard to say whether we could have paddled it or not. Scouting was not possible unless we had portaged around, paddled downstream of it and looked up. After some thought we decided it would be safer and quicker to just portage. So off we went to the left where we missioned through some serious rocks and Aqua Man almost paddled right into a siphon! Luckily he spotted it before going in and could warn me too.


The very next rapid was a small one and we saw a fisherman on the rocks by himself. I asked if he had seen any hippo and said there was one just downstream. Great stuff! We proceeded with caution and paddled another rapid that led into a long, calm pool. Suddenly I saw a hippo emerge at the tail of the pool, on the far right side, and told Aqua Man to stop paddling. At that stage he was about twenty metres ahead of me. The river itself is a lot narrower than the photos you’ve seen taken at the weir. Here it was probably only about eighteen to twenty metres broad. To be sharing that narrow stretch with over 1000 kg’s of power is not a reassuring thought. We both stopped and hesitated before paddling again.


Let me quickly state a few facts about the semi-aquatic mammal, the hippopotamus, before I move on. The name stems from two Greek words which separately mean ‘river horse’. In Afrikaans they are known as a seekoei and this means, directly translated, ‘sea cow’. Whatever you want to call them they are truly beautiful animals; probably my favourite animal. I have many, many carvings at home of them and have always been fascinated by them. Thoughts flashed back to a story that Ernie told me of a mate of his in the army who was obsessed with lightning, even having tattoos on his body of lightning. He was struck by lightning and died during his service. I hoped that my keen interest of hippos wouldn’t lead down the same path!


Adult males are usually between 1200 and 2000 kg while they have been recorded as heavy as 3636 kg. Females are usually around 1000 to 1500 kg. Right, you’re thinking, a big fat chunk of lard that can’t move very fast. Wrong. They can reach speeds of up to 48km/h on land and can run at about 8 km/h underwater as they are not very buoyant actually! Faster than any Olympic sprinter, let alone Adrian Vroom or Adrian Tregoning. With an average shoulder height of 1.5 m and a length of 3.5 m they are truly large beasts, resembling a large barrel with legs. Hippos are regarded as the most dangerous animal in Africa, claiming the most lives.


With these frightening thoughts in my mind I pondered what we could do. There wasn’t much to do as Aqua Man was still well ahead of me and we planned to sneak past them, on the left. A second head popped up and the first hippo raised himself out of the water with his shoulders showing now. Oh crap! I wondered how shallow the pool was... He moved a little towards us. I could see that Aqua Man would make it past them but should they charge now I would never make it as I was too far back. Damn, damn, damn!!!


I had little choice and paddled quickly to the left bank, popping my spray deck and charging off into the thick bush my kayak. When I say the bush was thick, I’m not kidding. It was the kind of impenetrable bush that I would never consider walking through but on this occasion I charged at full pace. I heard some sort of loud sound and shouted to Aqua Man, “I told you to get out!!!” I was concerned that something had happened to him.


I stopped to listen if the hippo had perhaps climbed out on the bank but heard nothing, only my own heavy breathing and my heart thumping in my chest. I continued the charge and vines and branches broke across my nose, my head, my chest, every single part of body. I could feel the burn of cuts on my legs but it did not stop me. Again I stopped to listen and kept eyeing out nearby trees that I could climb, should the need arise. The chances that the hippos would climb out and actually come for me were slim but I wasn’t taking any chances. I have seen hippo on land during the day and the warnings from the farmers of aggressive hippos did nothing to calm my nerves.


Eventually I broke through into a clearing and onto a very smooth and obvious hippo path. Lovely stuff... I dragged my kayak behind me and didn’t make too much noise. The soft, green undergrowth muffled my progress at least. After walking through some more thick bush and along another hippo path I found myself back at the river, next to a small rapid. I stayed away from the water and left my kayak on the path. Carefully and quietly I walked down to the river to see where these hippo where. I didn’t want to climb into water only to paddle right into them again. I crouched at the water’s edge and peered upstream. The hippos were not where they had previously been. I knew that hippo stay underwater for between 3 and 5 minutes although they can stay down as long as 8 minutes without resurfacing. I watched for perhaps 3 minutes when suddenly I saw them both. They had both moved to the left bank, exactly where I had climbed out! I returned to my kayak and dragged it quickly down to the water. Looking back, the hippos were gone. I hastily put my spray deck on and climbed into the water, wondering what had happened to Aqua Man. He appeared at the end of the next rapid and I was glad that he had made it. I’m not convinced my attempt to follow Aqua Man on the water would have brought success and we vowed to stick very close together now and scan every pool as best we could before proceeding further.


A drop we were not certain about and this was the best view we could get. At this level it was very dodgy. This is a different rapid from the one pictured below.


Aqua Man trying to get a better view of the rapid. He could not find a better place but paddled up to the lip of the drop. I did the same and we agreed to portage. After getting around it turned out to be good to go! Pity...


Aqua Man messing around at the end of our portage.


The end of our portage. Super place to crawl through the rocks and explore! :-)


The best view we could get of the rapid. The main run was beyond these boulders. It turned out that we could have run it.


The rapids now were far smaller and we were ‘blessed’ with long pools. Every time we encountered a pool we would get really nervous and I began praying for more rapids. We would often look at something in the water ahead of us for a long time before moving on, realising that it was just a rock, or a log. This made the going a little slow but it was well worth it. After a while we settled down a little and carried on, and on and on. At one particular pool which was super long we paddled around a corner and chatted a little while moving forward, not thinking too much about hippo anymore. Out of the corner of my eye I looked up and saw a large swirl about 8 metres in front of us. Aqua Man hadn’t seen it but I immediately told him to stop paddling, which he did. “I just saw something big swirl in front of us. Not sure what it is, could be a massive barbel (catfish) but just paddle back to me just in case.” I quickly said.


The swirl had been big and gentle and I doubted whether that could have been a catfish. Aqua Man paddled carefully and quietly about 10 or so metres back and I did the same thing. We were almost next to each other and the water appeared totally calm. The spot where the swirl had come from looked almost dead calm and tricked the mind into believing that perhaps there was nothing there. There was a nicely covered grass bank on our right as a farmer was using the land to house a pump station for his crops. I looked briefly at that option. The river was around 15 metres wide here. The seconds ticked by and we were on edge, not knowing if this was something to be concerned of. I was still staring ahead when a large hippo popped up about 3 metres from us!!!! I couldn’t believe it! He had clearly come right for us and had guessed where we would roughly be. Had we not paddled back, one of us would have been dead or severely injured. A hippo snack, if you will. For a fleeting second we all stared at each other but it must have literally been less than a second and he ripped his head underwater. I couldn’t believe how fast that hippo could go underwater again and we immediately began sprinting for the right bank which was luckily only about 5 or 6 metres away. I don’t think we even said a word, no words were necessary. The body and mind reacted on pure instinct and there was little time to think. I hit the bank first, becoming the first person in the world to get a small Solo on the plane under human power alone, and popped my deck. I ripped my legs out, scraping my shins and in my haste, fell totally into the river. The water was deep here and I could barely touch the bottom. F**K!!!! With my eyes still open, trying to gather as much information as possible, I resurfaced. With one hand on my kayak and the other on my paddle I climbed the almost vertical bank of just over one metre high. It was like being in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. The water still in my ears made my movements sound muffled and I could hear the blood pumping in my ears as the will to live occupied the space of my straining brain.


Still running I threw my kayak and paddle down onto the grass and ran back, without even thinking. I couldn’t leave my mate down there to die. It was a desperate situation and maybe it sounds funny now but as I reached Aqua Man I was almost expecting some huge jaws to clamp down firmly on him. We were in a huge hurry and I grabbed his kayak, which he was also holding onto and dragged the both of them out of the river. We had made it. We had escaped. With no further hesitation we walked up further and stared back at the river. Nothing moved. Perhaps, when we had ‘tricked’ the hippo with our new location he had taken fright and decided to leave us alone. I don’t know. Where ever he was, we would be stupid to hang around and find out. Even one bite from a hippo would leave one in a poor state. There would be no doubt that he could rip through our flimsy kayaks and with their aggressive and territorial nature, tear us to pieces.


We were left with no other option but to walk up to the pump house and climb over the double stranded, electric fence. I tossed my boat across and carefully made my way over. This fence was obviously to keep the hippos out of the orchards and luckily very low to the ground. There were mangos growing there. We walked along a farm road for about 800 metres, passing past a thriving banana plantation and then, crossing the fence again, walked down to the river. We hadn’t had a lunch stop so Aqua Man pulled out an energy bar and I ate a tin of sardines. Lekker! I love sardines! After that, we were good to go again. With some trepidation we made our way down to the water and climbed onto the narrow river again. A swift moving pool waited menacingly there and I prayed that it contained no more hippos.


The banana plantation at the spot where we walked down to the river again, after our near miss.


Aqua Man getting into the dreadful river again. We prayed no hippos would be lying down here or that the hippo just upstream of us hadn't wondered down.


There were a few small rapids still, a couple of strainers to be careful of and more of the evil, flat pools. After navigating another nervous pool on a left bend we paddled down one final rapid and into another big pool, upstream of the bridge at the take-out. We had made it! Thank goodness. With just a bit of walking we were at the main road and while about to turn my phone on, Karl appeared with Aqua Man’s bakkie. With that we packed up our gear and we stuffed into the car for the drive back.


A glimpse of the river as we drove back home. Note the railway line cutting a path through the trees. This leaves the river after a while.


The river. I took this at around 100km/h, maybe 110.


The bridge at the normal put-in. We put in a bit further down.



When we paddled this stretch we did it when the reading ‘Crocodile at Karino’ was 14 m³/s, so in other words, very low. I would say this is the absolute bare minimum and perhaps even below the minimum. It gave us a good insight into the vast amounts of siphons and undercuts on the river at least. With more water, this section would truly live up to its reputation and only the very experienced and skilled should attempt it. This is one of the most dangerous gorges to paddle in South Africa. Be careful and heed this warning as well as those by Celliers in his book. Watch out for hippos too!


This is a photo from the Lower Blyde River. NOT the Crocodile. Hippo on small, narrow rivers are not much fun. In this instance there is a camera man in the foreground filming for the BBC. Not a very intelligent move... Photo taken by and courtesy Sheena van Schoor.


For an account of the river with more water, click HERE!



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated. Thanks to Karl for taking the camera and getting some shots of us, and also for driving. Much appreciated. The photos of this section really don't do it justice as we didn't take very many and were in a hurry. Next time!

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Injusuthi River - mini epic.