Olifants River

Good Friday. I wondered if it would live up to it’s name as I struggled out of bed at five in the morning. The plan had been to paddle the Olifants River in the province of Mpumalanga. This was Thursday. The plan then changed to paddling the Wilge. Joe Carter and I would be meeting Grant at his house at six. On arrival at Morsies house we soon learned that we would indeed be paddling the Olifants.

We drove off to Witbank and met up with more people there. Eleven people would be paddling and there were 3 drivers to drive the vehicles. The put in was downstream of Witbank coming from the river right hand side at some or other camping spot. If memory serves me correctly, the little valley there was called Presedentsrus.

We drove down quickly…

Joe preparing himself.

The little bridge at the put in.

Getting on the river at nine thirty, we were told it would be a long day. Fair enough. Grant had paddled the section about eight years ago and another guy many, many years ago. The only difference being that the take out they used was not in use anymore and we would have to paddle further.

We set off at a good pace and immediately I was amazed at the beautiful scenery. Just a few kilometers away from Witbank and we were in a gorge that would rival and possibly even beat most Natal rivers in beauty. I couldn’t believe it.

[ Unfortunately we were in a race against an unknown quantity of time and therefore I have no photos of any of the paddling, only a few general pictures of the landscape. All of the photography was conducted from my boat.]

On one particular drop I approached the rapid and could see that the rapid dropped and then pushed straight into the cliff which was severely undercut. One guy was upside down trapped against the cliff face which was probably more than fifty meters high. The boat remained motionless for probably about 6 solid seconds. Those seconds felt like an eternity for me. Joe hit hard left to avoid that section entirely. But I carried on straight as I was the only person upstream and probably the only one who could render assistance. Halfway towards him the boat started moving downstream again and broke free. He had been underwater for a good couple of seconds and was struggling to get out of the boat because of the water pressure.

Had he not come undone it would have been very difficult and dangerous for me to have helped because of the nature of the drop and the fact that the entire river was pushing into an undercut probably about ten meters wide. The undercut is in a cliff face and help cannot be provided from above. This had been an extremely close shave.

The gorge seems to be almost unending, occasionally the cliffs leave us only to return within a few bends of the river. Most of the rapids are of the pool drop nature with a few continuous sections to be found.

The gorge at a slightly more open section.

A merged picture of one of the biggest rapids we came across.

The river below the above rapid.

Later on in the day.

Nice drop on river right.

The river continues through the gorge.

The rapids became fewer and the pools longer. The shadows were drawing longer, we were running out of time. The flat water became ridiculous and was only to be broken by small intermittent rapids every once in a while. The group was very far ahead of us and Joe was really struggling with all the swims that had drained his energy. For about two hours I paddled ahead of Joe not wanting to interrupt our rhythm. Eventually we caught up with the group who were already on their way after a break. Without Joe and I having a rest we carried on. More flat water was to follow.

The heat of the day and the kilometers of flat water were beginning to take its toll on both of us. I waited for Joe and we paddled the last hour or so together. The sun had dipped below the hills around us and the light was fading fast. We decided to stop and have a quick break. The group was way ahead of us and we wondered if we’d actually make the take out. I had two hot cross buns and I gave one to Joe. He had some eat some mores which we divided. I also had a few peanuts and raisins which we shared but kept most of them for just in case. Joe had less than 100 ml of orange juice and no water. Things were not looking good for a night out on the river.

We discussed a brief plan which was basically to continue to paddle into the night as long as the rapids were tiny and as soon as big rapids were found, then we would set up camp. The moon was just off full and would have provided some light. I luckily had a few basics for surviving the night. Matches for a fire, a space blanket to help with the cold, some 3mm rope for tying a heat reflector together and my float bags as a pillow. Basically the night would be a hungry, thirsty and rough one, but we would survive.

The gradient picked up a wee bit and we covered more ground. The sun was now gone and we were beginning to wonder. I hadn’t even brought my cell phone, but that would have useless anyway as there was no cell phone reception in the area anyway. We had probably about another twenty minutes left of light when I spotted the cars on river left. At last we had made it. The others had been there for half an hour already and were dressed and drinking beers. They too had taken strain on the flats. We had paddled an estimated distance of thirty five kilometers with a lot of flat water at the end. Joe says he has never been so physically finished in his life. Good Friday had turned out to be long Friday. To get out of the farm took us another hour of driving. We pulled onto the tarred road and began the drive home.


We drove back even quicker…

…and arrived back at Morsies house to find none of the boats missing.  Good job.

This river truly is a little gem and being only about 180 kilometers from Johannesburg makes it much more accessible than most rivers of this caliber. I would recommend this stretch to anyone wanting a relaxing run and just wanting to enjoy the peace and quiet which is sometimes so difficult to find this close to Johannesburg. To enjoy this section it would be preferable to do an overnight trip. Then one can enjoy the scenery even more and surf on the waves and holes found along the way. The rapids are not too difficult and scouting and portaging shouldn’t be a problem. We ran this section at about fifty cumecs. There is the odd crocodile roaming about and one was spotted but not very many. There are a few crocs and hippos closer to Loskop Dam and below the dam there are many more. Just keep your eyes peeled.

BY: Adrian T.

Photography by Adrian Tregoning.

This story is not really meant as a guide, so don't blame me for any errors. If you'd like add your own description of this spot then please contact me. Thank you.