Upper Olifants – A Two Day, 50 km Trip

This unknown section of the Olifants is not paddled very often. It was paddled on the odd occasion in the past but now the people who own the land at the Bobbejaan Hiking Trail will not allow us kayakers to use their land to take out on. Karl Martin phoned them up and they refused us. Quite weird actually, perhaps somebody, somewhere along the line pissed them off. Karl is a very friendly and diplomatic person but he couldn’t get them to change their minds. So we didn’t have a choice and would have to paddle to the low level bridge inside the Kingdom Farm. This would be a far paddle and cover a lot of ground.

Let me mention at this point that I have paddled this entire section in one day, with much less water, in a play boat, scouting only once, portaging one rapid, only stopping twice to rest for ten minutes and doing it in just over nine hours to cover the distance of 50.6km!!!!!! It was ZERO fun to say the least. In fact, it was absolute hell. There is enough flat water on the second half of the trip to make a grown man cry. The account of that trip is on this website, it was one of the first trip reports up on the site. This time at least I was in my trusty large Fluid Solo and we were doing it in two days, not one! Karl’s mom dropped us off as the put in as it was not very far from his house. We used Dave’s car for the purpose.


Dave Joyce at the low level bridge at the put in.


The river starts off really gently and then starts gradually dropping a little here and there. During this article you will note that I’ve mentioned certain spots ‘x’ amount of kilometres from the start. This was done when I checked the length of the river on Google Earth and recognised a couple of spots. The rapids get a little longer with some dropping more than others but it is nothing to really write home about in the beginning.


The scenery is world class.


5.8 km into the trip one comes to a large private house on the right hand side. When you get here, watch out. There is a rapid immediately below this that has a bad undercut with the main current flowing directly into it. On that first trip Karl Martin paddled right into it (no one scouted this and we were being ‘guided’ down by so called experienced paddlers...) and got stuck there for a while. He was forced into it and couldn’t get out of his boat either. Rescue to that spot is impossible. That was at a much lower level. After a little while (20 seconds?) he flushed around on the left. Somewhere along the line is also a natural weir. Now where would the fun be if I told you where it was? (Fine, so I don’t remember anyway where it actually is but just be on the lookout.)


Dave Joyce just missing the severe undercut. Be careful of this rapid and read the text above.


Adrian Tregoning running the end of a rapid below the undercut rapid shown above this sequence. Photos by Karl Martin.


The pools are not too long and there are enough rapids to enjoy along the way. Nothing stands out as anything to be concerned about but one must realise that this stretch is very remote. Should anything go wrong then help is far, far away. The scenery is really awesome and an absolute delight. It’s hard to believe that as the crow flies, the put-in for this stretch is only 16.5km from the centre of Witbank. Who would have thought that such a beautiful place could exist so close to such an ugly city like Witbank? In case you didn’t know, they changed Witbank’s name to eMalahleni now. What another waste of money from our fantastic government. They have got nothing better to do than go on this mission to change the name of every damn place. Witbank is an Afrikaans word meaning White Ridge and is named after a sandstone outcrop where a bunch of dudes rested with their wagons long, long ago. Emalahleni is an Nguni word for ‘place of coal’ and in case you didn’t know Witbank is known as a dirty coal mining city. So basically the government wants to forget any part of our history and write off any thoughts of anybody cruising around in oxen wagons and named it after the coal which was only discovered here much later. John Sharp Williams of Mississippi said the following once:

"A country without memories is without history; a country without history is without traditions; a country without traditions is without ideals and aspirations; a country without these is without sentiment; and a country without sentiment is without capacity for achieving noble purposes, developing right manhood, or taking any truly great place in the history of the world."


Well after that brief history lesson and some deep words, I’ll move right along. It is a waste to dwell on the negative!


As we paddled down we came across an incredible amount of wildlife. I’ve never seen that much on a river before. Paddling through massive private farms we came across several kudu on the right hand bank. There must have been about eight of them. They cautiously eyed us out and we floated along the moving water and stared back at them. Further along we saw more kudu and during the trip we also saw a nyala bull, lots of grey rhebuck, waterbuck and even otters. It was quite something and everyone enjoyed the sightings, I certainly did.


Great scenery. With 400 cumecs of water this river must then only come alive.


4 Fluid Solo's lying in wait.


From left: Karl Martin, Kobus Oosthuizen, Adrian Tregoning and Dave Joyce (aka Dangerous Dave!)


I had to include this one too. From left: Dave Joyce, Karl Martin, Kobus Oosthuizen and Adrian Tregoning.


The cliffs come right to the water’s edge at some points and this theme comes and goes. In the beginning there are some very impressive cliffs. Karl was trying to tell me that the river was less than 100m on the other side of the cliffs next to us and we would soon be paddling behind them. I didn’t quite believe this and once I checked the river out on Google Earth again it is obvious that this is not the case. Although there are some very tall cliffs that are extremely thin, they river does not make any tight turns that are that tight. Only about six turns but not as tight as that. In fact the river is relatively straight for long stretches at a time. With that said, some of the cliffs are amazingly thin, tapering to almost a point at the top and I think a flight over this area would be quite interesting.  


Awesome scenery! And some good rapids too. This one in the background was quite long and a little tricky right at the top. Watch out for some rock sieves!


Some kudu hiding in the bush, eyeing us out! I took this from the boat and had to rush as I was drifting towards some strainers.


22.7 km from the start, the confluence with the Klein Olifants is reached. I think the first big rapid that requires scouting is just after this. It could also be before; I’m not 100% certain now. It is a river wide slide type drop around four metres high and very gently sloped. Scout from the right bank. Be careful, it is easy to paddle right into it. There are several options to choose from but I decided on the river right option that has a slide ending in a little drop. This makes for a more technical and enjoyable run. About four meters to the left of my intended line was a straight forward slide right to the bottom but the hole that lived there doesn’t look like a good time. The other guys didn’t think it was a problem so I said they’re more than welcome to try that line but I’m taking my line. There were no takers for the ‘easier’ looking line. My run was ok but my angle was skewed by something before the lip and with a strong boof my angle was altered a bit too much in the air but on the landing I recovered well and straightened out. The other guys ran reasonably well. Dave hit a rock very hard with his paddle and we could clearly hear the clattering sound. He thought he had broken his paddle and you can see how happy he looks in the photo sequence. Hehehe.


Adrian Tregoning running the slide drop with a skew boof but correcting luckily. I wanted to get in left boof pratice on some easy drops just to build extra confidence. A bit too much boof I think, and not vertical enough with the paddle. Photos by Karl Martin. Nice one Karl!


Dave Joyce with a sweet run!


Adrian Tregoning just below the slide drop pictured in the sequences above. Photo by Karl Martin.


Adrian punching a hole in the rapid below the slide drop. Photo by Karl Martin.


At 25.8 km there is a staunch rapid (well, used to be better/worse, depending on your point of view) that requires careful scouting. We got out on the left and made a slow mission walking through the water and going from rock to rock. Scouting from the right would have been much easier. This rapid used to end in a clean two and a half to three metre drop. Of that I am certain. I clearly remember paddling into it (without scouting) in my play boat and the rapid started dropping more and more until it finally dropped at the end. I also remember thinking to myself that we should have scouted it as I battled to stay in control. My mate Joe Carter still went over the waterfall a bit out of control and landed upside down. Now, there was no more clean drop at the end. Perhaps during the severe floods they had received, the entire lip fell away. I don’t know. Maybe the higher water level we had also had something to do with it. Either way, the final ledge looked quite messy and seemed to suggest that perhaps it had collapsed. There were some ugly holes at the bottom but a really simple and straight forward sneak existed on the left. I was left to prove to the others how simple it was and Dave and I went up to our boats. Because we had paddled down one drop already, we were a little down the rapid and would have to walk down further to avoid a severe siphon that we now couldn’t miss as it was guarded by some strainers too. So we trudged through the water and made our way very carefully in the turbulent water. It was dodgy work and at some stage Dave got a little messed up and ended up getting his boat full of water. I got in and paddled down and through the rapid, not even getting my hair wet. Dave came down and did the same thing. Easy as pie.


The end of one rapid. This used to be a clean 2.5 to 3m drop!


Adrian Tregoning lining up for the end of the above rapid. Photo by Karl Martin.


Dave Joyce almost at the bottom. Photo by Karl Martin.


Karl and Kobus were still thinking of portaging but I managed to convince them that it really was easy and just looked intimidating.  Of course I’ll never talk someone into doing something stupid or something way above their skill where the risk is high but I knew this would be a piece of cake. Both of them paddled down easily and made the intended line without any hesitation.


Karl Martin taking the left sneak we all took. Nice one.


At 26.5 km are the huts where people on the Bobbejaan Hiking Trail can sleep over. There is a serious boulder garden rapid here that most people portage. I’m not sure if it’s been run yet. It’s not a super hard rapid to run but the surrounding rocks show signs of having a lot of siphons and if anything goes wrong here, it could be trouble. It is shallow with a good gradient and loads of holes and rocks to come short on. This entire stretch is highly remote and this rapid is probably the only one which has some sort of access. Still, it would be a long way from help and something to consider before attempting it. We portaged it although I did have a look at it and could see a line that I would consider quite runnable and manageable.


Some nasty little mini siphons next to the Bobbejaan Rapid. (Afrikaans name for baboon)


Another, much larger siphon. You don't want to paddle into that by mistake!


End of our little portage of the rapid. Not that much fun with a boat loaded full of overnight gear.


The rapid we portaged. It is fully runnable and not that hard actually. Just be smart when running it. There are some bad places and you do not want to swim on this one.


Just below the portage.


Below this are a few small rapids and then two one foot, river wide ledge drops. These little ledge drops can be seen on Google Earth and I led the way, boofing both of them. No scouting was required. 28 km from the start, we stopped paddling and set up our camp on river left. It was a fairly decent spot to stop and if you’re paddling this stretch then watch out, don’t go too far down. You will run out of camp sites as the river enters a fairly long gorge!


The guys at the camp. From left: Dave Joyce, Karl Martin and Kobus Oosthuizen. What an awesome evening. Ah, there is nothing better than being outside, in the middle of bloody nowhere with some mates... ahhh...


Kobus applying some bug spray!


No comment needed.


We gathered up some firewood and that was a simple affair. With so much drift wood lying around from the recent floods there was heaps available and we decided to go large. Especially for the trip I had paddled down a litre of OBS (Old Brown Sherry). I ceremoniously cracked this baby out and revealed the Nalgene water bottles contents. It went down well between Dave, Kobus and I and several mouthfuls later I could feel the potent liquid burn my stomach. Ah, this was the life. It didn’t get better than this. I ate some smoked mussels and relaxed. Kobus went for a sleep in his tent as he was broken from the paddle while the rest of us chatted away. Eventually he emerged and by now the Nalgene water bottle was empty. We had a very deep conversation that drifted from one subject to the next. It was an excellent way to start the evening. The remainder of the evening was less spectacular and we just sat next to the roaring camp fire and looked up at the stars. Karl and I were the last to go to bed as Kobus had disappeared first, followed by Dave.


I slept reasonably well in my bivi bag but was awoken frequently by Karl making a hell of a racquet with his plastic sheet that he had over him. Kobus was using a large one man tent, Dave was sleeping in his compact one man and I was in my bivi. Karl had prayed that it wouldn’t rain. He was in luck that night. Too bad he didn’t sleep very well and I think before the sun was even up the decibel level reached an all time high. I cursed myself for not sleeping 200m away from him! Once the sun was up he called out to us to wake us up and I think if I had a .45 with me I would have had to restrain myself from braining him... With that done we got up, a little disgruntled. There was no need to get up at the crack of dawn and I’m a firm believer in a lot of sleep. I can be rather cranky if woken up.


EARLY the next morning...


Dave's lonely one man tent next to the river.


My trusty Bibler Hooped Bivi and Kobus' tent in the background. Do I like green by any chance? I wonder...


The morning was a bit misty and it looked quite spectacular. How lucky we were to be there, on a river, in the middle of nowhere. Dave and I had collected river water for drinking purposes in the eddy in front of us and when I saw Karl relieving his bladder exactly there I was not impressed. Sorry Karl, but next time go somewhere else man!!! Nothing personal. I made a mission in my boat to collect water upstream in the current afterwards. It was a rough start to the day. We extinguished the fire and made sure nothing remained in the camp site. We pushed off onto the muddy water, the cool air chilling us a little. I think we only paddled about two rapids when we got to a big rapid that I had remembered from my previous trip down here (no scouting). This is at the 28.8 km mark (800m from our camp) and is actually the only really good drop on the second day. The river starts an impressive gorge here. The rapid was still in the shade and if we had left a little later we would have had it in full sun. I whipped out my camera but because it had been in the warm sun at our camp site it was warm, and now when I opened it here the lens just fogged up. I waited a while but it didn’t clear up and Kobus was getting edgy. He just wanted to run the rapid, so off he went and I started trying to clear the lens with a cleaning kit I’ve got. Kobus came down and missed the line by about a metre to the right but punched the hole and made it ok.


Kobus running the drop in his smal Fluid Solo, which he won on a lucky draw at the Sabie X-Fest...  Lucky man!


The entry was via a small boulder field and then the river turns ninety degrees left. It drops a little over thirty metres before coming to the crux which is a ledge drop, with a nice nose to boof off of. The ledge on river right is undercut and looks like it wouldn’t be fun to be dragged along there and the hole itself was highly aerated, although not very sticky. Of course, should one not paddle properly into it, at the very least a massive back loop and potentially a good thrashing would result.


I ran next and gave Karl the camera. He claims the lens misted up and he had to clean it while I was going back to my boat. Hmmm, ok, I believe you brother! Hehehe. (Payback time for the morning’s start?) I paddled down and made my line perfectly, boofing off the nose and punching the hole. It was a good rapid to run. Too bad the photos were all misted up but a bit of post processing work got them to be looking a lot better. Dave was next and he missed the line by very close, going off to the left. He hit the hole and the boat jacked up viscously on its left edge, almost taking him over, but he had made it. Finally it was Karl to run and his line was perfect. His boof wasn’t great though and once he went into the hole his boat got some downtime. It was pretty funny as he resurfaced.


Adrian running the same rapid. Photos by Karl Martin.


From here on the gorge continued and there were some quality rapids that we went through. The book, Run the Rivers of Southern Africa, describes these rapids as being in the high class 4 range. There are a couple of bad spots to avoid and a bit of a rock sieve at one spot which has a lot of water passing through it. Just go down carefully to avoid any surprises. Once the gorge stops the rapids become further apart but there are still some great ones to run. I led the way and there were no difficulties with everyone paddling nicely. There was the odd strainer to be careful of and a couple of other nasty spots. At one point I quickly jumped out to look at a ledge drop. I decided on a line on the right of where the main flow was, which looked like a simple boof. The line was simple but I had underestimated the depth of the lip and managed to slow right down, pencilling the drop and hitting my bow hard into a rock. The others heard the impact from where they were and on closer examination the main line was actually quite straightforward. I indicated with hand signals that they run the main line and everyone came down nicely.


Dave Joyce (background) and Karl Martin (foreground) on a rapid just downstream from the one above.


Kobus Oosthuizen running the same rapid. Photos by Karl Martin.


Just below this spot we found a house high up on the right bank. There were people there and they waved as tiny figures up on the right bank.  I guess they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them.  Now the rapids got really small and the pools excessively long. The going was quite boring but the company was good and the scenery still great. At one stage we surprised an otter sitting on a rock eating a crab and came extremely close before noticing us. Within a few hundred metres we had about twenty waterbuck running on the right bank. It was a truly spectacular place to be.


The river carried on and on and the flat water never ended. Every now and then a small rapid would punctuate the monotony. We didn’t stop once and at one stage Kobus got out to stretch his legs while the rest of us carried on paddling with our legs resting on the decks of the boats, all the while keeping a sharp lookout for crocodiles. There were crocs inside the Kingdom Farm and there was no reason why they wouldn’t be here. They weren’t a major concern but we were aware of the possibility and I didn’t want to be surprised as I was a few weeks prior further downstream.


At some stage Kobus really wanted to stop for lunch but Karl said the take out wasn’t far downstream. We soldiered on and the end never came. Eventually Kobus just got out on the left bank and took a leak. Dave and Karl carried on down and I paddled a bit into a rapid and then waited in a small eddy. I maintained my position for perhaps five minutes and then paddled down the rapid on my own and waited in another eddy. I waited and waited and thought that Kobus had just taken a brief stop. After about ten minutes I left. I was quite annoyed by now and wondered where the other two were. I paddled down two more rapids on my own and then saw them waiting at the bottom. With no more than a brief glance I paddled past them. My shoulder was now hurting a lot and the vast amounts of flat water were taking their toll. I just wanted to reach the end now and put my head down and paddled hard. Dave and Karl followed and left Kobus behind. After about a half an hour of paddling on my own, I got to the end. Karl was close behind, followed by Dave. Kobus a little while later. We should have stopped for a lunch break a very long time ago.


Another article, another locust... I'm not really into insects at all, I just love their colours. So you've probably seen more than a couple of my site already!


Dave Joyce (right) and Karl Martin (left) with Kobus Oosthuizen coming in a little late. It was a very hot day and shade was limited...


A butterfly, believe it or not.


Karl’s mom had said she’d meet us at the take-out at 13:00 but when 14:30 came and went we got a bit worried. This was a very kind gesture as for us to do the drive around would have been absolute hell. It is a very far drive around, probably more than 100km, one way, and the going inside of the farm is slow. From the take out to the tarred road is a 45 minute drive, and only a vehicle with high ground clearance can be used. When it has been raining a lot, then don’t bother in anything but a 4x4. Eventually Karl and Dave decided to walk to the farm house but they didn’t get very far before she arrived, having taken a wrong turn inside the farm, oops! With that we got on our way. It had been a testing day with lots of flat water and a few other issues but still a great trip. Any time spent on a river is time well spent and with more water this section would be really, really awesome. Just the fact that so many animals are to be found along the banks is enough to draw me back for yet another adventure. Thanks again Mrs Martin for driving around for us! MUCH appreciated. And thanks Karl, Kobus and Dave for the super duper weekend.




Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning. This article is dedicated to Peter Helk (from Sweden) who should have joined us but was unable to open his gmail account while in South Africa. I hate to say this Peter, but you really missed out! Next time...


Next article:  Steelpoort River – low level beat down by yours truly.