Steelpoort – Getting Too Cocky?

There had been some rain at home but not a great amount. Not certainly within the last few days, although several localised thunderstorms should have done the trick. I was desperate for a paddle and so Luke Longridge and I drove down early that Sunday morning and met up with Neil O’Leary and Chris Barichievy. Having our usual breakfast of Steers was great, like always, and after that we hit the road to the put-in.

Luke had just got his medium Fluid Solo and desperately wanted to test it out and I was back in my Fluid Spice and keen to take it down again. Unfortunately the water levels didn’t want to cooperate that day and it was low. Well, there was nothing we could do about that and even paddling 35km of rock infested water was better than sitting at home and not paddling. With a drop in gradient of 350m the average works out quite nicely and is better than most rivers. With water, this river is a beast. Browse the ‘trip reports’ section of this website to find more articles of the Steelpoort and also one of it in flood.


How can someone crash into the back of a coal truck on a dead straight road? This is quite common in South Africa as crap loads of people drink and drive. Every single time we leave on a Saturday morning my mates see between 1 and 3 accidents on the N1 highway to my house. What a waste. What are people doing with their lives...?


Adrian Tregoning in a fantastic looking sailing life jacket. Luke decided this had to be photographed from behind too. hehehehe. Photos by Luke Longridge.


More lekker locusts for the website!  :-)


The boats at the put in. Low levels but I guess any day spent on a river is a good day.


The trip down was reasonably uneventful with everyone paddling well and because of the low water conditions it wasn’t too challenging anyway. At a spot early on in the trip Chris went straight into a large tree trunk that was hanging in the river. He lost grip on this paddle, went over, managed a fast hand roll and got back to his paddle, all within about two seconds. It was quite a spectacular show and executed with style. The day was hot and eventually we stopped for a lunch break. Chris waltzed up the only shady spot next to the river and relived himself there. By the time we saw this it was too late and a sunnier spot had to be taken as second place. Quite funny actually.


A medium Spice and two medium Solo's at the spot we stopped to have lunch.


A couple of baboons high up above us.


The rapid I like to call Quad Trouble was super easy at this low level. I had paddled it exactly one month prior. That was the 9th of February and the day we paddled it for this article was the 9th of March. It was the same level as last time when I had paddled it with Lelani, Karl and Aqua Man, actually a touch higher. This time we stopped for some photos. It is a very different rapid compared to when the level is at flood. It was interesting to see these rapids with such little water again.


Neil O'Leary on Quad Trouble. A simple rapid at low levels, a real beast at flood.


Chris Barichievy on Quad Trouble.


Adrian Tregoning feeling the pain in the shoulders on Quad Trouble... Photos by Neil O'Leary.


Eventually we reached the biggest rapid on this stretch, Tonsillitis. I had run it with my Spice exactly one month prior and even though the boat had lifted its nose and almost caught the right edge, I made it through without flipping. I was feeling quite confident although it did look very different scouting from the right hand bank. We had always scouted from the river left side and this was the first time I was getting this perspective. The other three guys had never paddled this river. Neil was keen to go first but I said rather watch my run and he could learn a lot from that. If anyone was going to get beaten, it was going to be me. Everyone else was in creek boats. Still I felt confident and left the camera with Luke and some throw bags with Chris and Neil.


A random rapid on the Steelpoort. This is really a fantastic little river to paddle. With more water, it is very hard to beat.


I climbed into my boat and paddled off, reasonably confident that I’d just punch through like last time. As I entered the top of the rapid I saw Chris and Neil standing on there and shouted to them that I should have had my creek boat. It was a joke and I was laughing. Little did I know that my cockiness was about to get the better of me. There was a hole at the top and it messed me up a bit and slowed the boat right now. This caused me to be pushed off my intended line a bit and suddenly I got a little worried. There was too little time to even think and before I knew it I sank into the hole. My right blade was poised for a stroke but the stroke was ineffective as my right edge was caught and immediately I was sucked back into the dreaded hole. The roar of the water was deafening and thumped into my head with a tremendous force but I stayed calm and set up very carefully for a roll. My body touched a rock and my paddle nicked some more rocks and then I managed to roll and found myself in a side surfing position. Within a few seconds I was window shaded and found myself underwater again but I basically got flipped up again and this time I was front surfing the hole. It was an incredibly powerful hole and quite a wild ride. Not exactly the kind of hole you want to surf on purpose. After a couple of seconds of surfing and even throwing a few ends, not on purpose, I got flipped over again and this time when I rolled up I was clear of the backwash and had escaped. I got out on a rock shelf on the right and my head hurt like hell. Water had been forced into my one ear and I wasn’t feeling very healthy. Oh well, I guess I shouldn’t have been so cocky. The extra speed of a creek boat would also have helped. The only thing which is a real shame is that as soon as I got pulled in, Luke put the camera down and grabbed his throwbag. What a pity! At least he was concerned but we decided that next time he should continue shooting until I either give the sign for taking a bag or swim and need a rope. At these low levels the pool below gives enough time to pick up the pieces before the next rapid. At higher levels one would have to rely on safety as swimming from here on would be bad news.


Adrian Tregoning with a poor run on Tonsillitis. So what happened? I got properly spanked and beaten in that hole for quite some time!!! And where are the other photos....? Ask Luke.  :-)  He put the camera down to grab the throw bag. Oh well, I guess instinct kicked in for him which isn't a bad thing. You can see that even the shoulder strap on my PFD has been twisted around. I had a headache for ages after that trashing. Photos by Luke Longridge.


Neil decided to run next and while Luke still manned the camera I stood by with the throwbag. He looked extremely nervous and I don’t think I’ve seen Neil that nervous before. Usually he is fairly calm with almost every rapid he paddles. He came down nicely, hitting the hole squarely. His boat lifted up a bit but he was good to go, making it look easy. Chris said he was going to portage and paddle to the left hand side. I said that was fine and waited for him to paddle across. I stood with the camera anyway and Luke was at a throwbag. As Chris came down I shouted loudly for him to come down and indicated with my hands in a wild manner, half joking but also half hoping that he would come down. Like a man possessed he changed his angle and charged down the rapid at full speed. With the look of determination of Lawrence of Arabia he shot through the hole, getting some downtime but making it nicely. It was a good laugh. I couldn’t believe he had changed his mind like that at the last minute. Crazy stuff! Luke was last to go and he paddled down quickly, hitting the hole at the same spot as the others and disappeared into the aerated water before emerging. One can see in the photos that it wants to grab his right edge but a small brace and the fact that he was in a good creek boat made his journey an easy one.


Neil O'Leary running Tonsillitis and making it look easy. Photos by Luke Longridge.


Chris Barichievy on Tonsillitis with a sweet run. Take a good look at that hole. It doesn't look too bad but make no mistake it can dish out a beating. With slightly more water it can hold a swimmer...(it was already) Be smart when running this one.


Luke Longridge very stoked with his run of Tonsillitis. Nice one Ollie!  :-)


When we first scouted the rapid I think the others doubted what the hole could do. But I had seen that even at a lower level it had given Adrian Vroom a talking to and had heard of someone that had to be bagged out as a swimmer after a severe beating so had no illusions of what it could do. After my beating I think everyone was far more cautious. This rapid can thrash you at this level and only gets worse as the water level rises. Be careful.


The rapid below this had caused major trouble at our flood level trip but when I had last paddled it I couldn’t believe how it had changed. I had a careful look again and could not believe how broad it now was. It would surely not be half as bad now, except for the big hole at the top. Approach this one with caution at high levels.


Looking for a snake that crossed in front of the car...


The rest of the trip down was quite fun and there are some fun rapids here, even at these low levels. If I was still staying in Johannesburg I would be hard pressed to run it again at that level though. It needs about a foot more water to spice things up and then play holes start popping up like mushrooms, making the 35km trip down even more tiring. I think out of everything  in Johannesburg I will miss the Steelpoort the most. The few times that I paddled it was really fun and I will be very jealous when people tell me that they paddled it at flood again. It is world class then! Better than any other river in Natal that I’ve paddled in terms of it being continuous and consistent in gradient. Well, until another time then. I hope someone else will post some photos of this river next season!




Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article:  Mutale River – a trip down this rarely run river in the northern most part of South Africa. A truly special place.