Mzimvubu – Day 1 – The Adventure Begins

Monday, 24 November 2008 had arrived. It had been a slightly disturbed night with somebody’s house alarm going off several times and of course, the three big dogs made sure they voiced their opinion on the matter too, but once morning came we were greeted with thick mist and peace and quiet. The camp site was deserted except for us. Once the mist cleared our surroundings were revealed to us for the first time as we had arrived in darkness the previous night. It was quite beautiful! I knew it was going to be an interesting day and was looking forward to seeing more.

So Luke and I had a plan. Ok, so actually we didn’t have much of a plan but we had a goal and that’s all that mattered. Our goal was to somehow get far (about 70km) upstream on the Mzimvubu and paddle down to The Pont camp site where our car would (hopefully) still be waiting for us. Armed with Celliers Kruger’s’ book Run the Rivers of Southern Africa and a large scale AA road map we were set to hit the road, well, kind of. The first thing we did was eat some breakfast, then organise all our gear for the journey down. We estimated 3 to 4 days but the guide book said 5 full days. Of course that would be rafting and taking it easy and we would probably gun it a little faster.


Heavy mist that was still hanging around from the previous night.


Luke Longridge with one of the monster dogs at The Pont camp site. What a cool place. Ah, I sold this car about 3 weeks ago. Shame, I'll miss old Adolf as we called him on the trip. I wonder who owns him now.


The Pont. A really super place to chill out and relax at.


Busy getting ready for our multi day trip!!! :-)


A half litre supply of whisky to join us on the river. I got this bottle from my neighbour after I saved his house from being cleaned out by four robbers! Long story.... He died in the meantime, from old age. Poor chap.


After all our clobber was organised we spoke to the owners of the camp site and asked if we could leave our car there. This wasn’t a problem so we left our boats next to the house and said we were going into town to find a lift up to a little village called Dikela. The plan was to hit the taxi rank and get a taxi but for some reason, maybe Luke said we should I can’t remember, we visited the tourism office. Here we were greeted with puzzled looks as to where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do but by pure chance there was a chap in the office there who just happened to drive school kids to and from school. He was keen to drive us and a very likeable chap. Thembelani was his name. We agreed on a price (R500 for both of us to drive about 100km or so) which seemed a little steep at the time but in hindsight the trip would have been easily worth still four times that. No amount of money can be put on the experiences that this trip gave me. With that done we hit the KFC for a huge meal (the final ‘supper’ so to speak) and then went back to The Pont where our driver would load us into his bakkie. It was a white, single cab Mazda Drifter with a big canopy and in massive bold white lettering it said “FIRST CHOICE” across the top of the front windscreen. I hoped it was a good choice as it seemed almost too easy to have organised this.


Our kayaks were loaded into the back and the three of us squeezed into the front of the car. My first concern was that he would drive like a maniac and this was soon unfortunately confirmed. He laughed when Luke and I strapped the single seat belt across the both of us. My second concern was this gentleman’s sound system. This too, proved to come rather alive. There were some ‘boom boxes’ in the back and a single tweeter on each end of the dashboard. These with used with excellent effect to drown out any road noise from the excessive speeds we were travelling at. I wondered if I would suffer permanent hearing loss from those deadly tweeters and now understood how a taxi could roll past and all you hear is “psst, psst, psst, psst” with maybe (if you’re lucky) a little bit of bass to spice things up! At one stage he hooted at some cows in the road and then shouted at this woman sitting there for quite some time in Xhosa. He told us that if didn’t shout at her to move the cattle then who would. Thembelani was definitely a very cool dude, bar his music choice and his random use of the horn at whoever he left like hooting at. One the way to the ‘town’ of Libode he told us how he installed TV aerials for a living and took kids to and from school as a side line. It seemed he was quite successful and obviously with his head screwed on correctly. He also said he would not vote for the ANC and proudly announced he would go with the DA after seeing what they had done in Cape Town. I told you he was a clever chap.


At Libode we stopped and asked directions again, then started on the gravel road. It seemed people knew where Dikela was but I had my doubts as to whether we would find it or not. The music now increased in volume to drown out the sound of the gravel road and Luke and I fell into the groove of African life, we had no choice. Some of the tunes were actually beginning to grow on me. Hopefully Luke throws in some of the original video footage of the drive up so you too can enjoy the aural delights. It was a long drive and in the end, I think it took us about two and a half hours. When we could no longer drive any further, we had to be dumped right then and there as our driver was very late with his schedule to pick up some children. We looked at the valley below and it looked very, very far away. The final offering he did was organise us some porters to carry the heavily laden boats down to the water. For R30 a boat (3 US Dollars) they would get down. Some kids gladly took our kayaks and before we were even ready they headed down to the path. It all happened so suddenly. Luke was still doing something behind me; the driver had left already and away went our kayaks. I took a final few photos and started off after our boats which were rapidly disappearing. Who said things have to be difficult in Africa?


Driving somewhere in the Transkei.


Standard scenes when driving in the Transkei region. Or, more accurately, the former Transkei region of South Africa.


Coming closer now. See the hills in the background?


That right kids, take these seriously heavy boats (40/45kg? with all our gear!) down this little hill to the river..... Not fun. But hey, no one forced them.


Beautiful place! I feel very lucky to have been able to do this trip. I will never forget it, that's for sure...


The Tsitsa River with the confluence with the Tina in the top left of the photo.


The Tsitsa coming in on the left, and the Mzimvubub on the right. Note the SERIOUS hill we had to walk down - took 3 hours of pain. Mostly for our porters. But we eventually had several and they rotated. Tough little dudes. Not even wearing shoes. And there were thousands of thorns!


We walked for about 5 minutes before we stood on the rim of the valley and peered down. It seemed we were just below the confluence of the Tsitsa and the Tina, and maybe 500 metres above the confluence of the Tsitsa and the Mzimvubu. Uh oh! This meant we were not at Dikela and at the time, we thought we may be about 120km upstream of Port St. Johns, not 70km, as we had originally planned on doing. It then dawned on us that we would have to put in some very long days to avoid running out of food. It was going to be one hell of an adventure. Actually, the adventure had started already with the singing and laughing of our porters becoming less and less as time dragged on.


After about an hour and a half the porters came to a standstill. They had been progressively slowing the entire time and the thorns, heat and weight of the boats down the steep terrain was beginning to take their toll. It was probably between 40 and 45 degrees in the sun so we tried to stop every now and then in the shade for a minute or two where it was probably closer to 35 degrees. The slope we were walking down was conveniently ninety degrees to the sun it seemed, adding to the heat. There was no wind to cool us down and the sweat poured from everyone. It was obvious that we would have to motivate our porters and because they could understand zero English, talking to them was not going to help. Using my best Xhosa accent and exaggerated hand movements I pointed to my boat and to each young boy on each end and said “Ama fifteen Rand, ama fifteen Rand.” They nodded but didn’t seem excited. This was to show we were still agreed on the same price. Then I decided we might as well increase the price so I announced “Ama twenty five Rand” and pointed to each of the boats. This seemed to do the trick and their spirits were revived. Even though we could not understand each other they could make out how much money they would receive and that was all that mattered. Within a minute our boats we making their way down to the Tsitsa River once again. Easy!


Adrian Tregoning and the porters in the easy part of the hike, before we had to start ducking through the bush... Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


Adrian Tregoning somewhere along the hike. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


The final push down a steep ravine. It was so damn hot that day.


Down at water level, next to the Tsitsa River. At last!


As we progressed word must have travelled back up the path via the bush telephone. More people came to help and while this made the going quick, we also wondered what trouble it would cause when it was time to pay up. It was Luke and I, versus probably about 12 or 15 people. The odds were not looking good. After a solid 3 hour hike in blistering heat down a large hill we finally got to the bottom. We were both thirsty and I had not drunk a drop of water since we had left Port St. Johns that morning. We paid our R100 for the two boats but that was not enough according to some of the porters. Again I went through the motions of explaining the original price, then the new price which totalled R100. There was some in fighting and confusion amongst the guys and Luke and I quickly got into our boats and buggered off before their full attention was focused on us. We paddled down while some of the people followed us. So we put on some speed, heading into the Mzimvubu River within a few minutes and then went around the corner and jumped out on river left. Here I knocked back a litre of water and refilled with river water, adding a little tablet to eradicate any undesirables that would definitely be lurking in the bottle. We started paddling at 14:50... Game on!


Adrian Tregoning chilling out on the Mzimvubu. This is South Africa's 3rd largest river in case you didn't know. This would be considered a lowish level I'd say. If definitely gets massive when there are serious rains, watch out. There are no dams on any of these rivers, although 5 monster dams are in the planning stage. What a pity.


Luke Longridge getting some photos of the surroundings.


The chocolate brown Mzimvubu River. I love it!


So from there we paddled many small rapids, and many long, flat pools. Every now and then there would be a bigger rapid but generally it was very easy. I think we scouted once to check something but that was it. Early on though we paddled into a stout rapid which had us manoeuvring around to avoid some holes and then right at the end there was a colossal hole which we both punched on the far right. That was a close one and looking back we should have probably scouted but we managed just fine.


Luke Longridge on a sand bank where we stopped to eat at 17:30.


Adrian Tregoning looking for snacks in his boat. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


Adrian Tregoning next to the river. A happy man! Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


These kids took great delight in showing off. When Luke opened his deck to get his camera they thought they would be shot and started to run! Quite funny. But then they realised it was only a camera and soon started showing off again. Good times! Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


The rest of the day we just put our heads down and paddled. We didn’t push it too hard though and still enjoyed the trip, but we knew we had to paddle quite far in order to make it back before running out of food. At some stage we stopped again for water, and then further on again, this time for food. It was 17:30 then. On and on we went until we eventually found a camp site. But our camp site had a few cows and one bull which didn’t like us one bit. I voted to go a little further to avoid being attacked yet again by another wild animal (Doring River articles if you read them) and so we did. We scored a really awesome spot with green grass, a sandy beach to start a fire on, rocks to sit on and ample fire wood. This was the life. It was 18:40 then and we had paddled 18km that day in 3 hours 50 minutes. Not bad at all, considering the vast amounts of flat water, the stops to drink and eat and what not.


Luke at our camp site for night 1. It was a beautiful spot for sure.


Another view of our camp site, with the river next to us. This provided us with a gentle song that would play the entire night.


Adrian at the camp site, getting unpacked. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


There were quite a few tiny little frogs like this one shown in my hands. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


Adrian at the camp fire. A fine ending to a great day. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


The camp fire. Nice shot Luke, I really like this one. Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


Adrian sitting at the fire, writing. This is the life. What are you doing with yours? Photo by Luke Longridge. (Luke's camera)


A few stars with the hill forming an interesting background.


It had been an interesting day filled with some good moments but most of all, I was just glad that we had found our way onto the river. Here we were, Adrian Tregoning and Luke Longridge on a river in the southern part of Africa. No cell phone reception, no electricity and not a single light to be seen. This is how days were meant to be lived. I cooked up a tuna pasta and the laced mine with massive amounts of a chilly sauce I had bought at Woolworths. Conveniently it came in a tube so it was perfect for the trip! We also had a few slugs of the Dimple whisky that I had packed in and I struggled with the taste, being a rum and brandy drinker. We sat at the fire and I filled in an entry into my journal for the trip, (how else do you think I remember all this stuff?!) but I couldn’t write for long as dream land was tapping me on the shoulder. It was a warm night and there were thousands of stars above us. How I wish I could be there right now! This is what paddling is for me, just an adventure and good times with great people. I drifted off to sleep, sleeping on top of the Thermarest. I wondered how far we had paddled and I wondered how far we still would have to go. I thought about what could happen but it really didn’t matter in the slightest. We would easily make it down, no matter what. I slept deeply that night.



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning. Unless otherwise stated. Thanks to Luke for his photos too!

All Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Day 2 of the Mzimvubu trip. Don’t miss this article! I may to split it as there are just too many photos as we paddled 47km that day and it would be a crime not to share the good ones with you...