The Molenaars River – The Cold and Fast One

I had heard many things about the Molenaars River. Many stories of exceedingly long swims, lost boats and people scared out of their wits. These were all attributed to the fairly continuous nature of the river and the fact that the sides are covered with thick bush which people claimed was impossible to climb through. The river drops 100m in a distance of 8.3km. This gives an average gradient of 12m/km. This is not really very steep at all but bear in mind that the first third of the trip is reasonably flat so the next third would effectively have a slightly steeper gradient. Combine this with almost guaranteed cold, rainy, snowy type weather and you’ve got a recipe for fun!

On Tuesday the 9 of September Rowan Walpole and I set out to see what this river was all about. He had run the so called Hotel Rapid once after a Breede River trip at very low water for the hell of it and he had also run the entire river at a lowish level. I knew almost nothing about the river. That morning the water had been flowing over the rock with the concrete on top of it opposite the hotel and that means the flow was very high. The hotel that people refer to is actually the Du Toit’s Kloof Lodge. Google it and you’ll find good and bad reviews on it. Their service seems good to me and a large plate of chips there sure is massive! There is a rapid directly in front of it and this is Hotel Rapid. They say that if the water is flowing over the rock with the concrete on top of it that you best know the river; otherwise you could be in for some nasty surprises. I would have to agree. You can call the lodge on 023 349 1151 and they’ll tell you what the level is. I’m told that if there is less than one foot of the rock sticking out, it’s high. If the water is over the rock, it’s massive.


By the time we got there, the water was about a half a foot from the top of the rock, in other words, high. You’re getting this now, aren’t you? That morning we already had had people pull out of the trip but we had decided beforehand that if it was too high we just wouldn’t get onto the river. My shoulders were still far from fixed and according to doctors orders I wasn’t even allowed to be paddling at all. Oh well, Adrian and any type of authority don’t see eye to eye anyway or maybe I’m just a poor listener. Rowan had very limited river experience so it wasn’t the ideal combination between the two of us. It was also agreed that if either one of us didn’t feel good about getting on that we’d then both not go down at all. We stopped at the lodge and walked down to the river, it was drizzling lightly and the river was high. As we stood there the rain suddenly came down in buckets and we sprinted back to the car. We took a quick drive to the weir and had a look at that and decided it was good to go. I was reasonably sure that we would be ok.


Scenery whipping by the car. Looks like a little piece of Norway, doesn't it?


Rowan’s car was left next to the N1, 750 metres from the tunnel on the side heading west. Remember, the road splits just west of the little parking lot where we were and so the road heading out to the east would be north of us. Our plan was to paddle down to the end and then hitch hike back. It wasn’t that critical if our plan didn’t quite work as we wouldn’t be totally stranded. I mean, come on, the N1 is a very busy road and who wouldn’t pick up a handsome chap such as Mr. Walpole?


Rowan Walpole. Would you pick this beast up at the side of the road???


We geared up and both of us were feeling a little nervous. I could tell Rowan was extra nervous as he usually talks a lot but at that stage he had an excessive amount to talk about. I was concerned about myself as well and didn’t fancy taking a beating and making a return trip to the hospital! Down at the water’s edge I felt a little better. The water was shunting under the bridge and here is a word of warning. If the level is anything above a medium level, then DO NOT put in above this bridge. In fact, make sure you can get under it before you decide to put in the couple of extra hundred metres upstream. You’re missing out on one little rapid and it really isn’t worth it. The water flows quickly towards the bridge and you’d have to grab hold of some bushes to stop before the bridge as the gap underneath will be too small. There probably are some micro eddies which would be fine but given the poor group dynamics on most trips this would almost certainly result in tiny eddies being occupied by faces filled with horror as their mate gets flushed downstream with nowhere to go except down, towards the bridge. Be smart.


With that I lead the way and ferried across to river left and down we went. The tiny little white bits we had nonchalantly looked at from the car were now a fair amount larger than what we had initially anticipated. The water was also cold. I’ve paddled far colder rivers in Scandinavia but I think it’s quite possible that this river would be colder than the infamous Ash, or As, depending on how skewed your point of view is. For those that don’t know the Ash is a river in South Africa and generally rivers here are quite warm. As I discovered, the rivers in the Western Cape are not very warm at all. In fact, some are bloody cold!


The bridge at the put in with a view from my boat.


The top section is quite uneventful and it’s actually a great way to start the trip. Your muscles can get nice and warm, while your hands freeze, and this prepares you for the action downstream. There are fast flowing pools and at this level, some nice wave trains and the odd little hole which wouldn’t be that nice. At the top of Hotel Rapid I climbed out on a small island on the right. I could not see what lay downstream but there was an eddy on the left about twenty metres downstream from where I was. Rowan and I made it down and had a quick look down. I explained the line I was going to take for as far as we could see and gauging from what I was seeing I was positive I could boat scout the rest. I asked Rowan if he wouldn’t mind getting some photos of me and then I’d come up and get of him but he wasn’t very keen at all. No problem and I guess if I was in his shoes I was have done exactly the same. The plan was for me to paddle ahead and him to follow my line. We got into the eddy on river left, right at the top of Hotel Rapid and made our way down. The going wasn’t too bad I zigged and zagged once and moved to the right around some rocks. As I did so I noticed a large hole ahead and made my way to the left. I glanced back at Rowan and he still at least still there, upright and stroking. The hole didn’t look like a good place to be. The rock with the concrete on top came up and I don’t remember if I went left or right around of it. Either way the water was still high and the rain was not letting up. There was no doubt that the river was rising. Just after that rock was an ugly pourover on the river right hand side. We passed it on the left and I got out on the left just downstream to go back up and get a quick photograph of it.


The top third of Hotel Rapid. This is the fairly easy part and then in the middle there are two or so holes to avoid. As you can see, a fair amount of water.


The pourover at the end of Hotel Rapid on the right. I've seen the rock that forms this and it is quite inform. At certain levels this thing will hammer you, be careful.


You’ll notice the quality of the photos isn’t that great and that is because I’ve purchased a nifty little Olympus SW 790 which is waterproof. This little point and shoot is very handy for paddling in the Western Cape as often it is rainy and with any other camera that would mean no photos. So at least I got something.


From here the river moves down a little and turns slightly to the right. There is a weird rapid there and Rowan motioned that I am to take it on the right. A huge rock was sitting on the right with a cushion wave up against it. There was a narrow route to the right and I hoped that Rowan was correct in his advice. I bombed through and it wasn’t too bad really. Fairly narrow and then twisting to the left in front of some strainers and spilling out into a pool. We stopped there briefly and continued down. There is a long rapid here that drops down fairly gently and I remember it being quite fun. At some stage there was a slightly steeper one that turned to the right and ended in a short pool that exited on a left bend. Remember that fairly calm, but fast flowing water is still my definition of a pool. Others may differ. This is then just above the weir and there is another rapid with some waves before it. Make sure you get to the right and have a look at the weir. Don’t just run it blind, it could potentially be lethal. On the right hand side is a small wooden cross and I suspect somebody has already come short here. As we sat there the rain increased in intensity and it began hailing! Yes, this was exactly as Celliers had described in his book, Run the Rivers of Southern Africa. We were experiencing the weather to the maximum for sure.


The weir. It may not look too bad and yes there is a fairly straight forward line on that right corner....but if you mess it up it's not going to be pretty and the river drops right after this.


WOO HOO, more rain! And hail - good times.


Adrian Tregoning enjoying himself on the Molenaars! Photo by Rowan Walpole.


Downstream from here there are some more good rapids and there was one in particular that drops down on a left bend where the river is very broad and then goes straight. We hugged the left bank as it seemed the most obvious route and then I had to move around a bit to avoid some holes and pourovers. It was a reasonably staunch rapid and I turned back to make sure Rowan was still alive and well, he was. At one stage I didn’t see Rowan and when he met me at the bottom he announced he had just taken a very short beating but had smacking his head really hard. I looked back up at the rapid and wondered what the level was like. As quickly as the Molenaars can drop, it can also rise.


The rapid where Rowan knocked his head. Quite a technical rapid with some nasty holes that you'd want to avoid. Note the thick bush next to the banks. It is still possible to get out though.


There was a horizon line below us as the river turned right and I decided to avoid any further problems by having a quick scout. I made the ferry across the current, climbed out amongst some trees and set up a rope just in case Rowan didn’t make it. He made it nicely and we had a look from the right bank after bashing through some bush. There was a large pourover spanning most of the left side of the river but with an easy line on the right of it. We took that right line and bombed through without any problems. The rapid below there was also quite fun, fairly technical and broader than some of the other rapids.


The pourover type hole we had a quick look at and decided to avoid.


Rowan had warned me that the last rapid was the worst and I wondered what would be in store for us. I think we paddled one or two more and then he still asked if we’d scout and I said no, as I could see the pool at the bottom. Generally speaking, if I can see the pool in the distance, I can be fairly sure that I can avoid most obstacles before they make my life hell and make the rapid cleanly. We dropped in and it was a fairly pushy rapid. I know that at the end there was a large rock on the left and I was not a hundred percent certain on where to go. I saw a hole on the left, next to the rock and ferried very hard to the right. As I did so I came over a diagonal wave and peered into a meaty hole. Oops, I had gone too far right and realised there was a window to my left, too late! I pulled hard on my right blade and punched the hole fairly easily but my shoulder let me know that this type of abuse was not on. I looked back and Rowan had made the window as he hadn’t been able to emulate my ferry and with some luck had made a smart run! This was quite a lekker rapid.


The take out was just downstream on the right and I was glad to be getting off the river after that last one. My shoulder was hurting and I knew that I had pushed it way too hard. Generally I hadn’t needed to paddle very hard to make my lines but that last one forced me to use all my power at the end. So we had completed the fabled Molenaars at a fairly high level and survived quite easily, I think. Rowan had paddled well and has increased his skill massively over the last two or three months. All that was needed was to hitch a lift back to the car and that would conclude our trip. Rowan walked to the road and stood, in the rain, with his thumb out. He would jump up and down like a jack in the box as a car would pass and I wondered if anybody would stop. It was almost dark, the wind was blowing fairly hard, it was quite cold and the rain was unrelenting. Things were not looking too good as car after car passed him by. After about fifteen to twenty minutes we decided to cut our losses and do the long walk together. Remember this is a busy road and there was a fair amount of traffic. We hid our boats in some bushes but I would not leave my paddle unattended so I opted to carry it with me. The walk back was fairly unpleasant, to say the least. Car after car blinded us with their headlights as we walked in the dark on the ‘safe’ side of the guardrail. It wouldn’t have been that bad if they wind wasn’t blowing so hard! The wind was hard enough for the rain to hurt ones face when walking and so a stooped walk had to be adopted. It wasn’t possible to walk side by side because of the traffic and we couldn’t talk easily above the wind so we walked in silence at a very brisk pace. It was about 2 hours later than we got back to the car after some nine or ten kilometres of walking! The time then was 20:15. We were both very cold and it took two of us to unzip Rowan’s bootie zips as we just didn’t have the strength!!! I won’t forget that walk in a hurry. Next time I’d rather flash some money while standing next to the road so that a lift can more or less be assured. Also, my left foot has been giving me grief ever since and it is very irritating. After about ten minutes of walking it turns blue on the outside and hurts like hell, forcing me to limp a little. I guess walking with half frozen feet on flat shoes is not a great idea. When will my run of being in the war’s end I wonder?! The wheel turns though...


Awesome scenery and loads of water!


This is what Rowan had to say about the trip:


“Tuesday afternoon and our Molenaars trip was in severe danger of not happening. Al had dropped out and Jonathan followed closely behind, not wanting to paddle in a group smaller than four with the amount of water coming down, and taking into account the fact that the rock in front of the hotel was underwater. I phoned Adrian to tell him our group trip was over and suggest that it might not be the best idea for a surf-kayaker and ww paddler who was not supposed to paddle till December to go take on a pretty staunch river that neither had paddled before.


Unsurprisingly we talked each other into it and were on the N1 heading to the Molenaars pretty soon after that. The plan was to check the river when we got there and make our call off that, with the agreement that if either one of us wasn't keen then we'd can it with minimum peer pressure. Driving out there I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings, the approach to the mountains saw sun shining through while the mountain itself was covered in thick black clouds, a bit like Mount Doom minus the Orks. I'd stolen my fathers' creek boat so I was feeling a whole lot more confident than I would have if it was my Turbo in the cab.


Driving alongside the river to the Hotel it was all looking manageable, and the rock in front of the hotel was not completely covered. There were some big holes and pour-overs but nothing that looked too hectic. It was still pissing down but we reckoned that if we got on without messing around too much we'd be fine to get our run done before the water rose significantly. We drove the rest of the route and were pretty happy with what we saw; we were pretty sure we were going to run it. Something that I have always noticed with surfing is that waves always look smaller when you are in your car, as soon as you are down amongst them they look a whole lot bigger. I now know that this also applies to rivers.


It was raining so kitting up was a cold and quick affair. We jumped in at the bridge and were on our way. The first section of the Molenaars up to hotel rapid is pretty chilled and serves as a decent warm-up. We hopped out for a scout above hotel rapid and it was at this point that everything started to look a wee bit bigger. Adrian asked if I wanted to go first, I'm sure he was joking. I followed Adrian down and from that first scout on hotel rapid it was boat scouting almost the rest of the way down. My eyes were pretty big when we pulled into an eddy on hotel rapid, and that'd explain why there aren't many pictures in this article; I wasn't so keen on finding the best route through the holes.


From hotel we got into a pretty decent rhythm and made good progress down. I had recently watched an instructional creeking DVD and kept trying out fancy strokes but there is some practise needed there, I'd resort to paddle like mad pretty often. It was smooth going, bar one flip in a hole (me) with a solid head butting of the rock. The sometimes maligned Gath helmet worked despite looking a whole lot less pretty afterwards. The other concern for me was Adrian almost getting spanked in-between two holes on the last rapid. I wasn't really worried about him, rather me who was on course to take exactly the same line as him!


When we got to the finish night was rapidly approaching, and we scampered up the side of the road to the high-way. I'm a lot more handsome that Adrian so we decided that I'd try hitch a lift back to the car. The drivers of the Western Cape disagreed with my opinion there and it was getting dark with no lift looking likely. There was a howling wind with rain and hail so we decided we'd hide the boats and walk back to the car, at least we'd stay warm by walking. The walk was an entirely overrated experience, which I'm sure Adrian will go into! Those inconviences are pretty easily forgotten when compared to the awesome feeling from cruising down a challenging river without receiving any significant beatings! Still glad I could follow Adrian’s line though!”


Thanks for that Rowan, it’s always great to get another opinion on the trip. Just to add onto this story quickly. If you are not a competent paddler and the river is high and you’re not making your rolls all the time, stay at home. I believe there was a trip last year where 3 boats were lost! Unless you really want to make your own life, and those around you quite miserable, then take my advice. At low levels the river is radically different and then becomes way more manageable for the type of people who are graduating from the Palmiet onto something more challenging. It is a fantastic piece of river and I rate it highly. The scenery is world class and you can enjoy it more in my next article on this river.


While the river is quite continuous, there are still loads of places to stop and rest and isn’t the impossible river people try to describe over a few beers. A swim at high water will not be a good idea though and equipment loss is a definite possibility. The water is very clear and clean and the river bed consists of cleanly washed boulders. Some of the larger boulders are quite symmetrical and can produce some nasty holes and pourovers. The rapids are reasonably technical and great fun while being quite manageable. There is no doubt that flood levels would be quite radical and only the competent should climb on then, but then again, most rivers in flood become quite wild. During the summer months this river offers excellent fly fishing for rainbow trout. Sizes of between 40 and 45cm are possible with one specimen as large as 50cm being taken once. Of course this river is only paddleable after decent rains, and only for a day or two usually. I know I’ll be there in summer to see what I can find!


In the next Molenaars article I have some more (and better) photos of the river at a much lower level, and with loads of sunlight! Until then, cheers.




Photography by: Adrian Tregoning, unless otherwise stated.

Words by: Adrian Tregoning. Blue writing by Rowan Walpole.


Next article: Palmiet River Unveiled