Witte River – South Africa’s Finest River?

South Africa has a land area of about 1.2 million square kilometres, making it one-eighth the size of the US, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. Within this space are many rivers, many rivers which unfortunately run almost dry most of the year – the Witte is no exception. Unfortunately we are amongst the 35 driest countries in the world. This, of course, is bad news for a kayaker. But without painting a picture of doom and gloom we still have some amazing whitewater which is slowly but surely being shown to the world via this website which already has over 100 proud articles. So with a bit of knowledge, perseverance and luck, one can still get to paddle some fine rivers in first class surroundings. The Witte is one of those rivers – steep, continuous, every rapid runnable and set in an incredibly beautiful set of ruggedly handsome mountains. Simply put, it’s awesome. (There are 3 videos at the end of this article)

Much has been said about this river, but mostly over a few beers amongst those in the know. If you scour the internet, you’ll find almost nothing. I’ll try my best to describe this magical river in the following few paragraphs. Firstly, there seem to be two different spellings for the river. I’ve used Wit most of the time but I see that most maps refer to the river as Witte. In the end, it makes no bloody difference and you could call it the White river for all I care. Wit is the Afrikaans word for the colour white. When you stand above the river during heavy rain you’ll understand why it got this name. It is one gigantic streak of white, from top to bottom.


The Witte is rated as class 4 to 5 in the guide book, Run the Rivers of Southern Africa, authored by Celliers Kruger. From it, I quote, “The river is tight with numerous siphons and undercuts. Very technical maneuvering is required and it is only suitable for skilled paddlers who are confident in class 5 water.”


Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? Well, it is. The stretch is 7.5km long and drops 270m. This gives a gradient of 36m/km. Popular sections like Thrombosis Gorge only drop 16m/km if one measures from the put in bridge to the waterfall. And as most know, the first few hundred metres are quite flat. Does this mean its better? No, just different, and obviously steeper. By the way, if you man up and hike upstream of the usual put in for the Witte, you can paddle a 2.6km section that drops 40m/km. I haven’t done it yet, but it looks like good fun! Saw some photos from Andrew Kellet and there are some quality rapids up there.


Car packed, ready for action!!!!


The day before my first Witte paddle we hit the Molenaars River. This is the rock at the Hotel with the concrete on top. This is a high level. Good fun!!!!


Stefano Sessa (left) and Uno de Waal pointing to where the Molenaars River was. That would be extreme flood. No one has ever done it at that level, but you definitely could. It would be one hell of a ride. A swim even at high levels usually results in a lost boat as the river just doesn't stop and is super fast....


At the Du Toits Kloof Lodge, the put in for the Molenaars. Note the snow in the background. This river is probably the coldest river in South Africa. Yes, colder than the Ash, or As as some people like to call it ;-)


After the Molenaars, Abrie and I drove to the Witte. This is the scenery from the Molenaars out towards Worcester. Very lekker. Look at those clouds, it warms my heart.


Abrie and I at the Witte towards late evening. It was still quite high. The next day it would be at a perfect level. This river drops very fast. It also rises ultra fast - watch out...


The Witte River looking down from the road. The pass is known as Bainskloof Pass after the engineer who built it, of course. Just like all the other passes in South Africa in case you didn't know.


Abrie Swanepoel next to the Witte. No it's not warm at all, Abrie just never wears shoes..... Seriously.


The Witte late that evening as the light was fading.


Bainskloof Corner Lodge - an excellent place to quench a thirst ;-)


Abrie enjoying his brandy.


Adrian also enjoying his brandy. Photo by Abrie Swanepoel.


We had fine company that night to party with.


And then there was Linda. She was a lot more talkative than the spider.


The first time I paddled the Wit I felt rather nervous. We had paddled a high level Molenaars River the day before, and slept over at the lodge next to the Wit afterwards. Maybe it didn’t help that Abrie and I had partied very hard at the Bainskloof Corner Lodge the night before, consuming vast quantities of brandy and whatever else. At least they served a huge breakfast with all the bells and whistles. The quantities were gravely confirmed when the bill arrived after breakfast. The river was at an excellent level. Best of all, the sun was shining. This is a rarity with this river. Usually one has overcast, windy, rainy weather which also makes it a very difficult river to get good photos on. The other guys arrived and it was time to gear up. Abrie didn’t paddle and claims he had a family lunch, which he did, but I wouldn’t have gone. Ever since then, we always mock him about these ‘family lunches’ that just come up all of a sudden. My hang over was soon forgotten and I found myself on the river. I can’t remember the exact group, I believe it was myself (I am quite sure of that), Andrew Kellet, Hendrik Schloemann, and the other chaps, Albi, Carl the third chap’s name eludes me now - a very cool group for sure though. The level was just over the rock, although I can’t quite remember. The famous rock is the stripy rock in the pool at the put in, people use that as a gauge and I’ll explain that a little later.


Hendrik explained what was coming up when and down we went. The river starts off very gently and gets you warmed up for the meatier stuff. Although I say the average gradient is 36m/km, the first kilometre and a half is not very steep, and neither are the last two I’d say. So the action is in the middle, the perfect setup, and obviously to balance the mathematics out, it is a fair amount steeper than 36m/km. I paddled down, loving it. At one stage someone pitoned in hard and cracked their boat. It was not a Fluid I’ll let you know - quite a nasty rapid. The first rapid I scouted was at the half way point, Pilkington Falls. In fact, I only scouted the entry, which looked a bit tricky. The actual drop, about 4.5m high I couldn’t see, but I’d hiked it twice, seen a lot of photos and knew what to expect. After watching Andrew I climbed into my boat and ran the rapid successfully. My adrenalin was definitely up. The very next rapid I decided to portage. Only Hendrik, Andrew and I had run Pilkington while the rest had portaged, and the following rapid too. Because I had hiked this river with almost zero water I knew about the siphons in the rapid below Pilkington and decided to portage. In fact, the following time I portaged it again and only recently did I run it. It’s actually quite easy and fun, the siphons are quite easy to miss! But obviously, if you mess up, you could be in a world of trouble.


Adrian Tregoning on one of the rapids. Andrew Kellet took video footage at two of the rapids early on, this is a screenshot from one of them.


Although I’ve made it sound like the section from the put in to Pilkington is boring and nondescript, it definitely isn’t. There are some awesome rapids up there and I’d say they are actually more technically demanding than the bigger rapids further down. As can be expected, there are several siphons (which you mostly most be aware of) and a couple of rapids where there are must make moves. One in particular has a small eddy behind a large rock, you have to ferry to the right and if you don’t, you could die. A chap once didn’t make the right ferry, ejected from his boat, and got sucked through a siphon; truly horrible. I have photos of this particular siphon with no water (summer time in the Cape), see below. It is extremely small and I wonder how he even passed through.


From there we carried on, paddling some very awesome rapids, and also the roughly 30m long slide which was pumping, guarded by some large holes at the top. We came to Double Drop which everyone was going to portage, everyone except Andrew. One can approach it on the right but the left is more exciting. After hesitating a bit I decided to follow Andrew down the left side, now I was committed. There is a slide in a big cushion wave on the left and I bombed down there, exciting stuff. Right above the Double Drop itself one has to make the tiny eddy right above it. If you don’t, you could die or get seriously hurt. One person didn’t make the eddy once and through pure luck they made it through the left hand side no problem. I peered down, hugging onto the rock which is a small island and watched Andrew head down. The bottom hole almost got him and I looked at the river right bank where the others were portaging. I could feel a beating and swim coming on. Oh well, I took my last swim a long time back and considering there was a big pool below, the chance was worth it. I peeled out, boofed the first drop and on landing my vision was blurred and I messed up the second drop. I flipped over and the hole had me for about a second or two. A quick hip snap later and I was upright again, and smiling. The bottom hole gets very evil at high levels and has caused several swims. Sadly, most people portage this rapid, but it’s actually not too difficult at all if the level is right. On the right is a monster siphon and one has to be ultra careful when portaging on the right at certain levels, otherwise it’s not going to be pretty. This is because there is an eddy there, but the exit of the eddy is the entrance to the siphon, nice ey?


I took this shot on that first day I went down the river. This is Pilkington Falls. No time for taking photos, we just bombed down not stopping anywhere.


The end of that first day. Good times! Don't worry, you'll see some cool photos just now, and also three videos!


There is a pool and then the Two Teacups Rapid. Two small drops of about a metre at the top, petering out into a long slide which a curler wave at the bottom. The wave caused a swim for one of the guys as it held him a bit and then put him against the ugly undercut wall on the right hand side. From here there are some more great rapids, another biggish slide and then it slows down a bit. But when I say slows down, I don’t mean it becomes easy. The volume of the river increases from time to time as tributaries add to it and I’m sure it gets to more than double its volume in those 7.5 kilometres of action. The rapids below will punish those that relax, but if you’ve still got energy and are awake, it’s no problem. I love that section. It’s such a great way to finish off the river. During flood, one can paddle just these rapids. But be careful, there are some monster holes that can keep you for a while. The gradient is still enough to make the last section at high to flood levels extremely serious, but fun, course. It was an awesome first day out, I loved it!


My next paddle down was with Phil Solomon. We hit the section at a slightly lower level and managed to knock it down in around two hours. The time to beat is about 45 minutes, very quick. Once again, I had a damn good run. There are not many rivers out there that are still steep, continuous and with every rapid runnable. Only once you’ve paddled down here will you realise why this is such a world class river.


Driving behind Phil.


Ah yes, a beautiful site for any kayaker!!!!!


Not a bad level. Note the stripey rock in the pool. See it? Check out my notes near the end of this article for more info on water levels.


Phil Solomon (aka Sollie) ready to hit the river. We had an awesome paddle!


Adrian Tregoning on one of the early rapids. Photo by Phil Solomon.


Adrian Tregoning running Pilkington Falls. Photos by Phil Solomon. Sorry about the bad lighting, but this was also my little Canon and not the SLR I usually take photos with... Nothing to do with Sollie, he did an awesome job!!!!


The siphon on the right hand side of Double Drop. Watch out...


Phil Solomon on Double Drop. Sadly, the damn flash went off and the camera refused to take any more photos. The rock behind him is the rock you need to be upstream of IF you approach from river left. We came down from river right on this occassion.


Adrian Tregoning with a lekker run of Double Drop. Awesome sequence of photos by Phil Solomon. Very nice!!!! This rapid is very cool to run :-) The bottom hole becomes at issue when the water rises. What a beautiful river....


Waiting for Phil to hitch hike back up (he got a lift within seconds of trying!).


My third paddle down was a desperate attempt. Abrie Swanepoel and I decided to hit it. The level was ultra low and we put in just above Pilkington Falls. It was so low that only a trickle was flowing down the far river right of the normal line, not runnable. We almost called it a day and hiked out again but then carried on. In the end, we had a good day in sunshine, paddling a few fun rapids, and getting stuck a fair amount. Shortly after the Two Teacups, we hiked out. It was a very strenuous hike and Abrie vowed never to do that again. Maybe it’s because about a quarter of the way up he dropped his boat and had to scramble down again to fetch it… Yes, that could be the reason!


Abrie Swanepoel (left, and wearing shoes, something must have been wrong with him) and Adrian Tregoning on the right. Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


Abrie (left) and Adrian (right). Photo by Trevor Tregoning. My dad followed us on the bike. The only mistake he made was not wearing gloves. It was a constant 12 degrees all the way there. Once we arrived his hands were frozen.


Abrie (left), Adrian (right). Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


Abrie (left), Adrian (right). We had to park a bit down the road and walk up. Hiking down at Pilkington Falls, which takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


Adrian Tregoning drinking water from the Witte River. It tastes SO good, especially if you have a green helmet like mine :-) It was quite hot and the hike got the temperature to boiling. But the water is freezing. Dress for the water, not the air. Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


Our boats above Pilkington Falls.


Abrie (top) and Adrian (right) deciding to portage Pilkington as the water level was just WAY too low. Check out the next photo to see how low it really was. Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


Looking down to just below Pilkington Falls. Note how LOW it was. We couldn't even paddle the siphon infested rapid below Pilkington either. Photo by Trevor Tregoning.


On my fourth paddle down was with the Cape WhiteWater Club. It was their ‘learn the Witte’ day. 10 of us set down at a low level, the rock was about 20 or 30cm out of the water. The day went down really well though and I had a blast. Initially I was bummed about the level but once going the river was still great fun. The group took one swim, one dented nose after a piton, one broken bulkhead after a piton plus a sore ankle, otherwise no damage done. This was concluded with a great meal at the Bainskloof Corner Lodge and several drinks. Another successful mission down the Witte.


Then my fifth run down I was once again with Hendrik Schloemann and another friendly guy I had met in Natal once, Paul. The water was flush with the rock, quite a good level. Paul had knocked his elbow very hard the week before and was not happy on the river at all. After about a kilometre and a half he climbed out. Hendrik and I carried on, running every rapid and filming as much as we could. We still managed it in about three hours and once again we had sunshine! I couldn’t believe it. Back at Bainskloof Lodge I knocked down a chicken burger and chips, some chilly poppers and a few drinks. What a pleasure. Can it get better than this? Not easily.


Adrian Tregoning against the wall. The next few are all screen shots from the video, which is further down anyway.


Somewhere on the top half of the run down the Witte.


Pilkington Falls.


The 30m slide.


Double Drop.


Two Tea Cups. The first of these three photos is the second drop. Boof this one, or your feet will be sorry.... Then it's the slide ending in the wave.


The final big rapid before they start getting a bit smaller.


I decided to add a few photos of the river in summer, when it's ultra low. Here I am in a siphon. It's a really nice walk down by the way. You can sit inside some of them and think about dying in there. I came to one conclusion, I'd rather not. Photo by Rowan Walpole.


One person swam through this tiny siphon. Lucky. It's near the end of the top half of the run down the river when you have to make the right ferry from behind the big rock. Yes, I know, there's a lot big rocks but those who have paddled the river will know what I'm talking about. When you do the ferry, water sprays up into a rooster tail at higher levels on your left as you make the ferry... It's a MUST MAKE move and now you can see why :-)


The entry to Pilkington Falls on the left, just left of that big rock catching all the sunlight. It's slightly tricky, be careful on this one.


The normal line at Pilkington Falls, over that overexposed rock. Note the BIG rock in the landing. Best to boof, especially at low levels. Of course, the pool is much higher at proper levels. This is the dead of summer. Good fly fishing here by the way. Some of the best brown trout in the country!!!!


The far left line also has a nice big rock. Abrie dented his boat here the other day.... One person once got stuck behind the curtain of this drop as well. They got the person out by putting a rock into a throw bag. Watch out for this line. Run it when the river is medium to high and only if you're confident.


The siphon alley rapid below Pilkington Falls is quite nice. This is the first siphon, but super easy to avoid, just take the left line at the entry. BUT, make SURE you go left then as the rocks are shallow and if you don't power over them, you could go right. And right feeds into this....


Another nasty siphon further down from the siphon alley rapid.


The 30m slide. Make sure you run far river left. River right has some extrem undercuts. Stay away. Right, so I don't want to scare people away from this river. But just be aware of the dangers and don't be stupid.


So if you’re an intermediate paddler with a decent roll should you give this a skip because it’s so serious? Hell no. Go at the right level, with people who know the river and people that you trust. Then you will definitely be able to run almost everything. Very low levels don’t necessarily make life a lot easier, it’s just that everything happens a lot slower. As long as the water is level or just below the rock, go for it. If the level is a half a foot above the rock, don’t get on unless you know the river reasonably well and are skilled. If the water is a foot above the rock, get on only if you know the river very well and again, are skilled and confident. Above this you are starting to take severe risks. I don’t know how high it gets above the rock but when it’s a metre or more above then the river turns into one long streak of white, class 5+ and beyond from start to finish. No one paddles the river at full flood, its suicide. There are only a few people brave enough to paddle it at very high levels, close to flood. Don’t look from the road and think it’s easy as the rapids are way bigger when you’re at river level.  


Ultra low level with Abrie and I: (this video might be a bit boring so start with the next one and check this at the end if you still want to)


The latest trip down the Witte with just Hendrik and I:

Witte video footage at high water courtesy Andrew Kellet – Gravity Adventures:


To come back to the initial question posed – South Africa’s finest river? Well, this is impossible to answer because every individual has different preferences. Some like big volume river classics like the Tugela or Mzimvubu, others love steep, low volume creeks like the upper sections of the Sabie, the Mac Mac or the Umgeni’s Howick Gorge. It is true that even though we are a dry country, we boast some incredible white water if one is prepared to mission a little. So to summarise the Wit: easy walk in, easier walk out, tarred road shuttle that follows the river and is quick to do, beautiful mountains which tower above the river, very continuous, steep, everything runnable, crystal clear water that you can drink at anytime, every time. The only thing which I’d change is the temperature of the water. Paddling in 28 degree water would be great, but hey, you can’t have it all. South Africa’s finest River? Quite possibly.



Photography by: Adrian Tregoning. Unless otherwise stated.

All Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Next article: Derde Steen surf kayaking action – photos taken from water level.