It sucks to be a river guide in Swaziland when there’s no water around. Every morning, you wake up and go run the same section of whitewater on the Usutu River. Not a bad section of whitewater, but it gets boring after a few weeks. Especially frustrating is the fact that on off days, whilst lazing around in the sweltering heat, you KNOW that you are surrounded by dozens of world-class sections of whitewater. If only it would rain. This was my experience when working in Swaziland in 2002. And every year since then I promised myself that I would make the 4 hour drive across the border to experience some of the magic whitewater this mountain kingdom has to offer, but either there was no water or I had some previous commitment. So in November 2009, after over 7 years of waiting, the time was finally right.

Shane Raw emailed to say that the rivers in Swaziland were flooding, and on a Thursday evening I took the drive east. Leaving Johannesburg, it was pouring with rain, and the rain continued unabated all the way to Shane’s house, just outside the village of Malkerns in central Swaziland. Shane lives within an hour’s drive of dozens of classic runs, and when I arrived there in the late evening we sat around umming and aahing about where to go paddling the next day. Shane had taken the Friday off from work (he has a very accommodating boss), and when we woke up we still hadn’t decided where to go. Over breakfast the decision was made to go run a section on the Little Usutu River near Matsapha. The upper 4km of this stretch had been run once before in 2000, by Shane, Steve Fisher and Alex Nicks, and the footage can be seen in Wicked Liquid II. But there was another 10-15 km of virgin whitewater to be found. After arranging a driver in the form of Ward (12C) Young, we headed out to find the river seriously full. It was still raining as we put on; hence there are no photos of us running anything.

What we found was a beautiful section of Class IV-V whitewater. We found ourselves running some very large whitewater without being able to scout, and when we did it didn’t make much difference, as an unseen hole quite early on in the stretch resulted in a very severe beating for me and my first swim in years. After pulling myself together, we headed down to find a long, technical rapid with a few must-make moves which we named “Luigi” (you’re a good kid, Luigi, but just don’t f**k up…) and an amazing series of slides, named rather unimaginatively as “The Slide Show”.

That evening found us at Gunda’s emporium of pleasure for a little bender, and the arrival of a bunch more paddlers from Kwazulu-Natal, Parys and Johannesburg. In the morning, some of the guys were looking a little worse for wear as we headed out to tackle the “Particle Accelerator” section of the Usutu River. The river was pumping, and we had to run a sneak line down the Particle Accelerator, which some of the more hungover amongst us walked. The rest of the river was nice bouncy big-water flowing through the trees, and a rapid called Knife Edge provided some more excitement, and a few more walkers.

IMG_2992Looking up at one of the rapids we ran blind on the Little Usutu. My swim followed on the next rapid. Photo by Shane Raw.

IMG_2995Looking up at the bottom few slides of the “Slide Show”. This doesn’t show the upper few slides, which were also excellent. Photo by Shane Raw. 

Dsc_0060Guy Collier looking worse for wear after a night at Gunda’s. The rest of us were scouting Particle Accelerator for the road.

Dsc_0070De Wet Michau… yes, there is water!

Dsc_0077Everyone getting kitted up for an excellent morning run.


Paul running Particle Accelerator. Dsc_0172 Dsc_0177De Wet running Particle Accelerator.

Dsc_0188     Scouting Knife Edge.

Dsc_0189An array of colourful boats in the Swazi countryside.

Dsc_0192 Philip Claassens giving the thumbs up for Knife Edge.

Dsc_0217Luke Longridge running Knife Edge.

Dsc_0229 Dsc_0231  Philip running Knife Edge.

Dsc_0276 Packing up the vehicles after a successful morning run. It was now time for lunch, then we would head out and for an unplanned evening stroll, with kayaks.

Dsc_0214The bridge at the put-in for the Dwaleni section of the Usutu River. When we put on the river was a foot higher. There are no photos of this run, if there were they would have been of our long walk out in the dark.

Dsc_0294Adrian Vroom checking out a very full Usutu River on Sunday morning. 

Dsc_0316Big and brown… it’s how we like our women here in Africa too.

Dsc_032312C cruising in to the put-in fully loaded with boats and paddlers.

Dsc_033712C showing Gunda the line down Monica Lewinski.

Dsc_0350Luke running Monica. Photo by Ward Young.

Dsc_0353Shane Raw attempting a wavewheel/freewheel into Monica.

Dsc_0380Portaging around Bulunga Falls.

Dsc_0389Shane Raw pointing out the sneak line around Bulunga Falls.

Dsc_0390Shane about to run the ‘sneak line’ – normally this channel is completely dry.

Dsc_0401Shane running the ‘sneak line’.

         Dsc_0447A view upstream to Bulunga Falls. Definitely still runnable at this level, but we gave it a skip.

Dsc_0025Guy Collier surfing the rapid below Bulunga Falls. 

That afternoon, while most people went off for sundowners, a few of us decided to chance our luck on the Dwaleni section of the Usutu. As it happened, luck was not with us. Philip Claaseens, De Wet Michau, Adrian Vroom and I put on at 17h00 on a flooding river. The section is only 5 km long so we figured we could be done by sunset. That wasn’t counting on De Wet getting a severe beating and taking a swim. This resulted in a lost boat, and in the rapidly approaching darkness the rest of us opted for a walk out. A 3 hour walk through the bush in the darkness was not the ideal way to end the day, but we got back to the car OK, to find De Wet waiting for us, minus his boat. We got back late to Shane’s and it was decided that the more forgiving commercial section of the Usutu would be best for Sunday’s paddle.

Dsc_0063Gunda running the rapid below Bulunga.

Dsc_0099 Dsc_0103Adrian Vroom running the rapid below Bulunga.

Dsc_0119Paul finding the meat.  

Dsc_0151Baby Falls, still runnable but the drop is impossible to scout from upstream at this level, so we took a sneak down the right.

Dsc_0160Philip sneaking around Baby Falls.

Dsc_0235 Dsc_0247Shane Raw on the first slide of the Lusushwana.

Dsc_0262 Dsc_0267Luke Longridge on the first slide of the Lusushwana. Photo by Shane Raw.

Dsc_0272Shane reckoning the next drop is good to go… and it was!

Dsc_0277Shane on the entry drop to the river right part of the drop.

Dsc_0287 Dsc_0291Shane on the river right slide.      

Dsc_0305Luke on the river right slide. Photo by Shane Raw.

Indeed, it proved to be a good decision. Gunda joined the group, the river was at the highest level it had ever been paddled, and rapids like Holomi Station and Little Zambezi provided some excellent fun. Shane and I paddled playboats down and enjoyed some fantastic waves along the way. We had to walk around Bulunga Falls but there was probably a runnable line, although it would have been a hassle with such a large group of paddlers. When we got to the take-out, cold beers had been arranged by our dedicated shuttle-bunnies! Thanks to Kate Frost, Hilary Pitchford and Tammy Raw!
That evening everyone drove home, but I convinced Shane to take Monday off as well, and decided to stay another day.