SwazilandUsutu River Jan 2007

The Kingdom of Swaziland, one of only two Kingdom’s in Southern Africa and also the smallest country in Africa. Swaziland is mostly mountainous and hilly in the west but has more moderately sloping plains towards the east. The best whitewater being in the western half of the country. The highest point is Emlembe at 1862 metres above sea level and the lowest point on the Great Usutu river at a very low of only 21 metres! It is on this river that we had much fun during this trip. The Swazi name for the Usutu being the Lusutfu.

Carl van Wyk and myself left Joberg on Friday afternoon at 17:30. We were to meet up with Philip Claassens, Robin, Wihan, and Corne. The border at Oshoek was pretty busy and by about 21:45 we were through. What a pleasure to enter the Swazi side. Greeted only with smiles, some locals even called us over to take their spots at the front of the queue at immigrations. Bonus! J 


The Legend Backpackers was fairly easy to find after a brief cruise into Mbabane city centre by mistake. City centre which is all of a few hundred metres long was pumping and people were partying hard. At the Backpackers, not a soul was to be seen there, even the Legend Shebeen was empty. We tried to find the rest of the group as they were at Malandela’s having some drinks but after about 20 minutes of driving we called it quits. Only Robin had roaming on his cell phone and it was pretty weird not to have any form of communication. Off to bed before 00:00 but then properly awoken after 02:00 as the other guys thundered into out dorm. Room 3 was suddenly alive as some well oiled kayakers entered in full swing. I tried not to become too awake and ignored some naked dancing and shouting by, err, someone ‘young’ and, err ‘foolish’.


That night was extremely hot and I opened the window wondering why all of them were closed in the first place. Within a few minutes mosquito’s came marching in and doing what they best. Decided I wasn’t going to be eaten and closed them except for one. Slept the entire night with no blankets but was a good rest.


06:05 I woke up and felt good. A good start for the party people and we left the backpackers by 07:30. We drove down to the Ezulwini Power Station. Security just smiled and said sure, just go in and ask. Philip and Carl walked right into the main station and asked if they were going to release water! Only in Swaziland were one can do that. Unfortunately they would not. Usually only in week days, mornings and afternoons. Typically about 15 cumecs I believe. Robin has paddled the section and says it’s fast, narrow, continuous river. Nothing too bad. So after that we decided we’ll head of to the Usutu River and paddle the so called ‘Power Station’ section.


The put-in was at a bridge above Dwaleni power station. The water looked very low to me and I had serious doubts as to how good this was going to be. We put on regardless and within a few hundred metres I realised this was an awesome river. Granite river bottom and many channels to choose from. At the low water we had, we were forced to follow the main flow in order to avoid frustration and get the most water. The first couple of rapids were really good at high water they are apparently nice class 4/5. We had some interesting runs and a nice little slide too.




Robin Kock styling a small side channel.



The power station section. Photo by Corne van Biljon.


Shortly after that we took a wrong turn and ended up going down a channel on the right. Some bump and scrape followed as we cruised through some tight sections. Trees covering the whole river and providing a nice South American jungle feel to the whole experience. At this part of the Usutu’s journey there are channel with large islands separating them covered in thick tropical type bush. Locals on the banks waved with friendly smiles and on this side channel some guys were interested in our boats. As we drifted through the shallow water, some boys walked alongside us and one took hold of Philips paddle and imitated the forward stroke. He wanted to borrow the boat and have a go. Unfortunately we didn’t have the luxury of time for free rides. Some fishermen with nets were around the corner trying to catch a meal. Wherever we went, only friendly smiles, waves and hoots of laugher from the children. A great place to be. The only unfriendliness we received was from some of the local dogs that didn’t like theses plastic invaders on their river.


The river mellowed a little and once again we took a wrong turn. Another shallow side channel resulted in more scraping over shallow rocks. To be honest I’m not sure the main channel would have been much better. The river is very broad with several channels and at this low level the going to tricky. We took out at the Dwaleni power station and it was really, really hot. We had paddled about 8 or so kilometres. We needed water big time and walked to the entrance of the station and asked the guard if we could fill up water bottles. Once again security was very friendly and ‘appeared’ to be unarmed. We walked in nice and casual towards the tap when another dude from inside the plant motioned us towards him. Off we went and after some friendly name exchanges and hand shakes we had access to ice cold water from a one of those office type water decanters. Right next to above 5 or 6 huge pumps turning some generators! I must say, it’s not everyday you just stroll right into a power station will with a dripping wet spraydeck and helmet. Only in Africa! J What an awesome country.



From left. Robin Kock, Philip Claassens and Carl van Wyk showing what they're made of at the Dwaleni power station.



We headed off to Swazi Candles to meet up with two local paddlers. One known as Gunder ( think his name was Lee/Leigh?) and another known as Ward or 12c (still not a hundred percent sure of his name J). Great guys though and we knew we were in for an awesome paddle. A quick fix to a Riot Magnum, (Steve Fisher’s old boat – read abused), an excellent lunch and we were ready for another trip.



Awesome slide at the Sappi bridge, Bhunya.



Only in Africa!


We took a drive well above Bhunya and got to the put-in at 15:30. Just as well most of us didn’t know we were about to paddle another 20 km or more! Robin decided to drive for us as his hangover was now reaching critical levels and decided a few beers should cure him while he waited.



Late afternoon when we put-in.



Checking out the first drop in Siphon Alley.






Corne van Biljon.



Philip Claassens, Siphon Alley. Photo by Corne van Biljon.



Gunder on top of a nice siphon. Photo by Corne van Biljon.



Carl van Wyk, Siphon Alley. Photo by Corne van Biljon.



Gunder, Siphon Alley. Photo by Corne van Biljon.


Right at the put-in was a small, narrow gorge and some serious drops too. We had a look at a lovely undercut and already I was feeling pretty nervous. Undercuts tend to make me pretty nervous. Everyone climbed in and we set off one at a time. I waited in the eddy and made my way about an eddy above the drop. I waited for quite a while and began to wonder what was happening. The rapid is fairly steep and with the horizon line I couldn’t see what was potting. Eventually the two people in the eddy above the start of the rapid went down and so I hopped into their position. I could see Gunder out of his boat and I wondered what had happened. He seemed fine and was laughing so I left him and 12c and carried on. Feeling well, well nervous on the first drop. My line was good and I went slowly towards the second drop which had a nice undercut right after it. I hugged the rock to my right and slid around, missing the undercut as planned. Relief as I completed the rapid, passing Philip in an eddy and made it to the bottom.

Wihan and Corne were at the bottom and we chatted briefly. I noticed Philip was now at the top again and they had hauled the boat out with a rope. Still we wondered what had happened. Gunder eventually came down smiling and with some nice red scratch marks on his back and shoulders. What a horrible experience he had just had. And he was smiling…

After running the first drop he decided to go far right and scout the second drop from his boat. He tried to push himself up on the rock and could not. He pushed back to try again harder and his stern dipped down. Little did he know that he was above a siphon. The water pulled his tail down and sucked him and boat under water. Gunder was now trapped underwater backwards and properly squashed. Somehow he managed to climb out of the boat but then the siphon sucked his legs down next to the boat. Panic set in but the rocks could no provide any purchase as they were covered in algae. Looking up, he said his head was about a foot or so below the water and he could see the light. Regaining a level head, he somehow, managed to climb out holding onto the Riot Magnum and resurfaced. A damn close call! The little gorge is also known as siphon alley and it’s a good thing I was only told afterwards. Must be more than 15 siphons within a hundred metres. Really horrible stuff, but good fun as long as you don’t swim.



TROUBLE, Siphon Alley. Photo by Robin Kock.



12c/Ward, Siphon Alley, photo by Robin Kock.



Adrian Tregoning, Siphon Alley, photo by Robin Kock.



Carl van Wyk, Siphon Alley, photo by Robin Kock.



Carl van Wyk, Siphon Alley, photo by Robin Kock.



The rock that Gunder tried to push himself onto, and then got pulled underneath it, into a siphon.



Gunder about 1 second away from being sucked into the siphon. Photo by Robin Kock.


After the first rapid there were a couple of other very good drops. And another drop were a rock has slotted itself in between the rocks and formed, yes you guessed it, another siphon. We all portaged this except for Gunder, who, with his sick fascination of these death traps climbed out above the siphon and seal launched off the rock. This same drop is VERY retentive at high levels we are told and almost killed someone already.

After the short gorge, the river opens up and then just drops and drops and drops. It keeps going for kilometres on end and is very continuous. An absolutely awesome run with some really steep rapids. The river is mostly in one channel but does split into a couple of channels from time to time. Not as many locals are seen up here and the run is through some Sappi plantations although thicker natural vegetation blocks a lot of it out and you don’t notice it at all.

There is only one downside to this trip. Because of the lack of time, almost no photos were taken during the run but I can assure you the rapids are awesome and the scenery incredible. Even with our low water we still had some good fun and could at least get some practise for low volume creeking.



A nice steep rapid. Pity the water was so low.



Carl van Wyk cruising down with speed.


The trip went off fairly well for a while but then eventually we had another close call. This trip was turning out to be an epic. Coming around a little drop the water pushed straight into an innocent looking rock. It even had a small cushion wave on it. Although it was a small one. I came around a rock and to my horror was a yellow boat under water, pinned against the rock. It was a tight move and not too tough but I drifted against the rock and leaned into it. Elbow pads on this trip were a saving grace. I put my right hand down to grab a hold of the boat when I heard screaming, “He’s out, he’s out!”. What a relief. We shouted to Corne who was drifting wide eyed to come to the bank. A slide about 2 metres below would have been a very nasty swim. The boat came out too and we were trying to get the boat to the bank when Carl came around the corner and we shouted to him and to avoid the rock. He got more of a fright with us shouting at him and hit the rock. Going over slowly he was still smiling and I thought this is nuts. He bailed straight away but shouldn’t have as the boat just brushed on by.

Both paddles went down and luckily Wihan managed to collect them at the bottom.



The undercut rock that almost killed Corne and gave Carl a nice scare too. 


Corne and Carl seal launched paddle less down the slide and made it nicely. The trip carried on and so did Philip. Shortly after that he just disappeared and paddled the remainder on his own. I guess he knew it was a long way to the finish. Oh well, he drank a beer out of a bootie later that night for being a deserter. J

We came across a super nasty spot where the whole river went through a slot less than 10cm wide! I’m sure many people have run over this drop at higher levels and never been aware. The water boiled up strongly below and portaging around was pretty funny with Gunder taking a big fall and entertaining the local girls who thought this was the best thing since sliced bread.



Nasty siphon. When it doubt, scout. This was not visible from the top!


Eventually the sun went down and we were still paddling. About 20 minutes before it got fully dark we made the take-out at the bridge at Sappi in Bhunya. Adrian Vroom and Brendan Bosman were waiting with Robin and the deserter himself, Philip Claassens. We scouted the 5 metre waterfall but the entry was a short slide with an undercut on the right and too little water. 

We sat in the dark as some of the guys went to fetch the other two cars. Luckily Brendan had bought three cases of beers and celebrations began as we sat in the long grass with only the Sappi paper mill shedding some light. An awesome day with some great rapids being run. We had paddled for probably more than 30 kilometres in total and needed some refuelling. I felt relaxed and satisfied on the way back to the backpackers. We were all loving Swaziland.



Carl right, Brendan Bosman left.



Adrian Vroom (AKA- Ginger Bread Man) left and Philip - no fea - Claassens right.



12c/Ward peeking in on the left, Corne middle and Adrian Vroom right.


That night we managed to drink six beers short of three cases, two of the cases being Windhoek draught cans. Thanks to Brendan. J So not too many but good enough to relax properly. We ate some good meat, thanks to Brendan, again, and finished almost everything. I went to bed just after Carl and he didn’t budge when I turned on the light. The bootie drink being maybe the last straw. In the morning I heard of Robin drinking a beer out of the hatch of an expedition Fluid Solo. Nice one.

The next morning no one was feeling too motivated and we decided to paddle a very short section of the Usutu above the woman’s prison but below Bhunya. We paddled from a pretty small minor bridge to anther larger bridge. A paddle of about a hour and a half I think. Started off pretty well and then mellowed out. A little bit  disappointed with the short section but I suppose it worked out nicely because we could get home earlier.



Sunday morning.



Sunday morning put-in. Low level bridge above the woman's prison.






Brendan Bosman.



Corne van Biljon.



Adrian Vroom. ( Ginger Bread Man in attack mode ).



The Legends Backpackers.


Carl and I went back to Swazi Candles, had another lunch there and supported local tourism by buying some of their beautiful candles. We left there at about 13:00 and got to my house at 17:30. Not too bad. The border was hassle free both ways. Very friendly on the Swazi side. South Africans can learn a lot from the Swazi people as far as friendliness goes.

The Usutu River is the largest in Swaziland, although there are many large rivers, as well as small creeks with nice waterfalls and huge slides. They are out there. Swaziland does depend on rain if you want high volume runs. The water comes up quickly but then drops off fairly rapidly too. There are not many dams in Swaziland. I hope this does not change in the future.

Having lived in Barberton for six years, we were very close by and often visited Swaziland and the Kruger National Park. This was my first paddling trip there and I will be visiting soon again. I highly recommend it. Many sections to choose from. Big volume to small volume, easy rapids to hardcore runs, slides and waterfalls. Go and try it, you won’t be disappointed.

During heavy rain periods one might need a 4x4 to access some of the spots. I remember years ago we had some serious mud on one road and had to help some people stuck in normal cars. There is this red clay which can get pretty extreme in more remote areas. The Usutu sections are very far off the beaten path.

Thanks guys. Amazing weekend. Everyone paddled bloody well. Glad no one died too...



Incredible view back into Swaziland as we entered South Africa again.


BY: Adrian T.

All photos by Adrian Tregoning unless otherwise stated. Big thanks to Corne van Biljon and Robin Kock for their photo's.

This story is not really meant as a guide, so don't blame me for any errors. If you'd like add your own description of this spot then please contact me. Thank you.

For more pictures click HERE.