A team of Wet Planet guides, both past and present, embarked on a journey to Africa for the winter. Tyler Houck, David Wells, and Trevor Sheehan explored remote regions of southern Africa, focusing primarily on the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. They discovered new stretches of river allowing them to claim “first descents”, gathered water samples for a global micro plastic study, while documenting all their adventures and explorations. They spent time kayaking the Zambezi River – Africa’s endangered river, as well as many other rivers in South Africa and Uganda, hiked through mountains with kayaks on their backs, building shelters out of tarps, and now, upon their safe return, they are proudly sharing their experiences. They are epic, and thankfully all missions were successfully accomplished. Read on.
Kayaking South Africa
Arriving in Johannesburg, we immediately started making plans to rent a vehicle and start the South African portion of the tour. However, we quickly discovered that without a credit card or South African debit card, we would be unable to rent a car in SA. So we sat for two days in Joburg, contemplating our dilemma and trying to come up with a solution. We reached out to the local whitewater community and were fortunate enough to have made contact with Dewet Michau, a South African who had just started a kayak guiding company in SA and spent half the year guiding rafts in Norway. Dewet put us in touch with another kayaker who had an extra Land Cruiser just sitting in his garage. A few phone calls later, we were en route to meet up and rent the Cruiser at a nominal cost. The Summer Rains Tour would continue, and it was perfect timing at that! A cyclone was coming in from the Indian Ocean about to hit the East coast of South Africa. So we left Joburg two days after arriving, David drove through the night towards the Drakensberg Mountains. We had been told about the Injusuti Section of the Little Tugela. It came straight out of the Drakensberg Mountains World Heritage Site and had a relatively short shuttle, so we would be able to jog the shuttle. We arrived at the gate to the Injisuti Camp around 2:30 in the morning and slept on the side of the dirt road.
We awoke to an unreal sight of majestically rugged peaks all around us. Driving through the now open gate, we found our put in. The water was clear and cool with a brilliant 8 foot boof right at the start.
This would be a perfect start to the South African leg of the tour. Cruising down stream through boofs, slots, and a beautifully vegetated canyon, we were in the flow. It was exactly what we needed after 4 days of stressful travel. The Injusuti eventually brought us to a nice 20 ft off angle sliding waterfall. Dave did a few laps on it. As we made our way further downstream, we found ourselves in some amazing slot canyons reminiscent of the Farmlands section of the White Salmon except the Drakensberg Mountains were our backdrop.
After an terribly fun day of kayaking we found our takeout. I decided to jog the shuttle. All those days running my shuttle in the winter months before leaving the US weren’t for nothing!
Loading up our gear we were off to our next destination on the Tugela River. We were going off an old guidebook ‘Running the Rivers of Southern Africa’ written in 2001. Usually done as an overnighter, we decided we would try to do it in one day. We loaded our kayaks with overnight gear in case we didn’t make our mark. As soon as we put on, it was obvious the river was high. The water was warm and brown; imagine freshly creamed coffee from a gas station.
The first rapid we came to was a 30 foot waterfall. Today was going to be a wonderful day. As we scouted Hart’s Hill Falls we noticed the remarkable amount of the plant, water hyacinth, being pushed downstream. There was a substantial eddy at the base of the falls with close to 25 ft of hyacinth blocking the shore. It looked like a great place to hide if you were a croc. After some deliberation we got back in our kayaks and paddled to the eddy above the falls. It felt so nice to get vertical after such a long time! The next few rapids were big ledges with multiple lines eventually leading to a mandatory portage. Reminding both Dave and myself of a mini version of Murchison Falls on the Nile, we were happy to walk.
Shortly after our portage we came to a rapid we had been told about; it was essentially a man made weir leading into two channels. The right channel was a 90 ft waterfall over roughly 2 tiers both of which landed directly or indirectly on rocks. The left channel had three 15 ft drops and a long slide at the end. We really wanted to run this one. The issue was both sides of the river were canyoned up and we were on the island in the middle. It was very exposed and offered no options for scouting, so we decided to portage and scout from the bottom so we could potentially run it next time. The portage route was not very obvious and offered a lesson in problem solving. It was very engaging.
Thinking outside of the box, I found myself scurrying down a cliff face below a tree that was home to a large wasp nest and a whole colony of weaver birds. From there we would need to cross a 15 ft wide channel that cascaded 50 ft onto rocks below us and then hike through some tall grass. Carefully using ropes and anchors to lower and pass kayaks we made our way down the cliff, over the channel, and into the tall grass. Now we could scout the waterfalls in the left channel.
It had been a common occurrence for us, hiking through tall grass. It was one of those things that I tried not to think too much about. In the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe there were many days hiking through the tall grass we would be walking over and around puff adders and the elusive, yet petrifying Gaboon Adder. I tried to keep the snakes off my mind, but ultimately they always popped up. As we were crossing the channel, Dave and myself had a dialogue about the weaver bird nests. It occurred to both of us that the island would be an ideal place for a snake to live with a seemingly endless food supply. As we were hiking through the tall grass, roughly 5 to 8 ft tall, I heard Dave scream.
I jumped on a rock and looked down to see a dark mongoose sprint between my legs caressing my left calf. Dave then promptly jumped onto the small rock I was using as sanctuary. He had apparently stepped on something squishy and as he lifted his foot the mongoose jumped and ran equally as frightened! We decided that where there are mongoose and weaver birds, there are also snakes. We decided it would not be necessary for us to scout the river left channel and instead put back on the river!
As we continued our run down the Tugela, it reminded us of a mellowed out version of the Zambezi. Floating down a desert canyon lined with weaver bird nests hanging from the few trees on the banks, it brought me back to my time in Ecuador staring at the ori pendulum bird nests in the North Andes.
We utilized topographic maps and our GPS unit to determine our placement in the canyon and felt decidedly confident that we would successfully finish the section in one day. As we cruised down the last few kilometers we pulled out the bag of wine we had been saving in case we needed to spend the night out. We pulled up to Zingela’s Camp feeling brilliant. The guys there were extremely surprised to see that we had actually accomplished the goal we set out to complete. That night we stayed at Zingela’s bush camp amongst the bush pigs and snakes. Waking up feeling a bit off due to the excessive amount of gin and tonics consumed, we loaded up and drove towards the kayaking mecca of Underberg located on the border of Lesotho at the base of the Drakensberg mountains.
Underberg was receiving an exceptional amount of rain when we arrived. The longer we were in Underberg the more rain seemed to come down. Underberg is home of the Thrombosis ‘Thrombi’ Gorge on the Umzimkulu. It is THE classic class IV-V South African creek. The Thrombi section was unrunnable our first week in the ‘Berg. We went to look at the first rapid and it resembled something you would see on the weather channel during epic flood events. With all of the main rivers being at flood stage, we were a bit lost as far as what to kayak. Fortunately a few of our new friends pointed us in the direction of Sani Pass. Sani Pass is a 4×4 dirt mountain pass the climbs over 4,000 ft and enters into the sovereign nation of Lesotho. The Mkhomazana River parallels the Sani Pass road all the way to the top of the plateau that is the nation of Lesotho. No one had ever paddled the Mkhomazana River, so we felt obliged to undertake that task. We spent an entire day driving up and down Sani Pass scouting the river. We decided it was possible and we were just the okes for the job.
The next day we caught a ride up to the South African border post. There are 5.6 km between the South African border post and the Lesotho border post. We decided the river was most runnable from the SA border post down.
We parked at the border post and started gearing up in the pouring rain at 4,700 ft. It was very cold. Neither of us realized we would be cold while kayaking in Africa, that was foolish. A few of the SA border police came and spoke to us, asking what we were doing. After explaining our plan, their level of excitement seemed to increase significantly. They started taking pictures of us with their phones, asking if they could post the pictures on their Instagram. Instagram?! Deep in the African bush? They showed us the best place to get around the fence with razor wire and we put on the river.
The river was flooded and terribly steep, but with no significant drops over 6 ft. We were downhill kayaking at a rapid rate.
Getting out to scout, we were forced to scout a kilometer at a time. Get out, hike through the tall grass, find another eddy a kilometer downstream, repeat. Hiking through tall grass goes hand in hand with kayaking in Africa. It got to the point where I didn’t feel like I was kayaking unless I spent at least some time hiking through tall grass. The area surrounding Sani Pass and Underberg is home to numerous highly venomous snakes including the endemic berg adder. We had been warned about it and it was on my mind every step I took through the tall grass to scout a section of river. About 5 or 6 hours into our mission, we found ourselves scouting a class V mini gorge that ended with a 12 foot waterfall.
It was the crux of the entire section of river. At the bottom we were ecstatic.
We continued our way downstream as the river began to mellow out. Eventually we found our takeout and got out of the river in the still pouring down rain. I started to boil water to make some ramen and Dave hitched a ride on the back of a very questionable looking loaded down pickup truck. I waited an hour for Dave to get back and still don’t think I’ve ever been that close to going hypothermic. That day was both physically and mentally challenging, resulting in an amazing experience we will both remember for years to come.
It was time for us to change locations and chase the rain towards the legendary Transkei region of the Southern Drakensburg next.
Stay tuned for more Summer Rains Tour episodes soon…
Authors Tyler Houck and Dave Wells spent the winter traveling through Southern Africa as a part of the Summer Rains Tour, exploring rivers throughout Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho. You can check out the Summer Rains Tour on Facebook: Summer Rains Tour and on Instagram @Summer_Rains_Tour to find out more about their adventures in Africa and to see what they’ll be up to next.