The Summer Rains Tour
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.
After our adventurous day on the Mkhomazana River at Sani Pass we took a few much needed rest days before heading to the legendary Transkei region of the Southern Drakensberg. Our plans included meeting up with our friend Dewet, who was running a commercial kayak trip and had plans to run a number of the rivers we had in our sights. The logical thing would be to join forces to help support each other. We arrived at Tsitsa Falls Backpackers around dusk and met AD, a laid back expedition kayaker who was homesteading with his wife and two small children at Tsitsa Falls. The location of his backpackers hostel was on the banks of the Tsitsa River at the lip of 80ft unrun Tsitsa Falls.
The main building was once the border checkpoint during the Apartheid times between the Transkei Homeland of the Xhosa people and the Cape Province of South Africa. Just another small daily reminder of the brutal past South Africa held.
At this point in the trip my Dagger Mamba was on its last legs. I had been nursing it along, barely keeping it from its final resting place, repairing it every chance I had. So the first day we spent in the Transkei I used to repair my broken kayak, and AD was excited at the prospect of a repair day. He had acquired an expedition Fluid Bazooka which had a large crack in the hull. AD fired up his generator, as his hostel ran on solar, and we started fixing our broken vessels of adventure. A few hours later we finished and started cleaning up the pieces just as a torrential wall of rain came at us like a swarm of locusts. We would become accustomed to these storms as they would occur most afternoons in the Transkei while we were there. That evening Dewet showed up with his friend Michael, his girlfriend Tammy, and 4 other kayakers. With a bit of deliberation we decided the next day would best be spent on the Pot River, a tributary of the Tsitsa, just over the next hillside.
The Pot River was only 15 minutes drive from Tsitsa Falls Backpackers and the takeout less than 10. We got to the put-in, where AD and Dewett agreed it was a great medium flow. The first rapid was a long low angle granite slide with a 6 ft edge at the bottom. From there the river started bending and turning, combining granite slides and large granite boulder gardens all the while in a high desert canyon setting. The rapids progressively got larger and more fun, culminating in one massive rapid at the end just before the confluence with the Tsitsa River. As we got out of our kayaks upstream of the confluence I looked at the top of the canyon rim.
It sat close to 800 ft above our group at river level, and the only way out was to hike up with our kayaks on our shoulders. 45 minutes later I was sitting at the top, drinking a beer while staring at the epic scenery of the Transkei. We retreated to the hostel as we watched a significant hail storm roll in over the hills.
Back at Tsitsa Falls Backpackers we ate dinner and started formulating plans for the next day. We would go to the Inxu River, also known as the Wildebees River in Afrikaans. It had 2 substantial waterfalls on it, one around 22 meters the other around 11 meters. As we drove to the put-in, a 45 minute drive, it started to drizzle rain. Tammy, Dewet’s girlfriend, would drive our shuttle so we wouldn’t be leaving any vehicles in questionable places in the bush. The possibility of unchecked thievery was all too real in the area we found ourselves.
Putting on the river we had a short warm-up section before reaching a class IV/V gorge. We pulled over on river left and hiked up to the rim of the gorge to scout. There were 5 or 6 boxed in canyon rapids with variations of slides, ledges, and hydraulics, each getting progressively larger and more consequential culminating in the final rapid of the gorge. The final rapid was comprised of a pile of large sharp boulders that had fallen into the river from both canyon walls creating a giant sieve pile with a fairly radical boof in the center, over one of the sieves. Below the boof sat a sieve on river right and undercuts on river left. Once in the gorge there would be no way to get out, so it was essential all members of the group were able to manage. We dropped in with Dewet up front, Dave in the middle and myself at the back with the other kayakers spaced throughout. Everything went relatively smooth. We all caught a decent sized eddy above the final rapid, which had been agreed upon while scouting. Dave, Dewet, and myself ran down first to set up in case of carnage.
Sitting in the moving water below the sieve boof, the potential for the situation to lose control became very apparent. The first 3 kayakers went with varying degrees of successful boofs. Then the last of the kayakers went and missed his boof, falling into the crack that pushed water over one of the sieves. He popped up at the bottom upside down and it was immediately apparent that his paddle was broken and skirt imploded. Needless to say he swam. The sun must’ve started shining around that moment because Dewet and myself we able to get him to a large, safe, flat rock on the left side of the river. We drained his boat, made sure he was okay, and pulled out his breakdown before gathering the group and continuing downstream.
Shortly down river we came to one of the larger horizon lines I’ve seen. We all got out on river left at the lip to scout and eat lunch. The waterfall was something unreal. Riverwide and roughly 22 m (about 70 ft) tall deep in the South African bush, we sat at the lip and stared at the obvious line down the rolling lip just off the river left bank. All of the other kayakers, including Dewet and Michael would be portaging. Dave and myself sat at the lip while this took place. Sitting at the lip of a large waterfall for close to 45 min is no easy task when you’re trying to convince yourself it’s a good idea to go falling off it in a kayak. It is also very difficult to eat in these particular circumstances, and we realized this while watching everyone else scarf down their lunch. The plan was for Michael to lower all of their kayaks from river right and Dewet to be in his boat at the bottom waiting for us in case something happened or we swam. Dave would go first and I would film from the lip.
Finally after what seemed like hours, Dewet was in his kayak at the bottom ready for us to go. Dave went off, cool as a cucumber, and chucked his paddle. I watched as he resurfaced at the bottom trying to hand roll. He then rolled up and started cheering, giving me the thumbs up. I guess it was my turn… I got in my kayak. I had no intention of throwing my paddle, since I lacked anything resembling a confident hand roll. I would try a new tuck, dubbed the ‘Washington tuck’, that I had seen in recent kayak movies all the youngsters were putting up on the internet. I rolled off the lip, slid my hands together and waited. There was a moment when falling that everything felt just right, like I was meant to be there doing exactly what I was doing. I hit the boil and went very deep. I rolled up offside on my first try and paddled away ecstatic. Dave and myself had both successfully run the largest waterfall either of us had run, deep in the African bush.
Shortly downstream we came to the second large waterfall, this one only 11-12 m (35 ft+/-). We scouted this one river right. The waterfall was river wide and the lip looked terribly shallow. I was feeling high from the waterfall upstream and decided to walk this one, I didn’t need it. Dewet and Dave would run this one. So Michael, myself and all the others would portage, set safety, and take photos. They both rolled off with near perfect lines looking sharp as a pair of horns on a bull. We all regrouped at the bottom and started making our way towards the takeout which was a half hour paddle out. At the takeout we celebrated with beers and high fives.
We spent our last day in Transkei kayaking the Pot River at slightly lower flows, reflecting on the incredible highs and trying lows of our trip. Kayaking and traveling have a way of grounding you and helping you to recognize what is truly important. It was wonderful and very necessary. As we said our goodbye’s to AD, his wife, and kids we packed up with intentions of returning to the Transkei at another point and at another time. Perhaps not on this trip, but most certainly another. We were headed out to continue the Summer Rains Tour…
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.