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.
The Gairezi River, Zimbabwe
There are two major rivers that drain Mt. Inyangani; the Pungwe to the West and the Gairezi to the East. The Gairezi is a very steep granite gorge draining into Mozambique. Giant slides, teacup waterfalls, and steep boulder gardens that would make you think you were in the High Sierra Mountains of California. The Gairezi is why we came to the Eastern Highlands. We needed to get there. With Chris’s help for logistics, we packed and made a plan of attack. We made our way to the North side of Mt. Inyangani. Once again, with limited road directions, we found ourselves in Nyanga National Park driving until we felt good. Somehow this entailed us clearing trees from a road that very clearly had not been traveled in months. We spent hours driving through the park up and down a continuously worsening road, to the point that we were piling rocks under the tires of the Land Rover to keep it from rolling. As we made our way out of the park, and back onto the tarred road ending our shortcut, we finally found the correct road to the put in. Just as we started driving up the road, the clouds unleashed and let loose a rain storm of epic proportions. Driving over multiple flooded creeks and through lake sized puddles of mud, our thoughts started to go to dark places. We arrived at the put in and set up under a thatched hut in the pouring rain. We checked the bridge at the put in and looked at the visual gauge, which read .5 m. Right before going to sleep it had bumped up to 1.5m.
Waking up the following morning, we walked to the river to find it was holding steady around 1.25m. All of the beta we had for the Gairezi was focused around the river being low at the put in. As we finished a breakfast of muesli and milk, we had a lengthy conversation about the pros and cons of putting on the river at high water. It had never been paddled at flows this high. We decided we owed it to ourselves to see the river, while maintaining an extremely conservative attitude and portaging when in doubt. So we put on the Gairezi.
The first few km were enjoyable class 3, slowly building up to class 4. As the river began to steepen and the boulders gained in size, the canyon walls built up around us and dark clouds moved in. We knew there was a massive portage around an unrunnable steep section of river beginning with a large drop into a siphon. We scouted every rapid and every horizon line, severely reducing the speed and momentum of our forward progress. Tensions were already high to begin with, due to the stressful nature of the situation. We would scout 3 rapids at a time.
After hours of scouting and running rapids, we watched the bottom drop out from under us. Scouting, we found the siphon rapid. It looked marginally runnable at best, but due to the high water and our agreement of conservation we began to portage. ‘Portage high’ is what we were told, ‘Don’t be tempted to stay at river level’. It was good advice.
And so the portaging began. Portaging on river right we went high, initially climbing close to 1000 ft above river level. While we were scouting the rains began, and they unleashed harder than we had seen or felt yet. Walking up a severely steep incline in the mud, with a fully loaded kayak was no easy task. It is through physical challenge and self inflicted hardship that you can learn a great deal about yourself and the people that surround you. Paralleling the river for close to a kilometer, we decided to enter back into the gorge. Unfortunately for us, due to the high water we had dropped in too soon. The boulder gardens were still too steep for the amount of water moving through them. So we hiked back out of the gorge to continue our portage. Hiking back up 1000 ft above the river was no easier the 2nd time. Making our way slowly downstream the rain continued to pick up until the terrain became unstable and we made the decision to set up a bivouac camp on a small, not quite flat, slightly rocky bit of grass on the edge of an off vertical cliff.
It was quite a camp, staring down at massive flooded boulder gardens. Sitting under our low hanging tarp, we were able to collect a liter of rainwater in close to 20 seconds. Dave had forgotten to bring his sleeping pad, so he slept on our immersion research spray skirts. We had an enjoyable dinner made up of ramen noodles, soup packets, and pepperoni flavored soy protein powder. Laying there in our bivy sacks, we fell asleep from exhaustion shortly after the sun went down.
The next day the rain had stopped, but the river held steady. We decided to hike down to the river and attempt to put back on. Feeling fresh and confident in our decision, we got in our boats and began to paddle. Unfortunately, we had once again put on too soon for the amount of water, so we hiked out and up again. This time we walked until it looked as though the canyon opened up. The catch is, we hadn’t reached the slides and waterfalls yet. When it looked as though the boulder gardens were through, we hiked back into the gorge. We found ourselves next to some massive slides and beautiful teacup waterfalls. The sheer quantity of water flowing over these brilliant granite rapids culminated in terminal hydraulics with boil lines stretching back close to 20 ft. We portaged at river level on the right. The only feasible way to scout and potentially portage the next rapid was on river left, so we put on and had a hairy ferry behind the magnetic recirculation boil of the terminal hydraulic and the blind horizon line just downstream.
The good news was that we found the slides, the bad news was they all had too much water. It was bittersweet to be in a place that had so much potential, a place that I had dreamt about for years and not being able to kayak. We all took in the moment. We continued to portage our way downstream on the left until we were forced to hike up and out on river right again around the largest of the slides. As we climbed up the canyon and came around a bend we were given an epic view of the mountains just across the border in Mozambique. The view from the portage route was amazing. We hiked back down to the river and crossed to river left and began portaging the final drop of the Gairezi. We knew it was the final waterfall based on the beta we had. Our paddle out took about 20 minutes. We had been told it would take close to an hour. Dodgy Dave was waiting for us at the take out bridge.
As we drove away from the Gairezi, the thought stood out in my mind ‘if you’re going to be stupid, you better be tough’. Everyone had said it was too high, but we were stubborn. Lessons learned, we made our way back to the Honde Valley. Trevor and Dodgy Dave were meant to head back to Livingstone the next day. Dave and myself would stick around for another few weeks. Arriving back at Far and Wide Zimbabwe, Trevor began to pack his things and prepare to leave. CC mentioned that Dave and myself should put on the Pungwe Gorge the next day.
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.