The journey – Willem van Riet

This epic journey down the Kunene River by Willem van Riet and Gordon Rowe, from Matala in Angola to the Atlantic Ocean, through the previously unexplored gorge where the river cuts through the Baynes Mountains, ranks as one of the most important expeditions undertaken in the history of African river exploration.

If we had imagined that paddling down the Kunene involved blistering heat in a country of utter desolation, hunger, attacks by aggressive crocodiles and such back-breakings labour on the portages, perhaps we would have thought twice about our plans for exploring the lower reaches of this mighty river. Canoeists, like mountaineers, always set their sights on a bigger and tougher challenge, and after having canoed down most of South Africa’s largest rivers during the last six years, the Kunene had become my personal Everest. It was something I had to do; a final problem to be overcome. The idea of challenging the 750-mile Kunene, which first occurred to me when canoeing down the Orange, grew and grew until Gordon Rowe and I decided to have a crack at it. Read More

A woman in a man’s life jacket – Nicola Simpson

Raft guiding on big volume rivers like the Zambezi is hard work, and normally reserved for tough men who manhandle these big rafts through the monstrous rapids with brute strength combined with well polished skills. There are women who step up to the challenge though, and more often than not, display a certain kind of finesse in doing so. Nicola is one of that special breed of women who succeeded in earning the respect of their more muscular counterparts in this tough environment.

1992. Rafting season on the mighty Zambezi, Victoria Falls. First African Woman River Guide. Grade 5 rapids, big holes, steep gradients, diagonals that hold boats and surf. Big Surf. Terminator, Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Oblivion. Aching arms and back. Bleeding hands, cracked ribs. Open infected wounds from oars smacking into shins, bruised hip bones. Black eyes from surfing in rapids with flying paddles and oars. Swimming so deep below the surface that ears pop, nose bleeds. Dark, murky, quiet. No sympathy from anyone. “You want to be like us – show us you can – carry the boat, pump the tubes and thwarts, fix your own oar rig.” Some 23 km of rowing a day. A sizzling 40 degrees Celsius heat in the gorge. Walking out at the end of the day, against a two-in-one gradient. Cool refreshments at the top, the elation from clients whose expectations have been surpassed. And tomorrow I get to do this all over again. Bliss. Read More

Losing to gain

The reputation of Wits Explorers has taken a fair amount of abuse over the years because of deaths on two of its expeditions. In all honestly, it must be said that considering the nature of the expeditions they attempted, and the time at which they were attempted, the explorers did very well indeed. It must also be said that we, paddlers collective, are sometimes just plain lucky that things don’t turn out worse on some of the trips that we undertake.

“I dedicate this to Duncan and Kirsty who taught me more about rivers than did anyone else in my career.” – HduP

LEAVING Senator House on Wits Campus, I bumped into a Wits Explorers poster advertising a Kunene River expedition during my summer holidays. I immediately decided that I was going. Rather arrogantly, without any thought that the expedition might not want me. Read More

Transkei Missions – part 1

Every expedition starts with an idea. The idea grows until someone gets interested (or obsessed) enough by the idea to put a plan in action to make it happen. This process can take weeks, months, sometimes years. Getting to run the main Tsitsa Gorge was no different.

THE Transkei – literally meaning “Across the Kei River” – conjures images of endless mountains and valleys, inhabited by traditional Xhosa people and their mythical forefathers’ spirits. It’s a true image, but not the whole truth. The Transkei boasts the type of raw beauty that only Africa can deliver, where spectacular natural scenery goes hand in hand with poverty, violence and corruption. It’s a part of South Africa that feels so remote from the civilized world that it could just as well have been in Africa’s heart of darkness. Read More

Zambezi, Zimbabwe, Zest

When you have paddled the Zambezi a number of times, you sort of just remember the intimidation of rapid no. 9 and the big wave at 12B, and you forget the details.

I mean details like the ferry at 1, just below the Boiling Pot and just above the Wall; the smooth wave at 2 with a decent size hole right next to it; the bouncy, sometimes violent wave at 3; the tight line over the Dragon’s Back on 4 (Morning Glory) when the water is low; the boof or the clean line next to it in 5 (Stairway to Heaven); the big wave train at 6 (Devil’s Toilet Bowl); the huge diagonal you have to break at 7 (Gulliver’s Travels) after which you have to negotiate the Land of the Giants; the big drop and massive hole of 8 (Star Trek), which can hit you hard if you miss the window; the big waves at 10; the nasty boils at 11 (Overland Truck Eater) which get on your nerves no matter how many times you’ve run it; the huge wave trains at 12A and C; the huge waves and some big holes at 13 (the Mother), 14, 15 (Washing Machine), 16 (Terminator) and 17; and then of course the temperamental big, violent, thrashing hole at 18 (Oblivion) which will sometimes take mercy and spit you out in seconds, and other times give you a solid beating before letting you go.

You forget these details when you’re somewhere else, living another adventure or slaving away in the office. But every time you return to the mighty Zam, you fall in love again with the big water, the big lines, the big waterfall, the big gorge, the big hikes at the put-ins and take-outs, the big heat, the big hippos and big crocodiles. Read More