Great Fish River – Grassridge Dam to Cradock

The annual Fish River Canoe Marathon is one of the highlights on the national racing calendar. It has become the second-biggest race in the country, attracting more than 1500 paddlers every year, with only the Dusi Marathon beating it in numbers. The race actually starts on the Great Brak River, which joins the Great Fish at the Brak River Weir, halfway through the first day’s course.

  • Ideal for: K1, croc, kayak
  • Grade: 1 to 2 (some 3)
  • Length: 80km
  • Duration: 2 day race (many shorter options as well)
  • Type: Pool-drop, fast-flowing
  • Put-in: Grassridge Dam
  • Take-out: Cradock
  • Dam controlled: Grassridge Dam
  • Permits: None

MAP 17

The Fish is positioned in the centre of the country, making it worthwhile for paddlers from all over to attend the race. A good water-level is guaranteed, as it is part of the Gariep-Fish transfer scheme. Because of the good water-level, the flat-water stretches are always a cruise. To top that of, there are plenty of easy rapids, with only one bigger one, which can easily be portaged in any case. There are also a few runnable weirs that have become household names in the K1-paddling circles. The weirs that are compulsory to portage, however, are very dangerous; don’t even consider running them.

The put-in for the first day is on the Grassridge Dam. A short paddle across the dam leads to the first portage of the day, around the dam wall. Once on the river, the willow trees hanging in the water will set the scene for a large part of the race, and should be dealt with confidently. There are also a couple of fences across the river with openings through which one has to paddle.

The first obstacle is Collet weir, which must be portaged on the right. Just below the weir, unseen by race competitors, is a natural drop, which can be run by competent kayakers. A bit further on, the Toastrack low-level bridge must be negotiated. Take the first or second opening from the right, and duck beneath the bridge. The water is flowing fast here and a K1 can easily be wrapped around the pillars, so don’t hesitate. Make your choice as to which opening to shoot, and go for it.

The next obstacle is Keith’s Flyover. This is the biggest rapid on the whole racing section, and should be portaged by most competitors. Experienced paddlers will enjoy the steep rapid ending in a decent-size hole at the bottom. The portage is easy, take out on the right and walk across the Keith Collet bridge.

A long stretch of easy rapids follows before reaching the Brak River weir, which has to be portaged on the left. Some way further down one has to portage the Prospect bridge, also on the left. Soon after the bridge, run Soutpan’s weir straight down the centre of the chute.

After the weir, prepare for Soutpan’s rapid, the second-biggest rapid of the racing section. Go underneath the bridge at the designated spot, and once through, immediately move to the left or right to miss a rocky island just below the opening. The line through the rest of the long rapid is pretty much all the way down on the right.

Some easy stuff follows before the Katkop weir, portaged on the right. Enjoy some more easy stuff, until one gets to the Glenalfa bridge. Shoot underneath the bridge through the centre opening or the one left of it. The last section to the end at Knutsford bridge is rather uneventful, but be focused at the very last rapid, which should be shot on the far right.

The stretch for the second day, starting at Knutsford bridge, is more open than the first day with no major rapids, but a few daunting weirs make this day just as eventful.

Baroda weir, soon after the start, has a compulsory portage. A long, easy cruise takes one to Gauging weir, which is easily shootable some two metres from the left bank. A short section follows before the compulsory portage at the Marlow causeway. Next on the agenda is the Marlow weir, where one can just bomb down the middle of the chute built for paddlers. It is quite high, with a bit of a drop at the top and bottom, but it is really straightforward to shoot.

The last major obstacle of the race is Cradock weir, scene of many swims. It is quick and easy to portage, but many paddlers are willing to sit and wait in the queue for the chance to try their luck at this famous weir. The most common way to run it is at the point of the V, sliding down facing left with an angle of 45 degrees. Brace against the weir wall on the way down, and remember to brace on the right once hitting the water at the bottom.

The last stretch to the end in Cradock is easy.

This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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