History and status quo of river paddling in Southern Africa

Apart from a few ferries across rivers, there exists no recorded history of boating on rivers in Southern Africa before the 1930’s. Apparently our rivers were merely treated as obstacles to be crossed or bridged, not as obstacles to have fun on. During the 1930’s, the first (home-made) canoe trips were undertaken on rivers such as the Orange and the Vaal, with the first recorded canoe race on the Vaal River taking place in 1939.

After Word War II, collapsible wood-and-canvas boats and semi-inflatable rafts became available, but they were not really suitable for the rocky rivers of the southern-most part of Africa. In 1951 the first Dusi Canoe Marathon, initiated by Ian Player, was held, although paddlers struggled to find decent boats to paddle in. The South African Canoe Federation (SACF) was formed in 1956 to control canoe racing, which spread rapidly to the Umkomaas, Berg and Breede rivers.

During the 1960’s, fibreglass kayaks made their appearance and the newfound sport of river running began to expand. At the same time, Willem van Riet pioneered several rivers, starting with a solo first descent of the Orange River: he paddled from Aliwal North to the sea at Oranjemund in 36 days. He followed up this first trip with descents of the Limpopo, the Sabie and then, joined by his friend Gordon Rowe, the Cunene River, where he had to negotiate a serious gorge while firing his rifle at hungry crocodiles! His subsequently published book Stroom Af in my Kano (Downstream in my Canoe), in which he described his adventures, attracted more adventurers to the sport.

The first plastic kayaks appeared in the late 1970’s, causing a worldwide revolution in kayaking. Suddenly previously unrunnable rivers became runnable, with kayakers such as Jerome Truran, Marco Begni, Tim Biggs and Corran Addison opening radical stretches of rivers like the Upper Umkomaas, Thrombosis gorge on the Umzimkulu, the Wit and the Wit Els. Knowledge of white-water hydraulics grew fast and waterfalls were soon being run safely.

In the meantime, commercial river-running appeared on the scene. Graeme Addison, who also pioneered several rivers, was involved in ad hoc organised trips for clients using both kayaks and rafts, before starting South Africa’s first commercial operator “The River Men” in 1983. Once it became clear that commercial kayaking would not be viable, the focus shifted to rafting. Graeme Addison also initiated the Southern African Rivers’ Association (SARA).

While the local paddling scene evolved slowly, it remained fairly isolated from the rest of the world. With the exception of a few expert kayakers, local paddlers’ level of skill was lagging behind the rest of the world. This was partly due to the non-availability of state-of-the-art equipment, and partly due to a lack of international exposure.

Today, South African paddlers can measure themselves against the best in the world, and the scene keeps growing.