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.
The expedition did want me. One consequence was an ultimatum from the girlfriend that she would break up with me if I went on the trip. I told her that I was going on this trip. So that was the end of our relationship, but it took her a bit longer to figure that out. I also missed a rugby camp.
The Kunene River forms the border between Namibia and Angola and provides drainage mainly for Angola. By 1989 South Africa had just come out of a war with Angola. South Africa had stopped fighting as the USA had stopped funding. Earlier the South African government decided that I should be part of the war, but I declined the generous offer and decided to study first.
The new-fledged peace now meant that the Kunene expedition was viable.
I went to a meeting for this expedition, which was next to the Wits Explorers’ room. In due course, this room would be where I would spend a lot of my time with beers, maps, and some of the closest friends I will ever have.
I remember my dad being quite concerned about this trip and phoning various people. In hindsight, this was not just a sign of a paranoid parent, but a sensible dad who knew and love his son.
I was assigned to help Duncan Longmore who was the Equipment Officer for WEES (Wits Explorer’s and Expedition Society) at the time, and in charge of equipment for the expedition. Duncan was driven and serious about the expedition, physically fit and he had trained hard. He was tall, lean and strong. Duncan had already been on first ascent expeditions to the Transkei as a member of Wits Explorers. I had not trained for this expedition, but I was playing rugby for Wits and at that age, one is generally fit.
Duncan had also mentally prepared himself for the expedition; I, on the other hand was naïve and unaware. Duncan was great to work with and I was in awe of him. The task we had was no small task. The Bitch and the Hippo had to float for the entire expedition. These were old hypalon rafts. For the sake of the younger generation – these rafts were heavy. One must remember that you can only enjoy the privilege of paddling a raft if, as a result of some sad circumstance, you cannot use a kayak.
These rafts had the added blessing of being bucket boats, which meant that when you went through a big rapid they filled up with water, allowing you to swim from the front to the back of the raft. It also meant that it was virtually impossible for the raft to be stopped by river features, or for that matter, anyone in or on the raft. I remember long arguments in the Explorers’ room, especially when new rafts were required, about the benefits of these outdated pieces of history.
The Bitch had got itself stuck in a weir on the Crocodile River on one occasion and was shot at, in an attempt to dislodge it from the weir. The Hippo had been bitten. These were the major scars that we were dealing with, but there were various others. We repaired the rafts at the Wits pool with beer as the most important raft fixing substance.
The day before we left for the Kunene, some surgeon decided to remove my wisdom teeth. What amazed me since that day was how well you recover if you have a mission the next day. We drove up through the Northern Cape. That night we slept in no-man’s-land, having left South Africa but not having entered yet into Namibia. We slept right up against the fence, having used vast quantities of raft fixing substance. To me this was a refreshing and novel experience to stop and sleep in the middle of nowhere next to the road. This made logistics easier and helped the tight budget.
In the middle of the night, the ground shook and there was a noise like a Jumbo landing. Some of our party were running in their sleeping bags, at which they were not extremely successful. Some were just sitting up in their sleeping bags, looking extremely confused and hoping they would be OK. When the train passed, everyone went back to sleep.
The next morning, as we went through the Namibian border post, we saw an army tent in the middle of nowhere. Our passports were all neatly collected and stored in the cubbyhole, all twelve of them. There were thirteen paddlers…
It was obvious that some people in the group have been through border posts in Africa before. It needs to be understood that at that time South Africa had occupied and raided several of our African neighbours. South Africans were not always the most welcome visitors in these countries. For example, we had to be very careful not to take army-type water bottles with us as equipment.
The group just moved on as if nothing was wrong. A head count was done and the passports stamped. We went through unhindered. Years later, the new owner of the car found the missing passport behind the dashboard.
I travelled in the back of the 4×4, which was kitted out for two people, squashed between a bed, stove, fridge, gas bottles and other paraphernalia. None of this stuff was for our trip. With me in the back of the truck were amongst others, Joey and Kirsty. In three days’ travelling you can go over quite a bit. I was just out of school and a first year at varsity…
These people were honest with each other. They talked about their lives and who they were. They were not a judgmental group. Not that they wouldn’t tell you that you’re not pulling your weight, but that was the beauty of it all. Looking back, I understand the difference now. The core of this group had been in situations where they had had a common goal of getting to the end of a trip, under conditions of extreme physical exhaustion, food and sleep deprivation and constant emotional strain. These circumstances do not allow for pretences and masks, but bring the fences down and drop all inhibitions. It was a group where people’s strengths were respected and weaknesses accepted and worked around. In everyone’s own way a very loving group.
I would experience on this trip what it means to have the common goal of the group at heart, rather than my own needs.
The camp where we put in was Ruacana. Some kind of a gorilla or freedom fighter from Renamo was kind enough to blow up a dam upstream of Ruacana. This meant that for the first five days of the trip all we had to do in the mornings was to get onto the conveyor belt and float downstream to Epupa Falls. The mornings were spent floating on the rafts drinking Clifton and the afternoons chilling on the banks, walking up the hills where you could not see a light or a fire anywhere. Except for some sparsely populated Himba, it was a true wilderness area.
During one of the walks up a hill, we found SADF arms cash. We decided to leave it alone. Unfortunately, some animal or kid would be likely to defuse it at some point. So much for the beauty of war.
There were guys on the trip that would shake and sweat just going into Mopanieveld, being reminded of their days of defending us on the Border against the Rooi Gevaar and the Swart Gevaar. This war was South Africa’s Vietnam. People were destroyed and maimed. I would like to thank the USA for their support and trading policy during those times, and for the weapons and dollars that helped make this all possible.
The float was interrupted by the odd rapid. We portaged one of the rapids, which involved unpacking the raft on which everyone had his or her backpack. The backpack’s bottom compartment was for personal kit. This generally consisted of a sleeping bag, toothbrush, dri-mac, T-shirt, pair of shorts (all cotton of course), but there was always space for bird books, binoculars, cameras and the like. The rest of the backpack was full of food and equipment.
Chris Kirchoff was one of the founding members of Wits Explorers. He has to take some responsibility for the fact that I am not in the lab counting flies today, but running Whitewater Training. In one of the rapids Chris’ boat filled up with water and stopped a little further down the rapids than Chris had planned. I remember from Chris’ tone and commands and his relief afterwards that this was not Disney World. The river evolved, with no consideration for our safety.
At Epupa Falls we had a rest day. We camped under palms with rosy-faced lovebirds going at it all around us. During the day we followed the shade of the trees like the old madala in his stat moving with the sun around his hut. At night, it was so light that you could read without difficulty. People were actually getting up at night to follow the shade of the palms to block out the reflected light of the moon.
Duncan made pizzas in a kango pot; it was typical of Duncan not to rest on a rest day and to do everything he did exceptionally well.
I recall images of Kirsty cutting Paul Marais’ hair on an island above the waterfall. Paul joined Explorers slightly after its formation. He was the driving force for the Transkei first descents of the Tina, parts of the Titsa and the Umzimvubu, as well as the Cherie in Malawi and various other expeditions.
Paul is extremely well read in African exploring history. He researched and did extensive recces. Nowadays he is doing various expeditions in Greenland. He is a true explorer. He can be difficult, but I will always respect him for what he has done and will do.
Chris and Paul crossed Lake Victoria in a croc with a motor and a kiteboarding kite. Both got cerebral malaria. So if you ask Paul something these days, keep in mind that he might forget.
Kirsty giggled a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t like Kirsty. She was one of those people who would quietly do the job, and somehow keep the group together by who she was. I, and I believe others on the trip, was a little jealous of Steve, Kirsty’s boyfriend.
Steve ran and organised the expedition, although Chris and Paul were captaining the rafts.
Paul recalls the water level rising at this stage, the first sign that the trip would be very different to what they had expected after the discussions with, and photos and videos shown by, the surveyor of the Namibian Department of Water Affairs.
The support crew had left on a detour; we would only see them again at the Springbok Flats, who knows when.
The portage past the waterfall down into the gorge was difficult to say the least, and didn’t bode well for things to come. With the rafts bobbing up and down in the eddy it was no easy task to pack. The very first time our raft peeled into the current that morning, it high-sided. We realized that the rules of the game had changed…
The next four days we got onto the water before sunrise, waiting for it to become light enough to start rafting. It was general practice to wake up and pack your bags before you were welcome at the campfire. That way we could ensure an early start.
The greater part of every day was spent scouting, unpacking rafts, dragging them out of the gorge across the top, down the other side, across the river, up the other side. The one day we had done thirteen portages before we all collapsed underneath upturned boats which were the only available form of shade, arguing whose turn it was to fetch the bailing bucket with water to pour over the rafts.
By the fifth day after Epupa Falls, we had a different trick up our sleeves. This involved slipping and falling over boulders and rocks, roping the rafts around a rapid. We used a throw-line bag with a collection of nuts and hexes. The river had a different trick up its sleeve, which involved getting the boat in the current, pulling the throw-line tight, the hexes out of the rock and trying in vain to decapitate someone, but successfully letting half of our possessions and transport depart down the river.
Paul went screaming downstream with one or two people in his wake, realizing the seriousness of losing our means of survival. One hex did serve as anchor and stopped the boat in mid-current. Somehow, Paul managed to get the raft back to the side. The rest of us overloaded the last raft and paddled to Paul.
That night the group was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Everyone was asked how they felt and to make suggestions as to how the group should proceed. It was unanimously agreed that we would carry on another day as far as we could and then have a rest day.
Friday the thirteenth.
The first rapid had three big holes on river left, on the outside of the bend. This was obviously not an option. We decided to cross the river and catch an eddy above the rapid on the inside of the bend, as the portage on the Angolan side was considered easier. We had made a point to avoid the Angolan side as much as possible, because we didn’t really want to discuss the exact location of international borders with the Angolan authorities, especially since the authorities would most likely have been a small group of under-supported soldiers with AK47’s.
We made an assumption.
We assumed that the fast current was on the outside bend. But on the inside bend there was a small waterfall with potholes at the bottom and a considerable current. I was on the first boat leaving the eddy with Duncan and Steven anchoring the boat. Wits Explorers used this term for the people in the front of the boat. Paul was captaining the boat. Mike Bradford and Kirsty completed our team. The second boat was right behind us with the rest of the group on board.
The top of the eddy had reeds, forcing us onto the eddy line, making it difficult to get to the spot where Paul intended to cross the eddy line. Duncan shouted from the front of the boat that we should go. Paul said no and carried on battling up the eddy. Duncan shouted for the second time that we should go, and we went.
We missed the eddy that we had intended to catch by about a meter, bumping into a rocky outcrop at the bottom of the eddy. Steve and Duncan climbed out to secure the boat. Duncan got pulled back into the water in his attempt to hold the raft, while Steve managed to stay on the bank. The raft moved and got high-sided, while Kirsty and myself tried to climb out. We both fell into the water. Mike and Paul, who were on the riverside of the raft, also got swept off. We all got washed towards the fall. Paul got himself stranded on a rock, but then decided to follow the rest of the group, who by now had been washed over the fall. That decision saved my life.
By this time, the second raft had turned back when they saw that we were not going to make the eddy. We had been crossing the river the whole trip, but this one time, we missed. On recollection, Paul says he remembers the raft feeling sluggish.
Halfway down the fall our raft wrapped around a pillar of rock where the flow divided into two potholes. The frame had broken loose from the raft.
Paul popped up about a hundred meters after the drop and saw Mike floating face down. He turned him over and dragged him to the side. While busy with this, he saw me also floating face down. At that stage it seemed like Mike could look after himself and Paul went after me.
Once on the bank he did not detect a pulse and started full CPR on me. Steve also joined him and fortunately, it was successful.
I don’t remember a lot about what happened during and shortly after the incident. I do remember shouting at Kristy while we were still above the waterfall that she must swim. The next thing I remember was lying on my back, restrained by Mike who seemed to fear that I wanted to go back into the river. I had no idea what I was saying or doing at that stage, if anything at all, but I remember lying there realizing that I needed to roll over on my side as I was drowning a second time that day. Unfortunately I had to hit Mike to roll onto my side, after which I behaved myself.
My next recollection is being around the fire and Chris going through a medical book, trying to work out what was wrong with me. My head ached and I was coughing up slime and feeling probably as bad as you can feel. He came to the conclusion that I could have sustained injuries, but this was difficult to tell.
At the same time, I came to the realization that at a tree 50m from the camping site, were Duncan and Kristy’s sleeping bags, with them sealed inside. And that I was lucky.
I have and always will have guilt about surviving. Also, could I have paddled harder in the eddy and while crossing the current? Would it have made a difference?
Some other people on the expedition have similar feelings of guilt. It is a natural and human emotion.
Steven and Paul walked back to Epupa where they were fortunate to find German tourists who gave them a lift to the nearest town.
That Saturday evening, Chris and others walked up the hill behind the camp to shoot off pencil flares, which were about as likely to be seen as pencil flares ignited on the dark side of the moon. Some Himba visited us in the camp that day, but they could not help us in our predicament.
While the party was up the hill, I was sitting around the fire with Joey, who was shaken really badly. I think this was probably one of the reasons why she was flown out with me the next day, apart from having to look after me.
On the opposite hill in the fading light, there were screams, yells and sounds of the start of a small rock slide. Immediately our people from the other hill started running down. Joey started crying, Mike was walking around with binoculars as he had lost his spectacles trying to find out what was going on. Peter was running around with a panga. I remember seeing this as if I wasn’t there, as if I was a spectator. I guess I was overwhelmed. I was still sitting next to Joey.
What had happened was that Steve was walking back to the camp and had walked into a group of donkeys, terrifying all of us and the donkeys. The screams were coming from the donkeys and Steve.
I was scared and worried about my physical condition.
At this time Steve’s father called my parents, telling them that two people had died and someone else was injured with head injuries. My dad had a cousin who worked for Water Board, which had one of the only helicopters in Namibia. This helicopter searched upstream the whole Saturday.
I had put my parents through lots of things in my life, but I think I outdid myself that day. I wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt them or make them worry. After this trip, the only thing my parents didn’t want me to do was to travel or go on rivers, but I can’t help myself.
Chris and someone else spent another night sleeping by Duncan and Kirsty. The next morning Joey and I were flown out, over many kilometers of wilderness with only Himba and cattle. We did not see a wild animal. The South African Defence Force while defending me, not that I’ve asked for it, turned this into a sterile wilderness.
The doctor checked me out and confirmed a near drowning, but said that I would be OK. Joey and I strolled aimlessly around the local market, alone in a mass of people, with a feeling of having deserted the expedition.
In the meantime, the remaining expedition members had to carry Duncan and Kirsty out of the gorge to about a kilometre from where the vehicles could get. And all the equipment less one raft.
We were reunited at the police station. As Namibia had just achieved independence, the police officers were randomly reshuffled around the country to depoliticise certain areas. This meant that at the police stations where English was the official language, large numbers of officers could not speak English or did not even have a common language to speak amongst themselves. Apart from the indigenous languages, Afrikaans and German were more commonly understood than English was. In the end this meant that members of the expedition ended up writing the incident report.
We returned to Johannesburg in a single trip. At that stage, the whole group, without exception, was busy looking after each other and not themselves. In that stressful time I do not recall any friction in this group.
We attended Kristy’s funeral and Duncan’s memorial service. We realized that the people that paid the highest price for the adventure were the parents and family.
I only started dealing with the incident about two months after Duncan and Kristy’s death. That was a time when you stopped worrying about others and started concentrating on your own feelings. I did see a psychologist at Wits, who was helpful in addressing the issues. I strongly advise people who have been on trips where there were serious accidents, to seek professional help.
Looking back at this expedition, it must be said that no expedition adventure holiday is worth the loss of human life. But on any expedition of this nature the loss of life is a real possibility.
If faced with the decision today to go on the same expedition again, knowing the result, I would have done that, knowing that I would have done everything in my power to prevent their deaths.
I would gladly not have met Duncan and Kristy if it could have prevented their untimely death, even though my life would have been substantially poorer at that.
I would have gone on the expedition on the proviso that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent their death.
After the accident I experienced guilt, and still have guilt; whether this is justified or not, I don’t know and I will never know. I wonder whether, if I had paddled harder in crossing the current, it could have prevented the incident. I also felt guilty that I had survived the incident, and these feelings still continue until today.
Right now what is still bothering me the most, as I sit at home on the side of the Vaal River, my wife and two kids asleep in bed, my Whitewater Training offices close by, is that in some way, I gained from Duncan and Kristy’s death.
This expedition gave me a desire and love for rivers and expeditions, but in the same way a real understanding in a very practical way of the consequences that this involves. For this I will always be terribly grateful.
Hugh du Preez is one of the most interesting guys you’ll ever meet. Six foot six, dyslexic and sometimes at a loss for words, you could easily misjudge him as someone with a few loose nuts in his head. But get to know him, and you’ll realise that his external appearance belies a sharp intellect with a wide range of interests.
His favourite topic, of course, is whitewater. He is one of those guys who truly lives for paddling. And furthermore, he has chosen to make a living by presenting courses in kayaking, guiding and swiftwater rescue, and also first aid courses specializing in water related first aid scenarios. Guided tours for international kayakers visiting Southern Africa is also on his menu. His company is aptly named Whitewater Training.
Hugh started paddling as a first year student at Wits (Witwatersrand University), and since then he has moved on to become one of the foremost proponents of whitewater safety in Africa. In addition to that, he has run first descents and expeditions in various countries in Africa, and still does so on a regular basis.
He has also dabbled in other paddling disciplines, including a few years of raft guiding, playing competitive canoe polo, representing South Africa at World Championships for freestyle kayaking, and coaching national rafting teams. He is also the driving force behind the African freestyle kayaking circuit, which he has organised for many years, and which he continues to facilitate in an unofficial capacity. But given the option, expeditions will always be his first choice.