Full circle – Paddle with Us

My immersion in the paddlesports industry has had many facets. One of these is river guiding, and this aspect just came full circle. But first, let me start at the beginning.

My guiding career started in 1994, after a memorable trip down the whitewater section of the Vaal River just downstream of Parys with my friends Riaan Steyn, Chris Pretorius and Chris Robberts. At the time, the four of us were racing and tripping as often as possible; we were obsessed with finding new rapids to run. On this particular trip on the Vaal, with the river running at 250 cumecs (considered a very high level at the time), we bumped into Matthew Hare of Hadeda Creek and some of his guides. They also took advantage of the high water to trip the river with crocs (South African two-man rafts made by Ark Inflatables). They were quite impressed by our skills, running these rapids with our flimsy racing kayaks, and Matthew dropped a hint that he was looking for more guides. Two weeks later, Chris Robberts resigned from the SANDF (Permanent Force) and became a full-time guide at Hadeda Creek, while the other three of us, all full-time students at Potchefstroom University, started a long period of freelance river guiding for various rafting companies.

From 1994 to 1996, I spent most weekends and holidays working at rafting companies, sometimes as guide, sometimes as safety kayaker. Most of this work was on the Vaal River, which gave us valuable experience in a broad range of conditions and with a large variety of clients. From super low water levels, dealing with all sorts of raft pins, entrapments and injured clients, to high water runs with big rafts and spectacular flips. The level of expertise amongst guides on the Vaal was very high at the time; everyone was heart and soul committed to the cause; it wasn’t just a job.

In 1997, I started working at Iscor as an engineer, and suddenly I had more money to travel, which meant my kayaking and guiding took me to many more rivers in other parts of the country. Apart from many kayaking trips, I ended up guiding on the Blyde, Sabie, Umkomaas, Tugela, Orange and some other rivers. Together with my guiding and kayaking friends, we pushed our own boundaries as well as those who were fortunate enough (or maybe unfortunate for some) to end up on our trips.

Safety kayaking, Raid Gauloises 1997
Safety kayaking, Raid Gauloises 1997

I also got to be involved in some truly special events. I spent a week on a flooded Umkomaas River, doing safety for the 1997 Raid Gauloises. The first trip we did on the section below Hella-Hella, a few days before the competitors arrived, is still the highest level I’ve ever paddled the Umko. For those who know the section, the pinnacle rock in rapid 5&6 was completely covered! In 1999, I was a safety kayaker for the Camel Whitewater Challenge, held in Augrabies Gorge. In the days leading up to the competition, our group of safety kayakers got to paddle the section of rapids below Oranjekom in Augrabies Gorge at different water levels, as the water rose from around 50 cumecs to 300 cumecs. Other memorable experiences from this period include guiding on a multiday trip through Onseepkans Gorge on the Orange at 800 cumecs, being a stunt kayaker for a Coca Cola Israel advert, doing safety kayaking for a German movie that was shot upstream and downstream of Augrabies Gorge, a few safety kayaking stints on the Zambezi River, and many more.

Everything changed at the beginning of 2000, when I left Iscor to become a full-time kayaking bum. I spent more than two years paddling rivers all over Southern Africa, while writing the guidebook “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”. This was partly financed by guiding on many different rivers while I traveled. I also got to spend a few months in Europe, kayaking all around the Alps and guiding in Austria and Italy. The steep, continuous rivers in Italy, where we took clients down in big rafts with two guides per raft, changed my perspective of what can be done commercially. Back in South Africa, I got more involved in guiding multiday trips. Four-day guided trips on the Orange River, with the experienced guides from Kalahari Adventure Centre, led to a number of multiday raft-supported kayak trips that I led down a variety of rivers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Lowveld.

Looking back, I met most of my current friends as a result of these guiding exploits. Working with so many different rafting companies gave me a good view on what clients expect, what can truly be considered as industry standards and what should really be stayed away from. Doing courses with different instructors also exposed the differences in approach and content; from my first guiding course in the mid-nineties with Graeme Addison (widely considered to be the initiator of commercial rafting in South Africa, now running Riverman), to a trip-leader course with Hugh du Preez of Whitewater Training, a raft guiding course with Andrew Kellett of Gravity Adventures, and a raft guiding course in Italy with guys that I simply can’t remember the names of.

When I started my first kayak company (Fluid Kayaks) in 2003, my guiding days became less frequent, as my focus moved to multiday kayak expeditions with a close circle of kayaking friends when I wasn’t test-paddling new kayak prototypes.

Everything changed again when I started taking my two small children on river trips. I ended up organising and leading multiday trips on the Orange and Vaal Rivers, mostly with rafts for my kids’ safety (they were both only 16 months old when they went on their first multiday trips).

Oar rafting on Orange multiday trip
Oar rafting on an Orange River multiday trip
This why I keep going back to the Orange
This why I keep going back to the Orange

When I started my new kayak company, Vagabond Kayaks in 2018, with partners who all appreciate high-performance kayaks, I set out to design recreational sit-on-top kayaks that were super stable, but faster and easier to paddle than other sit-on-tops on the market, and with all the features and fittings that make extended trips possible. Since we launched our new range of kayaks a year ago, we’ve done a number of day trips as well as multiday trips on the Vaal and Orange rivers with our new kayaks.

After our last 4-day trip on the Orange River in June (yes, two months ago, in the middle of winter!), Lisa and I realised that we already had the complete package for running our own river safaris. I have extensive guiding experience, Lisa has extensive paddling and event organising experience, we have the perfect boats for running the type of trips that we would like to offer, and we know some great sections of river that no-one else is using for guided trips.

The Orange, as seen from a Vagabond kayak.
The Orange, as seen from a Vagabond kayak.

So a few days ago, our new venture was born: Paddle with Us. Yes, if you join one of our trips you will paddle with us, Lisa and myself. We are offering two-hour and two-day trips on the Vaal River outside Parys, and five-day trips on the Orange River. This is an exiting new adventure for me; I get to put my years of guiding experience to good use, I get to show some of my favourite sections of river to other people, and I get to do that with kayaks that I designed and manufactured.

Herman and Lienkie, friends from Parys on the Orange with us.
Herman and Lienkie, friends from Parys on the Orange with us.
Ruben and Lisa sorting out our kitchen on the Orange.
Ruben and Lisa in our kitchen, Orange River style.
Ruben and others cruising through some easy rapids.
Ruben and others cruising through some easy rapids.
Did I mention that I love the Orange River?
Did I mention that I love the Orange River?

When I started guiding 25 years ago, I never had it in mind to start my own river safari company. But here we are, full circle. Back then, it was just a way of getting paid to do something I love. Now, it is so much more than just that.

Naturally, most of my time still goes into manufacturing Vagabond’s kayaks, so we will not be running trips every week or every weekend. We’ve set specific dates for trips, as listed on our Paddle With Us website. If you’re keen to join on one of our trips but really can’t make the dates that we’ve set, please get hold of us (contact details here) to see if we can arrange a trip for a different date.

Orange River – Vioolsdrif down

Multi-day trips on the Orange River were established on this section, and it is still a favourite piece of river for many people wanting to get away from urban life. The Orange winds between the rugged Richtersveld Mountains, a barren desert that would have been inhospitable without the presence of the sometimes mighty river.

  • Ideal for: Canoe, K1, croc
  • Grade: 1 to 2
  • Length: 75 or 120 or 160 km
  • Duration: 4 to 8 days
  • Type: Long flat sections, small rapids
  • Put-in: Vioolsdrif
  • Take-out: Aussenkehr, Fish confluence, Sendelingsdrif
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None
  • Commercial operator: Gravity River Tours

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Orange River – Goodhouse to Vioolsdrif

This section is uneventful and not as scenic as most of the other stretches. It is not really isolated nor is it unspoilt, owing to farm development along the banks. The only thing to look out for on this section is a high weir about halfway down. It should definitely be portaged, as it is many metres high. Touring kayak and K1 paddlers might find it worthwhile as they can easily cover long distances on flat-water.

  • Ideal for: K1, touring kayak
  • Grade: 1
  • Length: 70km
  • Duration: 2 to 4 days
  • Type: Flat
  • Put-in: Goodhouse
  • Take-out: Vioolsdrif
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None

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Orange River – Pella to Goodhouse

It has been said that this section boasts the best scenery of the whole Orange River. That is a debatable point, but it says something about the scenery to be found here.

  • Ideal for: Kayak, croc, raft at higher levels
  • Grade: 2 to 3
  • Length: 90km
  • Duration: 5 to 7 days
  • Type: Small rapids, channels, scenic
  • Put-in: Pelladrif pump station
  • Take-out: Goodhouse
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None
  • Commercial operators: Gravity River Tours, Kalahari Adventure Centre

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Orange River – Onseepkans Gorge

This is the best part of the Orange as far as whitewater is concerned (except for the inaccessible Augrabies Gorge, of course). The scenery is brilliant with the added excitement of good rapids, a serious gorge and a waterfall.

  • Ideal for: Kayak, croc, raft at higher levels
  • Grade: 2 to 4 (5)
  • Length: 40km
  • Duration: 3 to 4 days
  • Type: Open, scenic, some big rapids
  • Put-in: Onseepkans border post, take dirt road to left just before bridge, 300m to put-in
  • Take-out: Pelladrif pump station
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None
  • Commercial operator: Gravity River Tours Read More

Orange River – Augrabies Gorge

Although this section is not open for the general paddling public, it is one of the most amazing gorges in the country with big rapids; it just can’t be omitted in a guide like this. It has been paddled on special occasions like the 1999 Camel Whitewater Challenge, and the few privileged ones who did it, rave about the experience. The whole gorge, starting below the Augrabies Falls, is part of the Augrabies Falls National Park and the authorities are not easily persuaded to consent to a run. Read More

Orange River – Augrabies Rush

Two exciting and pristine 8km stretches can be paddled just above the Augrabies Falls, with ample opportunity during the trips to view the bird and wildlife. These are excellent stretches to do when travelling in the Northern Cape or on the way to a multi-day trip further downstream on the Orange.

  • Ideal for: Kayak, croc, raft at high level
  • Grade: 2 to 3
  • Length: 2 sections of 8km
  • Duration: 4 to 5 hours
  • Type: Pool-drop
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: Arrange with commercial operator for access
  • Commercial operator: Kalahari Outventures 

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Orange River – Neus Falls

This is one of the surprises of the Orange River. The water is perfectly flat above and below this section, with no indication of what’s happening at Neus (the name of a mountain close to the river, meaning ‘nose’).

  • Ideal for: Kayak
  • Grade: 3 to 5
  • Length: 800m
  • Duration: 10 min to 1 day
  • Type: Lots of steep channels
  • Access: Dirt road between Kakamas and Keimoes. Walk down from road (few hundred metres) from where the weir is visible, approximately 15km from Kakamas.
  • Dam controlled: Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None

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Orange River – Hopetown

An annual two-day race is held on this section, with distances of 38km and 45km respectively on the two days, but various shorter trips can be done. The area around Thunder Alley is particularly popular for rafting.

  • Ideal for: K1, croc, kayak
  • Grade: 2 to 3
  • Length: 83km on race section, over 100km on full section
  • Duration: 2-day race, short tripping sections
  • Type: Open for most part, narrow gorge section on last stage
  • Put-in: Bridge on dirt road off the R369, close to Orania
  • Take-out: Bridge, R357
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam
  • Permits: Permission from farmers when doing shorter trips

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Orange River – Mayaputi Bridge to Aliwal North

This is one section that certainly won’t give adrenaline junkies a rush. Basically, the whole course is flat. It is, however, a very scenic stretch, with views of cliffs and towering koppies. On the last section the river cruises through the magnificent Lichtenstein Gorge, where one is likely to have mirror-smooth water and no rapids.

  • Ideal for: K1, croc
  • Grade: 1 to 2
  • Length: 120km
  • Duration: 3 to 7 days, depending on craft and water level
  • Type: Flat, scenic
  • Put-in: Mayaputi Bridge
  • Take-out: Aliwal North
  • Dam controlled: No
  • Permits: None Read More