The Vaal is one of the major rivers in Southern Africa and the lifeblood of Gauteng. Its source is in the Breyten area in Mpumalanga, from where it meanders to the Vaal Dam, through the Vaal Triangle and skirting the Free State, before meeting up with the Orange River near Douglas. It is characterized by endless flat-water but it has not lost all sense of humour, providing a few stretches of fine whitewater.
The section of the Caledon River below Welbedacht Dam is surprisingly challenging for K1-paddlers. It is a rather large river when it has water, and there are a couple of big rapids that should not be under-estimated. Unfortunately the river is too low to paddle most of the time. The Welbedacht Dam is a small, deep dam that gets silted up regularly, and water is only released after good rains. The section is usually only paddled when a race is held and the organisers of the event arrange for a release from the dam.
- Ideal for: K1
- Grade: 2 to 3
- Length: 35km
- Duration: 3 to 5 hours
- Type: Wide, with long flat sections and some big rapids
- Put-in: Below Welbedacht Dam
- Take-out: On ‘Klein Holstein’ farm
- Dam controlled: Welbedacht Dam
- Permits: Permission from farmer at take-out (race organisers take care of that)
This section is the Vaal River’s big surprise, to be enjoyed by competent class 4 paddlers.
- Ideal for: Kayak
- Grade: 3 to 4
- Length: 18km
- Duration: 4 to 6 hours
- Type: Pool-drop
- Put-in: Take R31 from Barkly West to Delportshoop. Turn left at holiday resort, 3km outside Barkly West. Put in at resort.
- Take-out: On R31, halfway between Barkly West and Delportshoop, take turn-off to Gong-Gong. Follow dirt road down to and then along the river for about 5km. Stop at soccer field on riverbank. Don’t leave vehicle alone.
- Dam controlled: Bloemhof Dam
- Permits: Permission from resort to put in. Ask and be friendly.
This is the perfect section for the masochists among us. It is long and mostly flat, with many channels to choose from. Actually a very nice section of river from a K1/K2 racing point of view, with beautiful scenery and some challenging obstacles.
- Ideal for: K1, K2
- Grade: 1 to 2-
- Length: 44km
- Duration: 4 to 7 hours
- Type: Mostly flat, lots of channels
- Put-in: Barrage
- Take-out: Likkewaan Canoe Club, off the Parys – Sasolburg road, or at Smilin Thru, off the Parys-Fochville road
- Dam controlled: Barrage
- Permits: None
This is without doubt one of the best known stretches for Gauteng based K1-paddlers. A couple of races are held here every season, and many paddlers do their own private trips to gain experience in relatively easy rapids and to learn the course, which is an advantage in a race due to the many channels. The water level is obviously dependent on the release from the dam, but a good level is normally arranged with Rand Water for the races.
- Ideal for: K1, croc, kayak
- Grade: 1 to 3
- Length: 9 or 15 km, depending on the take-out
- Duration: 1 to 2 hours racing in a K1, 3 to 5 hours in a different craft
- Type: Open with some channels
- Put-in: Below Vaal Dam
- Take-out: Vischgat or Groenoewers
- Dam controlled: Vaal Dam
- Permits: None
When races are held, access is arranged with Rand Water and paddlers put in just below the dam wall. Otherwise one can stop next to the bridge below the wall and walk down on river left, putting in below the bridge. Right at the put-in is Kloppers’ rapid, which is actually an easy rapid but always causes chaos in the races. The races start not far above the rapid, resulting in a whole bunch of paddlers charging for the perfect line. (Who said paddling is not a spectator sport?) Some races start in a time-trial format, making it a bit easier.
A 2km flat stretch after Kloppers’ leads to the first weir of the section. It can be shot on the far left or far right at very low levels, but the weir has broken many boats in the past, so it might be a better idea to do a quick portage. It should in any case be portaged at any level higher than very low.
Beyond the weir, the river channels considerably, making for interesting lines through the rapids. The next major obstacle is the Chute, approximately 7km from the start, where the whole river is forced through a gap of 5 metres. At race levels some big standing waves form, making for an enjoyable ride. It is essential for a K1-paddler to keep his boat in the middle of the wave train, otherwise a flip is likely to happen when the bow catches the eddy fence. Nice surf waves can be found here at higher levels (above 200 cumecs).
Some more channels and small rapids follow for 2km before reaching the notorious Vischgat rapid. At race levels it has a main line on the right with a nice drop at the end, a pretty straightforward line in the middle, and a chicken run or two on the left close to the bank. The rapid is quite long and the terrain around it is strewn with boulders, making portaging difficult. It might be worthwhile to do a recce trip before a race and scout it properly; once you have seen it you will probably want to do the main run. At high levels some huge holes form in this rapid, but it is still runnable by competent kayakers.
Below the rapid waits Vischgat weir, which is shootable at some levels on the far right, but rather portage it. At most levels it is a killer. Don’t worry about the weir when running the rapid, it is far enough for easy recovery after a swim.
Kayakers normally opt to take out at the Vischgat weir on the right bank. The dirt road leading to the weir is not always in a good condition and the boat has to be carried up a small hill; K1-paddlers therefore find it easier to go on a bit further to the Groenoewers picnic site, which is some 6km down on the left bank. This last stretch is relatively flat except for a few shallow rapids.
This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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