Umzimkulu River – Drakensberg Gardens to Second Coleford bridge, aka Drakensberg Challenge

This section of the Umzimkulu River is mostly used by K1 racers, and an annual two-day race, called the Drakensberg Challenge, is held over the course described here. The start is not far from the source and the river is very small here, but small tributaries feed it constantly, so it gets bigger as one progresses downstream. The water is very clear on this upper part and the escarpment can be seen from the river, making for a pleasant experience.

  • Ideal for: K1
  • Grade: 1 to 3
  • Length: 60km
  • Duration: 2 day race
  • Type: Small river with long flats and technical rapids
  • Put-in for first day: 7 Kay bridge, on the way to Drakensberg Gardens
  • Take-out for second day: Second Coleford bridge
  • Dam controlled: No
  • Permits: None

Umzimkulu upper section map

Soon after the start the first major rapid, Andrew’s Delight, is encountered, which becomes pretty big at a high level. After that the infamous Valley of a Thousand Rapids is entered, where a rather steep gradient and lots of boulders make the going difficult. Most rapids are easily readable from the top. The biggest rapid on the section is approached after going through the dark forest. It is called Black Murray and requires tight turning.

A few fun rapids follow, like the Bus Stop, before reaching the Trout Hatcheries. The Valley of a Thousand Rapids is over, and the nature of the river changes to more open, shelf type rapids with less gradient. The only real obstacle left is Taylor’s weir, which is shot left of centre at low water or extreme left at high water. In very low years the upper section is not runnable, and the race is then started at the Trout Hatcheries, thereby excluding the biggest rapids of the race.

The stopover is normally at Scotston bridge below Underberg. To get there, take the dirt road next to the Spar in town and follow it down to the river.

The second day’s stretch is shorter with some beautiful long pools. The first obstacle is a high weir, about 500m after the start. In low to medium conditions, it is shootable down a fish chute in the centre, but don’t attempt it in full conditions. It is actually advisable to take the easy portage on the right at all levels.

A few smaller rapids follow before entering the Underberg gorge, hosting some nice class 2 rapids, ending in a bigger one that should be run with the main flow of water. The river eases off after the gorge till reaching the Glenhaven picnic site. There is a nasty rapid that was formed when a dam on the hillside broke in a thunderstorm, and hurled all the rocky rubbish in the river. What is left now is an unfriendly boulder garden with no definite route through it. It is best to portage this one the right hand side.

Soon after this the first Coleford bridge is reached, which is another access point to this stretch of river. Long calm pools with small rapids follow till 5km before the second Coleford bridge. Another gorge is entered here with tighter, steeper rapids and two bigger ones. The first is a rocky natural weir that can be shot on the right. A calm pool follows before Heaven and Hell. It has a sheer drop on the right, so stay away from that. Aim for the chute left of it or take a chicken run even further left.

The river flattens out again after Heaven and Hell for the last 4km to the take out.

Keep in mind that throughout the whole race the walk out from the river is on the left to the nearest road. It is also possible to use the bridges as shown on the map for access to do shorter trips.

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