Information for foreign paddlers visiting Southern Africa

First of all, it must be understood that the countries in Southern Africa are all First and Third world mixtures. On top of that, it is supposed to be a semi-arid region. Nonetheless, this region offers some world-class paddling experiences.

Most of the paddling is done in rural and under-developed areas that can be described as Third World territory. Do not be scared off by this. Accept it as a challenge to experience a different side of the world. Be cautious before you trust just anyone, keep your wallet and passport in a safe place, and never ever leave anything unattended. With a few exceptions, the rivers flow through the most beautiful countryside, unseen by ordinary tourists, and sometimes through very remote places. Read More

Sea Kayaking

Paddlers who are looking for a different kind of adventure can explore the oceans. The Southern African coastline stretches over three thousand kilometres round the southern-most point of Africa at Cape Agulhas, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. These have distinctive characters, with the Benguela Current sweeping up the west coast of Africa and the warm Agulhas sweeping along the east coast down south from Mozambique.

It is one of the most active coastlines in the world, offering exposed paddling behind the breakers, but a few natural bays such as Table Bay, False Bay, Walker Bay, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay and Algoa Bay and large lagoons at Langebaan, Knysna and St Lucia make sea kayaking in more protected waters possible too.

Kayak paddlers taking to the sea need to learn appropriate skills and get used to nautical terms like port and starboard, reef knot and rudder yoke, chart and transit points. There are certain standards that sea kayakers should adhere to regarding their equipment and rules of the sea to obey; most of all, paddlers who go on the sea should not be ignorant of its dangers. Training courses for recreational and commercial sea kayakers are offered by APA, as well as RECSKASA (Recreational and Commercial Sea Kayaking Association of South Africa).

Commercial river-running

In today’s climate of increasingly stressful jobs and never-ending deadlines, many people are not only eager to get out there in the wilds, but are also willing to pay for the opportunity. On the other hand, a cult of adrenaline-junkies has emerged. Put these two groups together, and the ideal opportunity for commercial operators appears.

Commercial rafting and canoeing have become a major tourist attraction, supplying work for hundreds of professional river guides and taking thousands of clients on anything from easy half-day excursions to serious multi-day expeditions. A diverse range of commercial activities is available: from creeking to big-volume experiences, from team-building cruises to adrenaline-pumping action; every taste is catered for. The crafts that are used include 2-man rafts, the bigger 6- or 8-man rafts, fibreglass canoes and even kayaks.

The voice of the commercial scene is APA (African Paddlers Association, formerly SARA) that regulates safety standards, handles Public Relations and provides training for river guides. Every operator has to be registered at APA. All guides, freelance or permanent, must have completed APA-accredited Swiftwater Training and have a valid First Aid Certificate. Clients are advised to check on these two aspects, as fly-by-night operators rear their ugly heads from time to time. APA represents the full variety of commercial operations on flat-water, swiftwater and coastal waters, including canoeing, kayaking, rafting, sea kayaking/rafting, as well as minority sports such as tubing.

Recreational and competitive river-running

Would-be paddlers have various routes to follow, depending on what they want to do.

Anyone interested in paddling whitewater with plastic kayaks or rafts should get proper training. Several courses are available, dealing with Eskimo-rolls, basic boat control, understanding whitewater, paddle stroke techniques, big-volume river-running, creek running, playboating, etc. Advanced courses are offered on most of the subjects as well. It is not a good idea to let your buddy teach you, as his own technique is probably not that good, either. Always check that your instructor is APA-qualified.

If your interest lies in slalom, wildwater or K1-racing, you will have to join a club affiliated with the CSA. The clubs have programs geared towards novices, and will offer advice on how to get started. They will also give more information on equipment, paddling technique and training. The clubs have all the details of the different races, and will assist new members in registering and qualifying for the races.

Once again, all paddlers are advised to do a Swiftwater Safety and Rescue course accredited by APA.

General advice

Despite the elementary nature of this introduction, there are a few important issues that need to be addressed.

In the interest of all current and future paddlers, please be polite to the local people. This includes always asking permission before entering reserves or private land. Although most rivers are public property, the neighbouring land belongs to someone. The same goes for areas that are controlled by local headmen. Never direct vocal abuse at the locals you meet along riverbanks; although you might get away with it, the next party might not. Read More

Environmental aspects and low-impact camping

Paddling is not only about pushing limits, but also about getting out there. Rivers are the ultimate means of transport into the unspoilt parts of nature, and not only that, they are the veins of life for humankind. It is therefore of utmost importance that rivers and their surroundings are protected.

Although paddlers seldom pollute the rivers, it is still necessary to mention some aspects of environmental impact. It makes common sense that nothing that could be harmful to any living organism should be thrown in or near water, but for unknown reasons some people regard rivers as open drain systems that will carry everything away to who knows where.

As a general rule, everything that is taken on a river trip should be removed when you leave, as is the case with any other nature trail. To simplify matters, reduce litter at the source by re-packing and by keeping to simple menus. Read More


No matter how good you are and how well you know rivers, safety remains one of the most important aspects of paddling. Rivers are dynamic and things sometimes do go wrong. Without firsthand knowledge of how to deal with the unexpected, one’s paddling career, and even one’s life, can be at stake.

It is strongly recommended that all white water paddlers do a Swift Water Rescue course accredited by APA (African Paddlers Association). It may just save your own or somebody else’s life. APA is better known for its guide courses, but also offers shorter courses dealing purely with safety and rescue techniques. K1 paddlers and private trippers with their own rafts are also advised to complete the courses that were developed specifically for them by APA. All paddlers are also advised to do a proper First Aid Course.

Some basic principles regarding safety on rivers: Read More

Classification of rivers

Once all the necessary gear is bought/hired/borrow, it is important to know where one’s limits are. These limits are defined by knowledge of whitewater, knowledge of safety, skill-level, and ultimately, one’s state of mind. To make it possible for paddlers to know whether a certain stretch of whitewater is within their capabilities (once they know what they are capable of), rivers and rapids are classified according to an internationally accepted protocol.

The character of a river is influenced by two factors, namely the gradient and the volume of water. Four main categories can be derived from this: low gradient with small volume, low gradient with big volume, steep gradient with small volume and steep gradient with big volume. Rivers with steep gradients are known as creeks. Read More

Other equipment

A boat alone is not enough to tackle whitewater – one needs proper gear before venturing out. Only the most important pieces of equipment are discussed here, although many other accessories are available to make paddlers’ lives easier. Read More

Boat designs and the different aspects of river paddling

The local white water scene is divided into three main groups of interest: the kayakers using plastic kayaks to run white water rivers and play in rapids, the racing fraternity who paddle flat water and smaller rapids with K1’s and K2’s, and the commercial rafting and canoeing business. Tripping with touring kayaks and canoes on easy rivers is also becoming popular, while slalom and wild water racing is slowly regaining popularity.

Several boats designed for use on the sea such as seakayaks, surfskis and paddleskis, as well as flat water racing boats, for example sculling boats and dragon boats, are available. They will, however, not be discussed here as they fall beyond the scope of this article.

Read More