Every expedition starts with an idea. The idea grows until someone gets interested (or obsessed) enough by the idea to put a plan in action to make it happen. This process can take weeks, months, sometimes years. Getting to run the main Tsitsa Gorge was no different.
THE Transkei – literally meaning “Across the Kei River” – conjures images of endless mountains and valleys, inhabited by traditional Xhosa people and their mythical forefathers’ spirits. It’s a true image, but not the whole truth. The Transkei boasts the type of raw beauty that only Africa can deliver, where spectacular natural scenery goes hand in hand with poverty, violence and corruption. It’s a part of South Africa that feels so remote from the civilized world that it could just as well have been in Africa’s heart of darkness.
With so many other beautiful places to visit in Southern Africa, the Transkei never really crossed my mind as a place to spend valuable exploration time. That was until 2002, when I had to test the first prototype of the first playboat of Fluid Kayaks, the company I just launched earlier that year. We were in the middle of a drought and I couldn’t find a decent wave to test the boat on; all the rivers were too low. Somehow I had heard via the grapevine that the lower Umzimvubu had some awesome waves and holes even at low water levels. So the decision was made without hesitation: we would undertake a short expedition on the lower Umzimvubu, making use of the short break between Christmas and New Year.
The Umzimvubu is the third largest river in South Africa, draining most parts of the Transkei. It’s source is close to the border of Lesotho, high up in the Drakensberg Mountains, and it collects tributaries small and large from a huge area before spilling it all into the Indian Ocean at Port St. Johns, a hippy haven of yester year that still carries its charm in the new millenium.
I did a little bit of research and found that most parties who have paddled the lower section of the ’Vubu, as it is also known, put in from a small village called Dikela, which meant a stiff hike to get to the river. I decided that hiking is not high on my agenda for this trip, and searched my 1:250 000 topo-cadastral map for another access point, preferably upstream from Dikela, as I would rather make the trip longer than shorter. With all the map offices closed already for the Christmas holiday, I couldn’t get hold of a 1:50 000 map of this region.
In hindsight I should have put more effort into finding that 1:50 000 map, but I’ve planned many other trips before with a 1:250 000 map without hassles. In my mind 1:50 000 maps were only needed on unknown sections to check for things like gradient and steep sided canyons and possible portaging routes. In the case of a fairly often run section, where we had fairly detailed descriptions of the major hazards, all we really needed the map for was to find the access points. So even though I would have preferred to have a 1:50 000 map, I felt comfortable enough with the map and information at hand to plan the trip.
I found an easy access point: the Tsitsa River joins the Tina River about 5km before the Tina flows into the Umzimvubu. At this confluence of the Tina and Tsitsa rivers, the map showed what seemed like a low water drift, with a dirt road from the south crossing the Tsitsa and continuing for some distance on the other side of the river. Had I looked at the contours on the map more closely, I would have noticed that the “road” also crossed a series of contour lines just before hitting the river-bank.
Oblivious to this little detail, we planned our trip and headed for the Transkei. In addition to my wife, Inke, who is a competent paddler, I invited my old paddling buddy Hugh du Preez, who owns and runs Whitewater Training, a kayaking and swiftwater rescue school in Parys, and his wife, Linda, who is also a competent paddler, and my friend Marinus Coetzee, who had been wanting to get into paddling for a while but hadn’t yet got around to doing it.
We decided to rig my 13’ raft with an oar frame for Marinus while the rest of us would go in kayaks. Me in the prototype, naturally, not forgetting the true reason for this expedition. The plan was that we would give Marinus a crash course in oar rafting as soon as we hit the water so that he could manage the smaller rapids on his own, and then Hugh and I would take turns to steer the raft through the bigger rapids, with the extra kayak then tied onto the raft. Since we had the luxury of a big raft and access right to the river-bank for the vehicle, we took all sorts of luxury stuff to make our five days on the river more comfortable. Within a day after leaving home, we would curse the stuff from the bottoms of our collective hearts …
We arrived in Port St. Johns without any real hiccups, although it took us about fourteen hours to drive the 900km from Parys due to the deteriorated condition of the roads of the Transkei, rendered all the more dangerous by stray animals. We slept on the banks of the ’Vubu close to the mouth of the river, at a nice little resort just outside town. We left for the put-in the next morning early, in high spirits for the adventure to come. And adventure it was to be.
As expected, the roads were in a bad condition, and we were glad that we had arranged a Land-Rover to do the shuttle. With five kayaks and a raft on the roof, and five paddlers with tons of gear in the back of the Landy, we were quite a spectacle for the locals who cheered and waved as we went by, a common occurrence when paddling in rural Africa.
And then suddenly, we came to a halt. It turned out that the road so clearly marked on the map actually stops in a small village at the top of the escarpment, with a narrow footpath going down the cliffs a few hundred meters in vertical height before joining a much wider path at the bottom, which is evidently used by the locals for migrating with their cattle, even for crossing the river when the water levels are not too high. I can just imagine that the poor guy who drew the map used an aerial photo of the region to plot the roads, and just like me when I studied the map, he had not realized that a road can’t actually cross the escarpment in a straight line. So there we were, stuck at the top of the escarpment, with the confluence of the two rivers in clear view, some distance below us, with no plan B.
We decided to stick to plan A; after all, this is Africa and porters can’t be too difficult to find. Marinus, being the only one between us who could muster a few words in an African language, albeit a different one from what was spoken in that region, struck up negotiations with the locals. Nobody seemed interested in carrying our stuff down to the riverbank, a fact which in itself should have made us stop and think, but in our ignorance we ended up bartering with a bunch of kids, aged between eight and twelve, I would guess, to help us carry our luggage.
The hike down the cliffs was steeper than it seemed from the top, as is always the case with matters of this kind. Long before halfway down, most of the kids had already disappeared, leaving our belongings scattered along the trail. The fact that they wouldn’t get a cent before we reached the river didn’t matter, they had had enough. By this time, it was early afternoon already, and in the heat of the African summer we were starting to feel the symptoms of dehydration. We had no choice but to push on. There was no way back anymore, the Landy had left long time ago, and even if it were still waiting at the top, there was no way we could carry everything back up. We had far more items of luggage than people in our group, so we resorted to carrying an item down a little way, then dropping it in the shade of a tree, hiking back up, carrying the next item to the same tree, and back up again, and down again, and so on until we couldn’t think anymore. We reached the river-bank just before sunset, all in various stages of dehydration.
We took a short break, after which the girls got some food going and the men pumped the raft and got our shelter set up. Then, just after the last bit of daylight faded and we were starting to get comfortable under Hugh’s tarp – which would become the source of much discussion over the course of the next few days – we were hit by a serious lightning storm. I’ll never forget the sight of us five, huddled underneath the tarp to try and avoid the driving rain, illuminated by one fierce lightning bolt striking the cliff right next to where we were camping. In one instant that event was engraved in my memory. It was one of those magical moments in life when things seemed so clear, and nothing but the moment seemed to matter.
The next morning greeted us with beautiful weather, and the river flowed calmly beside us, as if the previous day had never happened. For five days we were to experience this river’s grace and excitement, and also its anger where it plunges into one sickening rapid that will surely not be run by anyone soon. I had the opportunity to test the prototype kayak on all sorts of waves and holes on the way down to the ocean, Marinus was getting the hang of oar rafting pretty quickly and ended up running most rapids on his own with our valuable cargo in his care, and everybody was having a good time on and off the water.
A good portion of our afternoon was spent rigging Hugh’s big tarp into a suitable shelter. Despite having taken so much luxury stuff on the trip, Hugh convinced us before we left that no tents are needed because his tarp would be big enough for us all. Big enough it was indeed, but it required much innovation every day to create a structure to fit every campsite’s geography with the variety of objects at our disposal, and in the process provided much amusement for our female audience of two.
The locals we met along the way were extremely friendly. Violence in the Transkei is by no means something of the past, but it is more prevalent around some specific towns and developed areas. But here along the river, where the pace is determined by the movement of the shadows and peoples’ lives are closely dependent on the natural environment, white people on boats represent a source of interest and even entertainment, but not a threat. Although we paddled long sections without any sign of human life, we would pass some locals every now and then. They were always very excited to see us and interested in what we were doing. This has been the case on almost all rivers I have paddled in Africa.
As we camped out for the third night, we had some memorable interaction with the locals. A group of about ten people, kids and adults, sat in a row on a ridge barely 10 metres from where our tarp was fixed for the night’s sleep. They watched our every move as we set up camp, cooked, rested. They didn’t bother us, they just watched. When it got dark, they all got up and quietly left for their own huts, a distance away behind a hill. We felt assured that they wouldn’t try to steal anything while we slept, so we all dozed off in a well-deserved sleep. The next morning, as the first light of the new day woke us, we opened our eyes to see the same group of people sitting in a row on the same ridge, 10 metres away from where we were lying under the tarp. They must have woken up before sunrise and walked down to our camp to take position in time for the show to start!
By the end of the trip, I was hooked on the Transkei and vowed to return for more paddling. Not only was I hooked, I became intrigued by this strange place that is so similar to most of Africa, but still so different.
After some research, I found out that the Umzimvubu had been paddled source to sea by the infamous Wits Explorers. The two major tributaries of the Umzimvubu are the Tina and Tsitsa rivers, both of which are major rivers in their own right, and at whose confluence we had put in when we did our paddle down to the coast. The Wits Explorers also paddled the Tina River from its source to the Umzimvubu, and some sections of the Tsitsa. Some other groups of paddlers also explored various other rivers in the Transkei, but most of these remain unpaddled to this day. The Umzimvubu, Tina and Tsitsa rivers all have very deep gorges not too far upstream from their respective confluences. The entrances to all three these gorges are marked by major waterfalls that carry the names of their rivers.
It turned out that the main Tsitsa gorge has not been paddled yet. After scouting from various vantage points, the few paddlers who had considered paddling it, had decided that it was too dangerous. This was just what I needed to hear… I discussed it with Hugh, and we decided that we would go back one day to do a first descent of this gorge. In the months that followed, when we talked about paddling trips, the Tsitsa gorge would often come up in the conversation, but we were too busy with other things to start planning this expedition. A first descent of this nature doesn’t just happen, it takes time and planning and a good team and the right conditions. The water level of the river would be critical, and we heard vague reports every now and then from paddlers crossing the Tsitsa on the N2 “highway” not too far upstream of the gorge, who reported that the river was either bone dry or in flood, depending on when they crossed the river. So we waited, with the Tsitsa expedition in the back of our minds, but too busy to make it happen.