Umtamvuna River

The Umtamvuna River forms the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei, and the last 40 km of the river to the sea goes through what is arguably the most stunning gorge in South Africa. Some big walls can be seen, with thick tropical vegetation. This must be the closest you can get to a tropical jungle in Southern Africa. It is unspoilt for the most part and extremely remote. Once in the gorge, it is virtually impossible to walk out.

  • Ideal for: Kayak
  • Grade: Mostly 3 to 4, some bordering on 5
  • Length: 44km
  • Duration: 8 to 10 hours, depending on water level. Preferably a 2 day trip.
  • Type: Technical pool-drop, some sections continuous
  • Put-in: Road from Port Edward to Izingolweni. Turn off to Umtamvuna Water Purification Plant. Don’t enter plant, take road down to river (+-3.5km). Where powerlines cross road, take track to left. Walk down from here or use 4×4 (+-1km).
  • Take-out: Old Pont Caravan Park just outside Port Edward, on road to Izingolweni
  • Dam controlled: No
  • Permits: Pay at take-out

MAP 26

The rapids are very technical, with rough unfriendly rocks. You won’t find many play spots on this river, and a playboat will loose many of its nice edges, so rather use a short creekboat when doing this trip. Most pools between rapids are short, resulting in some very continuous sections. Don’t be disappointed if the pools seem too long after the start; when the gradient really starts dropping you’ll be in for an overdose of adrenaline. The rapids are fairly easy to scout from the bank, but be careful not to hurt yourself while scrambling over the rocks. It’s not possible to describe the rapids, there are far too many of them. If you can’t see the line from the top, rather get out and scout. There are a good couple of pour-overs, undercuts, siphons and full stop rocks on this river that must be avoided. Some of the rapids are very nasty, making portaging compulsory for most paddlers.

This trip should rather be done in two days, unless you know the section and the water is quite high. A two-day trip is especially recommended if you want to get footage of the awesome rapids, otherwise you might end up paddling after sundown. If you plan to do it in one day, get on the water at sunrise. A good option is to sleep at the Old Pont Caravan Park the night before you get on the water. That will help for an early start and your tent will be waiting for you when you get off the water. The last 3km of the section is on the lagoon of the river, where an incoming tide and a sea-born wind can make the going tough if the elements don’t cooperate.

The water doesn’t channel too well when the level gets low, it sort of disappears between the rocks and gets very bony. It is therefore advisable to do the trip at a medium level first. The catchment area is rather small but a good level can be expected after rain has fallen south of Harding.

For most part of the section, the river borders the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve. As a courtesy gesture, contact the Reserve officials before you get on the water and let them know you are doing the section. Keep in mind that the gorge is very inaccessible, and any kind of rescue operation will be a mission.

For the competent class 4 paddler, this is one of the most awesome trips to be done in Southern Africa. The length and difficulty combined with the scenery makes it a worthwhile expedition.

The first tricky rapid of the section
The first tricky rapid of the section
Celliers Kruger in the thick of it - picture by Ross O'Donoghue
Celliers Kruger in the thick of it – picture by Ross O’Donoghue
Doug Bird running the river-wide pourover
Doug Bird running the river-wide pourover
Typical scenery in the Umtamvuna gorge
Typical scenery in the Umtamvuna gorge
Graeme Anderson running one of the channels of the trickiest rapid on the section
Graeme Anderson running one of the channels of the trickiest rapid on the section
Graeme Anderson running a chute backwards
Graeme Anderson running a chute backwards

Detailed trip report on Adrian Tregoning’s blog:  Umtamvuna – Northern Most Transkei Border River

All pictures by Celliers Kruger, unless credited otherwise.

This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
If you have any pictures or recent information on this section of river to share, please contact me:
I appreciate any contributions to keep this content up-to-date.