by Graeme McFerren
It was for different personal reasons that Steve Carrott and myself became obsessed with the desire run the Mzimvubu from the Welsh bridge to the sea. We tried to interest other people in joining us but nobody could do so. Thus it resulted that the two of us found ourselves heading apprehensively to the ex-Transkei. I say apprehensively because we were going to shoot the river in one croc. This meant no back-up if we ran into problems, which would be magnified by the inaccessibility of the river through certain sections of the stretch. Nevertheless, we reckoned that a very cautious aproach and plenty of time to take it slowly, would enable us to be succesful.
We had some idea about the stretch, because I had been on the river three weeks previously with WEES and had seen the section from Dikela to the sea. We had also consulted Paul, who kindly lent us his tent and gave us some advice on what to expect. On arrival at the Welsh bridge near Tabankulu, we found the river to be ultra low, but we decided to continue with the descent on the understanding that the river is susceptible to rapid changes in level. I sat with the kit at the bridge while Steve did the drive around to Port St. Johns, which took all day. Our plan was to be on the river for ten days, in which we would have to cover about 170 kilometres, which would include a number of portages, most notably around the Mzimvubu Falls. Logistically, we were trying to remain as light as possible, so we had minimal equipment and light, compact food. As an example, most lunches consisted of two PVM Energy Bars, which are surprisingly filling and satisfying, though three bars would be better for hard, long days.
The first day on the river saw us covering 21bony kays, the only incident being a bruising swim that I took in the very first rapid. The manoeuvrability and shallow draught of the crocs enabled us to cover this distance and also have some fun in the small but technical rapids. Day two was similar, but with bigger rapids, due to the much steeper gradient which was about five-and-a-half metres per kilometre. Steve, taking his turn to steer, also took a swim in the first rapid of the day, but it was innocuous compared to a situation that developed further on. We recced a steep but very bony drop, but the actual entry was very unclear. As we entered the rapid, we broached on a barely covered boulder and in the process of freeing the boat it flipped. We had noted that this was clearly not a rapid to swim through, so I baled onto the upside-down croc, which sailed unhindered to the end of the rapid. Steve, meanwhile, had clung limpet-like to a slippery rock and he managed to gradually edge his way to the bank, from where he swum down to help me right the croc, which I was holding in mid-stream above the next rapid. Our relief was minimal, for we had both let go of our paddles in our hasty self-rescues. Both of us felt highly aware of the seriousness of the situation, for we were deep within the huge and almost totally inaccessible gorges that people who have rafted the Mzimvubu know about. The possibility of a situation like this developing had been foreseen though, and we were carrying a fold-up spare paddle, borrowed from WEES. This is an essential item on a croc trip. It had also been used on the recent WEES croc expedition form the N2 bridge to the Welsh bridge, when one guy lost his paddle in a rapid on the first day. Anyway, we recovered both paddles a bit further down river, for we had managed to note in which directions they had gone.
On day three, we reached the Falls, 45 kilometres from the start, after some interesting rapids. By doing so, we were a day ahead of schedule, so after the relatively easy portage around the Falls, we found a small but awesome campsite at the plunge pool on river right, where we relaxed for the rest of the day, which happened to be absolutely stinking hot and humid. The stretch above the falls had been what we were most worried about. At higher levels, it is clear that this is serious wildwater country, with many huge drops, wavetrains and other long rapids. We had actually caught the river at a favourable level for crocs though. A higher level would have been more fun but would have slowed our progress greatly. This 45 kilometre stretch is truly magnificent in terms of scenery, with huge cliffs capping the deep, forested gorges. The locals are fairly scarce but are wonderfully friendly, though English is not exactly widely spoken. The Falls themselves are not the highest but make up for it in terms of their stark beauty and awesome power. We succeeded in paddling really close to the main falls due to the lower flow rate. It was a magical experience. We almost chose to do it again under the full moon, but the influence of strange green leaves forced us to remain exactly where we were.
It took us another two days to reach Dikela, a distance of some 43 kilometres. All the major tributaries that join the Mzimvubu in this section were also exceedingly low, so the rapids did not get too big, though they were still numerous. The scenery here is still remarkable, something to treasure. For those who have shot the confluence rapid on the right hand side, the river features that made it such a hectic run consist of clumps of thick trees and a vast drop at the end, as Steve determined by going for a stroll over this area of the river bed. The river level that we experienced was several metres lower than say that of the 1991 WEES Tina expedition. The locals in this area remain very friendly, though we did feel/'a bit vulnerable and irritated at Dikela when two of us were surrounded by twelve curious people who just watched us for a few hours.
On the sixth day on the river we planned to cover around twenty kilometres, but the combination of a pleasant day, lack of suitably shady camp-sites and increased paddling fitness saw us do 35km instead. We dragged around the right of a dogleg rapid, familiar to Mzimvubu veterans,though the water level made us seriously consider shooting it. This was followed by a series of notable rapids, the last of which turned out to be the largest rapid of our trip, before we reached the bad mother rapid that demands a compulsory portage. It was at this point that we stopped, spending a night listening to its tumultuous roar. In the afternoon though, we had an interesting moment. A gang of some twenty men, all wielding pangas and axes of various degrees of hugeness and sharpness ambled into our campsite. We did have fear. It tumed out that they were friendly, merely retuming to their village after felling trees for the day, but they sure did look like a mean war party. We felt it wise to offer them clifton when some of them asked us for a drink. It rained that night, so Paul’s disclike tent came in useful, though it is obviously a one-and- a-half man contraption. For those of you who are suspicious of its design, well, it is simple to erect, fairly robust and even bone-dry.
We paddled continuously on day seven and reached the sea, covering 46 kilometres, the furthest that either of us had been in one day on a river. The first two hours were excellent fun. The low water level had exposed the last few current accelerations and we encountered numerous small but steep rapids and some fun wave trains. We even managed to execute our fourth flip in a tight chute, but this was pretty much a case of ‘no danger’. This stretch was followed by a flat, but flowing stretch. We planned to camp at the end of it but in looking for a suitable campsite, we bypassed them all and had to continue to the end. It was a bit of a slog, but we found the last straight, which we did as dusk started to fall, highly enjoyable. A mist was coming in from the sea, which looked an eerie purple due to the fading light, and hordes of large and small mullet were jumping around the boat, with some of them hitting us. It was a peaceful and somehow fitting culmination to a rewarding trip that had been stressful in some ways, owing to our isolation in the gorges. The completion of the trip meant a great deal to both of us. Standing on First beach at the river mouth, as darkness fell was a beautiful moment, allowing us time to contemplate what we had done.
We spent the next two days hanging around Port St Johns and relaxing. We found out about the superb fishing from a local dude, who also told us of a couple of rivers in the Cape that he had descended, including the Storms River, which sounds like a fun and interesting proposition for those of you a bit tired of the muddy Tugela and Orange Rivers. From here, it was into the cars and back to JHB. It is probably worth mentioning here that crocs offer members a chance to make more flexible use of their available time.
Small groups can raft for extended and unsupported periods of time in these craft (probably up to twenty days), which are in fact stable, relatively fast and easy to paddle. They can handle serious wildwater, though broaching is always a thought that should be uppermost in a croc crew’s minds, for these boats are vulnerable to this situation. I would thus encourage people to make more use of the crocs on expedition type rafting trips.