“No, it’s fine – you don’t need to be able to roll a kayak for this trip!”
Perhaps the fact that I am here writing this story does suggest that the person giving me this advice was correct, however it was a little disconcerting to hear Gwen say when we arrived that she would not take anyone on the river who cannot roll! This was my first real experience in a plastic kayak, and thankfully it was on a low Vaal river.
A group of ESSA-ites decided to make a long overdue trip down the Vaal in crocs and plastics on 9 March 2008. We had a few new members who had joined us for the trip, as well as the usual suspects.
Piers spent most of the afternoon before the trip “tirelessly teaching me to roll a kayak”. Unfortunately, although Piers can roll very well himself, he gets a bit confused about left and right when someone else is upside-down in the water strapped into a boat. I cannot claim that his confusing directions are the sole reason I still cannot roll successfully, but it did make for a rather interesting learning experience. However, I must thank Piers for his efforts and patience. It can’t be too much fun standing waist-deep in a rather chilly pool endlessly rescuing some inept kayaker! I must also remember to try and learn this type of skill in mid-summer rather than in autumn…
Meeting at the ESSA storeroom early in the morning was also an experience. First the dog escaped, and had to be found and returned home. Then we had to gather together enough equipment for everyone, and make sure that it all fitted correctly. I used the ESSA Diablo, which is a lovely little beginners kayak and it was great to be able to borrow it for the day. Indemnity forms were signed, fees paid, all the gear was loaded into various cars and bakkies, and we set off to the river.
Gwen Morgan was our trip leader and in charge of safety for the day – she gave us a brilliant safety talk at the beginning, and definitely made me feel more comfortable about surviving the day.
After dropping off the rafts at the start, we did a quick drive around to our finish point (just above Gatsien) and dropped off some cars. Gwen gave us the afore-mentioned safety talk and we were on our way. A dog that had been standing around on the bank decided that this trip was one to join, and tried to come along for a swim/paddle. So we first had to coax the dog back to the bank (he had not paid his membership fees or signed an indemnity), before we could start. From my point of view, plastic kayaks are missing one vital piece of equipment – a rudder! I think I doubled the distance of paddling required as I could not stay in a straight line no matter what I tried. As for rolling, that was something I was not going to attempt in the river when I could not even get it right in a crystal clear swimming pool!
Scheepers and Gwen entertained us with some free-style kayak skill displays on our way to the first rapid. The crocs were paddling along in fine style – as usual an abundance of verbal abuse emanating from Andrew Luke’s boat.
Most of us were in crocs, with just Gwen, Scheepers, Piers, myself and Gwen’s boyfriend in plastics.
The river was actually a lot easier than I expected (probably mostly due to it being rather low at the time and my expectations of doom and disaster being a little over the top), and the only really challenging sections were Big Daddy and Theatre. We stopped before Big Daddy to check it out, and I definitely contemplated portaging there, but in the end it was perfectly runnable even by a novice like me. Of course following Gwen’s line also helped enormously! The crocs all took turns to shoot Big Daddy and we did not have a single swimmer there, but plenty of big grins!
After Big Daddy we paddled along in some flatter water for a while, had a mini picnic on the boats and enjoyed being outdoors on a lovely stretch of water. An afternoon storm was brewing on the horizon, so we were keeping an eye on the weather in case it turned nasty. A couple more interesting little sections later and the rain was definitely threatening to come down. Gwen decided it would be safer to get off the river as soon as possible and we kept moving as fast as possible to the finish point. Theatre, our last section on the river was a very tricky section for me, with lots of tight turns and rocks waiting to trap your kayak at every turn. I did actually get stuck on one corner, and with the water rushing against the side of the boat, trying to tip you out and suck you under it can be challenging to remain calm! Luckily I managed to hang onto the rocks and push my kayak backwards out of the rocks and get moving again without too much trouble.
Then it was time to pull the boats out, pack up and EAT! I was starving by this stage – nothing like a day on the river to work up an appetite. We headed out and tried to find a place in Parys to get some food. However after numerous false starts, we gave up and went to Wimpy (old faithful) for toasted sandwiches, burgers and hot chocolate.
Thanks to Piers Pirow for organising the trip, Gwen Morgan for acting as Safety Officer for the day and everyone else who came along for a great day out!