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In search of white water: Assegaai River, South Africa

by Franz Fuls

There is nothing worse than living far from the places where you get your regular dose of adrenaline, and this was the case with my white water addiction. Eventually it became too much and I started looking for some action closer to home. After countless hours of searching on satellite images and topographical maps I discovered the Assegaai River. From the satellite images I could see the potential and the white water. I was caught!

Late April 2013 I got myself together and did a preliminary scouting, starting just below Heyshope Dam, between Piet Retief, Ermelo and Wakkerstroom.

On arrival I knew I had something special. The river was obviously in flood, but the weir below the dam seems to be not too retentive and makes a beautiful standing wave that I think would make playboaters excited.

The standing wave at the weir below Heyshope dam.

The standing wave at the weir below Heyshope dam.

Being solo I promised myself that I would portage bigger rapids. There is no good reason to get stuck in a retentive hole without anyone around to rescue you! After all, I needed to come back alive if I was to tell my story. So I put my Fluid Solo creek boat in below the weir and started paddling.

The river was clearly in flood, with boils and turbulence all over on flat water, a promise that there are very interesting features below waiting to be uncovered when the river level subsides a bit. Man the strainers! Although the river was flowing at a very fast pace it started out relatively flat, so dodging these traps were no challenge. The flat water seemed be a never-ending and I was very disappointed. At least the boils, and turbulence made it less monotonous, but I was hungry for a sign of a major rapid.

I stopped for a coffee, had a little self-conversation and paddled on. I had a destination, and limited time. Regardless of the river features I had to make it to the bridge my driver and I agreed upon for a take out. Little did I know what was awaiting!

After paddling through two bends I started hearing the rumble, increasing in intensity as I paddled closer. Close to the rapid I got out for a scout and saw what I was looking for! I have found some decent white water! From here on most of the trip became a very frustrating portage as the intensity and frequency of the rapids increased. Put in, paddle around a bend, take out, scout, portage, put in, it became an endless cycle. I drooled at the features, and desperately wanted to run it, but the constant reminder that I do not know this river and being alone prevailed. Portage. Portage. Portage.

View of the Assegaai in Flood

View of the Assegaai in Flood

Carrying a white water kayak is way slower than paddling it, and time caught up with me. Being in an isolated forestry area I knew I could not continue in the dark, and in the last light I finally got enough signal on my phone to message by coördinates to my driver and get a confirmation that he is on his way. Hours passed, and all I had for company was my kayak, camping stove for coffee, some emergency warm clothing and a piece of biltong (the south African version of jerky – only better!) Hours passed with the background noise of a raging river and the silhouette of pine trees for stimulation.

Waiting for the pickup.

Waiting for the pickup.

I was about to move into the forest to make an emergency shelter for the night when my driver found me. Part of me was sad that I did not get a chance of practicing some survival skills, but I had no regrets getting into the Land Rover and enjoy the comforts of civilization while we navigated our way through rough roads back home.

A week or so later I visited the Assegaai again. This time with two fellow kayakers. The river was much lower with less strainers but also less action. I think we got it at its lowest possible runnable level, which is also a good thing. We had some good times, and christened quite a few rapids, and made it to the original take out in time.

Its wintertime now, and most river levels are low in our corner of the world. Spring time will come with a promise of rain and the smell of adventure, as we plan to do a multiday trip of the Assegaai and merge ourselves with the heart of this very special river.

Some tech talk for those that want to run the Assegaai river:

The drop: In the 29 kilometers paddled in day two the river dropped about 120 metres. Most rapids are small pool drops with some natural weirs followed by a section of flat water before the next rapid.

Hazards: You are isolated. Mobile phone signals are bad, and emergency services are far away and unfamiliar with the territory. Depending on the flow rate you can expect strainers. At low level however the rapids themselves are not too difficult. There are some forestry river crossings along the way: some of these low water bridges are safe to run, some are downright dangerous. Scout if you are unsure.

Access: A large part of this river passes through SAPPI plantations. These guys are quite sentimental about their trees and don’t like random unannounced visitors. If you want to plan a trip I suggest you contact me or make your own access arrangements with SAPPI. Be very nice to them – don’t anger them. If we show ourselves to be good custodians we may get a great relationship going here.

Flow Rates: The Assegaai flow is rain dependent. It has a very large catchment, so I expect a relatively consistent flow during the rainy season. I estimate the flow rate on the first scouting mission at about 13 cumecs, and the second visit at about 40 cumecs but this is a wild guess. Department Water Affairs are supposed to update the river flows regularly, but it does not always happen. You can check out their published data, for the station W5H039, select a date range and choose ‘primary data’ Check out this chart summarizing flow rates since 1983. It seems that although the estimated 40 cumecs looked like a flood, this river can get way bigger!

Chart of Flow Rates for the Assegaai

Chart of Flow Rates for the Assegaai

Heyshope Dam: The Heyshope dam acts as a buffer for the most major flash floods and stays full almost throughout the year. It does not limit that flow of the river much, but with good management it can prevent flash floods. Make sure that dam operator knows you are below if you plan to paddle during periods with heavy rain forecast – you don’t need an emergency dam release to spice up your day.

Water Quality and Environment: This is a clean river, and I drank its water. I would suggest you boil it first. Don’t blame me if your stomach does not agree! Although you paddle mostly through artificial tree plantations and some invader species made it self at home you will still experience a lot of raw nature.

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About Franz Fuls

Adventurer Freelance Journalist Photographer Bunny Hugger Engineer January 2014 I depart on a 2,500km eco-expedition called Triwaters Tour. The website link is in my profile. Go check it out.

4 comments on “In search of white water: Assegaai River, South Africa

  1. […] Enter my fetish: The Assegaai River, South Africa. […]

  2. […] When I started to search Google Earth for white water close to home I came across this river. My first response was to look for places below the dam wall of Heyshope Dam. My first experience was a solo trip, and the river was quite high. It was for all practical purposes an extended portage: Big water, serious rapids, and alone in the wilderness. The second trip I had some company. The river was lower but it was fun nonetheless. Check it out here. […]

  3. […] take out) and very close to the end. We were speculating about paddling across the Heyshope dam and doing the lower Assegaai too. How wrong we […]

  4. […] I split the river into the lower sections (below Heyshope Dam) and the Upper sections. The upper sections I named U1 to U4. Last year I did first descents of the lower Assegaai, which will be a fun beginner section on medium levels. My first scout session was solo, and on high level. Needless to say it was mostly a massive portage. Then  we ran it at a lower level. You can check it out here: http://trailblazerguide.com/2013/05/26/assegaaiscout/ […]

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