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Whitewater Rafting in Swaziland

I always wondered about the river conditions in Swaziland. Rumours of really big water have haunted me, with the local South African kayak community speaking with a lot of respect for everyone who dared to run its waters!

Sanity check. I had no dreams of throwing myself blindly down class 4+ rapids for at least another year, but I remained curious. After all, the Swaziland border is less that 100 kilometers from my home. So I decided the safest way is to check them out in winter (yes, June is Winter in the Southern Hemisphere!).

Friday 29 June I had my bags packed. I cut my workday short ad charged for the Oshoek border post. Seems I was not the only one with this idea. With South African Schools closed for holidays, and the monthly event of payday for salaried workers the promised ‘quick’ 30 minute border passage became an almost two-hour affair!

The result is that I arrived well after dark in Swaziland, and missed meeting the owner of Swazi Trails. Murphy was wreaking havoc with our schedules and try as I might, I could not get hold of him so I continued my adventure without valuable inside information. Part of the plan was to find out a bit more about the greater value proposition that this small kingdom holds for cultural and adventure tourism, but that will now have to wait for the next opportunity.

My host for the weekend was Njabulo, the custodian and gatekeeper of Legends Backpackers. He carries a wealth of information about local attractions and activities in Swaziland and is keen to share.

Legends is true to the backpacking spirit, and Leni, their resident ghost has humorously posted advice on good conduct for residents all over the establishment, making sure that everyone understood how to avoid the anger of the ancestral spirits! I made sure to stay well-behaved, and gracefully had no hauntings from her in my sleep. Legends is busy expanding, and soon they will have a new entertainment area with a bar. I can’t wait for the new facilities, which will make Legends Backpackers one of the most rad venues for weary travelers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Legends backpackers is located just outside Mbabane, and next to the Swazi Trails Info Centre. All amenities that a tourist could hope for are within walking distance from the venue and Swaziland has a reputation to be a safe and relatively crime free tourist destination.

Saturday morning my good friend Hendrik arrived with his kayak. For a small fee Swazi Trails agreed to show us the put-in an take-out of their commercial rafting section. We followed their minibus to the put-in and joined their rafting clients down the river for a fun-filled day.

The river is mostly pool drop style rapids on this part, but looking at the water marks on the rocks this river has potential to become a mean bugger with high water levels, promising extended rapids, occasional boulder gardens and intense power. I am not sure how run-able the weir will be when the river picks up, but this weekend it was a pleasant slide with a mini wave train below.

The last rapid of the day was the biggest, and tipped one of the two-man rafts. The clients had a fun swim down the rapid, but everyone was OK. With everyone back on their rafts we paddled the final bit of calm water to the take out, just above what the guides called a ‘bad’ rapid about a hundred meters upstream for the ‘takeaway’ waterfall.

The commercial section takes you through scenic unspoilt nature, and you have opportunities to see various indigenous birds a water life on the trip.

I strongly recommend this rafting trip with Swazi Trails for adventure tourists. The company uses experienced professional guides and you are in safe hands. The river looks more intimidating than it is on low levels, which makes it suitable for anyone. On high levels you will have to trust the judgement of the guides to tell you whether it is safe for someone with your skill levels to come along.

I have mixed feelings about this river for more experienced white water kayakers. Make no mistake, during high levels this is the river to run (if you have the skill and nerves of steel) but I get the feeling that this river is shared on a ‘invitation only’ basis. My suggestion is to make sure you go with someone who has the right Swaziland  connections, or be prepared to pay your way. For a small fee you can be escorted on the commercial section (which includes a lift from your car to the put-in, and guides to save you if you land in trouble). I could not find out how to access any other river sections, or at what price it can be done.

On my next visit I hope to tell some more about the wealth of opportunities that Swaziland has to offer to adventure tourists.

by Franz Fuls

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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 “Whitewater Rafting in Swaziland

  1. Hey Franz. glad you got a taste of Swazi water!!! Land of the gold ww! I have done 3, 4 sections on the Usutu. Commercial, Womens Prison, Power Station, and Bunya – All sections are easily accessed by dirt roads, low water bridges, a 4×4 is required to get close to Bunya put in, but walking a 1km or 2km is a worth while endeavour if no 4×4. You just have to know where to go. From my experiences, the best way to experience other sections of the Usutu is to post a msg on WWTangent and see who is keen and experienced in the particular section you are interested in and make a weekend mission together. The experienced paddler should hopefully remember the put in, take out points, rapids. A good weekend is Bunya on Saturday and Power Station on sunday. Bunya is a tricky and high risk run, only competent class 4 paddlers. Next time you must do the full commercial section – there is a nice and easy 5m waterfall to run, good first time waterfall for most of us kayakers. Late summer only really, rocky at low water.

  2. Thanks Ryan! Yeah, WWTangent is the true source of info in the Southern African kayaking community! Thank you for the contribution and solid advice. 🙂

  3. Hey Franz… Glad you could make it down to Swazi. The section you did is really all that’s available in the midst of winter but it’s better than being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. As your desire to scare yourself increases, the Chinese Take-away (the rapid you referred to as a “bad” rapid) and the Bulunga Falls which follow shortly afterwards become an option for a quick winter adrenaline boost! When the rains come, there are heaps of other possibilities and way more than just the Usutu. My boet Darron (the elusive owner of Swazi Trails, legends etc) and I have a pretty decent database of info and plan to consolidate and upgrade that this coming season into something more usable as a river guide. Celliers’ book also has some info on Swazi. There is indeed some world class white water at the upper end of the scale to be had in Swazi but there are plenty of more gentle sections to be found as well. I know you’re interested in this kind of thing so: The biggest problem here is that ALL the east flowing rivers which enter Swazi from SA are dammed in SA (often close to the border) and in some cases NOT A SINGLE DROP of water passes the wall which effectively means the rivers start all over again below the dam wall !! This has long been a source of contention between Swaziland and SA but big brother doesn’t really give a continental!!
    Give us a shout next time you’re planning to come thru….

  4. Thanks Shane! Yeah, I was eyeing Chinese Takeaway for quite a bit while having lunch! Your commercial section still has some of the best winter water in a 200km radius.

    As far as the South African Water supply goes, I’m confronting big brother as hard and fast as i can – they are infringing on our rights as per the constitution by depleting the water resources (which impacts everyone downstream). Give me a shoutout if there is any specific environmental issue my side of the border that needs attention!

    Swaziland has a lot to offer, and there’s plenty I have not written yet about your beautiful country! Looking forward to the next visit.

    Thanks, I will let you guys know when I’m around again, and I promise to tread lightly on your tulips!

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