Time for my fetish again – the Assegaai River, South Africa!
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.
Next I made a mid winter visit, frustrated with the dry season. It gave me a chance to check out the dam wall, and with the right levels of water and insanity this may become quite something!
Hey, it just made sense to scout below the dam wall and it did pay off. There are some great rapids to be run. The biggest catch is access: much of this section runs through forestry area, and plantation owners don’t like visitors, for good reason: one little match can quickly become a huge canopy fire. Yes, the South African Water Act gives us permission to pass through private land on boats and even to portage, BUT it’s always nice to build relationships and have the land owners blessing. So before charging out to the lower Assegaai, get in touch with me and let’s try arrange something. The relationship with the plantation owners is fragile, but I believe we can build it into something strong over time to the benefit of all.
As a basic rule, treat any landowner with respect. It pays, not only for yourself but also for those arriving after you!
This past weekend was destined to be my first Assegaai Paddle of the season. Ernst Conradie and beginner Warren du Plessis desired some paddling action. We made arrangements and were all set… except for water. We had some average first rains for the season, but the dam operator was hogging it for the other users. We will have to wait for an overflow before the lower Assegaai starts working again.
So back to Google Earth and out of desperation we searched the Assegaai River above the dam. Oh boy! White water sections all over, gorges, a water fall. We were drooling!
Ernst organised camping at Janneman Landman’s family lapa, which became our base camp. Friday night we were treated to Amersfoort Boere hospitality, and a great bunch of locals. They warned us that we are facing a 15 meter waterfall and that it will kill us. That made us really excited!
Saturday morning, with our tender bodies protesting we dragged ourselves out of our hammocks, gulped down a solid breakfast and hit the road. Our first goal was to get to our first potential put-in above the waterfall. Getting to the bridge we were a bit disappointed. The river was narrow, and overgrown with wattle. Strainer hell. It was also a bit low.
Just then a farmer drove by. Our luck was in! Piet Moolman owns the farm with the waterfall. When he heard our ideas, he said “Maar julle gaan doodgaan daar. Daai waterval is een honderd meter!” (you are going to die there, those falls are 100 meters high!). So the story is growing tails we thought. Now we were curious! According to Mr Moolman the river was low, but due to the large catchment with many wetlands and small streams its prone to huge flash floods that can last about four days before the river starts to slowly settle down.
He gave us direction to drive to it (which we screwed up) but we did get to a picture perfect viewpoint. From afar my guess is that the falls are more than 60 meters (196 feet). For those insane enough to consider it, entry will be on the far river right, which is a clean fall into deep water. River left will be a smashing ledgy experience resulting in extreme mutilation or death. Maybe both.
Below the falls is a loooooong gorge. The river runs over bedrock and its steep. I expect that we can find some class 5 sections there in medium water. Most of the rapids seem to be over sandstone bedrock, after which the river narrows with resulting strainers from riverside growth. After the put in there is a two to three-day trip and difficult or almost impossible exits, and although we were very excited, we had to drive past.
We put in our kayaks at a bridge, well below the gorge where the decline also became less steep, just to get a feel of the river. The idea, to paddle to the next bridge, 15 kilometers (9 miles) of river later. The first bit was frustratingly flat, but slowly some section of decline came our way. The river was low, but we could visualise the wave trains on higher levels. Then we landed in a section with a few kilometers of regular drops, and some boulder garden. The sandstone slabs were making natural weir like drops and on occasion we also passed vulcanic rock features with bigger drops into deep pools. Towards the end we came across a home-made weir, built by a farmer with rocks and concrete. It does not look retentive in higher water. After the first drop the farmer gave us about 30 meters space, before getting to three weir like drops in short succession (obviously the farmer built up his structure over time to get enough depth for his irrigation pumps). We passed another pump station, where another farmer used sandbags to raise the water level.
After the triple weir the river goes into a channel, with reeds overgrowing the banks. Occasionally indigenous shrubs and trees also hug the banks, creating a very flat but extremely beautiful scene. We were blessed with really special wildlife, even spotting quite a few Spotted Eagle Owls.
The downside of the trip is undoubtedly strainers. On higher levels a good scout before rapids will be a great idea. In the channel below the triple weir there are two old rusted up semi destroyed fences crossing the river to deal with – in medium water this will be a serious problem.
The river has a bed of sand, and in the rapids bedrock. Rock types alternate between a dense hard sandstone, softer shale-ish sandstone and vulcanic rock. Many gorges in the area have the same rock type as the famous climbing destination, Waterfal Boven (including the waterfall area).
Is the upper Assegaai worthy of a second run?
Undoubtedly YES. Especially for more experienced paddlers, at the right water levels. In my opinion,anyone crazy enough to consider the waterfall will have to go on standby to catch the river at a very high level (and probably go for psychological treatment), but maybe its runnable.
Best time will be late December to March. After the dry season you will need to wait for a few good drenchers to get the river working. Check out this graph, and you will understand.
The very upper gorge section, below the waterfall is guaranteed to be an adrenaline filled creek with potential for Class 5 sections at medium water levels. The middle section, (difficult to access, but I am sure we can make arrangements with a farmer) will give good class 2-4 rapids. The white water section of the lowest part of the Assegaai above the dam will be a fun section once we arrange access and get permission to clear some (obviously redundant) fences and strainers, with two rapids that can compete with the upper umzimkulu river at medium levels.
Either pre-arrange camping with a farmer, or sleep over at any establishment next to Heyshope Dam.
Finally: Before you go, look me up. I want to join, and already started building bridges with the farmers. Don’t arrive unannounced on a farmers property – it’s a really bad idea. Trust me.
by Franz Fuls