First of all, a HUGE thank you to all the sponsors who helped make this event possible:
First Ascent, Do It Now, 5 Fingers, Fluid Kayaks, White Water Training, Black, Piccadilly Red, ARK, Adidas
I’m not sure that I can write that the Blyde X-Festival is the most popular, or most exclusive of the burgeoningly popular kayak X-Festivals that have sprung up around South Africa, but it is certainly the most beautiful that I have paddled.
Each year Ronel Strauss, the irascible partner of Deon Breytenbach, opens entries for the event anywhere from September to November the previous year (the event is normally held in March). Entries are limited by permit conditions (the Blyde river canyon is part of a greater nature reserve that is protected by restricted access). There are only 40 places available in the ‘Pro Race’ which is run in the deep canyon section of the Blyde river, just above Blyderivierspoort dam and its Swadini resort. The race is well subscribed and one needs to enter soon in order to secure one of the coveted 40 paddling ‘seats’.
The Blyde river canyon is one of the largest in the world and Wikipedia states, “While it is difficult to compare canyons world-wide, Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on Earth, and it may be the largest ‘green canyon’ due to its lush subtropical foliage”. It is majestically beautiful and the Pro Race starts just below Mariepskop, the highest point on the canyon. Mariepskop is a unique area of bio-diversity that far exceeds Cape Town’s table mountain plant diversity with over 2000 plant species. It was also the location for South Africa’s first satellite tracking station and still boasts an air traffic control radar site.
What skills, as a kayaker, do you need to paddle this beautiful stretch of river? Firstly, it should not be your first river. You need to be able to hold a line well and your roll should be successful at least 4 out of 5 times – this is no place to be unsure of yourself; as Tammy Hetherington found out this year… (scary rescue story follows). Having said that, you do not need to be a shit-hot kayaker either, but you have to be able to pick and hold a line down a rapid.
The day starts off relatively benignly, with easy warm-up rapids. At this years water level (around 20 cumecs) these warm up rapids required alert reaction times and wake-up paddling. Paddling a river with 39 other mad kayakers also adds an element of excitement when the group gets too bunched up – although this year this was not a major problem in my experience.
The races are run at various rapids along the way where each competitor races against the clock. The race rapids are, in themselves not difficult, but the added ‘rush’ of racing keeps the pulse beating fast. Even experienced white water paddlers and racers are not immune to pre-race-run jitters, as I found out from a confession by the well known and experienced South African kayaker Dewet Michau. Your heart is in your mouth with the pressure of having all of your kayak mates watch you mess it up if you should do so- and there is also the horrible prospect of having to drink a bootie beer if you swim! It all makes for a heart pounding start that gradually settles as you step into the paddling rhythm.
Deon Breytenbach runs a tight ship on this X-Festival and takes great care to ensure that paddlers know where to run the rapid or where to get out so that we can all look at an upcoming rapid. This is his backyard, and his opinion, and rulings, are well respected amongst the competitors. There are a number of dangerous siphons and dangerous lines on this section of the Blyde (siphons are narrow areas between boulders that have the potential of sucking a kayaker into the ‘siphon’ under the boulders where the kayak and paddler will be sucked into, but will not be able to pass through); Deon knows this river well; his warnings are earned from experience and to be heeded.
Drama at Curtain Falls
This year we arrived at the Curtain Falls rapid with some trepidation owing to the high water level. This rapid features a main line that has a natural weir that is slightly curved, forming a rock wall sided horseshoe shaped drop of about 1.5m. The 4m wide, rock walled channel below it has a dangerous re-circulating hole that is difficult to escape owing to the rock walls on either side. One of the rock walls is undercut and people have had long downtime and swims here.
This year Tammy Hetherington didn’t have her ferry glide under control just above this drop- she had already had a couple of swims which had sapped her energy, and the ferry glide was not entirely trivial. She fell over halfway through the ferry and just above the dangerous drop. She pulled her splash cover immediately and started making revs for the bank. Michael McMicken, a good friend of Tammy’s and an X-Festival regular, made what I think is the gutsiest move I have personally seen in kayaking – he paddled hell for leather towards her in an attempt to assist her to the bank before the drop, knowing that, should he not be successful he would also become a victim to this drop. He was not successful. Tammy and Mike were swept over the drop backwards…
In his account after the desperate rescue – a very scary sight to witness, he described how he was tossed over and over in his kayak and eventually pinned against his back deck by the force of the water. He was not able to reach the front strap to pull off his splash cover and was losing strength and air fast. By grabbing the side of his splashie, using a technique taught by Hugh Du Preez, he was able to extricate himself from the boat and into the boiling mass of foam. It still took several roundabouts in the washing machine before he was able to catch a rope and be pulled to safety. Both Tammy and Mike came to within seconds of the last of their energy and air reserves before being rescued. A sobering lesson for all on the dangers of a ‘simple’ ferry above a dangerous river obstacle.
A scenic ending
One of the really fantastic things about this paddle is the ‘boozecriuse’ ferry ride at the end of the river. The run ends in the Blyderivierspoort dam and starts off with a nervous dash from the last rapid to an island where Deon’s homemade twin hull ferry collects the paddlers. It’s nervous because one is already into hippo and crocodile territory- an 80m arse clenching, neck turning determined paddle gets you to the edge of the island where you look sharp in getting out of the boat and onto land. That bit is very nerve wracking as it would be the perfect attack spot for a crocodile. We sent Kestel Barnard first as bait- he was attacked by a croc three weeks before on the Mac Mac river!
The ferry ride out is just below the world famous 3 Rondavel peaks and transverses the serene and beautiful landscape of the dam. There is a huge limestone ‘tofu’ waterfall that is bisected by a thin ribbon of water tumbling down its face, setting up perfect sun-downer views after a hard days paddle. It’s the cherry on the top of an excellent cake.
The Blyde X-Fest paddle is a South African kayaking ‘must do’ trip for those who have the patience to build the required skills. The event is extremely well organised, the accommodation venue is perfect and the kayaking and scenic experiences superb!
1: Sylvia Nel
2: Jessica de Neyshen
3: Mareli Coetzee
1: Mark Stirling
2: Robert Booysen
3: William Barnard
1: Sheena O’connel
2: Michelle vd Berd
3: Hubre de Klerk
1: Aiden du Preez
2: Arno vd Berg
3: Gareth Frampton
Pro race Jnr
1: Dewiko Loots
2: Gawin Sterling
1: Tammy Hetherington
2: Inke Kruger
3: Jolene Fisher
1: Shane Raw
2: Deon Breytenbach
3: Jaco Lubbe