The Scout of the Upper Assegaai River finally happened on 21 and 22 March 2014. It was an unadulterated Trailblazing experience. Sheena O’Connell and I did the scout on a low-ish Assegaai River, something for which we were grateful, even though it was bony as hell! Why grateful? Strainers. More Strainers. And a narrow fast-moving river that twists and turns.
Now before you become negative at the start of this story, I WILL be going back for more at a higher water level. But with a bigger crowd, which improves safety. Everyone entering this creek must be well versed in swift water rescue, and nobody must have any doubt in their ability to catch small critical eddies. Flash floods are also a big probability weather depending, watch out! This river will be FAST and technical at a high level. Except for the massive waterfall, there are no serious individual drops, but there are sharp and regular changes in direction, slides, boulder gardens, ledges and SPEED. Medical help is far away, so any team considering this section of river must be medically self-sufficient for at least 8 hours in case of emergency – purely because of the difficulty of access.
If you are not 100% confident in your roll and your ability to catch eddies in fast-moving current then this creek on high levels in NOT for you.
We did the trip as an overnighter starting below the waterfall, and paddling to the first public road. I am naming the sections in a format similar to the Sabie River, because South African paddlers understand the convention. The section above the waterfall we call U4, which we saved for another day. From the waterfall to the camping spot U3. From the camping spot to the road U2. The final section we did not do this time, but you can see the story on U1 here. This then covers the upper assegaai from where you can float a boat, all the way to Heyshope Dam.
U4 – To the Waterfall
The put in is at a public road, but you kick off in strainer hell. Soon the wattle clears out, and looking down into the valley from the road some potentially interesting rapids can be spotted. There is a calmer section about 15 meters before the waterfall, which has not riverside trees, where it will be possible to catch an eddy and take out for the portage. The waterfall is unrunnable (prove me wrong at your own peril).
Maybe next time we will do U1 for completeness sake. Above this point there are no rapids to write home about.
U3 – Waterfall to Campsite
Make very sure you have permission before accessing this land. It’s privately owned, and the farmers in the area are trigger happy – get their blessing first and there will be no problems. The Trailblazer Guide can help you here, contact us.
The drive down to the waterfall is only for serious 4×4 vehicles. If you don’t have one, expect carrying your kayaks for about 5 kilometers over steep terrain. Soon after heavy rain you will require diff lock and 4×4 just for the public dirt roads to the turnoff to the put in, and the take outs.
We put in below the waterfall, amazed by the splendor of this creation. The river becomes narrow at the exit of the pool and you are immediately met by rapids. The river remains narrow almost all the way to the overnight campsite. Do not expect many pools to recover. At high level this will be continuous. Even where it flattens out in the strainer ridden and wattle overgrown section, the narrowness guarantees a very fast river. At the low-level we scouted at there was always current, even in the flattest flat sections (which were far and few between). Driftwood far overhead tell stories of a lot of water that passes through this valley after some rain. The numerous tributaries may cause flash floods if there is a cloud burst in their catchments.
Expect to apply aggressive maneuvering at high levels. This section has the odd habit of changing direction inside rapids. Expect undercuts, and the odd syphon. You will get countless Class III, some Class IV, and possible Class V rapids on high levels. Watch out for strainers.
We did not try to name all rapids, and reserved this treat for trippers going down on a higher level. We did name two:
First Syphon starts with a 30 degree right turn. Water pushes right, into a syphon, with a sweet little drop to the right of it. Possible undercuts below on river left. On river right (1 1/2 meters) is a safer option, a sweet slide about 5 meters long.
Mr Bones starts with a gradual decline over medicine ball size rocks, narrows quickly and then takes a sharp left turn, right against a cliff face. At this point the river is maximum 2 meters wide. You rocket through this and go straight, down smaller drops that may or may not wash out at high level. On high level a chicken line may form to the far left.
Setting up camp
Towards the end of the day we thought we were further than we were in reality, and expected to be camping in the SSS-shaped area on the map below. Close to a road (our only emergency 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 were!
Waking up groggy the next morning (was it the Whiskey or the pollen of the grass seeds?) we started on what we thought was the last bit of the Upper Assegaai.
U2 – Camp site to the first road
That originally planned take-out point was deceptively far. This section compares in difficulty to the commercial section of Induna Adventures on the Sabie River. If a suitable put in can be arranged this could be a great section for beginners. There are still some sharp turns to be had and interesting boulder gardens, but portages will be very easy here. Then comes…a watery heaven!
A small cliff walled, hard sandstone gorge appeared before us and gave birth to:
Rocky Horror: After a flattish section the water livens up. A rock slab island (will be covered at high level) split the current in two. The currents join up again and leaves you with a choice: A slide to river right, or a boof on river left. You can eddy out on river left at the end. A solid class III+ higher levels.
Janet: An innocently bland little section to the next rapid, to be run blind by all except by the freshest of beginners.
Meat Loaf a.k.a Eddy: The jewel of U2. The water compresses into the narrowing gorge, accelerating in the process. The easier line to the left takes you down a slide. The right line will only work on higher levels, and promises an interesting drop (this time it was but a trickle). At the bottom it may be best to hold right, regardless of how you start out, because at the bottom is a long chunk of rock – you may be confronted with an undercut if you run the bottom river left. Expect a class IV on higher levels.
Frank ‘n Furter: Exiting the mini gorge, you confront a boulder garden with an interesting gradient, ending in a sharp right turn with some boofs. High levels will determine, but expecting a good Class III rapid.
U1 From the first public road, to the second (or to the dam if you like the flat)
We did not paddle U1, because time caught up with us. The flat sections become longer, but there are some great rapids here too. Check this out (also on low-level).
The Upper Assegaai is rain dependant. It has a small catchment, and if you want to catch it high you need to be there within five days of good rainfall in the catchment. It will be a worthy and rewarding cause to go creeking on this little gem. Plan for an overnighter.