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First Descent – Assegaai River

March this year Sheena O’Connell and I did a scout of the upper sections of the Assegaai River.

The Assegaai river starts near the massive wetlands bordering Wakkerstroom on the Piet Retief side, in the Mpumalanga Province. A dense yet smallish catchment consisting of a network of streams concentrate any rainfall into the Assegaaai in what looks like the root system of a massive tree when viewing it from above. The narrow river grows in size as more and more tributories join in, and by the time it reaches the waterfall it is a steep narrow and very fast little creek. After about 40 kilometers it enters into the Heyshope Dam which supplies cooling water to South Africa’s energy giant, Eskom. The dam is also connected to the Vaal river, and sacrifices the Assegaai river to the benefit of the water users of Gauteng, whose industries are reliant on water from the Vaal dam.

Below Heyshope dam the river is a mere trickle in winter, but once the rains come it regularly transforms into a raging beast. Not as steep as the upper reaches, it can still provide some great action for beginner and intermediate paddlers on a medium level as it meanders through pine and eucalyptus plantations, and areas of wilderness.

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/

The dam wall itself also present an opportunity for the dopamine depraved. Check out this story to judge if you have what it takes: http://trailblazerguide.com/2013/09/25/new-first-descent-any-takers/

A few months later I did the U1 section with good friends, and found some interesting stuff. http://trailblazerguide.com/2013/11/25/scouting-session-upper-assegaai/

Then Sheena and I went to claim the first descent of the most upper sections…

The Mpumalanga Highveld experienced about four weeks of heavy rain, guaranteed to create flood conditions in the Assegaai, but we were only destined to get on the river weeks after the rain. The levels were lower, which makes for a safer albeit more bony run.

Arriving at the dirt road which I planned as the put in for the U4 section we were met by a semi continuous strainer in the water made from wattle trees – an invader species in South Africa. It does clear up a little later but the walk in would be very time-consuming down steep terrain. We decided to make our way to the waterfall, for which the landowner, Mr Moolman generously allowed access.

Our driver Pepe Helena is a good friend of mine. He watched wide-eyed as I maneuvered the Land Rover Defender down the steep terrain to the waterfall and around it to our planned put-in below, knowing that it’s up to him to get the machine back to civilization in one piece – or be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal.

Sheena and I had more exciting matters to deal with, and walked to the waterfall for the put in. This majestic sixty-odd meter waterfall provides the perfect backdrop to the start of the trip. The river left of the waterfall crashes into various ledges on its way down but river right is a clean stream to the bottom. With a little bit of luck it will push over its shallow landing into the deep pool with flood conditions. Maybe one day in the future someone will be insane enough to consider running it.

We put our Fluid kayaks in at the pool below the waterfall, stoked about our coming first descent. The first rapid is at the exit of the pool, a half meter drop off a ledge. The river immediately starts to narrow and speed up, creating a wave train as the river turns slightly left. The main current pushes into a massive old log which we dodged on the left, followed by a ledge and a drop into a pool obstructed by a small boulder that will wash out at higher levels. a few meters further comes another 1.5 meter drop into a narrow channel about three meters wide. At high levels the left side’s heavy undercut will require some very wake-up maneuvering, but it opens up at the end, so consequences are probably limited to a very scary swim at worst.

More boofs down drops followed, evening out a little and then climaxing in a two meter slidy-shelf-like drop. From the small pool the creek compresses again to about two meters in width, picks up speed through a wave train and takes another one meter drop into a pool. Pool, well lets say less fast-moving current!

The level was a bit low and the ride was bony but the narrowness and gradient guaranteed that we kept moving forward.

First Syphon. As the river made another gradual right we noticed our next false horizon. We climbed out to scout. The main current pushes to the left and compresses against some loose boulders, creating a syphon with potential to eat some body parts. We ran it middle-right: safe and slightly more bony down this 2 meter drop, down a slide, and another drop into calmer water.

Mr. Bones came next. The creek compressed again, passed through a garden of small boulders and rammed straight into a cliff face where it made another drop of about a meter as it turned right. The creek stayed narrow, taking you through a highway of little drops, another wave train and another weir-ish slide.

Strainers. The action continued as the valley started to open up a bit. Wattle trees started to congregate along the river bank and with it came its ugly sister: strainers. Through the densest part the wattle forms a little forest, and we portaged two driftwood strainer walls. Fortunately the scenery cleared up some as we continued down the river.

More and more tributaries contributed its little shares to the main beast and the Assegaai remained narrow and fast. The gradient became less continuous and although pools are a scarce commodity, the predictable nature of a fast stream over flat sections provided some opportunity to recover from all the action. The river seldom ran straight for any considerable distance, and often a strainer laid in wait around a bend. It will be a good idea to bring a small gardening saw along on the next trip! Ledges and slides formed on shale rock made way for harder sandstone boulders, often obstructing sharp turns in the river.

Camping. By the time the sun started setting we made camp on rocky deposits on the inside of a turn, pitching our hammocks in the trees on the river bank. Convinced that we were very close to our take out, we considered pushing on and completing U1 the next day. Playing Marabaraba on the rocky beach we even contemplated the paddle through the fifteen kilometers of Heyshope dam and adding a third day on the lower Assegaai. How wrong we were!

Day 2 started in a delirium of whiskey-aggravated hay fever, but with plenty action around it soon wore off. The river became stronger and fuller. Although it flattened out a bit the Assegaai stayed narrow and fast. We navigated our way through boulder gardens and drops in one of the most remote areas of Mpumalanga. Flat stretches became longer and rapids more brief. It was clear that we completely misjudged the distance to our original take out point.

Rocky Horror, Janet, Meat Loaf, Frank ‘n Furter. Just as I started worrying about a long flat paddle the scenery changed. The rock type started looking like the stuff that made Waterval Boven a world-renowned climbing venue. Sandy soil and loose boulders started making way for a solid rock river bottom and coming around a bend we saw a false horizon!

Sheena was the first one down Rocky Horror. Starting with an easy approach down small shelves and gradually building intensity. Then a slide on the right in the main current or a two-plus meter drop middle or river left which looks like it wants to eat you alive. At low levels this is an easy Class III. Who knows what happens on higher levels?

About fifty meters downstream is a meek looking section we coined Janet, followed by a cliff face on river right and a false horizon. That’s where we met Meat Loaf. On high levels you have two choices: left down a slide or right and take a four meter cascading drop, with a loaf-ish boulder separating the two options. Left takes you down a slide, then a drop. At the bottom is another submerged ‘loaf’ with undercut potential, exactly where you land. At low levels the right is impossible due to lack of water, and the left quite straight forward. At higher levels this is at the very least a mean Class III.

Frank ‘n Furter is boulder garden-ish, reminiscent of the Vaal River’s Big Daddy rapid but with more gradient and ending in a sharp right turn. We found it very bony, and got stuck going down, but at higher levels this rapid will be exciting!

We paddled through some more flat, more rapids and came to our take-out late afternoon. The bridge had a stack of driftwood about four meters high piled against its pillars threatening to tear it down with the next flood. A reminder that this river is not always meek and mild. As we scrambled out the steep bank we wondered if Pepe made it out from the waterfall put in. As we cooked supper we saw a dust trail spearheaded by the familiar Defender shape!

Is this for you? If you can catch tricky eddies in a fast current, if you stopped worrying about your roll ages ago, if you are not overly scared by strainers, if being very far from medical help does not scare you. Then this one is for you. It is a two-day trip. Add a day for U4 (awaiting first descent) and another for U1. The river is rain dependant – you must put in within five days of good rain which you need to enjoy this ride.

Make peace with very limited (practically non-existent) cell phone signals. Plan for minimum two days. Check the weather forecast and watch out for flash floods.

And enjoy!


Sheena Running Meat Loaf.

Sheena Running Meat Loaf.


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.

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