Epic on the Ash

by Franz Fuls

of beginners, fast rivers dislocated shoulders and remote first aid

Sheena enters the carnage

When winter hits the Southern hemisphere South African kayakers have limited options. As rivers run lower the only reliable options that remain are a lowish Sabie river, a road trip to the Cape Province’s frigid waters or the Ash river in the Eastern Free State.

The past weekend a mixed bag of six paddlers of varying skill level assembled to run the Ash. I was there. Frank Duvenage, with the most previous runs automatically became our trip leader. Sheena became a strong paddler in her illustrious six months long kayaking career. Kobus and Marlies recently returned from an Ecuador honeymoon that included a week of guided kayaking. Egon brought the raw beginner component into the mix, but what he lacks in skill he makes up with unwincing determination.

Day One

The Ash river was apparently on the high-ish side with idle promises of immortal fame and glory for the strangers who are willing to enter her cold clammy hands. Waking up in the morning, our kayaks still mounted on our cars, covered with a thick crystalline layer of frost. We packed our wetsuits, hoodies, dry tops, paddle gloves and other trinkets to battle the cold and drove off. Yes South Africans are soft when it comes to cold!

First we made a stop at Clarens Xtreme, the local commercial adventure company in Clarens, where the owner, Ollie gracefully rented us some extra gear while shaking his head at our insanity.

Arriving at the put in, we were greeted with water gushing out of the mountain from the tunnel of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme. We witnessed first hand the speed of the river in the channel, and the massive tow back between the weirs and its boil lines – whisperingly inviting you with a mermaid’s smile to enter, desperately waiting to get you in her clutches to pull you down to a watery death. We did not wait long, and left the mermaids to their own devices as we walked past to the put in below the second weir.

Finally in the water, we realized that today was going to be a special one. I overestimated Egon’s skill level since his début in the beginners class at the Induna X-Fest at Sabie earlier the year. He was way out of his comfort zone with the fast water and layers of warm gear restricting his mobility. Fortunately he is a good swimmer, and arguably the least fearless of the party in cold water. Egon is my nominee for the International Tenacity Awards, or something like that!

Unfortunately our slow progress caught up with us as we recovered a Fluid Spice and a wet seal like helmeted creature from the river time and again, making sure that Egon eddies out successfully to portage the larger rapids.

Eventually we reached the slalom course, where the rest of the team had some fun while Egon and I did safety: Egon with a throw bag from the side, while I bobbed around in my kayak, waiting to pick up strays. We took out just above Bridge Rapid which growled at us like a badger with a horrid hangover and headed back to town to defrost.

Day Two

A good night’s sleep is worth a fortune in gold! We awake refreshed from our warm Hikers’ Hut bunk beds at St.Fort just outside of town. We popped into Clarens for a wholesome breakfast and headed out again to put in below Bridge Rapid which has not yet recovered from its hangover.

We agreed to take it slower. Where Saturday was a race against time, Sunday would not. Although we kept Egon safe on Saturday, it was not the most pleasurable experience for him being rushed along in a race against daylight. Kobus and Marlies has deserted us to do some chores back home. With four people left we decided to spend time on Egon’s kayaking skills.

Below Bridge rapid we played in the eddy, crossing in and out of the current to get Egon used to river dynamics. As his psyche started building, we headed off, following around with river features as the current moved us along. Frank did the scouting, while Sheena and I surrounded him like two broody hens.

The rest of the day went by more or less unstressed, except for one hole that bit Sheena, Egon and I in quick succession. While I was battling the retentive bugger and getting window shaded while Sheena and Frank rescued Egon who considered the hole a great place to cool off and go for a swim. As soon as the feature spat me out I was caught in a downriver race to recover the Fluid Spice. Again. I like the boat, but boy it is a bugger to recover from a fast river!

Frank, Sheena and I ran broken weir while Egon portaged, and soon Frank was ahead again – scouting for the elusive eddy just before Big Surprise.

Big Surprise is aptly named, with the take-out being just before the blind corner leading into a steep 5-ish meter drop. The friendly pool at the bottom is quite reassuring, but the small island swallowed by a willow dead centre at the end of the rapid forces you to think before running this juvenile delinquent. To the left the drop looked a bit retentive but it is a straight forward run: Enter just left of the first little drop, staying in the green. Then two boofs in quick succession to land in a happy pool on the left, far away from the willow engulfed island.

The only catch is safety. To set up safety someone would have to do a difficult take out on river right and perform a very frustrating portage, get back in and do safety from the boat. The bank on river left is high and steep. This is where we set up Egon to do his first ever seal launch once everybody is down safely and ready to T-rescue him after his landing!

Fortunately for Egon, and unfortunately for Frank this never happened.

Frank (being the only one to run this rapid before) went first. As he disappeared around the corner I started for my boat and strapped myself in. Paddling into the unknown, there was no time for butterflies as the fast current pushed me on. Making a clean landing in the pool I saw Frank at the edge of the pool, hip deep in the water holding his boat. So much for setting up safety! I thought.

As I paddled closer to give Frank grief about his swim I noticed him clutching his left shoulder with a dark grimace.

“Frank! Are you OK?”

Frank pleads: “Look! It’s out! Put it back!”

“No man, don’t be hasty. Let me check you out first.”

As I helped Frank out of the frigid water and onto a rock Sheena came charging down and owned by that hole on the far left. She eventually took a swim after a worthy battle and performed a self rescue as I rushed back into my kayak to support her.

While Sheena emptied her boat on river left I started attending to Frank, a million things running through my mind as I considered possible scenarios for more things to go wrong.

Frank is now insistent. “Put it back! Put it back NOW!”

I started to pull out dry gear to warm him up, praying that Egon will wait as agreed and not pull a solo first time seal launch attempt in our absence. Where is Egon? Come now Sheena, speed up that boat emptying business. We have more serious crap to deal with this side. I need you here!

Sheena arrives while I’m pulling Frank’s boat out of the water with Frank now demanding that we put his arm back into his shoulder. He is showing us how the end of his upper arm is making a round bump next to his shoulder under the dry top.

Where the hell is Egon? Where’s the closest road? Do we have signal? Are there any settlements close by?

Frank’s tone turns threatening: “Franz! Put my arm back in its socket. NOW!”

Those first aid drills somehow went down a sewer pipe. I know I should not put it back but I’m tempted, even though I don’t have the skill. But hey! I know someone who has!

“Frank. Just wait a second. I’m phoning Hugh. Sheena, keep Frank warm and speak to him. I’m going for a hike to get signal.”

Where is Egon!? By now he must realise something is wrong! Dammit!

I get Hugh on the line. I’m pissed off that he does not tell me to either do, or don’t put the arm back into its socket. Neither is he telling me how. Instead he starts asking about Frank’s vitals and tells me to call an ambulance. I feel like a complete idiot in the presence of South Africa’s white water safety guru as my sanity returns.

“Thanks Hugh, I know now what to do. I will update you later.”

“MORON!” I shout inside. Vitals man. Capillary refill. Heart rate. Pupil dilation. Bleeding. Last meal? Last liquid intake? check. Check. CHECK!

Get back to Frank.

I see Egon on the opposite bank, looking confused. Playing my best game of Charades ever, Egon figures out that I want him to walk upstream to the bridge and come to me.

Back to Frank.

No bleeding. Pupils fine. Coherent speech. Lots of pain. Capillary function great on both hands – no arteries blocked in his arm from the dislocation. Checking sensation – probably no nerves pinched. His heart is racing at 140bpm but strong. We put his arm in a sling, using a throw bag to stabilize and rest the arm against his body. Frank is starting to look like a rag doll decorated in triangular bandages but the arm is now supported.

“Sheena! Frank says there’s a farm-house just other side of that bridge. Go get help!

“Egon! Here’s my phone. Here’s Frank’s medical details. Go call more help!

“Frank. We stay put. How are you doing man?”

Check vitals. Again. Egon comes back. No signal. Frank wants to move.

No paramedic can do much for Frank in this steep terrain, besides there is nothing wrong with his legs and we already stabilized his left arm.

“OK Egon, Let’s start moving Frank to the nearest road.”

Holding Frank on his hips for stability, his right arm across Egon’s shoulder we move him to the road in about four language lessons where Frank educates us in proper sailor speak.

Sheena returns with the farmer who leaves with Frank. We wait for our driver to come pick us up while the sun slowly sets over this Eastern Free State. Egon walks back to collect his boat on the other side of the river.

What amazes me most as we watch the sun set is that somehow Frank managed to swim himself, and his boat to safety with a dislocated arm!


Frank is in for some hard and long rehabilitation, but he will be fine. With a bit of luck and lots of hard work he will eventually be fit for kayaking without a surgeon’s intervention.

Even though Egon was in way over his head, he was never in any real danger. Our collective risk awareness made sure of that. We took him out of the river way above any major rapids, and picked him up again below. Egon is hands down the toughest and most tenacious beginner I have ever seen.

Sheena is a cool cat when things go pear-shaped. I will have loads of peace if she’s around if I ever need help on a river.

Hugh du Preez from White Water Training is a guru. His calm and directed presence over the phone triggered me to start doing exactly what he trained me to do. I still feel embarrassed for having to phone him first before the training kicked in.

Once we could stop worrying about Egon’s safety we relaxed. Maybe someone should have portaged and sacrificed his run to stand safety at the bottom? Maybe we should have followed each other down the rapid in quicker succession, so that if one of us need help that the others would be there? I don’t know. My feeling is that we did safety preparation at Big Surprise as best we could, with a proper scout and discussion of the features and hazards. I think next time I land at Big Surprise I will approach it in the exact same way, except if someone with more experience can show me a better way.

I am grateful that we all came back in more or less one piece, and left behind the cursed mermaids to fester alone in their watery homes.

 Franz having fun

Go check out the photo album of the trip on our Facebook page.


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.

2 comments on “Epic on the Ash

  1. […] classic surfing bootie, we gave it a test in white water. Egon was the perfect lab rat. He put them through their motions with hard long portages through the African bush, a short trial […]

  2. Damn Franz what an awesome storyteller you are…

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