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Wilderness Epic

A fortnight ago Frank and I headed down to the Assegaai river. Our contact reported that the river was high but has dropped a bit. The rains came late, but there has been a few good downpours in the week, and the forecast spoke of good rains over the weekend.

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You may ask why am I so bothered with rain and river levels?

The Upper Assegaai river has a very steep drop. Sandstone bedrock makes for fast narrow channels with plenty of features to make any white water kayaker jump for joy. But it is rain dependent. The previous trip with Sheena O’Connell earlier this year was a little too bony, and I was well aware that this river needs good rains to work. This is the story of the fateful second descent (or shall I maybe call it ‘first portage’?)

But this river is special. Not many rivers in Mpumalanga Province can take you to proper wilderness. And on a two day trip this is really unique, camping in whatever light nature provides through the moon and the stars, with no sign of civilization lighting up the sky or the horizon.

Frank and I arrived, and the river looked a bit low, but I remained foolishly positive and we bid our driver goodbye.

I did a quick miniSASS sample, a ritual that has started setting in since the Triwaters Tour plans started gaining momentum. We hiked our boats up to the waterfall and took off.

The first sign of trouble was the little rapid exiting the waterfall pool. We both ground to a halt, and looked at each other with foolish grins. We spent the first third of the day trying to joke away our water-less dilemma, faking massive seal launches, doing parodies on which line to take and which strainer to miss in a river with almost no flow. The next third of the day we spent in relative silence, humping our boats over ultra-bony rapids and making hard portages. The last third saw both of us fatigued. Mentally and physically.

The weather was building and the rumble of the distant thunder was getting closer. There was rain on the horizon! We took out and pitched camp. Only a third of the distance covered.

The thunder’s empty threats fizzled out over the evening, and when we woke the sticks we pushed into the mud to check the river level told us that we have about 15 centimeters less water to play with on day two. With only a third of the distance covered in the first day we would have to double our advance with even less water on day two.

Frank took out the maps, we got a GPS location and mapped it.

We were only about two kilometers from the nearest dirt road, but a very steep mountainous hill stood menacingly between us and salvation. We discussed following the river, but the dirt road moves far away from from the river from there onwards, and the worst case scenario looked like an approximately 20km portage to the next takeout.

What if there was rain in the catchment of the next tributary, making the rest of the trip a fun joyride? What if the river remains dry? Maybe it will be less hassle using what little flow the river offers to plod along?

I was getting really nervous. It was clear we were in trouble. This two day trip contained almost all the elements for a four day hell-trek, and that is if nobody got injured. A broken ankle, an snake bite, even the smallest incident now may take us into an emergency situation far from help. Tough to continue, tough to abandon the trip.

In the end we opted to walk out. Never before have I hiked four hours on two kilometers. It was hands down the toughest hike I have ever done. But it was the right call. Although we were well provisioned, continuing down the river just did not make sense.

Totally exhausted we crossed over onto the plateau, and dragged out boats onward. Flopping down next to the dirt road we called our driver to come pick us up. It was windy, cold, and it had started raining. Without the valley walls to protect us next to the riverside, we were now exposed to all that mother nature sent our way.

Strangers driving past gave us strange looks, and even the farm workers shunned us like aliens from another planet. I don’t blame them! Finally a farmer coming back from church with his family stopped next to us, the whole family gazing at the sorry sight and our boats that are very out of place in their world.

“Wat doen julle manne hier?” (What are you guys doing here?)

We explained our dilemma. Five minutes later he was back again with his truck helping us load our boats.

“Ek kan nie julle manne hier los om te vries in hierdie weer nie” (I can’t just leave your sorry asses in this weather).

He took us to his homestead, and we warmed up in his kitchen, coffee in hand next to a legendary Aga anthracite stove.

Our driver arrived soon after, and the rest is history.

Wilderness lessons

Frank and I were not only out of luck, but we were lucky that this epic did not turn very bad. As the trip leader/initiator I thought long and hard about the mess, and how I got someone else into it too.

We were not completely destitute,and did a few things right which made life a lot easier:

  • On any trip into a remote area, always pack a little more food than you need.
  • Be prepared for changes in the weather. Pack warm clothes.
  • Make sure you have access to clean water, or carry the tools with you to purify water. Stay hydrated!
  • Choose your team well. When my physical energy started sapping Frank was there to support me. When Frank took his turn for a mental dive I supported him. Choosing the wrong companion can become really messy during an epic – the right team can move mountains.
  • Know where you are. Carry a map, and a GPS if you do not know the area like the back of your hand. Know how to read your map and how to make decisions based on this info.
  • Have a cell phone or other communications device available and charged. The fully charged Powermonkey Expedition can give you about four cellphone charges (12V and USB), even without the solar panel, making sure that your devices can make that emergency call when needed.

But I made some really bad decisions too, stuff I can learn from:

  • Never do it just because you said you would. Do not hesitate to turn around if things will not work. We should have turned around at the waterfall while our energy was still high, jogged up the mountain and called our driver back to come recover us and our boats.
  • Do not make decisions exclusively on a weather forecast. You may be paddling a dry river.
  • Make sure your source has intimate knowledge of the environment you will expose yourself to. The source of my info before the trip was vague on the river level that “was high, but dropped a bit” – I should have known better.
  • Pack lighter. Although we were quite compact we could have taken less creature comforts. This way we would have got stuck less often, and portaging made a lot easier.

We made a new friend that fateful Sunday, and we learnt of a better and faster emergency take-out for next time because of that. A day-trip is now also possible. We now also have a more reliable information source in the farmer: According to him he can hear the rumble from the waterfall (down in the valley +4km away) when the river floods. He will call when that happens, and I will be back to run the upper Assegaai in all its glory. I really hope there will be someone crazy enough to join me next time!

Franz Fuls is a team member of Triwaters Tour, a 2500km source to sea eco expedition starting 16 January 2015. Powertraveller (South Africa) is one of the sponsors of the expedition.

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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.

4 comments on “Wilderness Epic

  1. Hey Franz
    Your story is very insightful and entertaining, I’ve become addicted to reading your articles, thanks for the effort.

  2. Thank you Jubba. Have you had similar experiences? Please tell!

  3. I had a midnight epic in the berg last winter…makes my palms sweat just thinking about it.

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