Barrydale, WC, South Africa. Early June 2015 - a cut off low approaches the Western Cape of South Africa. There are storm warnings out and a severe flooding forecast for the Overberg extending to Mosselbay. This is not an average occurrence and we, as exploratory white water kayakers, know what is about to come to life. About 3 hours drive from Cape Town, the Tradouw River cuts a gorge through the Swellendam mountain range and heads towards the ocean. This dramatic drop in altitude produces one of South Africa’s best white water runs - something that does not happen often. Plans are made and a group of paddlers assembled. I am an experienced class 5 kayaker and swiftwater safety instructorand the rest of the team were people I’ve paddled with often, mainly river guides from my rafting company, Gravity Adventures.
On the drive out it was very evident that the storm had produced a lot of rain resulting in all the rivers and tributaries breaking their banks. Pictures were coming through of flooding in nearby Mountagu and word was that the Tradouw Pass was closed so access was going to be an issue. Once we arrived at the pass it had just been opened and we were able to drive along the river to see just what we were facing. It was clear that the river was wild, broken its banks and frothing with foam. I have seen it like this twice before and walked away but now, as a more accomplished paddler and with a stronger team, I was itching to give it a go! It took some convincing but eventually three of us suited up and walked silently to the put in. The first rapid was a 3 m drop with serious undertow in the pool leading into a keeping hole. We decided to put in below and work our way down to the rapids below. In the put in pool, Phil slipped off the rock and disappeared into the mound of foam! After several seconds and anxious calls he emerged gasping for air. It was clear we had a new danger on the river that we had never even considered.
We paddled quietly to the pool above the steepest part of the river. Getting out to do a final scout of the line, it was clear the gradient was much steeper from river level and that scouting from the road above had been as deceptive as always, hiding the gradient that lay before us. We picked out some obvious trouble areas and realized there was very little room for error. A swim here would not result in a good outcome. It was not an option. We decide to stick together rather than having one person on the water alone, allowing us to be able to help retrieve a paddler or equipment in case of a swim.
I lead the team off a strategic ‘boof’ off a submerged rock and right of a retentive hole. The eddies were tight so it was straight into the next lateral, pushing hard past a rock in the middle of the river and skirting past a pourover into the foaming eddy. It is amazing how such a short section of white water takes your breath away and fills your muscles with lactic acid. We couldn’t hang around in the foam too long so we broke out of the eddy, surging water leading us into the next rapid. We had to ‘think on our feet’ on this one as we didn’t have the opportunity to scout from the bank. Finally we emerged in a tight eddy on the right and were able to scout the last section – the steepest so far. It was evident the water was dropping and there were submerged rocks appearing where there were previously clear lines. On closer inspection I chose a new line involving a move from right to left and right - eddy turn – power stroke to left off the lateral and blasting through the hole created by the huge boulder resulting in paddlers disappearing in the last drop for several seconds. This is the thought process that goes on when taking on Class 5 water!
It was late in the day so we decided to come back the next day to take on the remote section of the gorge. What a great couple of days paddling! The next opportunity will only be in a couple of years time.
Paddlers - Andrew Kellett, Phil Solomon, Johan Swart
Photo’s – Kate Walton
Andrew Kellett is a former South African freestyle champion, exploratory kayaker and SUPer and top adventurer. He is currently the owner of Gravity Adventures and Cape Town based kayak store Paddlezone.