Paddling the Bivane River

Kevin Davie

As with most things, South Africans are spoilt for choice when it comes to paddleable rivers.

For a country that is water-challenged, canoeists have many rivers to choose from in all provinces, and some events, notably the Dusi and the Fish, are part of the national sporting consciousness.

But ask even outdoorsy South Africans if they know of the Bivane River and chances are they have not heard of it. The river is a secret, even to some canoeists.

For the past seven or so years canoeists have been making an annual pilgrimage to paddle this little-known river.

The Bivane starts near Vryheid in the most northern part of KwaZulu-Natal. A privately-owned dam has been built by sugar farmers downstream of the Bivane along the Pongola River. This allows an additional 3 000 hectares of sugarcane to be grown annually.

A controlled release also allows for paddlers and rafters to trip the rapids of the Bivane and Pongola.

An annual race held in November attracts about 200 two-man kayaks. Paddlers take in the 30km adrenalin rush from below the dam to the confluence of the Pongola where the river broadens.

The finish is a further 10 kilometres downstream in the excellent Ithala game reserve.

The area is entirely uninhabited. There are no farms, no houses, no kraals and just a single fence. The area is so remote that canoeists are warned that if they break their boats they should not attempt to walk out of the valley as chances are they will not be found for several days.

Rather, you wait for a flotilla of inflatable rafts which follow at the back of the field. You leave your broken mess of fibre glass. This will be picked up a week later by the organisers.

The river is rated A-plus, meaning you have to be experienced and wear both a life jacket and helmet.

A repair kit and spare paddle are also essential as the river is a boat-eater.

The area has had little rainfall and the dam is low, meaning that the water release, at six cubic metres a second, will be about half of that of what canoeists have come to expect.

The “bony” river also means that there is likely to be even greater damage to our boats as lines will be tighter and we can expect to whack more rocks in the rapids.

There are plenty of rapids – about 60 – in the 42 kilometres we will paddle. Many are boat breakers. Some even have marshals on standby, wearing either green (okay to shoot), yellow (shoot at your on risk) or red (get out and portage) T-shirts.

At the first marshalled rapid the officials have changed their shirts from red to yellow. A line of broken boats are on the bank, their owners making makeshift attempts to fix them.

The gorge is as beautiful as it is remote. The rapids are exhilarating and, in cases, mind-focusing. The low level means lines have to be carefully picked in the approach to a rapid, the boat continually turned to find a way through the rocks, and then, as you find the main current and the river drops, you have an adrenalin rush as you surge through the white water.

My own race is a conservative one. There are many things which can go wrong and no shortage of rapids which can end your race. We portage a handful of rapids where we see that some canoeists in front of us have come to grief.

A few times we have swum (canoeist parlance for capsizing) and have had to stop and fix an errant rudder, but both paddlers and boat are in good shape as we exit the most hectic part of this journey, the Bivane, and join the Pongola.

The organisers told us at the pre-race briefing that there are crocodiles in the Pongola, but that crocodiles eat fish, not canoeists.

My partner, Mike, and I are feeling strong and pulling hard for the last hour or so as we cruise the Pongola. But the wider river means that the river is bonier. We have about five kilometres to go (according to Mike’s GPS) and are picking our way down a rapid.

A rock knocks us off course. A second puts us at right angles to the river against another, large rock.

Within seconds the boat starts breaking. Mike is out of the boat in perhaps four or five seconds, but it is too late. We have wrapped completely around the rock.

I’m out and unhook the broken K2 from the rock, swimming after Mike with the boat.

He grabs the boat and, without discussion, says he will swim it to the other side of the river, the right-hand bank, which is the same side as the finish. We can then carry the broken boat to the finish. I follow.

The river is only about 50 metres wide, but it seems to take an eternity rather than a minute or so to get out of the water.

We have repair kit, tape and bandages. The latter come in an air-tight container. You open the package and immerse the contents in water. The boat is then taped with the bandage which creates a solid bond in about 20 minutes.

But our break is across the cockpit. We can fix it with a bandage but it means that one of us will not be able to get into the boat.

We decide to carry. The bush is thick. This is my first encounter with the haak and steek (hook and attach) bush. The haak grabs you, and the steek goes in deep as you move.

If you were hiking and got hooked, you’d stop. The problem with carrying a K2 is that your partner at the back does not know that you are impaled on a thorn bush and carries on pushing from the back.

We put down the boat on the river’s edge to consider our options. We hear voices from behind a thick blanket of bush. The voices belong to two game rangers who are on poacher control.

They are only about five metres from us, but we cannot see them, nor them us.

They confirm there are crocodiles in the river.

“These crocodiles,” Mike asks, “are they big or small?”

“Big. All of them,” the female of the two voices answers.

They also tell us there are buffalo and rhino (black and white) in the area, but no lions.

Their advice is to paddle a short distance to beyond a cliff we can see a few hundred metres downstream. There is a path just behind this cliff all the way to the finish.

And so it is, with a combination of carrying a battered and bandaged boat, paddling short sections (as the water level in the boat got higher and higher), we made our way to the finish.

If there’s a moral in this story I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s this: if you’re going to paddle a broken boat in crocodile-inhabited waters, make sure they prefer fish to canoeists.

As a journalist Kevin Davie is a Nieman Fellow and editor of numerous South Africa business magazines and newspapers. As an Internet entrepreneur he co-founded South Africa’s first online stockbroker and WOZA, the first news portal which was independent of a traditional publisher.

He divides his time between the Mail & Guardian, where he  runs the business section and pursues the twin interests of economics and environmentalism, and projects in construction (particularly green building) and a better way to search the Internet. He also makes time to paddle and ride his mountain bike.