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|South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal Province, Umkomaas River, Deepdale Gorge Section|
What's it like
Flowing freely without any dams from source to sea, the Umkomaas River is a super river to catch when the water is up. There are various sections on the Umkomaas but probably the best section is Deepdale Gorge. It is 31.5 km long and drops about 270m in that distance, giving an average gradient of roughly 8.6 m/km. It is mostly of a pool drop nature with a couple of longer rapids and slightly more continuous sections too. Most people do this as a relaxed overnight trip but it can be done in one long day. If the water is up and you know the river, it is totally possible but a great overnight experience is then wasted. Once in the gorge, you are far removed from civilisation so it is advised to take all the normal precautions for such a trip.
Deepdale Falls. The river right drop is the higher of the two. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
At the put in is Deepdale Falls. It is about fifteen metres high and can be run either left or right, with river right being the higher of the two. It needs a lot of water for it to be safely run and several people have hurt themselves running this waterfall with too little water, watch out. In Steve Fishers DVD, Black Book, there are several runs of this waterfall shown, both the left and right line and all of them at extremely high water levels.
From here on the rapids are short and interspersed with short pools and warm you up nicely. The rapids are mostly shelf type here. Some local fishermen are usually seen at various spots on the right bank. After about two kilometres a river wide ledge is encountered and it is known as The Ledge. A truly fitting name and it is best to be scouted from river right. At high levels is can deliver severe punishment. There is another ledge drop and then a calmer section before Lunch Time rapid is encountered just as the river bends slightly right, scout on river left. This rapid has a great double boof on the left with enough water, otherwise at low levels one has to run on the right or even try the crazy little chute in the middle.
Adrian Tregoning running the Ledge at a highish level. Photo by Mike Pennefather.
Mike Pennefather on the double boof of Lunch Time rapid at a highish level. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
There are way too many rapids describe and lots of things to watch out for. Two rapids stand out in my mind now but they are impossible to describe. I think the rapid immediately below the confluence with the Elands River has a nasty pinning rock in the centre and when boat scouting it comes as quite a surprise.
About a third of the way is a short but mean rapid known as Short Drop. It basically has three wide pourover holes with a straight and simple line and at high levels they can get really nasty. For most people it is advisable to scout this rapid at most levels, from river right. The obvious horizon line should be ample warning. Two rapids below this, a long rapid is found and it can easily be run on the fly and is great fun. There are a few more rapids and then a narrow section is found. There are some good rapids here and the difficulty varies quite a bit according to water levels. Use common sense and at very high or flood levels take great care. There are several siphons on this stretch in general that must be avoided although they are not too bad and easily avoided. Given the nature of the boulder type rapids found this would be expected.
Neil O'Leary about the enter the second of the three holes on Short Drop at a medium level. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
Adrian Tregoning about to enter the final hole on Short Drop at a highish level. Photo by Mike Pennefather.
Early morning in Deepdale Gorge, what an incredible place. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
The river flattens off for a kilometre or two and then starts dropping a little more and then even more as it approaches the largest rapid on the stretch, Long Drop. Long Drop is reasonably technical and contains several really bad siphons. A swim above this rapid would be bad news. There are some bad pourover holes, some of which are not avoidable and rescue can be tricky to administer depending on which side you choose to scout on. We always scout on river left. The very top of the rapid is really dangerous at low to medium low levels because the only line to run is far right at the top, making a ferry above some siphons, and then left around a huge rock to run the normal centre line. The bottom pourover is really powerful and is formed by a perfectly symmetrical rock, causing a strong recycling hole.
Mike Pennefather at the top of Long Drop at a highish level. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
Adrian Tregoning boofing the second drop in the centre chute at a medium level. Photo by Neil O'Leary.
Mike Pennefather running the second drop far river right at a very low level. Photo by Brett Pennefather.
A stern warning to all paddlers about Long Drop: Do not run the chute on the far left at high levels! At low levels it is not runnable as there is no water there. But there is a rock in the landing that resulted in someone recently being pinned totally underwater, resulting in a near drowning and a buggered knee. A very close call indeed! I’ve run this line before and I know a couple of other people have too but rather give it a miss and take a different line (my personal opinion). It’s weird how quickly accidents can happen, even on water very familiar to one.
Long Drop rapid at a highish to high level. The dangerous chute is in the far right of the photo between two rocks where a rooster tail is almost visible. Please note: Because of the huge rocks and loads of thorn trees, it is almost impossible to even try to portage this rapid. We've never portaged it but I would imagine it would be really unpleasant, those thorns are bad news.. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
Mike Pennefather avoiding the final pourover at a highish to high level. (We all avoided it that day) Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
Adrian Tregoning running the final pourover at a slightly lower level than above. Not the rock on the lip of the drop on the right in both pictures to see the small difference. Photo by Mike Pennefather.
There is a ledge drop just downstream of Long Drop and it easy to run at all levels. There are several really good rapids further down. I’d guess about five or six that are long and technical. Then after a few kilometres the river really flattens out and mellows. It stays quite chilled out until the natural weir is reached. Straight down the middle at very low levels, far left at medium levels and either far left or boof the pourover on the right at high levels or even the chicken line on far right. Watch out, this thing can really beat you but at least rescue is from the left bank and there is a bit of a pool to enable one to reach the bank before the next drop. Keep a throw bag at the ready as it will hold a swimmer.
The ledge drop one rapid below Long Drop. Craig Rivett boofing in the red Solo, Scott Reinders in the green Solo going deep into a slot and Mike Pennefather's paddle can be seen behind Craig's back as he freewheeled the drop. This was a highish to high level. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
From here the river is quite easy with nothing to stress about. It is rafted commercially at high levels and everything is good to go for this short roughly four kilometre stretch. The take out we use is just downstream of the bridge, on river right at the camping ground that Highover owns.
Deepdale Gorge is rated as a class 3 to 4 run with some 5’s at a high level. I’d say that is about accurate. Although it is not really difficult and wild looking the runs are very technical and at high levels there are several bad pourovers and holes that must be avoided and also a couple of other things to watch out for. Technical boulder fields can be challenging when a lot of water roars across them and must not be underestimated. This section can be run when most other sections have too little water as it channels really well. The first time I ran the gorge the level was about 0.6m or 0.7m at the take out bridge. These markers can be seen when standing above the bridge. That was really very low but nothing else was running. I’m not sure that it could be run lower than that. From 1.4m to about 1.6m is quite fun 1.6m to 1.8m is really great and anything above 2m is really fantastic. The level at the bridge can get to over 3m but then the gorge has never been paddled. Of course only the skilled should venture onto this stretch at even levels of around 1.7m so be warned. The scenery is really awesome and it is one of my favourite stretches in South Africa and I’ve had some super trips down here.
Mike Pennefather running a drop about three rapids down from Long Drop at a highish level. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
A huge and not very friendly 'play hole' just before the natural weir at a highish to high level. BIG TIP: To get here, drive up to the natural weir and then walk upstream for one or two kilometres to get to this beast. Craig Rivett in the hole with Mike Pennefather in the play boat (with his overnight gear) and Scott Reinders in the foreground. Photo by Adrian Tregoning.
Adrian Tregoning running the natural weir at a medium level. Run more river left at most levels to avoid a beating. Photo by Neil O'Leary.
How to get there
From Johannesburg, take the N3 all the way to Pietermaritzburg. I prefer to go just beyond Pietermaritzburg, still on the N3, and take the Umlaas Road turn off where one turns right. It does not really make the journey much longer and is quicker. From Durban, one would take this same off ramp and head west (left), towards the Drakensberg Mountains. Umlaas Road joins the R56 which is the one you want to be on. You can try and get onto the R56 directly from the N3 highway but the chances of getting lost are about 99% unless you know the city and which way to go as it is not sign posted. Once you reach the R56, turn left. From the R56 take the little off ramp, turning right and back over the R56, and go directly through Richmond on Shepstone Street. There is only one main road in this tiny town so getting lost is impossible. About a kilometre out of town, turn left at the sign that says Eastwolds / Hella Hella Road. The tar road will carry on for about 15km and then become gravel. Don’t take the left turn here. Follow the road down the hill and be careful as it can get slippery when wet. It is about another 9km down to the bridge which serves roughly as the take out. We usually take out at the Highover camping grounds on river right, a few hundred metres downstream. See ‘more info’ for details on them. Highover’s new reception is before the river, on river left. Please take note of that.
To get to the put in is a real mission and I advise you to rather get the people at Highover to drop you off, as leaving a vehicle is not advisable either. It is about a 50km drive from the put in. To get there, drive back out the way you came in out via the gravel road. Carry on with the tar road for 1.4 km and then turn left onto a gravel road that is owned by Sappi. At the first split in the road, take the right split! I’ve taken the left and once in those forests, in the mist, you will be lost for ages. After several more kilometres, you will approach a type of a four way intersection with houses in front of you, turn right. Carry on for a few hundred metres and at the t-junction, turn left. There will be a dam on your left. This is all quite clear on Google Earth. I advise you to take some readings for your GPS to avoid serious frustration. Carry on for many kilometres until the road starts going up and you find yourself at the top of a hill where there are a few small post boxes on the left. This is Ncwadi Village. Turn left here and drive for four kilometres until you’ve just crossed over an old railway line. Stop here. You could drive further down to the river, above the falls, but the rapids are small and you’re not missing much. Put in above the falls if you want to run them, or below if you want to give them a miss.
Phone the people at Highover before the time and get them to drop you and your gear off at the put in. Leaving a car in that rural area is asking for trouble. Their rates are very reasonable and the people there are super friendly and helpful. They also have various forms of accommodation and also have wildlife inside their grounds, adding to the African experience. Plus your car can be left there and you know everything will be there when you get back and you can also have a hot shower at the camp when you return. http://www.highover.co.za/
If you don’t feel like carrying your boat down to the river hire some porters for real cheap. The going rate of about R5 (less than 1 US Dollar) per porter is good enough and they are really grateful to earn at least something as the people here are very poor. Even R10 per porter is fine. Feel free to make payment in terms of t-shirts etc. That is always a winner. On a hot day, with a boat full of overnight gear, some porters can be a real lifesaver.
This section is not paddled too often so there are no real ‘locals’ per say. There are some guys in the area that paddle it every now and then but the chances are very slim that you’ll see anybody on this stretch. I’ve never come across another group of paddlers on any river in South Africa. There just simply aren’t that many people paddling here so you’re almost guaranteed to be alone.
Adrian Tregoning +27 82 656 0252