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Revisiting the Upper Vaal – Part 2

Paddling the same stretch of a river is never exactly the same. Rain, lack of rain, dam releases, rain in a tributary: they guarantee that each session will be different. The higher up a river the section is, the more volatile the change.

There is something about the dynamics of water that appeals to my inner soul. It makes me want to return again and again.

So a week after the previous trip where we had some flow but still some intermittent rock humping I returned to the upper Vaal River at Klipbank again. This time with local farmers Ben deWet and Nico von Wielligh who have paddled the section a number of times before in their sit-on-top kayaks. As a bonus, my 70 year old dad also joined for the ride.

We have had more rain in the past week, and all indications were that we will have a strong flowing Vaal to contend with. The Vaal did not disappoint!

We had the river at the start of a good white water level, Class I and II rapids, including a sweet 1.5m drop into a very deep pool. At super high levels this drop will probasbly become a huge boat sucking hole that will spit you out on the far side of the pool after significant down-time!

Check out the little bit of video footage of the trip here.

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Revisiting the Upper Vaal – Part 1

Finally, about a year after the epic low-water-boat-dragging-2500km-Triwaters Tour some proper rain fell in the upper Vaal River catchment.

Late February 2016, with support from Jubba, Sam and Bronwyn we made a two day pilgrimage to a section I am convinced will provide less flat water and more rapids we set off on adventure again to the farm Klipbank between Ermelo and Piet Retief.

The water level was still low, but a million times better than the Triwaters experience. What took us a full day and into the night a year ago, was now accomplished in about six hours! Continue Reading »

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The Risk vs Effort Scale

As an adventurer I often meet people who feel that what I do is hardcore. Folks who feel that they will never be able to do such “epic” stuff.

I see it different. In my book I am not one of the uber-hardcore adrenaline chasers out there. I know many folks that run bigger waterfalls, surf bigger waves, take on bigger risks, survive and have fun along the way!

The other side of the coin is typically found on dating sites. Every third profile sells the writer as adventurous.

This got me thinking.

Adventure has a whole plethora of definitions. Aside from sexual promiscuity the common themes in the definitions are:

  • Risk
  • Danger
  • Uncertain outcome

So Adventure will be highly subjective. One person deems driving a car in rush hour traffic to be dangerous and of uncertain outcome, others feel surfing a tame local beach break to be hard core. Other folks will not risk walking on a sidewalk in an African city. Then there are a few who feel that an extreme sport like white water kayaking is not adventurous enough and plans to break a record by running a gigantic waterfall.

Here’s my perception of which adventures are risky and which not. Which take little effort to attempt and which drain energy like a 1980’s electric hair dryer. Please feel free to comment at will. I am sure I have missed something in here.

risk effort scale jpg

My final thought: Whatever activity you choose or like to do, make sure you are having fun. It does not help you or your mates if you are freaked out of your mind by what you are doing, and being in that place will probably kill you in the long run. Do what you enjoy, do it safe, and have maximum fun!

Get those adrenaline and dopamine glands pumping. Its free!

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The Drakensberg Amphitheatre

Walking in the Mountains with Friends

by Jonathan Jubber

I’ve been dabbling in the not so ancient art of adventure tourism for just over three years now. It was something that I just let happen and without making any active decisions in my life it has become a way that people characterize me by. I really enjoy helping people to explore their planet and their minds regardless of the pain and suffering it might bring me in the process.

So this article is meant to be about a trip I’ve recently lead to the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg. It was an important trip for me because it was the first time I’ve taken a group of people into the mountains who weren’t clients and who did not enter into an agreement with me that stated that I’d have to perform in a specific way. We were all there in our own capacities of self-reliance. I was able to lend my knowledge of the area to the group as others brought their own unique energies that enhanced the experience.

"Blood Gully"

“Blood Gully”

We are four wanderers. Four is a good amount if you ask me; one, three and five just aren’t as awesome for some reason. Two is good too, there is no doubt, I enjoy two a lot but every other time four just works.

On this adventure we have no goal or peak to reach. We give each step of the journey as much import as any other and I think there is beauty in that. When I travel like that I feel a resonance with the idea that life is beautiful because there is no necessity to reach a culmination but rather just simply be. Western society is obsessed with a means to an end, I however enjoy the means just as it is.

Franz, Odin, Saloshni and I find ourselves on a journey. It is because we seek the journey that it finds us and for this we are glad. With any good journey it began with preparation and deliberation. Useful things to consider are the interests of each regarding mountain walking, the capabilities of each, the food we will enjoy, the equipment that best suits our intentions, the weight of it all and the logistics of getting from the front door onto that fateful footpath. Our priority is the most amount of fun per unit and that guides the solutions to all the above considerations.

Needless to say we have a lot of good food to share – sharing is important for humans, I think it helps us communicate with each other and humans are happiest when they’re communicating; be it telling stories or sharing moments in life or writing into the void.

Where was I? Oh yes, my second person present tense narration…

Let me share some flashes of reality and sentiment with you. Treat them as scenes in a film, each only a few seconds long. Vision is nothing without the feeling it invokes.

I am standing with Franz and Odin in the Bergview Harrismith parking lot. Feeling pretty good about the whole situation because we all found each other. I’m trying to convince everyone that time-wasting is a magical art that should be appreciated because of its subtle difficulty and benign effects on human psyche. Franz encourages me while Odin calls my bullshit. Sal is looking for succulents at this time so she doesn’t have an opinion.

I’m driving, the road curves left and right through Qwaqwa and township life seems quite chilled out; the school kids are walking far but through beautiful scenery.

Ifidi Cave: Civilization Lighting up the sky

Ifidi Cave: Civilization Lighting up the sky

My little Tazz is giving its all as it makes it up the Sentinel Driveway – a fun but stressful challenge that will soon belong to the past once they finish paving.

We are walking along the pathway as it zigzags towards Sentinel Peak. The clouds are dancing all around us. I’d like to think that I’m not using personification because I don’t want to take anything away from those clouds. Franz stops to record them because they are pretty awesome; I’m glad that I’ll be able to revisit their liveliness during those moments.

Sitting above Blood Gully and stuffing our faces with smoked mackerel. The sun is still high and the view of the Tugela valley is beginning to nourish our minds.

Later, in the excitement of getting that perfect shot while making mist-angels Franz loses his lens cap, we are looking and looking but it’s just not there any more. Before moving on we film a couple of seconds of us all walking past the camera, yeah it’s going to make an awesome walking scene – it’s always good to share the idea that being in the mountains is 97% about walking, then the other 3% is spent sleeping, eating and looking for bugs and succulents.

We are setting up tents in the mist. The clouds are low and blowing through our hair. Dreaming is fun and when the clouds are like this I always pretend that I’m in a dream, an altered sense of perception and reality does wonders for the spirit I think. That tea Franz made was good.

Spooning in the tent with Sal. Gotta keep warm, it’s pretty cold – probably around -5, her sleeping bag isn’t cutting it, the things I do for girls these days. Odin and Franz brought their chainsaws and they’re swinging them around their heads inside the tent like madmen. We have two tents a few metres apart and the discussions before bed really hit the spot. Bedtime stories are just good, I don’t think anyone questions that.

Ifidi Cave Stargazing

Ifidi Cave Stargazing

The sunrise is calm and splendourous, I smell like drool and Odin is sleeping while his tent turns into a sail while the poles proceed to bend and break, he is a cat hopping over a field of green with a smile from ear to ear with a paw over closed eyes. That was a metaphor. Somehow metaphor has become one of the themes for this walk. I feel that’s good, metaphors are good – they should be used as often as possible.

Breakfast near the potholes at the top of Tugela Falls, now a dry riverbed with little hope of flow.

We decide to walk towards Ifidi pass, there is a cave there, it’s fun to find caves, caves are good, they introduce an influential environment, humans can appreciate this, I want to be a caveman, people think that’s bad, I giggle to myself.

Can’t find Ifidi cave I think to myself as I stare into the pass. It’s blowing my mind, I’ll stand there for a while as I try to explore the feeling of being lost and enjoying the experience.

I find Ifidi overhang, no cave in sight though, this will have to do. We totally take it over, we assert ownership over this space, it’s ours and that feels good, I make a note to explore that sensation later.

Franz makes a video of us all squashed up together. The stars and moon above us are brilliant against the roof of the overhang. Odin and Franz communicate to each other by bumping Sal and I, each little movement by one can be felt by all, really fun, don’t know why just accept.

Sal nicknames Odin “The Terminator”, if you’re wondering, that’s a metaphor, he fails to recognize contours, he walks straight while the image of the cat is conjured.

Screw it, we decide to walk back to the car, we are crushing this path, we are the wind over the Drakensberg, we decide that another night in a cave would be fun but what would also be good is a drive through the Golden Gate National Park and a visit to Clarens Brewery. We are the wind as it blows into that small arts and crafts town.

I get pissed off at the bus in front of us as its tourists stop to feed the baboons, they do it over and over and baboons are running through traffic and fighting with each other for the scraps. Ignorance is rife, it’s source is arrogance and the disability of forethought.

Spirit in the Sky

Spirit in the Sky

That schnapps is strong, supposedly it’s the real stuff, it feels like the real stuff. The brewery is pretty passionate about good shit. I support that.

The German restaurant that Franz is treating us to is good. Walking through the town and then arriving there before all sitting down and recounting our experiences is rewarding. Life is good. I’ll do that again.

Drinking coffee on the third morning, talking about business opportunities in the mountains, how to share the love professionally and sustainably. Important stuff, thankful for people like Franz and Sal who offer their motivation.

Driving home in the sleepy heat. We all smell like hard work and dust, I’m thankful that humans can experience that, gotta stay close to the earth sometimes because spending too much time in the clouds makes you forget about stuff. Mountains are fun because earth and air are so close together and you can get both at once on most days – that’s probably what stimulates our minds when we’re out there.

That was the berg for me. It’s not always like that and might not ever be again but this time it was. The reality of the place is as fleeting as those dancing clouds and you just have to enjoy those moments as they pass by. Enjoy the space where subjectivity becomes substantial and question everything.

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Jonathan Jubber – Ad-Hoc Trailblazer

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Jonathan Jubber

Jonathan Jubber is a Philosophy major, he guides mountain walking in the Central and Northern Drakensberg. He has also guided on Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Elbrus. He is attempting to reteach the Human race how to enjoy the outdoors through his avid interest in rock climbing and kayaking.

Jonathan writes about adventure, mountains and life.

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Dry Mountain

Jonathan Jubber, Odin, Sal and I took a multiday trip to the Drakensberg, South Africa. An experience of a lifetime.

It is sad to see that the current drought in South Africa is also taking its toll on the Drakensberg. The Tugela River up there was dry, the best we found between dry riverbeds and stagnant pools were a mere trickle. But on the horizon we could still see flowing water on other sections of the mountain. May it rain soon.

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Cleaning the Elands

What a view.

What a view.

It is the end of the dry winter season in South Africa. No joke – The Southern Hemisphere actually experiences winter mid-year!

This also means that our rivers are at their very lowest, the perfect time to remove obstructions from a river and make it more paddle-able.

This is what I, Jubba and Connor were up to a few weeks ago on the Elands River below Waterval Boven.

Now Boven is one of the top international climbing destinations, but steep cliff faces and gorges also result in steep rivers. This is quite high up in the Elands River, so it is quite rain dependant, but on a previous scout session with my mate Sheena we realized that there is definitely some potential for a fun white water section. Read that story here.

We kicked off with a 60 meter abseil next to the waterfall, with help from our friends at Roc ‘n Rope, and armed to the teeth with saws, pangas (the south African version of a machete) and basic rigging equipment we started down one of the most beautiful gorges in South Africa.

We also made use of the opportunity to do a miniSASS river health assessment below the waterfall. Go find it on www.minisass.org. Please make a contribution to the conservation of our rivers by using this very simple tool on every river you paddle!

Our verdict of this river:

  • River type: Pool Drop, narrow.
  • Difficulty: Beginner, but with a few more serious Class 4+ features (easy to portage) and two easily avoidable death trap syphoned rapids (maybe paddle-able for very experienced kayakers at very high level – Class 5-6)
  • It is now (mostly) clean to paddle.
  • Short-ish run, lots of fun, spectacular surroundings.
  • Rain dependant section. Watch the weather forecast before taking the drive. But if all fails, you can always enjoy some rock climbing or technical mountain biking in the area.

Now we wait for Modjadji to bring the summer rains that will transform this river into an action packed adventure!

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Photos courtesy of Johnathan Jubber.

Story by Franz Fuls

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