Big Drops on the Umko

There are four major obstacles to paddling down the Umkomaas River on its journey from its source in South Africa’s biggest World Heritage area – the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg – to the sea at Umkomaas village on the KZN South Coast. All are fundamentally different.

deepdale bald ibis falls

(*pics from the awesome website* – check them out!)

You know which these four big drops are, right?

The first two are on a stretch of river not used for any competition, but enjoyed and treasured by recreational paddlers when the water is low and clear for the joy of paddling through a relatively unspoilt and virtually uninhabited section of the river valley on an exciting pool-and-drop technical stretch.

And – when the water level is up and frothy white (or especially frothy brown) – by adrenalin junkies for the challenge of riding the waves, drops and tight turns as the river roars through narrow channels between huge boulders.

Some of these adventurous paddlers in their small, tough plastic kayaks – not all of them – shoot Bald Ibis Falls after careful reconnaisance to ascertain the safety of the pool below.



Twelve kilometres downstream of Hella Hella bridge brings you to one of them on a section that is often raced. This  means that many unsuitable craft make its acquaintance! Long sleek fast racing craft sweep around the bend and end up bent.


This is the only rapid race officials have occasionally made a compulsory portage on a race day.

Why the Numbers?
Why were the first eight big rapids below Hella Hella not named?

Kingfisher Falls is the only other place where almost everyone will carry their boat around.

Trip Rob Gouldie Umko Falls

The few who have shot it in racing craft have done so inadvertently! Most famous of these was . . . 

He survived miraculously with only a broken toe to show for his spectacular plunge. Oh, for GoPro camera footage from those far-off days!

In the very first race the brothers Willan had an unconventional approach: They threw their boat over the cliff!

At high water levels an overflow channel runs around the left of the falls and paddlers have tried to negotiate this rare option (sometimes unknowingly) to avoid portaging the falls – usually unsuccessfully. Only one successful negotiation is on record: Whose?


In the marathon one is allowed to portage any rapid, each paddler decides for himself whether he feels confident enough to shoot a rapid or not, but only on the riverbank. No overland ‘shortcut’ portaging is permitted as This Is Not The Dusi, OK?

When this happens at the Umko its usually not people seeking a shortcut. It’s people saying “Enough! Get me outa here!”

Author: bewilderbeast

It's about life, marriage, raising kids, paddling rivers, travel in Africa . . . re-posting thoughts written over decades - at random, I'm afraid.

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