Graham Mellor – tripping seven foot at Hella Hella

Early in February 1985 I found myself in the company of several “old hands” off to trip the Umkomaas. Being a new-comer with only seven months paddling under the belt and none of it on the Umko, I had no idea what to expect. I had of course, heard a tremendous amount about the river and its rapids and was feeling fairly apprehensive even though I was going in the back of a K2 with Geoff Caruth (or was this the cause of my concern?).

I was in the back of the bakkie, curled up in a sleeping bag, my only company a little group of butterflies in the pit of my stomach. Eventually the jolting and slithering slowed and we stopped. Out I leapt to be greeted by the sight of a vast mass of heavy, churning, silt-laden water below the Hella Hella bridge.

At first there was silence. Someone established that the level was at 7½ feet. Lively debate broke out. Should we go or not, if so from where and so on. Some members of the party, experienced canoeists, said “Madness”, and left. Eventually after the arrival of further intrepid adventurers with “plastic” kayaks, it was decided the “plastics” and Charles Mason in his K1 would go from Hella Hella while the remainder of the K1’s and K2’s would walk to below No.2 rapid.

There we launched ourselves into the seething mass of water and paddling hard we were swept along with the others following behind. We rounded a bend in the river and a series of huge stopper waves leapt into view, Soada rapid. Geoff headed straight for the middle with a shout of glee. Or terror – I don’t know which. He disappeared into the first wall of water followed by yours truly paddling and bracing for dear life. Somewhere in there something went wrong and in a split second we found ourselves buried in volumes of muddy water. I clung to the back of the boat with one hand and onto my paddle with the other. There was little else to do except try and breathe. After what seemed an age my feet touched ground and we managed to drag ourselves onto an island.

From then on sneaking was the order of the day. We skirted the big stuff. It was exhilarating absorbing the spectacle of this majestic river in flood. The ”plastics” had by now caught us up and it was an education to watch them sail into the heart of the action, disappearing and reappearing in the swirl of the waves. It looked so easy!

We eventually arrived at No.5&6 (a tricky rapid normally portaged on the right by most, or snuck on the left when there is enough water). On this occasion we were able to sneak the rapid well on the right, far from the normal water course. We stopped to have a look at the rapid. What a sight to behold. Water roaring over rocks which normally stood well clear of the water. Near the top was a hole that looked as though it could swallow the whole entry of rubber dinghies in the Tugela River Challenge in one gulp.

After a few more exciting rapids, we arrived at the famous No.8. No sneaking here, we headed for the main channel. It is difficult to describe the next few moments. Paddle. Brace. Disappear. Reappear. Paddle. All went well until we slewed into a huge hole at the bottom of the rapid and for the second time that day we were in the water. This time a deep pool of eddies and swirling water. I still have a clear picture of our K2 disappearing from sight under the water. Treading water, gasping for breath and then seeing our boat
emerge tail first, with the front half following at right angles to the back. Somewhere down there it had folded in two.

That was the encl of our journey, a hundred metres or so downstream we managed to get our boat and ourselves to the side and after a suitable rest found the road, a lift and headed for home.

What an introduction to the Umkomaas river. The thrills and fears will live with me forever.

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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