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Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

  • 31 May 2018
  • |
  • Shane Raw

Photo Credit: Luke Longridge and Shane Raw

Searching for gold in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe - First Ascent Ambassador, Shane Raw shares with us his journey down the "Gairezi" river, kayaking highly regarded white-water.

As Mark Twain once famously wrote – “There’s GOLD in them thar hills”!

True story… the “hills” I am referring to are the mountains of the Inyanga National Park which rise up to form part of the border between eastern Zimbabwe and Mozambique, otherwise known as the Eastern Highlands of Zim. I’m ashamed to admit that I had been aware of the existence of highly regarded white-water nuggets in these mountains for years, but it took until March this year for me to finally get it together to check them out for myself. Needless to say, the bounty was plentiful!

First Ascent - Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

The river name “Gairezi” had rattled around kayaking circles for decades, although the total number of kayakers to have made successful run of the deep and formidable gorge is probably fewer than the average number potholes per kilometre on the road from Mutare to Masvingo. Do a little digging and you will uncover a handful of stories of epic adventures that have played out in the depths of this gorge, including some who were severely punished for underestimating their intensity and remoteness. Sound inviting? Yes please!

A few months earlier, a motivated and enthusiastic handful of Zim kayakers threw open an invitation to SA kayakers to come up and explore their backyard and the response was pleasantly surprising. In total there were 12 kayakers from SA who made the 20 hour trek north to meet up with 2 members of the RAW Adrenalin crew from Bulawayo and another handful from the Harare area. The large group size and vastly varied skill levels within the group was always going to present a major challenge, especially with so many unknowns lying ahead.

During the weeks prior to our arrival, the Eastern Highlands, like most of Southern Africa, received wave after wave of torrential rain and at one stage we were concerned that we would have far too much water to take on the mighty Gairezi gorge! However on the day of our arrival, the clouds abated and the sun came out to provide us with as-perfect-as-you-could-wish-for conditions for the entire week: clear, full river and blue-bird days!

As a warm up, and after a “class 5” drive to the put in, we paddled the upper section of the Gairezi River before it enters the main gorge. The section was mostly mellow but we did get to run a supposedly “un-run waterfall” which provided a taste of what was to follow down in the gorge. Apart from the lush green vegetation and spectacular mountainous scenery, the most notable feature of this river is the crystal clear and I do mean CRYSTAL CLEAR water. It is quite uncanny to be able to see every rock and pebble forming the river bed as you float along the flatter sections and then watch how they accelerate beneath you as you pick up speed dropping down into the rapids. This is something completely unheard of in our dirty brown rivers down south and I reckon quite rare in the world… sadly!

First Ascent - Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

Day 2 took us over the mountain and down into the Honde valley to the Nyamangura river that flows through an extensive tea estate which, although still productive, looked just a shade of its former glory. The river was low volume, steep, continuous and very rocky – and with the relatively low flow, at times I found myself wondering if I should have swapped my kayak for a mountain bike on this creeky run. Nevertheless, the Nyamangura provided a few spills and the resultant post-paddle consumption of booty beers (the punishment for swimming out of one’s kayak) for those who had suffered a lapse of concentration. As much fun as those tasty appetisers were, our focus now had to turn to the first of the main courses: The Gairezi Gorge.

We’d heard it could be done in a single day, but with our group size of 12 on the day, that was always going to be ambitious, so we packed our kayaks with the bare essentials to spend a night out next to the river. Additional weight in a kayak is the enemy as the kayak becomes heavy and sluggish and more difficult to control, which is NOT what you want when negotiating potentially life-threatening rapids. And then of course there is the inevitable nightmare of having to portage the heavily laden kayak around an un-runnable rapid or waterfall over slippery rocks and through impenetrable vegetation.

My overnight kit consisted of my First Ascent Adventure Lite sleeping bag, a bivvy, a set of First Ascent Derma-Tec thermals and because I still had plenty of space, a comfy little pillow. All of this weighs less than 2kg and goes into a medium sized drybag which disappears in front of the footrest in my Fluid Bazooka kayak and is barely noticeable while paddling. Add some tuna, crackers, and assorted snacks and Racefood energy bars in a second smaller dry bag behind the seat and we’re good to go! Oh and don’t forget the rescue gear, throw ropes, and spare split paddles, all adding to the overall weight. Thankfully, on this particular trip, the need to carry liquid refreshment was not an issue as we were floating on a river of pure mountain goodness!

We had calculated the whole section to be around 16km in length, dropping almost 500 vertical metres, with the middle 5-6 km being the crux of the gorge. We moved pretty efficiently through the initial few kilometres and I started to wonder if we wouldn’t perhaps make it in one day after all. Those thoughts were short lived. As the sides of the gorge closed in, the river got steeper and became choked up with house-sized boulders, producing class 5 rapids littered with deadly undercuts and siphons.

While most of the group began to portage, Philip, Luke and myself carefully picked out a line we thought would go. Although we’d all probably run more difficult rapids many times before, the consequences of a mistake and the fact that it would take, literally DAYS for help to arrive should something go drastically wrong, added to the tension. With safety in place, one by one we executed clean runs and regrouped at the next eddy. Success! High-fives! What’s around the corner? A bigger rapid with “gnarlier” moves and even more “manky” undercuts and siphons. Deep breath. Repeat.

First Ascent - Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

By the third or fourth corner the river had completely lost its head, plunging down one drop after another and straight into the next without stopping. Our first major problem came when the third or fourth drop in the sequence disappeared straight into a deadly siphon rendering the whole rapid sequence un-runnable. It was time to join the portage fest!

Now portaging is not any self-respecting kayaker’s favourite thing at the best of times but when you’re faced with scrambling along the heavily wooded river bank and climbing up and over 3 storey high, moss-covered boulders with a kayak that weighs in at around 35kg and every step is either slippery as ice or sinking in to mid-shin and every branch, bush or vine (especially the thorny ones) is determined to snag either your kayak, paddle, helmet, foot or face… it becomes just a little bit testing! At this point our progress slowed to a crawl. It took several hours to move just a few hundred meters downstream. The fortitude and humour of the group was severely tested and I think I heard the occasional “oh darn” uttered in disgust!

Soon the more experienced of the group were able to get back on the river and enjoy one testing drop after the next. The less experienced guys however, continued the portage fest for many more hours, paddling the easier sections between portages. I have to say, those guys had a loooong day! I take my hat off to their determination, not that quitting was on the menu really.

The towering sides of the gorge were already casting long shadows across the river when we got to the first of the trademark big slides on the Gairezi. This was what I’d heard about. This was the hidden treasure. This is why we were here! The river has worn into the granite bedrock producing slides of up to 20-30 meters in length – most are clean and good to go, others… not so much! After running the first few slides, we came around a corner to find a series of 5 or so slides stacked on top of each other. This meant that if you ran one you were more or less committed to running all. Fatigue was setting in and, as we were unsure how much further we still had to go, we decided to call it and camp right next to the series of slides and tackle them fresh in the morning. That was the best decision ever.

First Ascent - Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

There is something truly soulful about sleeping out next to the river in the back end of nowhere with the roar of the river filling your ears incessantly. I guess it’s partly because you just know that few people will ever get to experience the remote beauty that surrounds you at that moment. We built a fire with driftwood and lay on the big flat granite slabs devouring sardines and crackers and replaying the excitement of the day’s paddling and the ordeal that was the portaging. It always amazes me how the painful memories of the frustration and exhaustion just drift away with the flow of the river and you are left with memories of the exciting and challenging rapids of the day. It wasn’t long before the sounds of the wild were punctuated by some pretty well earned snoring - I sure was grateful for my comfy and warm First Ascent cocoon. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the slides we were going to have for breakfast.

The early sun bathed the slides in golden light and we were stoked we had made the decision to save them for the next morning. After we had set up some strategic safety points, I got to do the first run of the day. My first paddle strokes took me to the lip of a 12 meter slide which spilt over straight into a 20 meter slide down into a crashing hole with a strongly recirculating eddy (that’s a bad thing!).

I briefly noted the effects of the absence of my morning coffee as I barely kept it together dropping down into the next slide which spat me out into the pool above the final slide of the series. Philip and Luke followed and Scheepers joined us only for the last big one, a clean 25 meter slide into a 3 metre drop off. Stoked!! I don’t believe I can think of a better way to start a day…

The Gairezi gorge was not completely done yet and the next kilometre contained some more excitement and one last portage, just to keep us honest (an easy one thankfully). The paddle out to the bridge and the awaiting back-up crew (with ice cold beers) provided an opportunity to take in the breath-taking beauty of this unspoilt wilderness – long may it stay that way. Internally, I was quietly but hugely relieved. Having lived through some unpleasant epics and even lost a few friends to the river there is always the chance of something going terribly wrong. That we managed to get a group of this size, without doubt the biggest ever to attempt the Gairezi gorge, safely through without incident or injury is a credit to the guts and savvy of each member of the team. Nice one boys!

First Ascent - Kayaking in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe