Next Big Thing: The Vaal River

The whitewater section close to Parys, and about an hour south of Johannesburg meanders through the Vredefort Dome, a site of a meteor crash from the Paleoproterozoic era (2023 million years ago). The resulting impact crater is estimated to have been one of the largest ever to strike Earth, and subsequently changed the characteristics of the river from generally flat with isolated rapids, to class II and III whitewater. This was the dawn of paddling on Vaal.

Early man first floated on the Vaal on rubber rafts. These boaters were simple folk with rough beards, tin food diets, and a huge sense of adventure. Our forefathers opened up the possibilities of descending waterways, giving us the very names we still use for the rapids on the Vaal River today. As of 2018, they still guide large groups of thrill-seekers down this popular stretch of water, often introducing neophytes to whitewater and other forms of paddling.

By the 1990s, kayakers were all over the Vaal, and with them, they brought new and colourful technology. These river rats were (and still are) masters of negotiation, skilled in the particular art of arranging put-in and take-out shuttles via friends and family. For a while, kayakers dominated the Vaal scene with their spins, cartwheels, and blunts. While their technology, lingo, style, and GoPro edits persist into the modern-day, some paddlers eclipsed sit-down watercrafts and advanced into a new age. They decided to stand up.

Stand up paddleboarding is a fairly new sport in South Africa, even on flat water but especially on the river. The Vaal, however, offers an introduction to whitewater SUP, with various sections across a 10km radius to paddle and hone your skills on.

The Parys section of the Vaal can be divided into four sections:

Flatwater: Upstream of the town and the weir. It is great for birding, fishing, family paddles, and some fitness training. Great water for the Straight Up or Hoss to cruise around on.

Top section: Short but technical 2km run from the weir to town. Challenging but rewarding on a SUP, with steep technical rapids and surf waves. It is perfect for an afternoon or early morning trip on the Atcha.

Full day section: This section is approximately 17km long and can be split up in shorter or longer trips. It starts out with a bang within the first two kilometres as you encounter Big Daddy, one of the larger rapids on the Vaal. After Big Daddy comes a long, flat section where you can spot otters, fish, eagles, and other water birds. The full-day run ends with another series of moderate rapids. This entire stretch can be paddled as an overnighter, even for river-camping novices. The Rado and Radito were made for whitewater journeys, as they can still stick the sweet lines with a fully rigged up load. The Stompbox also works great for low level and rocky rapids.

Gatsien: Translating to “see your arse,” this section got its name from numerous unsuspecting rafting clients getting stuck in the clutches of a hydraulic hole. This rapid is located at the end of the full-day rafting section and is South Africa’s most famous park-and-play feature. When the water is flowing at 50cumecs and beyond, Gatsein turns into a challenging surf feature. Great fun! which is great fun. The steep face can make it challenging to surf in other watercrafts, but the Hala Peño handles the face with ease and carves it up like Sunday roast.

The Vaal River and its Parys section is a must see (and do!) on your South African SUP adventures. Besides the river, the area offers a lot more through hiking trails, heritage tours, adventure activities, great restaurants, and a craft brewery on your way back from your surf session at Gatsien.

Philip Claassens is a international ambassador for Hala Gear. 

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