Today we unwrapped our brand-new 9-man rafts, just in time for the coming summer season. These rafts are considerably larger than the 2-man rafts that we’ve been using on the Great Usutu River for the past few years, and perhaps a bit more typical of the type of raft used on most rivers internationally.
In some ways this is a returning to our roots, as when we opened white-water rafting here in Swaziland in 1991, we only used these larger rafts. Back in those early days we had a good reason for it too, because during our initial trial trips we came to appreciate that the Great Usutu was packed full of crocodiles – BIG crocodiles.
On average we’d see three large crocodiles on every trip and on one day when we had someone on board who had really sharp eyesight (Mickey “Jubela” Reilly – if I recall right) we saw a record of eleven monsters. In fact, anything under 3 metres in length wasn’t even counted as a crocodile, and was dismissed merely as a “lizard”.
So the moral of the story was that we didn’t want to fall out the rafts too often and when we did capsize on occasion, it was an adrenaline-fuelled rush to climb back on board. The problem was however, that these big rafts were only suitable for high-water season, and weren’t much fun in lower water conditions.
Then in 1992 and 1993, a combination of drought and some heavy poaching by an unidentified individual from Manzini resulted in most of the big crocodiles either moving downstream or being shot out. Sad though this was environmentally, it did make rafting that much safer.
So we invested in a few 2-man rafts – popularly known as “croc rafts” in Southern Africa (for entirely unrelated reasons!) These rafts are paddled like canoes with two-bladed paddles, rather than with single-bladed paddles used on bigger rafts. The smaller rafts are much more responsive and a lot of fun for participants. For a while we ran them side-by-side and on many occasions the large rafts were left unused whilst the 2-man crocs were raved about. In the end when the big rafts got to the end of their lifespan and perished, we decided not to replace them.
So from about 1994 to date we have only offered the 2-man rafts. What this did allow was a longer season and in fact for most years we have been able to raft throughout the year, and we remain one of the few rivers in Southern Africa where this is possible.
However, some market research has indicated that not everyone is confident enough to want to raft on the smaller rafts, where you are largely on your own and responsible for your own action or lack of action, as the case may be. Under this format, river guides lead the trips in their own kayaks and tend to act as “shepherds” gently coaxing their “flock” or should we say “flotilla” downstream. The larger rafts however, provide an additional measure of safety or peace of mind, in that each raft is manned by a river guide, who issues instructions and who is close at hand to take charge of any situations that may arise. To many persons this added comfort is the difference between participating or not participating – especially during high-water months.
Our aim at Swazi Trails has always been to offer adventures that are far from “soft”, but that are still accessible to any Tom, Dick or Sipho, who has the spirit of adventure, if not the experience or skills to match it . This is particularly relevant with the corporate team-building groups that we regularly have on-river. So we’ve decided to go back to our original plan of offering a choice. Rafters on the Great Usutu River will now be able to choose paddling on a two-man croc raft or a 9-man large raft. It is however likely that the larger rafts will be tucked away during the low-water winter months and conversely that during “stonking” high-water that we will restrict participation to just the big boats for control purposes.
If you’re curious – all our rafts are manufactured in Cape Town by African River Kraft or ARK Inflatables as they are now better known. Our new rafts are part of their NILE KN series and we opted for the larger KN430 model. These rafts are famous for having been the boat of choice for the Camel White-Water Rafting World Champs, during the hey-day of this event.
ARK claim that they make “unsinkable inflatables”. If that appeals to you, please join us on the Great Usutu River. Our new larger rafts are ideal for family rafting, corporate group rafting, and those for whom paddling a boat all on your own for the first time may be a bit daunting. Come join the adventure!
*and to answer the inevitable question about crocodiles in today’s times: well, what can we say? They are still there, but they’re only lizards!