Frequently Asked Questions
This information is provided in good faith, but can sometimes be a little tongue-in-cheek at times. It does not profess to be comprehensive, academically researched or statistically-proven:
Let’s not beat about the bush: White-water rafting is a participative adventure activity that does come with inherent risks, full stop. That said, if it wasn’t for those risks there’d be no adrenaline, no challenge, no fun… and you might as well sit at home and watch TV.
So what’s the way forward? One, understand these risks, two make an informed decision based on your own ability and tolerance for those risks.
- There is a risk of drowning. We mitigate against this risk by providing you with a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)- which is a “life jacket” to all intents and purposes although for some reason the technocrats insist we call them PFD’s. We also give a pre-departure technique and safety briefing, plus have river guides escorting you the whole way down.
- There is a risk of bodily injury from muscular strain or impacts. Dislocated shoulders, bumps and bruises, the occasional gash – ouch – but nothing that couldn’t also happen on a slippery bathroom floor. There’s padding in the PFD’s and we insist you wear a helmet whilst on-river. It that fails we have a first aid box along to attempt damage repair.
- There is a risk of increased difficulty due to variations in weather and river levels. What we are saying here? Well, in essence our river is not a controlled “park” – it’s the great outdoors, it rains some days, or cooks with heat on others. There is wildlife and even less predictable human life. The river level drops sometimes exposing more rocks, whilst at other times it is full or even flooding with debris and strong currents. Our guides over the years have experienced almost all the variations that nature throws our way. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) have been laid down based on this experience. River guides provide daily leadership on the trips based on these SOP’s and their decisions should be respected.
- There is a risk associated with transport to the river. Whilst the corrugated dirt roads and wet-bummed passengers quickly ensure that our transport vehicles look a bit tired and worn, our vehicles are subjected to regular mechanical servicing and are tested bi-annually for road-worthiness in order to maintain their Public Transport Permits. Our drivers are disciplined by strict internal Codes of Conduct and are licensed for public transport. Similar standards are insisted on from sub-contracted transport suppliers.
- There are crocodiles and snakes. In this regard we keep an eye out for them, they keep an eye out for us, and both parties definitely prefer to keep their distance.
No previous experience is needed, nor any special level of fitness. However, this activity is Participative with a capital P. Its not a boat cruise that you can do with a cocktail glass in hand. There isn’t a guide who rows your raft for you whilst you smile and look pretty.
A technique briefing is offered at the start of the trip. Thereafter the first few kilometres are gentle and allow for practising those paddling skills. Guides are always close at hand to offer advice… but you must be prepared to propel, steer, recover and portage your own raft.
It is however useful to be able to speak and/or understand English. All instruction is given in English and not being able to fully comprehend such communication could put you at risk.
We’ve had many weak or non-swimmers on trips over the years. Being a swimmer is not a pre-requisite and we enjoy providing this water-based activity for those who have the confidence to tackle it.
Such participants should be aware that there is a high likelihood of them being toppled into the water. Whilst the buoyancy of the PFD (life-jacket) will prevent them from drowning, this experience can still be a bit unnerving.
If you’re a non-swimmer and have the liberty of choice, then its better to raft in the winter season – June to October. During these months the river is generally a lot more shallow and in most places you’ll be able to stand if and when tipped in.
The bottom line is: if you’re brave enough to try it, you’ll find us brave enough to take you.
Where do trips start from?
All our trips depart from our office premises in the Ezulwini Valley, which is roughly halfway between Mbabane and Manzini. It is the main tourism area in Swaziland and home to many hotels, lodges and other accommodation facilities.
We are situated within the Mantenga Craft & Lifestyle Centre, which is off Mantenga Drive, a suburban loop road just west of the MR103. The location of the Swazi Trails office can be seen on this Ezulwini map. Detailed directions can be printed out from here: Directions to Swazi Trails.
The river rafting section itself is about 45minutes drive away and we provide transport there and back. Although parking at Mantenga Craft is obviously “at own risk”, this is a safe and quiet area with no history of car break-in’s or theft. Parked cars are generally visible from our office windows.
Where should we stay overnight if we are planning to go rafting?
It makes sense to stay somewhere close to our rafting departure point, although Swaziland being small and travelling distances being relatively short, you could stay almost anywhere.
The Ezulwini Valley itself has a huge variety of accommodation available, to suit almost every taste and budget. From a planning perspective its obviously best to book a minimum of two nights accommodation close-by, however there is a way to make a rafting trip possible even on a one night stay (see FAQ further below)
Check out these options:
- Legends Backpacker Lodge – 1st choice for budget groups or independent travellers, just 100m away.
- Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary – relaxed rest camp style huts, plus self-catering
- Mantenga Nature Reserve - comfortable and well-furnished chalets and tented units
- Mantenga Lodge – small private hotel, our offices.
- Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge – mmmm… nice, a special place for discerning travellers
- Royal Swazi Spa Hotel – the grand ol’ dame of Ezulwini – colonial style in the midst of an expansive 18 hole Championship Golf Course
- Lugogo Sun and Ezulwini Sun hotels – part of the Royal Swazi Spa Valley complex – just a bit more affordable
- Happy Valley Hotel – a new kid on the block. Recently re-built and very glitzy.
Then down towards the river there is The Vineyard B&B, where we can arrange to pick-up you up outside Riders Ranch. This option is only suited to half day or Rafting Combo trips.
Is it possible to raft if we are only in Swaziland for one night?
Yes – it is possible. Generally its best to plan this for your second day, as although you can arrive in Swaziland in time (earliest border post opening is 07h00) it means you’ve got to get going “hellava” early. On day 2, you can raft a Half-Day trip and then head onwards to your next destination with ample time to reach KwaZulu- Natal or Mpumalanga before dark.
For travellers heading south through Lavumisa/Golela to Hluhluwe or St Lucia, or alternatively through Mahamba to northern KwaZulu-Natal, we recommend that you follow our rafting vehicle down to the river. Here you can park your car under the watchful eye of a security guard close to our midday lunch-spot. As soon as the half-day or Combo trip is done, you can simply jump in your car and carry on with your journey, rather than having to backtrack back to Ezulwini. This option saves about 2 hours of travelling time.
Can I be picked up at my hotel or lodge?
Hotel or lodge pick-up’s are not inclusive in the rafting price, however we do accommodate this when and where possible. Generally if your hotel or lodge as en route to the river we can drop-by to pick you up, however an extra charge is levied if we have to send a non-rafting vehicle to pick you up, or if your accommodation is in the opposite direction to where we’re going.
In short: if you have your own means of transport, please make your way to our office departure point, all gathering at one point makes the departure much easier. If you are without transport, then let us know and we’ll advise what the options are and what costs are applicable.
Are there age restrictions?
As a broad guideline we say rafters should be between the ages of 12 to 65 years. However, when conditions are favourable we are happy to take younger or older folk. We’ve had numerous six year old kids enjoy the river and an adrenaline-seeking 74year old, as well.
During the lower water winter season generally any age is welcome, but we’re a bit stricter in summer, especially when the river is in flood.
For families with multiple kids, we often are able to put one or two into guide boats, to take the pressure off parents. Guides tend not to fall out in rapids and can give the little ones an easier ride.
The best thing is to drop us a mail and ask.
What should we bring along?
Bring the bare minimum! Clothes to get wet in, such as swimming costumes or short pants, a t-shirt, cap or hat and suitable footwear like sandals, takkies, sneakers or slops. Then a towel and clothes to change into afterwards are useful, unless you plan to drip-dry and a jersey/jacket especially in winter.
Sun protection cream is a must. Even if you’re dark skinned, wear cream and avoid sun damage.
Glasses or sunglasses should be attached with a strap or string.
Leave money, passports, wallets etc. behind… unless of course you still need to settle up for your trip.
Can we take a camera along?
If its waterproof – yes! If you have a waterproof case for it – yes!
Otherwise, its not really possible. We do not provide waterproof containers, as these tend only to be as good as the last person to close them.
Our standard procedure is for one of our guides to take a camera along and to snap images along the way. These are uploaded to our online Swazi Trails Flickr page for you to download at your convenience.
Note: there are occasions when our camera is rendered out-of-order, or when the river conditions require all guides to be focused on safety and not snapping away at carnage. But we try…
How long in advance should we book our trip?
Well, the earlier the better is always good for us, as it helps us to plan staff availability, vehicle usage etc. but the reality is that we can generally process bookings right up until the day before the trip. We guarantee departures for a minimum of 2 persons on a daily basis, except for under special circumstances when we close for operational reasons.
You can even try your luck first thing in the morning of the trip, and if you catch us before we seal the catering coolerboxes (just after 08h00) you can jump onto the trip.
Our office is open 7 days a week 08h00 to 17h00… and if you can’t reach us during those hours we have an after hours mobile number +268 76020261 for last-minute bookings. Just don’t call us in a drunken stupor at 02h00 in the morning… ‘cos its not a 24hr call centre and you’re likely some choice words for your lack of discretion.
Can we book online?
Yebo-yes! We’d love you to book online… its so much easier and tidier. All the admin is then out of the way in advance, you don’t have to carry cash or a credit card with you… and the trip can kick-off straight-away.
Our online booking site also has all the info you need: times, directions, policies and options for payment from credit card to EFT, bank transfer and PayPal.
Get with the times – book online!
On what river in Swaziland does the rafting take place?
Swazi Trails rafts the Great Usutu River, otherwise known as the Lusutfu River in SiSwati or misspelt as the Usuthu River on occasions. It is the largest river in Swaziland and drains approximately 50% of its surface area. The river has its source in the highveld areas of South Africa near Ermelo. It has 3 major tributaries in Swaziland, namely the Lusushwana (Little Usutu), the Ngwempisi and the Mkhondvo rivers. After it exits Swaziland to the east, it joins with the Pongola River and then becomes known as the Rio Maputo for its final journey into the sea in the Bay of Maputo, Mozambique.
Our rafting section is roughly between Sidvokodvo and Siphofaneni in an area known as the Bulungapoort.
What grade is the river?
Most times of the year the river can be considered a grade III, although when it is full it is certainly grade IV, with grade V and VI sections being avoided.
Grading a river with just 6 numbers (easiest I to hardest VI) is always tricky due to the many variables involved in river running. The fact that we use 2-man rafts, which are self-propelled without a guide on board, means that even if the river is not as high volume as the Zambezi or the Nile, the day trip can be more challenging for individuals than let’s say floating downstream on a 10-man raft, where the only requirement is to hold-on. Anecdotal evidence and comments regularly rate the Great Usutu as comparable in difficulty to the best rivers in the world.
That said: the river is quite forgiving and after 20 years of operation we have managed to get tens of thousands of people safely downstream, a large percentage of them being first-time rafters.
The river is certainly more gentle during the lower water season – May to October.
Can I come along and watch my family rafting?
Yes and no – if there is space in the vehicle, we are happy to charge a nominal to cover lunch and transport, but if space is limited then this is not an option. The trip can be followed in a private vehicle, but please be aware that the road along the riverbank is rough, corrugated and sometimes muddy. There are no toilet facilities and limited shade.
There are also only a limited number of places where the rafters can be seen: on departure at the put-in, at the LUSIP weir site and then at the lunch spot and final full-day take-out point. One of the bigger rapids can be reached walking upstream from the lunch spot, but this involves over 300m of scrambling over rocks, not something easy for someone who is not good at walking and scrambling.
What are we trying to say? Well – if you’re not a rafter, we’d really recommend you book an alternative trip to keep you occupied or maybe even a health spa treatment instead. We can help you arrange that.
Is your white-water rafting considered to be responsible tourism?
Well – we’d like to think so, but you can be the judge.
- we’ve been active protagonists of river and water conservation issues over the past 20 years and have focused attention on water quality issues. These actions have resulted in wider benefits for all water and river users.
- our business sought out, trained and employed river guides from the impoverished rural community in this area. Today we provide permanent employment for these young Swazi men, who have graduated to become Trip Leaders.
- we set aside a small portion of every single rating payment we receive for community development. Over the years we have focused on assisting the Mphaphati community and specifically the local primary school, where we have been able to build an office block and houses for teachers. Read more about it here and here.
Are your guides trained?
Yes – believe it or not, South Africa has much more stringent legislation in the sphere of guide training than almost every state in the USA and many countries in the world. Although such legislation does not apply in Swaziland, we voluntarily align ourselves with those standards through our membership of the African Paddling Association (APA).
We make use of APA-endorsed training courses and instructors and our guides undergo both training and training re-assessments on a regular basis. Swazi Trails personnel participate in regular first aid courses and have internal workshops and meetings to improve on operational procedures.
Managing Director, Darron Raw, who oversees the rafting operation has been guiding rafting trips since 1989 and is one of the the pioneers of river rafting in Southern Africa. He is also a founder member of APA.
Is the water clean?
In colour – no! The Great Usutu River is definitely a permanent shade of brown, ranging from a subtle hint in the winter months to an almost gritty chocolate after heavy rains.
In quality – also no! But we don’t drink it – so this need not be a concern. Exposure to splashes and the occasional spluttered mouthful is unlikely to result in any side effects.
Bilharzia is known to occur in almost every east-flowing river in Africa and it is highly likely that it occurs in certain sections of the Usutu. It does not however appear to be prevalent in the section where we raft. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that our river guides, many of whom grew up bathing in its waters, have never shown positive results from bilharzia tests. This parasite is a nasty piece of work though and our advice to anyone who travels in Africa, Asia or South America is to have a test 6 months to a year after returning home, as bilharzia can remain undetected for decades before irrepairable organ damage is detected.
Where is the closest medical assistance?
There is clinic in Siphofaneni (15-30min away), private hospitals in Manzini and Ezulwini (45-60min away) and a Paramedic Service (Traumalink 911) based in Mbabane (60-80min away). There is no helicopter evacuation service in Swaziland.
Our standard operating procedure is to evacuate any injuries using our rafting transport vehicles directly to either MediSun Clinic in Ezulwini or The Clinic in Mbabane. Both are private hospitals. In instances of neck or spinal injury, unconsciousness or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation paramedic assistance is requested.
Note: The cost of paramedic evacuation and/or hospital care is for the rafting participants own account.
Does Swazi Trails have insurance ?
Yes – we have a Public Liability Insurance policy for E 5million and Passenger Liability Insurance to statutory requirement.
Please note that this does not remove the necessity for rafting clients to cover themselves with travel and/or medical insurance.
Public Liability Insurance comes into play when gross negligence is proven in a court of law. This is likely to be rigorously defended and may take years to be finalised. To cover the costs of immediate and recuperative medical attention, individual personal medical insurance is strongly advised. Insurance can be purchased as an optional extra on our online booking website – buy travel insurance online here.
Do you ever stop rafting because of river levels?
Yes – we have on occasions cancelled rafting trips when the Usutu River has flooded over its banks. This cancellation may happen at short notice as often the river level can only be gauged on arrival at the put-in point. Guides will take both river conditions and perceived client skills and ability into account when taking such a decision. In this instance full refunds will be offered.
We have also cancelled trips when the river gets too low. On some years during winter months we are affected by low water on Sundays and Mondays. This is due to the shut-down of hydro-electric power facilities upstream of us, which impacts on water flow. Such impacts only effect us on 1 out of every 3 years on average.
Should malaria precautions be taken?
No – malaria precautions are not needed. Firstly, there is almost no risk of mosquito bites during day activities. Secondly, there have been no reported cases of malaria in this area for almost 15 years and thirdly, Swaziland as a whole is on the brink of being declared entirely malaria-free after rigorous efforts appear to have almost entirely removed this scourge from within our borders.
Phew…after all those questions you’ve asked us, its now time for Swazi Trails to ask you: