The top rivers to kayak in the Garden Route

Kayaking opens up parts of the Garden Route that are away from the established tourism highlights

Incising the Garden Route coastal belt from the ridge line to the ocean are a number of rivers perfect for kayaking. Tannin stained from Fynbos and Afromontane forest, the rivers flowing from the southern slopes of the Outeniqua and Tsistsikamma mountain range are short. Yet, their brief journey to the ocean holds some incredible sections ideal for kayaking, an opportunity to immerse yourself in pristine wilderness and escape the trappings of civilization.

An opportunity to reconnect in untouched forested gorges.

Between Mossel Bay and Storms River, there are a variety rivers of varying length and some lakes and dams that are ideal for kayaking. Whether you want to paddle to a restaurant for a lunch, explore remote gorges, go birding or simply discover something new, the waterways of the Garden Route have it all.

Short and Sweet

The narrow gorge approaching the waterfall, though short, is spectacular.

For a quick paddle option, the Kaaimans is ideal for transient travelers with a time budget. Launching from the causeway, you can either head upstream for 1.3km to a large Outeniqua Yellowwood tree and pull up on the river right bank. Beyond that, narrow channels braid through dense riverine vegetation, which while ideal for canyoning, stops further paddling upstream.

Downstream from the causeway the is an easy paddle passing the homes clinging to the western bank finishing below the railway bridge spanning the river mouth. The sand bar upstream of the railway bridge has become a popular beach for families and sunbathers.

A view of the railway bridge from sea level.

Joining the river 200m downstream from the causeway is a short river flowing from the waterfall on the Swartriver. The river appears unimpressive for the first 300m until yo take a right hand 90 degree bend into a narrow gorge with sheer cliffs and the thundering waterfall plummeting into a cliff lined amphitheater. On a hot sunny day it is worthwhile paddling past the spray and beaching on the pebble strewn bank to admire the surrounds.

Ideal for beginners

The shallow shelving bank on the Garden Route Dam is ideal to get used to sitting in a kayak

The public parking area west of the Garden Route Dam wall is an ideal location to try out kayaking. The gentle sloping bank and the flat calm water provides a perfect location to adjust to the kayak and practice your balance and stroke technique, all in the safe proximity of the shore. Once you have gained your confidence, the dam offers some excellent training opportunities as well as a number of offshoot arms to explore, and even plan a picnic.

Wetland to Forest is a few short strokes.

The lower reaches of the Touw River has private properties with well established gardens.

East of the Kaaimans River, the Touw River flows into the ocean. Descending from the Outeniqua Mountains, it is a popular canoeing destination with sturdy rental canoes available from Eden Adventure based at the Fairy Know Hotel.

Canoeing up the Touw River is a popular way to visit the waterfall and rock pools.

Paddling upstream from the lower reaches of the river, you begin on a wide channel flanked by residential properties and reeds which slowly narrows to a reed lined river which meanders past the Garden Route National Park Ebb and Flow rest camp into a forest shrouded valley.

Eden Adventures offers double Indian Canoes for hire.

From the Fairy Knowe Hotel, it is an easy 3.2km paddle till the river becomes unnavigable, finishing at a river bank where most people beach there canoes and transition to the 2.5km hike to the Touw River waterfalls.

There is some great birding along the forested section of the Touw River.

At a slower pace, the birding is excellent with regular sightings of Kingfishers (Giant, Pied, Malachite and Half-collared), Knysna Tiracos and Narina Torgons. In summer, Paradise Flycatchers will flit across the river in their frenetic breeding display and nesting activities.

Taking in the tones of green.

Snaking towards the Island

The Serpentine channel is reminiscent of the Okavango Delta

Separating the south and north camps of the Ebb and Flow Rest camps is the Serpentie River, a 5km channel that snakes its way, with a series of switch back loops, from the Touw River to Island Lake. Reminiscent of channels in the Okavango, it too is a wonderful birding experience, with numerous sightings of herons, crakes, swamphens and African Marsh Harriers. Gliding along the glassy smooth water, large fish dart away and you soon realize why this river is a popular hunting area for the resident pairs of African Fish Eagles.

On reaching Island Lake, you can either extend your paddle to circumnavigate around the enigmatic Dromadarus Island to finish at the picnic site.

Paddle to the Beach

The Swartvlei Estuary flows along the western boundary of Sedgefield. If you are looking for a chilled outing in your kayak, setting off from the slipway at the Fish Eagle green on the island and paddling to the estuary mouth, you need to add this to your kayaking itinerary.

Paddling to the exposed sand bar is a popular past time for residents and visitors to Sedgefield

In general the estuary is wide, but most of it is shallow and for reduced drag it is best to keep to the channel. There are a few beautiful sections of estuary bank to pull up on and have a swim, but, at low tide, the sand bar opposite Kingfisher Drive slipway is the best. The channel around this is a stop gets deep and you will need your dive mask for your swim to see the shoals of fish. Spotted Grunter, Mullet, Cape Moonies and even Eagle Rays can be seen, and if you search carefully, you will find pipefish in the eelgrass.

Depending on the tidal phase, when the estuary mouth is open, the current will start to influence your progress and you will soon discover the popular pastime of ‘surging’ that bathers enjoy as they walk upstream of the flow, jump into the current and drift in the current. It is best to beach on the western side of the estuary where it is not as packed with bathers.

It is always a good idea to have a dive mask and a pair of fins when Kayaking in the Swartvlei Estuary

Backwaters of Swartvlei

Fed by three significant river, (Hoekraal, Karatara and Wolverivier), Swartvlei offers plenty ‘escape’ kayaking options. Drifting and paddling along these rivers and the northern shore of Swartvlei, you will be immersed in remote tranquility rarely experienced by local and throngs of tourists during holiday season.

Returning to the Hoekraal bridge from Swartvlei

The drive to Hoekraal River passes through rural lifestyle plots to the fringe of commercial farming and is a scenic journey in itself. Launching from the bridge sets you off on a journey through a blend of wetland, forest and rural plots. Reaching the confluence with the Karatara River, you have and option. Tack port and disappear into Ruigtevlei, a wetland system that begs for hippos and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore, before challenging your navigation skills to locate the river channel to the weir across the Karatara road.

Time for a coffee break on a sand bar in Swartvlei

Carry on downstream and you drift along a reed lined channel to a pan, a prequel to the open Swartvlei and another raft of options. Head across the expanse of water to the western shore, turn south and navigate beneath the railway and N2 bridges to the Fish Eagle Green slipway, or retreat back to the Hoekraal river bridge, choices that will be determined by what logistics or backup you have put in place.

The Wolverivier narrows to an overgrown channel before reaching the bridge.

The north western section of Swartvlei leads into two pans seperrated by the Wolverivier river channel. Lined with a mix of reed and alien trees, the final 1km to the bridge pushes through overgrown reeds and across sand banks that, depending on recent rainfall, require some portage.

Kayaking and SUPping on the backwaters of Swartvlei

Lake Pleasant

Lacking any inflow of water from any of the local rivers, Lake Pleasant is a light green colour compared to the dark brown, almost black, rivers and lakes in the Garden Route. Stocked with bass and carp, it is a popular fishing destination. Measuring approximately 4.2km in length, it ideal for a training paddle or a relaxed cruise around the edges.

Paddling up an Appetite

The Goukamma River meanders through a mix of nature reserve and medium sized farmland.

If you are looking for a novel way to arrive at a restaurant, kayaking up the Goukamma River hits the mark. Setting off from the Goukamma Nature Reserve picnic site, it is a 7.5km paddle to the Riverdeck restaurant or another 1.2km to the Blackwaters eatery.

It is well worth planning this as a day outing to mitigate any pressure of deadlines to dampen the experience.

Current Conditions

Bollards Beach on Leisure Isle is a popular launch site for kayakers and surfski’s.

The Knysna Estuary presents a range of kayaking options, each of which need to factor in the flow of the tides. While the strongest current flow is in the short channel between the eastern and western Heads, in the Knysna Basin you can either be left high and dry when the tide is out, or have to paddle harder if your return route is against the current.

Venturing upstream from the ‘White Bridge’, the western entrance to Knysna on the N2 national road, the channel heads through salt marshes and under the red Bridge to the old drift before taking a left bend. If you have packed a picnic, the river right bank has plenty of places to pull up and chill for a bit.

Continuing upstream you reach a farm dam wall which you can porter over for another 1km of paddling before the river becomes a braided network of mini channels that require a combination of portering and back paddling to get no where. There is an option to leave your kayaks at the dam wall and walk across to the Charlesford Butchery which has a deli, but check beforehand if they will be open.

As you near the slipway and the channel through the Heads, you begin to experience the ocean swell and the pull of the current.

The distinction between kayak training and sightseeing from the waterfront is dependent on your speed and your destination. You can cruise around the Knysna Quays and Thessen Island or you can set off to Bollards Beach on Leisure Island, and maybe even extend you paddle to the NSRI slipway. like the lower reaches of the Swartvlei Estuary, on this outing it is worthwhile carrying a dive mask incase you want to explore the eelgrass beds on the way and the reef around the pilot beacon near the NSRI slipway.

Coffee, kayaks and calamari. Over the summer vacation, the Beach bar at the Featherbed Nature Reserve is a popular destination for power boats and kayaks

Over the summer break, the Featherbed Company opens their Beach Restaurant which can only be accessed by private craft or a water taxi. On a hot sunny day, nothing imbues the spirit of being on holiday like kayaking across the lagoon and enjoying a superb meal while gazing over the azure waters.

Paddling Sleepover

The Keurbooms River is a popular playground for vessels of all kinds. Between the mouth and the N2 bridge, the tidal fluctuations do not restrict you to the deeper channels like it does the power boats. Launching from the Lookout parking area, in a touring kayak, you can paddle upstream to the Forever Resort camp site and overnight. On the way, armed with a dive mask and snorkel, you can explore the eel grass beds and even swim with Eagle Rays.

Exploring the eel grass beds in the lower section of the estuary can reveal some amazing finds.

The adventure begins on the next stage. Booking into the Whiskey Creek hut, you paddle slightly under 7km upstream and overnight in a wooden cabin overlooking a forested river bend.

Setting off upstream to Whiskey Creek.

It is not only reaching the hut that is the adventure. Along the way there are ample places to beach for a picnic or to swim. There is even the chance sighting of a Crowned Eagle soaring overhead early morning and around sunset.

The real beauty of paddling beyond the N2 is that, as the valley closes out all connections with civilization, a primal essence descends over you and reestablishes a your connection with nature, awakening an aspect of yourself that has been rendered dormant by the rapid pace of our digital society.

Nature’s Valley

Nature’s Valley is a destination which boldly reconnects you to your primal past.

The navigable length of the Grootrivier in Nature’s Valley is not long, a mere 2km from the estuary mouth to the bridge. Yet, drifting slowly along the waterway, it too will evoke an ancestral memory as the throaty call of Knysna Turacos echo through the forest, punctuated by the alarm calls of rock hyrax and the foraging chatter of baboons buoyed by the burbling flow of water. As you pull your kayak out of the water, you will be infused with an easy sense of calm which will inspire you to linger a little while longer.

Gouritz River

Ever since a farmer boasted that he navigated his inflatable 52km upstream from the mouth of the Gouritz River, the prospect of kayaking downstream from near Herbetsdale to has been a tantalizing concept. Flowing from the confluence of the Oiliefants and Gamka rivers in the Rooiberg mountains, the Goutritz River snakes southwards to the coast through farmland. Impacted by rainfall, some sections of the river remain dry for extended periods of time and the level of water has to be checked before setting off to kayak the upper and mid reaches of the river. Most times, after heavy rain, setting off near Herbertsdale allows for an adventurous two day paddle to the mouth, with an overnight of wild camping on the river bank.

A coffee break o the banks of the upper reaches of the Gouritz River : Kayaking allows you to explore sections of the Garden Route that very few people get to experience.

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