Becoming Raft Guides in South Africa

Just two days after we had nearly given up on our dream of being raft guides in SA, Nick and I were guiding rafts loaded with Afrikaans tourists down class IV rapids on the Ash River.

Check-off trips come quickly in South Africa apparently.

In the U.S. a new guide at a company can put in weeks of training before being approved for a “check-off” run in which a senior guide observes the guide’s skills and decides whether or not he or she is ready to take clients down. Here, we were taught the lines down the river in kayaks one morning and by that afternoon we were guiding on a raft beside a guide. Two days later we were working, guiding our own raft.

Guiding the first class IV rapid on the run, known as “Fish Pond.”

The Ash River, located in Clarens, is dam controlled and the only river in SA with enough water left to raft through the drought stricken summer. Two companies operate on the Ash River, and I had coincidentally corresponded with one of the owners months prior, before the drought even began. When I emailed Ollie and told him we had arrived in SA, he welcomed us to visit.

Clarens, known as the “Jewel of the Free State,” is a small tourist town set in the mountains in the middle of the country. Ollie is a Rastafarian Afrikaans multi-sport adventure guide who started Clarens Xtreme 10 years ago. From the minute we arrived he treated us like family — taking us on a drive to check out the river and his different operations, inviting us over for coffee and to meet his family and setting us up with a room in his friend’s backpackers (hostel).

Clarens Xtreme has three full-time guides and a few other “freelancers” — the term used for guides who are paid per trip rather than on salary. All of the guides currently with the company are former Zambezi guides, many of whom came to the Ash River years ago and haven’t left. The group of guides was as welcoming as Ollie, swinging back and forth between multiple languages depending on who they were speaking to and laughing constantly.

The Clarens Xtreme crew.

The training came in the form of jump in and figure it out more than specific instructions, but all of the guides were more than willing to answer any questions we had on and off the river. We arrived in the last weeks of the summer holiday for South Africans and nearing the end of the busy season for rafting. Most of the guides had worked more than a month straight without a day off and seemed to welcome the chance to let us guide their raft while training and then hand it off to us and kayak along for safety. As soon as we started work it was easy to see how they might be exhausted. A standard day consisted of two trips — one in the morning, one in the afternoon — each 10 kilometers long. Along the way there was two portages at which the guides had to carry rafts up and over dams, and the entire day the leaky rafts had to be pumped up constantly with air mattress hand pumps that were brought along. But if the guides were tired they never showed it, and the whitewater kept the spirits high. For us, between learning the new rapids and meeting the new sets of guests, each morning and afternoon was a new adventure and a welcomed combination of challenge and excitement. By the end of our first day we went back to the backpackers and fell asleep before it was even dark.

“Big Surprise,” the last rapid of the day, is often described by guests as a feeling like a roller coaster. 



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