Thrombi X-Fest Revival Rocks

Words by: Stu Berry ǀ Photos: Kevin Sawyer


Extreme sports are gaining a cult following in South Africa, and we’re slowly starting to ‘get it’. The recent boom in mountain biking, trail running, canoeing, skating, surfing and kayaking shows that people are looking for a sporting fix beyond the walls of their local Virgin Active or rugby/cricket ground.



The revival of the once well-known Thrombi X-Fest extreme festival on the Umzimkulu River, outside Underberg in the southern Drakensberg, bears testimony to this. Although really only a participatory event for those with a slight marble loose, this event offers so much more to spectators than at first sight. The event was staged in the early 2000s by two local paddlers, namely Graeme Anderson and Ross O’Donoghue, and in 2006 the event came to a sudden halt as both left varsity to work. And so the paddling world was left with a void in the extreme kayaking division that offered a quality section of extreme river kayaking on the Umzimkulu River.


The resurgence of the event came about in somewhat unfortunate circumstances. Event co-founder and keen kayaker Graeme Anderson, tragically passed away from rabies during 2012, and his death was a shock to everyone who had known him. During late 2012, the idea was borne to reignite the event in honour of Graeme and his love for the area and kayaking, and so the 2013 Thrombi X-Fest was reintroduced. Not only was it reintroduced but paddlers from across South Africa and even the world (Swaziland and French paddlers made the trip through to Underberg as well) descended on Underberg in early February, taking the entry numbers to just under 50 paddlers.


The Umzimkulu River is known for its unpredictability. One day you can experience an 80 cumec flow, the next day it can be 5 cumecs, all based on localised rainfall in the small catchment that feeds this stretch of river. Luckily, good rains over the week leading up to the event had the river running at medium/full, a perfect level for the event.



Day one was the main event and started with an 800 m river section being run over several heats of 6 paddlers, before moving into a second round, semi-finals and then the final. Local river knowledge dominated the final standings, as KwaZulu-Natal paddlers Mark Wilment, Ross O’Donoghue and Shane Raw, respectively, took the podium places.


Day two was a little more informal with a social paddle down to the infamous Thrombosis Waterfall, where paddlers took part in a freestyle competition, with the most outrageous and risky move over the waterfall earning the respect of their kayaking peers.


Overall, it was a great weekend of paddling and all funds raised from the event will be donated to a local charity, Pevency Place, chosen by Graeme Anderson’s family.


Related articles:

White-water Christmas (Issue 20, p. 64)
National Freestyle Kayaking Competition (Issue 15, p. 73)