Main Trip down the Limpopo River

Following are excerpts from Brownie's own account of his second and more successful attempt to go down the Limpopo River.

"End of 1924 was approaching. My thoughts again turned to the voyage down the Limpopo to the sea. I decided on a more canoe type boat , and one of the blokes in the drawing room was a Finn with experience in their Kayaks. So one was duly designed and constructed , with repairable hull and watertight compartments and was said to be unsinkable. The wooden frame was fairly simple but the fitting of the iron sides took a lot of hammering and swearing and the Batchelor quarters were kept awake to all hours. At last she was ready for trial so we took her down to Liebig’s Drift for a test run. Mrs Louis Stubbs badly wanted a ride and as she was officially my first passenger I had no choice but to name the boat after her. All went well and we glided around the pools in great style. My office boy, "Nyasa" had come out with the canoe – he knew about dugouts and was pretty useful in the water- and we camped the night together under a fig tree among the rocks. He also suggested a few improvements which I later implemented. Early next morning we set off, gliding into the golden stream but soon, came the rapids down which we worked with great care. Thence the river flowed swiftly over a sandy bed , with rough patches here and there but we shot along and made Main Drift some 12 miles down in a couple of hours . The canoe behaved beautifully, now to finish it off and find crew who were willing and able. One evening we were discussing it in the club and Robbie piped up “ I’ll come with you” – just like that , no question. Len Robertson was a very popular social type with a little moustache and pale blue eyes- a great favourite with the ladies. He was not a bushman and was not the type one would have picked out as a pioneer. He always had a smile and joke and on the whole a good bloke, took things as they came and was slow to anger. Anyway there were no other offers , so ‘Robbie’ it was, and as it turned out he showed up tops. While we were packing a lonely little terrier type mongrel dog attached himself to us. So we called him “Brak” and signed him on as security officer.

Robbie taking Louis for trial run after repairs

Robbie taking Louis for trial run after repairs

"May 20th 1925. At last everything was ready- We packed all the gear and Louis was taken by Trolley to Main Drift, where once again, well wishers and doubters were waiting to wish us Bon Voyage. A sunny Autumn afternoon , a swiftly running river a dandy little boat, a group of friends and doubters as before- this was the setting for our departure. At 4.30 we pushed off, dipped our paddles and away. Very soon Main Drift was behind and we passed Zand River . The River was topping and Louis much too well behaved for her sex. At Vryheid Creek , Brak jumped overboard after some monkeys. It took us about 20 minutes to get him back on board, where it was explained very carefully, that little mongrel dogs would provide a tidy snack for the many crocodiles, who were just waiting for such a treat. About 5 miles downstream , we landed and camped. That night , the lights of Messina winked at us across the distance through the hills . We both wondered what the future would bring , what surprises awaited us and whether we would ever see our friends and home again . However The DIE(sic) was cast and as far as we were concerned, there was no turning back this time."

"Next day we departed early and with sand banks on either side, down a long stretch of rough water. Ahead on the right bank , enjoying the morning sun , lay fully stretched out a crocodile . He slid into the water and, with his head held high like a dog swimming , struck out towards us, but It seemed curious to me, that he should travel like that , for a croc. usually swims with just his eyes, nose and the ridge of his back showing above the water . I figured I knew all about crocs. And their habits but Robbie got all excited and said he was after us. Fortunately we left him behind so our argument was not resolved.. From then on all went well ,with only a few rocks to avoid now and then, so we sat back , smoked, yarned and relaxed until we came to a large rock behind which was a sand bank with a mighty large croc. stretched out thereon with his nose pointing down stream. To grab our rifles was the work of a moment, but in that moment he had swung his body, pivoted on his back legs towards us , had plunged into the water and was coming across the intervening twenty yards in a most uncompromising manner. His head was lifted clear of the water, showing white throat, grim tightly closed jaws with rows of interlocking teeth and wicked green eyes. I wasted no time in getting off a shot , but with the hurry and the movement of the boat ,missed. He submerged in a flurry of water but the river now carried 2 very wide awake voyagers , who sadly relinquished all ideas of drifting and dreaming. Rocks thickened and the River grew swifter and rougher as we approached Malala. Two big brutes came at us in fine style the foremost took Robbie’s shot in the throat ,turned over and sank . The other , somewhat discouraged submerged but followed at some distance when he came at us again on dusk. The rifles spat out long tongues of flame at him, in the gathering darkness, indicating end of croc., end of the day and 'sundowner time' "

Up until that stage the going had been relatively easy but once they reached Malala it was a totally different story. The rapids, treacherous gorges and falls were endless and some porterage was required.

Start of Malala Gorge cataracts and pools

Start of Malala Gorge cataracts and pools

Once through Malala Gorge they thought it was the end of their problems but some old tribesmen they met gave them the ‘good’ news i.e. what they had come through was "child’s play" to what lay ahead. For the next 5 days they battled through more treacherous gorges , Mohokwe and Quiquiqui.

"We camped and a couple of old natives helped make us comfortable and left us thinking The still air and brilliant moonlight were conducive to reflexion on high and holy things , but the mighty voice of the river , filling all the valley, varying in tone from time to time , with the change of air currents, beat down on us and left only one thing to think about –the tomorrow."

"Tomorrow brought a cold breeze and a river mist and in it we pushed off. Soon the river became a race among the rocks and the boat had to be handled close to the rough banks to avoid the powerful currents .About half a mile of this , during which the sound of falling water increased in volume. At our feet, the greater volume of water roared over a rocky ledge into a short gorge and raced away over cataract over cataract (sic) , flanked by naked granite , rising sheer from the water ,as far as the eye could see. Eventually after days of pulling , tugging and carrying we ran into big water and paddled sharply right into a bay away from the strong currents. As I lifted my paddle from the water at the end of a stroke it struck hard and there was a snap of heavy jaws closing. I turned just in time to see the long green snout of a crocodile disappearing below the surface. Fortunately we were paddling fast , and I hit him first and fortunately the bank was close and the brandy handy. We stopped for a while as Louis had a few leaks which needed urgent repair and as our clothes and stores were soaked. We unpacked and put everything on the hot sand to dry while we soldered up some of the leaking joints. This done we loaded up and set off down a smooth winding stream into which the hills in places dipped their stony sides. At one such spot , came our daily croc. to receive our blessing which was duly administered. Wide glens opened on the stream, great fig trees shaded the banks , birds were legion and grey monkeys chattered at us, nearly distracting Brak. It was all like a fairy dream after the hell above. We made camp and saluted the sun."

"At last ahead appeared blue water and banks of sand so we decided to “go for it” bumps or not. Louis was already badly dented , some of the stiffening slats were broken and she leaked in every seam, so we figured a few extra knocks would do no harm. From there on the rocks thinned rapidly and numerous streams converged, when glory be, we ran out on a blue river winding over white beds of sand. After a while with the boat nearly sinking we beached her for repairs and to dry our clothes and lick our wounds and reflect on where we had been. It was our ninth day out and we were only fifty seven miles from home. The last twenty seven miles had cost seven days 'but we were through where none had been before'."

The next day they reached Pafuri “Crooks Corner’ at the border with Mozambique where they were greeted by disbelieving and surprised Portuguese Officials. At that time it was not uncommon for hunters ,explorers or even those trying to avoid the law, appearing out of the bush. However for two bedraggled white men to appear in a battered canoe was unheard of at that time. Surprise didn’t diminish the hearty welcomes and congratulations and Whisky and vino flowed fairly freely while supplies lasted. Next day, shooting licences, passports and visas were checked and the two venturers were sadly farewelled and bon voyaged for the rest of their voyage by the officials and staff.

Robbie and Portuguese officials at 'Crooks corner', Pafuri

Robbie and Portuguese officials at 'Crooks corner', Pafuri

Brownie doing repairs at Pafuri

Brownie doing repairs at Pafuri

From Pafuri they continued without too much trouble but Robbie got a poisoned hand and had to have fairly urgent medical attention. They Landed at Guija from where Robbie was sent to Lourenco Marques(Maputo) where a couple of fingers were amputated. Brownie wasn’t too keen on continuing on the Limpopo, as from there to the sea it was flat, slow running and heavily populated . So he decided to complete his trip to the sea on the N’komati River which was faster flowing, sparsely populated and much more exciting and challenging.

According to available records, prior to Brownie’s trip, there had only been one other amphibious attempt to navigate the river.
In 1870 Captain Elton was commissioned to explore the Limpopo to determine it’s navigability to the sea and prospects of trade. His boat however came to grief at the “‘Tole Azime Falls “ . After which he completed the journey down to the coast on foot. Before that and since there had been quite a few overland exploratory trips and as elephants were plentiful in the Pafuri area there had been many hunters in that area one of whom was the famous Selous.

Since Brownie’s and Robbie’s trip there have been several attempts for adventurers to go down the Limpopo river by amphibious crafts: some successful, some not.
One voyage which was successful and, I think, the first to actually reach the sea on the Limpopo was by Prof. Willem Van Riet and 3 companions in 1962. He and his companions had similar experiences and narrow shaves but also came out tops and are to be congratulated for their courage and tenacity shown on all their expeditions.

He wrote a book about his successful venture down the Limpopo, called “Stroom af in my Kano” in which he has included some paragraphs paying Tribute to” Brownie and his mate’s” bravery and success in reaching Guija. He also states that Brownie’s description of the three falls, Malala, Mahokwe and Qui Qui Qui were of great value to his team. A passage from his book:

"Ramke with his boat was transported to the N”Komati River from where he reached Lourenco Marques (Maputo). Really a great feat by this fearless man in conditions so different compared to those of today . As recently as 1961 there have been other expeditions but no one else had conquered the River until that year."

This website is an abbreviation of Brownie’s soon to be published biography written by his son Peter (Pep) Ramke (aka Peter Ramka).
©2015  All copyrights reserved