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Rivers for Life – Wilge River Swim

Rivers for Life – Wilge River Swim

Oct 2015

Words Andrew Chin and Fiona McIntosh, pics Alon Skuy and Roy Alexander

In January 2015 two Capetonians, Andrew Chin and Toks Viviers set off for the Free State. Their mission: to kickstart a project called ‘Rivers for Life’ with a 200km swim of the Wilge River. Over the next four years they plan to swim at least 100km of a river in each of the nine South African provinces to highlight the deteriorating state of our rivers and waterways, and the need for all South Africans to take action. Although swimming in dirty water is not their usual habit, Chin and Viviers are no strangers to endurance swimming, having completed, among many other extreme swimming events, an Antarctica swim in 2014, the Patagonia Cold Water Challenge in 2012 and the Bering Straits Relay in 2013. 

‘We aim to show all South Africans that our rivers need protecting’ explains Chin. ‘If we act together we can make a difference’. They started their quest in the Free State because both swimmers spent their formative years there. ‘To get to the end we needed to know where it all started’ says Viviers. Their goal was to swim 200km of the Wilge River. 

Rivers for Life is a novel idea. ‘Martin Strel has swum the big rivers in the world and I led a relay team down the Orange River between 2004 and 2008’ Chin tells me. But never before has a project of this nature been used to highlight the need for conservation on a number of rivers.

After eight months of planning, and with sponsorship from Aqua4Life (that would partially cover their expenses) and kit from Speedo SA, the experienced duo were ready to hit the water. 

Although they had a support boat in the water and a land based crew to help with logistics, they knew that there were risks. Drowning or contracting illnesses from the polluted water were both major concerns. There was the constant worry of injuring themselves on rocks, branches and other submerged objects and other risks associated with water.

Swimming for 10 days on the trot they encountered sewerage flows into the river, severe bashings in unexpected rapids and mosquitoes and flies by the thousands. On one occasion they failed to meet their support crew, ran out of daylight and had to wait for five hours – in only their speedos - in the dark. Then, on day three Viviers cut himself badly on a submerged branch and required 10 stitches, and three days off the river; for the last couple of days Andrew battled on with a stomach ailment.

But there were highs too. The water flowed fast, the Free State thunderstorms were dramatic, the birdlife was spectacular and they encountered incredibly friendly and helpful farmers and workers – including one kindly individual who provided their funniest moment of the trip. Fed too much rum by the swimmers the local farmer drove straight into a hole he had warned them about earlier.

‘It was quite an adventure’ admits Chin. We should probably have done a recce before setting out but we were amazed by the openness with which the farmers in the area received us. They made us feel very welcome and were always willing to help us out.

So what’s next? On 15 October, Chin and Henko Roukema will embark on stage two of the project: a source to sea swim down the Berg River, starting outside Franschhoek and ending near Velddrif in the Western Cape. 

Follow their progress on

Nightjar Travel