A year or so ago, at the height of the covid pandemic, I saw a friend’s Facebook post about a weekend excursion in a houseboat on the Vaal River. She rented the boat from Old Willow No. 7 Houseboat Charters, an hour’s drive from Joburg.
I was instantly enchanted by this houseboating idea, especially during the pandemic when long-haul travel was so difficult. Unlike in Cape Town, Durban, and most of South Africa’s other major cities, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with interesting getaway ideas less than two hours from Joburg. This excursion looked so different and fun — I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about it before.
It must be expensive, I figured, assuming a houseboat rental would also require hiring a houseboat captain. But then I read further and saw that my friend and her husband had the boat to themselves. Believe it or not, any adult with a legal driver’s license can skipper a houseboat from Old Willow No. 7.
Then I looked at the prices and realized renting a houseboat on the Vaal River costs about the same as a decent chalet in Magaliesburg. Rates vary depending on the time of year, but in winter you can rent an Old Willow houseboat for under R1500 ($100) per night (total), plus the cost of fuel for the boat (about R750 at the current petrol price, depending on how far you go).
Birthday Weekend on the Vaal River
Thorsten and I finally embarked on our own houseboating excursion this past weekend, to celebrate my birthday. It was everything we’d hoped for: fun, adventurous, peaceful, and totally away from the city despite being such an easy drive.
We arrived at Old Willow, which is exactly one hour from central Joburg near the town of Vanderbijlpark, at around 2 p.m. We received a short briefing from Annatjie, Jones, and Albert, and we were out on the water before 3 p.m.
Each of the Old Willow boats is named for a local bird. I was super excited we got the Hadeda.
Here are the main things we did to entertain ourselves during two days aboard the Hadeda:
1) Cruising the calm waters of the Vaal River, enjoying the sun and warm air.
2) Fishing (or, in my case, watching/photographing Thorsten fish).
3) Admiring (i.e., mocking) the ugly riverfront mansions along “Millionaires Bend”.
4) Marveling at the sunsets/sunrises.
Here are 11 important houseboating tips:
1) Riding on this boat is more of an adventure than a luxury experience — like camping or staying in a self-catering chalet. I suggest arriving with a can-do attitude.
2) Technically the boats can sleep five, but I can’t imagine it with more than three (or possibly two adults and two smallish children).
3) One person on the boat must be designated as the skipper, and Thorsten was ours. Driving the boat really wasn’t that hard, but I’m a bit directionally impaired and was happy to leave the bulk of that responsibility to someone else.
4) We were a little worried about the cold, as July is Gauteng’s coldest month and there is no heater on the boat. It was indeed quite chilly at night and in the early morning — there was ice on the deck when we woke up — but it really wasn’t bad. The duvet on the bed was very warm (we didn’t even use the extra blanket or hot water bottle) and the inside of the boat was surprisingly tolerable. By mid-morning it was warm enough for flip-flops.
5) You need to be comfortable with a bit of climbing and maneuvering, and prepared to fall into the water. We never did but I think it could happen easily while climbing around the outside of the boat.
6) I recommend booking at least two nights, as one night is really not enough time to get into the swing of things on the river. Check-in is at 1 p.m. and checkout is at 10 a.m., which doesn’t leave you with a ton of daylight hours in winter.
7) The boat has one 12-volt plug. You can charge your phone on board but make sure you bring a car charger.
8) The boat has a well-equipped kitchen with a small fridge, two-burner stove, oven, and the braai. There are some restaurants along the river where you can stop, but we wound up eating all our meals on the boat — it just seemed easier and nicer. Bring all your food and drink with you — there is no shopping close to Old Willow No. 7.
9) The boat’s bathroom has a portable chemical toilet, which you pump water into by hand and then empty your business into a compartment at the bottom. I was a little nervous about the toilet at first but got used to it quickly. There is also a small, handheld shower in the bathroom but we didn’t bother with that.
10) You might be wondering how to anchor the boat at night. The answer is: Find a little inlet or cove, slowly drive the bow of the boat straight into the reeds lining the shore, clamber up to the front of the boat, and tie two ropes to the reeds. It seems crazy but that is literally all you do and it works like a charm.
11) Plan your route. As I mentioned, the days are short in winter and you need to be anchored by 5 p.m. so you aren’t boating in the dark. We wound up cruising a bit further than planned on the second day, and anchored in a place that we didn’t expect. It turned out fine though.
That was our Vaal River houseboating experience. We were tired at the end but also sad to leave.
There’s a lot of information that I couldn’t fit into this post — please message/comment with any questions. And if you decide to book with Old Willow No. 7, please let them know you saw this post.