Jozi Getaways: Houseboating on the Vaal River

by | Jul 12, 2022 | Free State, Joburg Weekend Getaways, Johannesburg, Lodging | 25 comments

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.

Houseboats lined up at Old Willow No. 7
Houseboats lined up at Old Willow No. 7.

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.

Heather and Thorsten on the houseboat in the Vaal River
Embarking on our Vaal River adventure.

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.

Jones and Albert on board the Hadeda houseboat
Jones (left) and Albert (right), the Old Willow staff members who taught us everything we needed to know about the Hadeda.
Galley of the Hadeda houseboat
The boat’s galley area.
Houseboat bedroom
The houseboat bedroom.
Thorsten‘s fabulous architectural sketches of 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.

River cruising sketch
Cruising sketch by Thorsten.

2) Fishing (or, in my case, watching/photographing Thorsten fish).

Thorsten fishing
I have many beautiful photos of Thorsten fishing but none of him holding an actual fish. He did catch one small fish, which he threw back.
Fishing in the morning mist.

3) Admiring (i.e., mocking) the ugly riverfront mansions along “Millionaires Bend”.

Riverfront mansion on the Vaal River
I really hope the owner of this house doesn’t read my blog. But really, wtf? It’s like there’s an actual competition going on for who can build the hugest, ugliest house on the Vaal.
Ugly Vaal boathouse
This is not even a house — just a boat launch area. But again, wtf.
Actually we both liked this one.

4) Marveling at the sunsets/sunrises.

Braaing on the houseboat
Getting ready to braai during an insanely beautiful sunset.
Watching the sunset from a houseboat on the Vaal River
Final sunset photo from the first night.
Sunrise on the Vaal
Sunrise the next morning was even more spectacular, because of the mist, and we were perfectly positioned to watch it from the window next to the bed.
We were totally awestruck. This sunrise alone made the trip worth it.

Houseboating Tips

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.

Heather bundled up on the boat
I came prepared with lots of warm clothes and they did the trick.

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.

Heather on the roof of the boat
I spent a lot of time relaxing on the upper deck (roof) of the boat.
Thorsten's boat sketch
Thorsten’s upper deck sketch.

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.

Thorsten in the reeds
Thorsten celebrates a successful reed-anchoring.
Houseboat docked in the reeds
Here’s another “anchored” boat that we passed, just to give you an idea of what it looks like.

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.

We drove far up this spruit (stream) off the river and anchored in a really isolated spot — halfway between the R57 Highway overpass and the Sasolberg Gas Engine Plant — because we didn’t really have time to go anywhere else at that point. I was slightly nervous, as we were far from civilization and if someone decided to attack us there was really nothing we could do. But no robbers came, and the spot turned out to be totally beautiful and romantic.
Chilling in the reeds near Sasolberg
Chilling in the reeds near Sasolberg.
Sunset in the reeds
A reedy Sasolberg sunset.
Sunrise in the reeds
A very misty sunrise.

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.

Sasolberg sunset


  1. susanreynardreports

    Can’t wait to try this out! Thank you for always finding the most interesting things to see and do in Jozi!

    • 2summers

      Thanks Susan! I hope you can try it out soon — so fun.

  2. Nancy McDaniel

    Oh my. What a lovely trip. And I can’t decided which are better – your photos or Thorsten’s sketches – I LOVE THEM BOTH. So glad you went and shared it with us!

    • 2summers

      Aw, Thorsten will be very happy to read that. Thanks Nancy 🙂

  3. Albert

    This actually looks much nicer than I thought it would be. And I laughed at the McMansions on the Vaal. Lol.

    • 2summers

      There were soooo many more that I could have featured but they weren’t always easy to photograph due to their sprawling nature. Haha.

  4. Albert

    P.S happy birthday! Wishing you health, wealth and happiness for the year!

  5. Rosemary Jamieson

    Lovely post – thank you for sharing

  6. dizzylexa

    Love the sunrises and sunset photo’s. My family has a moderate house on that row glad it did not feature here but yes money sure does not give one taste.

    • 2summers

      Hahaha, I’m curious know know which house it is! There were some nice ones 🙂

      • Albert

        I’m only seeing that boathouse now with the giant Sable statues. Eeek! Very Idi Amin styling. Lol

  7. Stan Garrun

    Beautiful thanks & a great getaway idea.Questions: how many people does the houseboat sleep? Is the R1500 a night for boat or pp or for 2 people?

    • 2summers

      The boat technically sleeps 5 but I can’t see having anymore than 3 people comfortably. It’s R1500 for the whole boat — I’ll update this! Thanks 🙂

  8. May

    Bless my stars! Is it safe? I’ll bet the Tsotsi sneak up at night to board, pilfer and God knows what else…

  9. AutumnAshbough

    How lovely! What a sunrise and sunset. As for the houses…that’s some brutish architecture.

    • 2summers

      Yes, it’s quite entertaining to look at.

  10. davidjbristow

    Re: those (sic) houses – I call the style and culture in general Boere Baroque. From that my SD coined the phrase Barocaccoco – my mother was her role model here. (^Supreme Darling)

    • 2summers

      We call the style ‘Office Park’.

  11. Fiver Löcker

    Omg you caught the boating bug! It looks a bit different from a Dutch canal. We will definitely try this next time.

    • 2summers

      We thought of you guys often over the weekend! The Hadeda was definitely not as luxurious as Hendrika but I think the sunrises and and sunsets are a little more dramatic 🙂

  12. Tumtum

    What a lovely excursion! Though I’m not convinced I would be able to spend the night docked in some reeds…

    • 2summers

      Haha. Well, you might be surprised 🙂


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