About 8 hours drive north of Cape Town, passing increasingly arid but desolately beautiful countryside up the west coast of South Africa, you will find the the last leg of the mighty Orange River before it spills out into the Atlantic at Alexander Bay. The Orange is the longest river in South Africa and from its origin in the Drakensberg Mountains of Kwazulu Natal plays an important economic and social role in the country.
My interest in the river was more personal and challenging. With my wife and children, we had signed up with Umkulu for a four day canoe expedition down the river . From a base camp near the Namibian border post at Vioolsdrift, we joined friends and a motley crew of Norwegian students. As always for this type of adventure activity in South Africa, everything is well organised by professional and experienced guides with an emphasis on safety; important for the type of trip we were to undertake.
If there was no river, you would be enveloped by mountain desert but this artery gives life to the area and importantly for us, the ability to cool down by taking a dip. It is stated that no prior experience is needed and you should come equipped only with a sense of adventure and of humour. Sound advice. The canoes supplied were extremely stable 2 man crocs, easy for getting in and out of the water. The date you do this type of activity is also important; in the height of summer, the days are insufferably hot, in winter the nights are extremely cold so just like baby bear’s porridge we had chosen just right, at the end of the summer in April.
If no prior experience is needed, you do need a certain level of fitness. There are long flat stretches which you constantly need to paddle through. The reward is however, all around you. The steep valley walls reflected and played with the light as you progressed through the day with some of the most sublime sunsets and sunrises in the whole of Africa. The pace was constant without being frenetic; after all, you are on holiday! We used pauses to await slower paddlers by cooling off in the river. Refreshed, we would carry on until lunchtime or evening camp set up on cleared areas on the river banks.
Not only were these guides professional and safety conscious but were also excellent cooks. Being in South Africa, you would always have an evening braai (barbecue) but there was plenty of fresh fruit and salads as well as the occasional surprise; having ice cream in the middle of nowhere is certainly a treat. With a gin and tonic in hand, sociable company, the children fishing on the river bank, looking at a descending, crimson sun; you feel a sense of tranquility and peacefulness. All is well with the world, at least on these particular evenings.
You pass certain rapids but nothing extremely dangerous. You take a break to do what the guide calls, a nappy run. By wearing your lifejacket upside down protecting your rear end, you can go over these rapids solo. It is excellent fun and not only for the children.
As always, time flies away when you are particularlyenjoying yourself. The three days on the river was up and we landed on the Namibian side at Aussenkehr, part of the Richtersveld National Park. As a family, we were not too disappointed by having a motorised vehicle pick us up after those days of effort on the river to drive us back across the border. What can’t be replaced was the sense of achievement, adventure and for us city dwellers, a connection with nature.
Would we do it again? You bet we would.
Canoeing on the Orange River by Nicolas Edwards