If you were to stand on the top of the Drakensberg, you could see the Indian Ocean on a clear day, but on a rainy day you could see something much more interesting.
Raindrops. As they fall on the summit, they are wafted by the wind, tossed by blades of grass, and channelled down plant stems before they reach the ground – and how they’ve been wafted determines their fate. One little raindrop may end up in the Tugela River plunging almost a kilometre straight down the escarpment before its short, turbulent journey to the Indian Ocean, and its twin may end up in the Senqu. And the Senqu winds westward down the mountains and then starts snaking its way across the progressively drier landscape – the Karoo, the Kalahari, the Richtersveld and the Namib. It may well be the longest oasis in the world, because those little raindrops that chose to take the hard road west – rather than the shorter, greener route east – are the lifeblood of this otherwise arid country, and without the Orange River, South Africa’s history and economy would be very different.
It’s been a magnet for centuries – hunter-gatherers and herders have been drawn to its life-giving waters since the dawn of humanity, and later arrivals have flocked to it for other reasons. Clearly, the river bank was a good place to farm because – well, duh, there was water. But then, in 1867, a local farming lad called Erasmus Jacobs literally changed the world when he pocketed a pretty, shiny pebble that he’d been playing with on the banks of the river. The Orange River is probably the most diamond-rich river in the world so, along with life-giving water, it carries wealth-giving baubles through the harsh, arid landscape.
In Lesotho, it traverses steep mountain scenery watched over by a few uncurious Angora goats, Basotho ponies and the odd herder or tourist, and once out of the mountains, it’s surrounded by mostly farmland or conservation areas. Other than Upington, the few settlements on its banks hardly merit the term ‘village’, and the constant stream of hopeful prospectors that has been drawn to its banks by promises of imagined wealth has mostly just dried up in the sun and withered away. The river’s been harnessed in two huge dams – the Gariep and Vanderkloof – but not even these concrete monstrosities have managed to tame it.
But despite its magnetic qualities, the Orange retains a wilderness feel for much of its course.
The most reliable of South Africa’s few perennial rivers, the Orange has attracted another breed of people
Adventurers, paddlers and explorers, who have travelled its length on foot or by boat, alone, in groups, or accompanied by dogs or donkeys, all of these explorers have found solace in the river, so it wasn’t long before a few entrepreneurial ‘river bums’ from Cape Town started running commercial trips. They were pretty rough and ready in the early days, but river running is a now a well-established and sophisticated industry, with the Orange still forming the mainstay.
While there are a few trips higher up, the bulk of the paddling trips wind through the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, downstream from the N7 where it crosses the river at Vioolsdrif and Noordoewer and forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. And for good reason, because this section of river has it all – long, quiet stretches, exciting (but not toooooo challenging) rapids, astonishing scenery, great places to camp, and interesting side excursions. Trips are usually four or six days. You spend the first night in a base camp and leave bright and early the following morning, after which your life is dictated by the rhythms of the river and the sun.
The pace is unrushed and there is plenty of time for chilling out, snoozing in the shade at midday, or taking a stroll to investigate the surroundings. A walk up out of the gorge is quite strenuous (it is uphill, after all) but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.
You can see the arid, mountainous Richtersveld stretching on for miles and miles – mountain upon blue mountain – and the river forms a thin, green line snaking down to the coast.
And, while it might seem like a monotonous brown desert from a distance, the Richtersveld is one of the world’s great botanical hotspots, with more species of succulent plant per square kilometre than anywhere else on earth. The two plants you’re most likely to notice are the distinctive kokerboom and halfmens. Kokerbome (Aloe dichotoma) are also called tree aloes – related to the usual pretty orange aloes – but they grow up to seven metres high. The halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) is an eerie-looking plant that, from a distance, looks like a person gazing out to the north. They grow up to four metres high, and inhabit the rocky cliffs on either side of the river, seemingly stationed there as half-plant, half-human sentinels.
But, really, what a river trip is all about is getting lots of fresh air, some moderate exercise, time out with some of your favourite people, great scenery, good food, some awesome fireside chats, and the increasingly rare experience of sleeping under the stars.
The Richtersveld section is very popular, so you will see other paddlers on the river during the day, but the operators take care to stop for lunch, and to camp in different and secluded spots.
Make it happen
Felix Unite River Adventures | www.felixunite.com
Umkulu Adventures | www.umkuluadventures.com
Amanzi Trails | www.amanzitrails.co.za (They run regular trips on the Richtersveld section.)
Gravity Adventures | www.gravity.co.za ( They runsregular trips on equally scenic but less crowded sections of the Orange upstream.)