“Lifejackets!” shouts our guide Yango John. Yikes – that means there’s a rapid ahead. And this one’s a biggie. It’s called Sjambok, probably for a reason. My sister Sammie and I are paddling together and we shout instructions at each other as we get close. The rushing water is carrying us through a narrow channel. I carefully guide us to the left and a sly smile creeps onto my face. If we make this, we’ll be paddling heroines.
Damn, now we’re heading straight towards a big rock. “Yes, Sammie, I bloody well see it!” We paddle hard but my last-minute effort to dig in and turn us is in vain. We scrape against the rock and the canoe is flung sideways, the boat fills up and we’re out. Suddenly finding yourself underwater in a rapid is a little disconcerting, but my sister and I are tough cookies. We make a plan. I scramble to the nearest rock and Sammie goes after our AWOL paddle.
I’m now officially a river rat!
Brakke, barbels, big views
Paddling the Orange has been a dream of mine for a few years now. At dinner parties and social gatherings, every time I spoke to someone who had done it, they would get this smug look that made me totally jealous. Now it’s my turn! It’s 2 January and my partner Jamie and I, my sister Sammie and six other friends will be spending three nights on the river with People Like Us Safaris.
As we drive along the N7 from Cape Town, I watch as the landscape dries up and becomes a barren moonscape. Luckily the beer at the river camp is cold. We pump up our air mattresses, chat to other river rats in the bar then lie down under the stars to sleep.
At the crack of dawn I hear dogs barking. Before I have time to open my eyes, the pack is upon us. I manage to get a Labrador with long nails off my air mattress just in time to see a brak plant a wet kiss on Dane’s cheek. Well, good morning to you too!
Now we’re up, drinking coffee and more coffee and lugging our gear down to the seven canoes lined up on the bank. Somehow we manage to fit the mountain of cool boxes, booze, ice, camping gear and cooking equipment into the boats.
It doesn’t take me long to settle into life on the river. Soon after pushing off the bank, we come across four fish-eagles riding the thermals. Apparently it’s rare to see four at once. What might have happened is this: As we approached, we scared the Saffa couple off their nest, so they flew over to the Namibian couple’s territory. The Namibians weren’t keen on strangers in their garden so all four were up in arms.
My sister and I are the only two girls partnered together. I’m doing the steering at the back and she’s the powerhouse at the front. We’ve made a great team so far – we’re actually moving in a straight line! And we haven’t started hurling insults or pulling each other’s hair. Yes, paddling with your sister can be dangerous, but I think we’ll appreciate this bonding time together.
The landscape along the shoreline is astonishing. It’s so dramatic that every now and then it even manages to silence the powerhouse’s never-ending monologue. Towering rock faces with herons nesting along the tenuous ledges; stark, Swiss-roll mountains that require a second look. This place is wild.
After some time paddling, swimming and negotiating rapids, we stop for lunch. Bring on the vino, tuna salad and a doze on a rock!
Our campsite for the first night is aptly named The Beach. Fire is the first priority, so I head off to find some kindling and bigger logs. When I come back, the kitchen table is up, Luisa is chopping away and Jamie has set up his fishing rod. The surrounding mountains are ablaze in copper light. I pour myself a sundowner and look at my pap camping mattress. Hopefully the hubby will sort that out later…
Fast forward three hours. We’re all sitting around the fire enjoying a nightcap when Jamie’s reel zings into life. He’s up, fumbling with his head torch and reeling in his line.
Being a seasoned fisherwoman, I stay seated until he’s managed to land the beast. And what a beast it is! There, flapping on the shore, is an authentic river monster – a barbel of mythical proportions. We’re all yelping and hugging and taking pictures. Jamie manages to lift the fish and I snap a photo of him, then he releases it back into the dark water.
The following morning, the water is glassy and still. We drift slowly past the riparian vegetation along the riverbank. The trees are alive with birdsong. Weavers, warblers, kingfishers and red bishops dart in and out of the branches, going about their daily business.
Over the course of the four days we’ll see lots of other animals: a swimming leguan, baboons barking and fighting; ground squirrels; goliath herons; African darters, bee-eaters and even an otter, which pops its head up in front of my canoe.
We eat lunch with a herd of goats at a quiet inlet, then we put on our shoes, shirts, hats and sunscreen and set off to look for fluorite crystals at a natural “mine”. Fluorite is a beautiful mineral that comes in a variety of colours: green, purple, yellow and blue. The novelty with fluorite is that it glows if you put it in a fire. If you leave it long enough, the glowing piece will erupt into little sparks, known locally as Bushmen’s fireworks. Yango put a sizeable piece in the fire last night and we watched it glow in the dark like the luminous ring from Green Lantern.
Away from the river, the land is sparse and awash with a glossy mirage. We climb a path up a steep slope and gradually the dusty stones start to take on a magical tone. I find a few nice little green pieces. But crystals aren’t really my thing, so I forge ahead and spend some quiet time at the top of the hill. The view spreads a wide smile across my face: triangular hills stacked up as far as the eye can see. I give myself a pat on the back just for getting here. Soon my rowdy river rats join me. We compare crystals and snap a group shot on top of the world.
Back on the water after lunch, it feels as if we’re dragging an anchor. Sammie and I look longingly at our other female counterparts, feet up, sunning themselves, while their boyfriends power their boats. We keep going round in circles. Perfect timing of course, as two rapids are looming.
The sisters are getting short with each other. Needless to say, the rapids are a disaster, but the good soaking cools the mood somewhat.
Sunset finds Sammie and me lying like dassies on a warm rock near the campsite, memories of our fight still fresh. There’s something special about the Richtersveld, though. It feels ancient and it feels good. We lie there and listen to the wind for a while, then I lean over and ask Sammie how she’s feeling. She looks back at me and smiles. “I’m having a moment,” she says.
The sisters are best friends again. I’m having a moment, too!
There’s no concept of time on the river. Whenever we ask Yango how far we’ll be paddling, his standard reply is, “It’s 5,6.” Either he gets frustrated by being asked the same question over and over, or he wants us to let go of such concerns and just relax. I decide it’s the latter.
Jamie has lugged an ostrich egg all the way from Cape Town and this morning he sits quietly and taptaps the shell, making a small hole. While we swim off last night’s hangover, he whips up a massive omelette that goes down a treat.
On day three we don’t paddle far at all, which suits everyone just fine. We cross into the |Ai–|Ais/ Richtersveld Transfrontier Park proper, another tick on my list of places to visit, and eat lunch under a famous rock formation known as the Witches Hat. A juicy watermelon is presented as dessert. During this trip, the most bizarre luxuries have been unearthed from the cool depths of our canoes, much like Mary Poppins’s handbag. A watermelon-peel fight ensues, then we pack up and paddle on. There’s a slight breeze at our backs so we tie the boats together and use two paddles and a piece of hardy brown cloth to make a sail. Captain Yango shouts instructions to keep us on course and before we can say “tally-ho!”, we’ve caught the breeze and we’re sailing. It lasts about 20 minutes then we resort to our paddles again so that we make it to camp before darkness sets in.
Our last night on the river is much like the ones that have gone before. I almost fall off my chair when Yango pulls out a leg of lamb. Mary Poppins delivers again! The girls head to bed early and the boys sit and howl like hyenas deep into the night.
Unfortunately for them, we’d made a pact to climb a mountain behind camp at dawn. They wake bleary-eyed and we all shuffle up the hill. I packed really light so I hike up the mountain in my flip flops. There’s definitely some mountain goat in my blood. Before we reach the summit we stop to check out a cactus-like tree called a halfmens. Yango shares its story: Long ago, the Nama people were forced to flee conflict in their homeland and came south to the Orange River. Here, they were transformed into these half-human trees. The top of the halfmens always tilts towards the north and it’s said that this is because the person inside is always looking longingly towards the home he left all those years ago.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good story, especially when you’re out in the wilderness? We take a picture and keep hiking, arriving at the summit as the sun comes up. The view is phenomenal. We’re on top of the world – the Kilimanjaro of Namibia.
It’s a fine way to end the trip, but coming off the water is a bittersweet feeling. Sure, it will be nice to get back to civilisation and normal life, but deep down I know I’ll miss this place.
At least, back in Cape Town if someone asks me at a dinner party whether I’ve paddled the Orange River, I’ll get that knowing look in my eye and say, “The Orange? Ja, I’ve done it. It’s an incredible trip; hard to explain really. You have to do it yourself to understand…”
Words & Pictures: Martina Polley
When should I go?
Summer is best because you never have to worry about getting cold, although you do have to worry about getting sunburnt… Spring and autumn are milder, but pack warm clothes because the nights can be very chilly.
People Like Us Safaris has some excellent specials for a five-night guided expedition, including return transport for your group from Cape Town.
How to survive the Orange Pack facial wipes. They have a million uses including cleaning your face after a long day!
Pack a long-sleeved rash vest or shirt. It will save your skin from the sun.
Use a scarf. Put it over your legs during the day and around your head when you go to bed at night. A hoodie also works nicely in the evening when it gets cold.
Indulge in small luxuries. An air mattress and camping chair will take your trip from rough to plush. These can easily be stowed in your canoe.
Keep sweets and Game sachets at hand. These are great fixers for when you need some energy on the water.