Saturday the 27th of April was Freedom Day in South Africa and while politics and South African history was on the minds of many, I instead thought about the freedom afforded by travel. Depending on the type of travel one embarks on, you might be free of work stress, or even odd little body hang ups as travelling requires one to focus on the absolute basics, on fitting into a setting foreign to you. Generally speaking, African holidays are a great way to achieve physical and emotional freedom from everyday niggles, but none more so than a canoe trip down the great Orange River.
The Mighty Orange
The Orange River has its origins in the Drakensberg Mountains from where it wends its way down to South Africa’s West Coast, finally meeting the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay. When it comes to paddling the river, the most significant stretch is in South Africa’s Northern Cape province where the river is the physical boundary between SA and Namibia. This section, generally speaking is flat, save for the odd rapid adding a bit of spice to the adventure.
As far as African holidays go, this trip is quite physically demanding while simultaneously exposing you to the most incredible scenery. If that magical combination doesn’t take your mind off everyday worries, nothing will.
The Adventure Begins
My first trip down the Orange was undertaken with my school class a number of years back. We drove up to the base camp in a large, stuffy bus from Cape Town, watching as the scenery changed from the luscious greens of the Cape Peninsula to yellowing wheat fields and finally the red rocky landscape of the Richtersveld desert. The base camp, with its grassy lawns and tall trees was somewhat of an anomaly given the surrounding landscape, but it was a cool, welcoming place to recover from the stickiness of the journey and prepare for the adventure ahead.
The following morning we were woken early and fed a hearty breakfast served up by our guides. By mid-morning we were on the water. It was heavenly.
That first day we floated past riverside farmlands, bumping our way through the occasional small rapid and lunching on the banks. In the evening, after an infuriating battle with head-on winds whipping through the narrow valley, we pulled up at our campsite for the night – a sandy beach nestled under the rocky red hills. As night fell, the smell of more delicious food cooking on the fire filled the warm, still air. After a hearty meal, silence fell as each one of us drifted off to sleep. In those moments, huddled in a sleeping bag for my first night in the Orange River wilderness, I was taken by the abundance of stars and the absolute stillness.
Hitting the water
On day 2 (and 3 and 4) we were woken naturally by the sun rising. By this time the fire was already burning and breakfast was on the go. After devouring a surprisingly sophisticated meal, we were back in our canoes, ready to take on the mighty Orange! Within a few hours we confronted our first ‘real’ rapid, as well as our first casualty. The canoe’s team evidently had some miscommunication regarding navigation, which saw them tipped from their boat, bobbing down the rapid and later swimming ashore to help their hero (guide) bail litres of water out of the canoe. This happened a few more times on the next few rapids with various teams suffering the same fate. And while the rest of us alternately sympathised and laughed at their misfortune, there was a growing sense of trepidation as the guides talked up the biggest rapid of our trip.
After an anxious lunch, we set off to face Sjambok – the buffalo of rapids, aggressive and unyielding. Hovering in the reeds for the final instructions on strategy we could feel the current below tugging the boats. Finally it was time and our caravan of canoes formed a well-spaced line to tackle the rapid. As the current took hold it became hard to steer and adhering to the basic instruction of ‘just keep paddling’ seemed counter-intuitive when headed straight for a huge hole followed by an enormous wave. However, despite shot nerves and the floundering of many a companion boat, we somehow came out triumphant (owing to luck rather than skill).
Having conquered Sjambok, the rest of the trip was a breeze. Two more days were spent floating down the river, taking a dip when the desert heat overcame us, listening to fish eagles calling and marvelling at the sheer amount of nothingness surrounding us. After fighting wind in the late afternoon we would arrive at camp exhausted but content. At night we would gather around the camp fire for dinner and then fall into a deep, peaceful sleep.
As far as African holidays go, a trip down the Orange River is as rewarding as they come. The physical exertion of the trip in conjunction with the spectacular scenery connects to something very primal within you. The circumstances demand so much of you that it is impossible to stress about life back home. And this in itself is freeing. I have returned to the river many times since that first trip and I can say with certainty that there is no place where I feel more free than on that river.
If camping isn’t your thing, have a look at other Northern Cape accommodation options here.
Photo credits: #1 Damien Du Toit #2 Cazo3788 #3 wikicommons