The Orange River has a special appeal as not only is the canoe trip great fun, but you get to search for diamonds, climb rocky peaks and indulge in fabulous river food. You might even find enlightenment in these spectacular surroundings. Carrie Hampton takes to the river.
The Orange River may have been named after William, Prince of Orange in 1779, but anyone could be forgiven for thinking it was for the folded ochre mountain ranges or the red tinged water at sunset or the rising moon glowing gold with desert dust. Even the flesh of the 6ft mud-dwelling Barbel fish, turns an impossible tangerine hue as they are hung to dry.
Orange is also the colour of harmony and this border river between South Africa and Namibia is the perfect place to feed the soul and row with the flow. The guides on the Felix Unite 4-day canoe adventure appeared already on the path to enlightenment - after all Budda found it in the flow of a river - and their calm confidence and soothing canoe-side manner seemed an appealing and desirable state of mind to any city dweller.
We were an unlikely bunch in our 2-man Canadian Mohawk canoes, aged from a mature twelve to a youthful seventy-five, half from South Africa and the rest a scattering of European tourists. South Africans have long visited this river for its beauty and solitude and I felt privileged to have been let into the secret.
The canoe launch site is 7 hours drive north of Cape Town near the South Africa/Namibia border crossing at Vioolsdrif where the river forces the two countries apart. The idyllic Provenance camp site situated high on an irrigated grassy river bank on the Namibian side has views of barren steep flaking cliffs dropping into tall thick reeds in which hide electric blue malachite kingfishers and golden weaver birds.
From this stunning vantage point I watched an immensely tall Goliath Heron cruise in like a silent satellite then stand as still as a statue until its arrow-like beak pierced a passing fish. The distinctive echoing cry of the Fish Eagle rang through the rocky heights in a siren of freedom and with a raptors arrogance swooped down and stole the silvery fish right out of the Heron's mouth.
In its haste, the eagle dropped the meal and a peculiar Laurel and Hardy chase ensued with the spindly-legged Heron running madly to recapture its dinner, while the disgruntled Fish Eagle flapped wildly.
Gliding silently in your canoe, you can almost get close enough touch the glistening wet Darters also named Snake Birds for their long s-bend neck. They sit mid-stream on rocks and spread their oil-less wings to dry like a vampires cloak. Also found perched on semi-submerged rocks are canoeists whose boat has become stranded like Noah's Arc after the flood.
The current sways the marooned boat right and left or just jams it further between the rocks like a cork in a bottle. The only solution is to poke one foot out and push frantically whilst trying to keep some element of balance in the dangerously wobbling craft.
Fail this and you fall in while the now lighter canoe floats effortlessly off. We were all destined to get wet anyway from the occasional water fight and during the first day's 'Nappy Run.' In a most undignified but hilarious manner, we put the life jackets on nappy style through the legs, and threw ourselves into the bubbling water of Hammerkop Rapid to let the current shoot us to the bottom. It was such fun that everybody did an infantile walk back up the river for another go.
Unlike most great African rivers, there is nothing lurking in these waters that is likely to harm you unless you believe the century old legend of the Great Snake as thick as a barrel who eats goats, calves and children. During the evening you will certainly hear loud sploshing sounds, but this is just one of the huge but harmless barbel of the cat fish family, not a gastronome's choice. There are few (non malarial) mosquitoes and no burrowing bilharzia snails and even consuming the water had no adverse effects.
River food supplied by our guides was nothing sort of miraculous. They managed to produce smoked mussel hors d'oeuvres, crunchy cauliflower salads, bacon and egg brunch and a last night speciality cooked in the coals of tender roast leg of lamb, sweet honey and raisin butternut, baked potatoes and succulent stuffed cabbage.
'It only tastes this good because you've been paddling all day,' said guru and lead guide Dale. He was far too modest but the twinkling stars over a flaming fire on a remote bank of the Orange River certainly helped set the scene for feasting, sipping brandy, stories and song.
Not one sweet wrapper, banana skin or cigarette butt was ever discarded thoughtlessly - it all came back with us. Felix Unite River Adventures adherence to the eco-tourism motto 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' is rigorous and commendable.
A portable toilet was even carried (I never knew exactly where), and each evening it was placed like a throne in a spot with the most magnificent view. If somebody disappeared and seemed to take forever, you knew that the 'loo with a view' had them mesmerised.
In the most complete night sky imaginable Orion's belt gave away his position to the Europeans while Africans see instead three zebras whom Aldeberan (the unluckiest hunter in the sky) failed to shoot for supper. He could not go home empty handed but dared not collect his spent arrows for fear of the lurking Lion (the star we know as Betelguese).
Aldeberan sulked and shivered while his wives laughed derisively at him. African legend creates the sweeping brush stroke of the Milky Way, from grey ash and hot coals thrown into the air by an angry daughter who was forbidden by her mother to roast her roots in the fire. The Southern Cross, seen each night guiding the way south, are four giraffes whose heads are always visible wherever they are.
The daylight vista is no less breathtaking with almost every geological process known to man having played a role in shaping this landscape. An assortment of sedimentary mud, volcanic lava, granite, limestone and metamorphic rock offer a new and unique view around every corner.
Swirling 'snail rock' or 'swiss roll' started off as horizontal sedimentary strata but curled under intensive pressure to form an almost complete circle. The Witches Hat, made of pink metamorphic rock, rises to a sharp peak and stands quite alone like a sentinel forcing the river around it.
Fossils of the giant hyrax - an unfeasibly large guinea pig, and a primitive four-tusked elephant, have been found 40 kilometres from the river mouth, dating back 17 million years.
It is fossils of another kind that have dominated man's interest in this river - Diamonds. These precious gems were formed 17 million years ago in river terraces 60 metres above the present river level, when the giant ungulates were nibbling on the grasses.
Prospectors have been trying their luck along the bank since early this century and some got rich, but it was at the river mouth as it enters the Atlantic, that great swathes of diamond rich strata were found and claimed by government or corporate monopolies. Nevertheless, scrabbling through a pile of rejected washed stones at the old, but still used Rudy's Diamond Mine, the canoe party searched in vain for any glinting pebbles that got away.
What we found during another sortie from our boats, were not diamonds, but pale turquoise-tinged fluorspar from a pure quartz vein which bleached a white streak through the mountain. Used as flux in the iron, steel and alloy industries, in the production of hydrochloric acid and the manufacture of enamels and coloured and opaque glass.
Our use was to throw the rocks into the night fire and stare like star-struck children as they glowed a brilliant green and purple, before exploding into a frenzy of spitting fireworks.
Scattered along the 78 km stretch of river that we paddled over three and a half days were verdant green farms, irrigating their vast fields straight from the river. The Aussenkehr estate on the Namibian bank, is said to be the largest fruit farm in the southern hemisphere if not the world, covering 100,000 hectares.
We seemed to drift past it for days. Table grapes are grown exclusively and flown from their own airstrip straight to the supermarkets of Europe. In direct contrast opposite this lush green belt on the South African bank, is the starkly barren Richtersveld National Park. This rugged mountain desert is 2 billion years old and rich in endemic succulent plants. One such is the Halfmens (half a man - Pachypodium namaquanum) standing phallicly tall and leaning always towards the north.
There is of course a legend to explain this. The original inhabitants of this barren land were chased south across the river and as they stood to look back into their homeland the gods took pity and rooted them to the spot so they could always look at the land from which they came.
The magnificent scenery surrounded us on such a grand scale that it was as if we were taking part in an epic movie. One moment we were hemmed in by close fitting mountains and the next looking at a hazy vista with no end. After several days of messing around on the water - swimming when it got too hot and holding on for dear life when it got too rapid - the whole group had relaxed to a point that, whatever life we had before could not easily be remembered. Even the recent Sjambok Rapid (Afrikaans word for a particularly nasty whip) was a distant waterlogged memory, where some made it through and some were punished with no lasting effects.
We began to feel like the original halfmens who did not want to leave their life-giving river. The Orange certainly had us mesmerised and letting it go was a terrible wrench. If I am ever going to find Nirvana, it will surely be on the banks of this beautiful river.
The author of this article is Carrie Hampton - she can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002 Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.