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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Milton

Remembering the River: Orange River 2019

Reuben and me paddling in an inflatable croc on the Orange River, him in front and me in the back
Reuben and me paddling (Photo: Gavin Billson)

I’ve had the privilege of paddling the Orange River three times so far and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the experience. A trip down the Richtersveld section of the river is as pure a getaway as one can achieve. Completely cut off from civilisation and without cell phone signal, you have to be independent and deal with whatever curve balls the river throws at you. This was especially true of the trip in May 2019!

After an entertaining road trip from Cape Town with my crazy cousins, where we experienced some terrible coffee, some better coffee, the one-horse town of Springbok and almost having our red meat confiscated at the Namibian border, we arrived at the base camp of Amanzi Trails.

Pulling into our campsite was like a jumbled reunion of Easter Camp friends from many years ago and Central Baptist Church friends from varsity days. So many happy memories came rushing back as I greeted people I hadn’t seen in years. Since it was close to sunset and we were a little late to the party, we had to get right to packing.

Two types of boats are available for paddling the Orange: inflatable ‘crocs’ and fibreglass canoes. I’ve only ever done the trip using crocs, so perhaps I’m biased, but I believe they’re the better choice as they’re more forgiving. The person in the front is the powerhouse; while the person in the back is the rudder. Each pair received a cooler box and a large plastic bucket to share and a dry bag each, all of which had to be strapped into the crocs well enough so that it wouldn’t bounce out or get lost if we tipped.

Two inflatable crocs side by side in the foreground with Marno sitting on the fender adjusting some of the luggage
Packing the boats at base camp

Waterproofing the contents of your dry bag is priority number one and a skill developed through experience… If you’ve ever had the privilege of opening your ‘dry’ bag to find your clothes and sleeping bag sopping wet, you’ll understand that you never make the same mistake twice. Thick, heavy-duty black bags are instrumental in getting this right and I even double-bag some items. It’s also necessary to squeeze all air out of your parcels of clothing and personal items so that a) you fit everything in and b) there’s no danger of a black bag bursting when it gets squashed. It was not uncommon to see people sitting or kneeling on their bags or hugging them ridiculously tightly in order to squeeze out the air while packing.

How you fold your dry bag closed is also extremely important. You should have enough folds to ensure water can’t creep in, and after folding and clipping your bag closed, it should be placed in the boat such that the fold faces downwards and can’t collect water.

Tim gave us all a briefing that evening, covering safety and paddling technique and also informed us we'd be paddling an extremely low river: 6 cubic metres/second. My friend Megan, who can definitely be classified a 'river rat', said it was the lowest she'd ever paddled the Orange and we'd have to work hard...

Day One

We set off early in the morning with three days of wilderness ahead of us.

Me smiling in the front seat of the croc with Marno in the back with an apple in his mouth
Marno and me on day one

I paddled with Marno that day and we had lots of fun, chatting about adventures and trail running, birding with Clifford and Eanette and watching Charles and Mike turn in circles as they attempted to settle into a good rhythm.

We passed a well-known rock formation called ‘God’s Thumbprint’ that day, and I remembered it from previous trips down the river. It looks like the mountain curled and folded over on itself and the layers created resemble the grooves of a human thumbprint.

Landscape of the mountains next to the Orange River, showing the well-known one called God's Thumbprint
God's Thumbprint next to the Orange River

Because it was emptier than normal, the river kept splitting into rivulets. Being one of the front pairs, Marno and I often had to try and work out which of these branches to follow. Sometimes, it was easy to see which torrent was larger and faster flowing, but not always. We seemed to have good gut instincts and always made it through. There was one time that afternoon when we, Conrad and Clifford and Eanette had chosen the right-hand fork and found our way through to the belly of the river, while everyone else must have chosen the left-hand fork. We waited for them for ages, even tying our boats to overhanging trees and going for a swim.

Unmanned inflatable croc tied to a dead tree overhanging the Orange River
Conrad's boat tied up while he swam

Eventually, our friends caught up after what sounded like a hard few hundred metres of paddling, negotiating the shallows and even having to carry the boats in places.

We sailed a little that afternoon… Holding my sarong up and bracing the edges created a large area that caught the wind and won us some decent passive momentum. Conrad did even better, using two bodyboards to catch the wind.

Mosaic of Marno, Conrad and me with me holding my sarong up to catch the wind and Conrad using two bodyboards
Sailing! (Photos: Miriam)

We struggled to find a decent place to sleep that evening. All the great, sandy campsites were at the top of steep banks and not easily accessible from the current water’s edge. After having paddled about 21 km that day, we eventually found a spot on the South African side of the river where a few feral horses were wandering around. How cool to have these majestic creatures close by! Unfortunately, that also meant that there was horse dung of varying freshness all over the place.

Marno crouching over a pile of horse manure right next to where he was cooking, pulling a face to pretend he was on the loo
Ah, the fresh smell of campsite cooking...

The plan had been to make a big communal fire, but the wind didn’t play along and there was a shortage of appropriate firewood. I ended up frying my chopped onion in a dixie and thankfully Brett did manage to braai my piece of steak for me. Thank you, cuz!

Clifford cooking on a tripod over a camping stove, making chicken stir-fry
MasterChef Richtersveld: Clifford's stir-fry

Meanwhile, Clifford and Eanette were taking part in MasterChef Richterveld with their tripod, camping stove, pan and full-on stir-fry. I was super impressed!

When on a river trip, you sleep out in the open, under the stars. This can be as romantic as it sounds, but that night, the miggies really bothered me! I was wearing ear plugs so it wasn’t so much the sound, but the feeling of tiny little flying insects hovering around your face (including horribly close to your nostrils) throughout the night can keep you awake. That being said, I wouldn't exchange the river experience for the world!

Shaleen lying on her camping bed drinking a beer and watching the last ray's of sunshine light up the mountains across the river
Sundowner (Photo: Gavin Billson)

Day Two

Morning two dawned and we weren’t all that quick with the breakfast and packing up procedure. Clothes and sleeping bags had to be black-bagged and dry bags had to be restuffed, sat on, squeezed and resealed. Cooler boxes, dry bags and buckets had to be refastened in their correct places in each boat and comfortable seating positions re-established.

I paddled with Reuben that day. We were an unlikely pair: at opposite ends of the age, weight and paddling experience spectrum, but what a lovely, kind man. We decided to take turns in the steering and paddling positions and Reuben started off steering that morning.

Reuben and me in our inflatable croc on the river with other boats and people in the background
Reuben and me early on morning two (Photo: Miriam)

Paddling the Orange at a water level as low as 6 cubic metres/second is absolutely nothing like paddling it when it’s full. This was not the wide, lazy and sometimes boring river I remembered from my two previous trips. This paddling was hard work! A low water level leaves many, many more rocks exposed than normal, splits the river into various branches and demands constant vigilance when steering.

After about an hour of paddling, we came to a narrow channel through a patch of reeds. Sitting in the front, it was my job to spot obstacles and tell Reuben to turn us right or left. Halfway down the channel, there was a rock slap-bang in the middle and we were heading straight for it! I tried to shout to Reuben and he tried to turn, but the river was too quick for us and we got stuck on the rock.

This in itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but the rest of our group’s boats kept coming and we were in the way. A collision in a croc isn’t bad at all: it’s a little like bumper cars. Tim and Anne’s boat came straight for us and T-boned us, dislodging us from the rock.

This collision in itself wouldn’t have been a problem either, but unfortunately, our friends had fastened their metal camping kettle to the front of their croc and the spout went straight through the side of our boat, tearing a nice big gash as both crocs spun off the rock. We were deflating and sinking, and fast!

Our deflated croc halfway out the water on a rock
Our wounded croc (Photo: Gavin Billson)
Ninety degree tear in the side of our inflatable croc approximately 10 cm long in both directions
Large tear left by the kettle spout

The group pulled up onto a stretch of flat rocks and a few of the guys attempted a repair. The hole was too big for a puncture kit, so a waterproof tape job would have to do.

Five or six men gathered around our punctured croc applying waterproof tape to seal the hole
Gavin and Tim's repair job using waterproof tape (Photo: Miriam)

It worked pretty well, but wasn’t strong enough to hold air with two people and their luggage, so Conrad selflessly swopped his croc for ours. He was paddling alone 90% of the time as his son, Gareth, had brought his K1 canoe to paddle the river in (more on this later).

Gareth in his K1 canoe on the Orange River, smiling and holding his paddle across his splash cover
Gareth in his K1 (Photo: Miriam)

After that eventful start to the morning, Reuben and I swopped, placing me in the steering position. What a challenge! There was hardly ever a moment’s rest between rocky patches and rapids, but it was so lekker! I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulation and the exercise.

Midway through day two, we reached Sjambok, the largest rapid on that stretch of the river. It gets its name from the S-bend that it forms as it first takes you to the right, then the left (at which point the water looks like it hits a solid wall of rock right in front of you) and to the right again before straightening out. We pulled onto the rocks to the left of the rapid, took a walk down the bank to suss it out and Tim gave us a pre-Sjambok paddling and safety briefing. We took it one boat at a time, waiting for each team to make it through before the next one entered the rapid.

Tim and Annein the Sjambok rapid with Tim paddling and steering and Anne taking a video from the front seat
Tim and Anne taking on Sjambok (Photo: Miriam)

When it was our turn, I sat on the back fender of our croc, slightly above the normal rear seat so as to give myself a better view over Reuben’s head. What a mistake! Despite having my lower legs hooked under the rear seat, when we were about halfway through Sjambok, the boat bounced through a dip in the rapid and I bounced right out! Thankfully, this happened past the dangerous spot and if I’m honest, was actually quite exhilarating.

Reuben and I in the Sjambok rapid with the back end of the boat in the dip that bounced me right out and into the river
The moment before I bounced out of the boat! (Photo: Miriam)

We realised our group was making slower progress than planned, so after Sjambok, we hooked our boats together in a few rafts and had a floating lunch as we allowed the river to carry us downstream. Despite many members of the group having done this trip before, we were surprised by an unexpected rapid for which we were not even vaguely prepared…

You see, when the water level is low, rapids are exposed that would otherwise have been filled in by a larger volume of water. What might have been a little dip in the surface of the water in a fuller river becomes much more of a hazard in an empty river. This particular sneaky bugger claimed the K1 canoe and Godfrey and his brother’s belongings. No one was seriously injured, but the canoe was cracked and Godfrey’s croc capsized completely, cooler box and all! (Just goes to show why fastening down your luggage is so important.) Reuben and I were a little removed from all the action this time, but Marno tells me that Gareth got pinned under the capsized croc and was down for quite a while… Marno was worried he might drown!

We helped fish Gareth, Godfrey, his brother and their belongings out of the water, but the cracked K1 presented a much bigger problem… Conrad was already paddling a slowly deflating croc that needed pumping up every so often, Gareth could not use his canoe and said canoe needed to be transported downriver.

Conrad paddling in our punctured croc with the cracked K1 canoe strapped to the top of his cooler box
Conrad deserves a medal! (Photo: Gavin Billson)

That afternoon was a serious test of character! And if I was experiencing mental and physical fatigue, I can only imagine how Conrad felt.

We’d been passed by a honeymoon couple and their river guide during the day and now caught up to them. Unfortunately, they beat us to our planned campsite and we had to come up with a plan B. While we waited for our leaders to brainstorm, Tim was able to borrow a fibreglass repair kit from the other guide so that Gareth’s K1 had a prayer of being patched up that evening.

With sore hands and weary hearts, we continued further downriver, following Marno and Miriam to a campsite that was ‘just around the corner’. After another 3 km of paddling, just when I wasn’t sure how much further I could push, we found ourselves at a well-known landmark of the Orange River: Witch’s Hat.

This campsite was way too beautiful to be labelled plan B! With the low water level, the conical peak known as ‘Witch’s Hat’ stood sentinel over a vast, flat beach of lovely soft river sand on the bend of the river. What an absolutely stunning spot to bunk down for the night! After 27 km of paddling and the aforementioned hair-raising adventures, we thoroughly enjoyed unwinding on that beach.

Panorama landscape of a huge stretch of beach with the mountain called Witch's Hat in the background across the river
Beach campsite at Witch's Hat

I shared my little bit of Amarula with Conrad as a sundowner: he’d earned it, along with my deepest gratitude for switching his perfectly good croc for our punctured one. While some of us cooked in huddled groups to protect our camping stoves from the breeze that was blowing, Tim and Gareth repaired the crack in the canoe and those finished cooking threw some fluorspar into the fire and watched the mini fireworks that ensued.

Night landscape showing the silhouette of the mountains across the river in the background with a man standing next to the campfire in the centre of the frame
Campfire at Witch's (Photo: Tim van Stormbroek)

Fluorspar is another name for fluorite (CaF2), a mineral with many chemical, ceramic and metallurgical applications. There is an old mine a short walk from the riverbank at the usual day two lunch spot. Due to our mishaps during the day, we didn’t have time to take a walk to pick up stones for ourselves, but the honeymoon couple’s guide gave Tim a few from their excursion. Although a fairly nondescript light green stone resembling quartz, when fluorspar is heated, it glows a bright and impressive neon blue and starts exploding! It’s important to only enjoy this spectacle after you’ve finished cooking on your campfire as the fumes released can be toxic.

To use a lovely Afrikaans phrase, our meal that evening was ‘gesellig’: my Back Country Cuisine Tikka Chicken Masala was delicious and so easy to prepare: just add boiling water; I got to know Gavin and Shaleen over some box red wine; and we laughed at Charles cooking on his nifty, but frankly rather scary, stove with what I can only refer to as rocket fuel! (I’m still not 100% certain what gas he was using….)

Group of five of us cooking together on the sand, using a roll mat as a wind shield
Food, wine and good company at Witch's (Photo: Tim van Stormbroek)

Day Three

What a view to wake up to! And even better that I could make a cup of really good coffee.

My camping stove and Bialetti coffee maker in the foreground on the beach with Witch's Hat mountain in the background
Morning coffee at Witch's

Our last day of paddling wasn’t nearly as eventful as the previous day, but we were very thankful for that fact! My hands had been aching the previous night, but after taking an anti-inflammatory with supper, I woke up ready to go again on morning three.

When we stopped for a break mid morning, a few members of the group decided to try a ‘nappy run’ down the rapid we’d just paddled through. Nappy running is where you wear your life jacket around your bum, like a nappy, with your legs through the arm holes. Charles was definitely the most stylishly dressed for the nappy run:

Charles wearing his life jacket like a nappy and his South African flad buff on his head

The idea is that you enjoy a leisurely float downstream in a seated chair position.… Unfortunately, the water level was too low for a lekker nappy running experience and many a coccyx was bruised during that little adventure! The facial expressions say it all:

Collage of four people's facial expressions showing discomfort or pain during the shallow nappy run
Terrible nappy run (Photos: Tim van Stormbroek)

The last little bit of our trip reflected what most of us had been expecting the majority of it to resemble: a relaxed paddle down a lazy river with some paddlers floating alongside the boats, others swimming, some bird-watching and others starting splash fights. Ah! River bliss.

When we reached our extraction site, we had a bit of time to wait for our lift and Gareth challenged some of us to try out his K1 canoe. Gareth held the canoe while each of us climbed in; he held the back end while we felt the craft out and tried to find our balance; and then he let us go as we tried to paddle forwards. What a disaster! If my memory serves me correctly, I stayed upright for a grand total of 4.5 seconds!

Mosaic of Gareth helping me into the K1 canoe, me trying to find my balance in it, and then Gareth letting go and me tipping over into the river almost immediately
Me trying out the K1 canoe (Photos: Gavin Billson)

A K1 is one of the lightest and most streamlined canoes you can find, making it notoriously unsteady when stationary. As soon as Gareth stopped stabilising it, the canoe would tip to one side, then the other, and then over, dumping its cargo into the river. I’m still unbelievably impressed that this guy did the aforementioned river trip (rapids, rocks and all) in a K1!

(Unfortunately, a sad photo was posted on our WhatsApp group during Conrad and Gareth’s trip home to Gauteng… The K1 survived the many rapids of the low-level Orange River, a proper crack and a riverside repair, only to succumb to the winds on the highway on the way home!)

Conrad, Gavin and Gareth tying the two halves of the K1 canoe to the car's roof racks next to the highway
K1 cracked in half after catching the wind on the highway (Photo: Shaleen Billson)

Once back at the Amanzi Trails base camp, we enjoyed a sundowner on the riverbank before setting about unpacking, cleaning and cooking. The hot shower that evening was absolute bliss, it was lovely to be able to cook over a fire instead of a camping stove and Eanette and I went for one last birding excursion.

During the long drive home, I reflected on the trip and how I was feeling. It was amazing that just three days on the river had done me so much good: I felt refreshed and at peace. Life on an Orange River trip is simple: you are immersed in God’s creation, far away from the bustle of modern life; you are blessed with really great company; and all you have to worry about are your most basic needs.

My favourite memories of this particular trip include:

How thoroughly stimulating I found it to steer through the many rapids we encountered. Although it was hair-raising at times, I absolutely loved the technical challenge! I even remember one reverse spin I’m quite proud of: there was a rapid Reuben and I entered with a large rock towards the right hand side and after having just evaded another rock, our momentum was carrying us straight for this one and there was no way I could turn to the left in time… I stuck my paddle in and performed one big reverse-paddle on the right-hand side of the croc with all of my strength… This had the intended effect and our croc did a reverse spin to the right, about 270 degrees, so that our nose ended facing to the left of the said rock and we successfully paddled on past it. What fun!

The night we spent camping at Witch’s.

Being immersed in God’s creation and enjoying close encounters with birds, horses and fish. I was so thankful to have birding buddies for a change! Hooray! Tim, Eanette and Marno all shared my enthusiasm for ‘twitching’. The horses we came across at our first campsite were special to me too. And we often heard and saw fish jumping, especially in the evenings. The river is so full of life!

And last, but definitely not least, the people who made up our group. They had the kindest hearts and the most wonderful senses of humour. I look forward to our next river adventure and, if I’m able to, hope to make an Orange River trip an annual feature on my calendar.

Our whole group of paddlers on the beach at Witch's Hat campsite with the morning sun just touching the mountains in the background
Group photo at Witch's beach before setting off on morning three (Photo: Josh de Kiewit)
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