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Orange River rafting


Text Mariola Jakutowicz Fouché Photographs Simon Scarboro Loop the rope, tie it around three times, pull the other piece through and fasten it to the loose end,’ urges Jess, our intrepid river guide. My first lesson in knotting a trucker’s hitch leaves me wishing I’d been a more diligent Brownie. This is how we secure our possessions to inflatable boats for the next three days on the Orange River Gorge, launching at Onseepkans on the Northern Cape border with Namibia. Flipping over on the rapids is where the knots come in rather useful, she explains. I had imagined that this stretch of the Orange would yield as much relaxation in its lazy meanderings as it had in my previous canoe trip, some years before. Not so. The pièce de résistance of our sojourn down the river lies in wait: a roiling, watery deluge known as Big Bunny is the largest rapid on our expedition. It acquired the moniker when a non-English-speaking guest, awed at the sight of the rushing watercourse, declared, ‘That’s the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen!’ At rafting company Gravity Adventures’ well-tended base camp on the river’s edge, Jess introduces the rest of the team on the ‘upgrade’ trip: Mandy, and seasoned locals Heinrich and Alex. Jess and Mandy are accomplished white-water kayakers and river guides who have years of experience in exploits of the adventurous kind. Jess, also a qualified psychologist, takes clients for long treks into the Namibian wilderness and is no stranger to dry, inhospitable surrounds. Mandy, fluent in Afrikaans, is the product of a South African-American union and hails from river-rich Montana. Our fellow rafters are an eclectic mix of adventurers; I wonder how the next few days in our eco-bubble will work in terms of social dynamics. As an unrelenting Northern Cape sun inches into the sky, we learn how to pack the ‘bare minimum’ into dry bags and secure them into the rafts, along with a sealable supplies barrel and a large cooler box replete with great hunks of ice and drinks for the next few days. We relinquish our watches. I’m a little uneasy about Gravity’s definition of ‘upgrade’; there are no resources, no cellphone reception, no washing facilities. Just us, our rafts and the gorge. And a fish eagle. Its distinctive call rings out across the impossibly blue sky. It’s a sign, maintains Jess – if the bird appears on the first day – that heralds a successful journey. Our guides instruct us in operating the two-person rafts: the ‘engine room’ guy in the front paddles hard when the occasion arises, while the ‘rudder’ handles the steering aft. We waft downstream, relaxing into a windless morning between thick reed banks. The open channel yields prolific birdlife: goliath, grey and even white-backed night herons and African darters are just a few of the many species. Lunch, a spread of cold meats and salads, fruit and fresh breads, is on a flat stretch of Namibian rock in the welcome shade of a Bedouin tent, set up by Alex and Heinrich, who have paddled on ahead. At 37°C, it is a welcome oasis. Chacma baboons bark in the distance and a monitor lizard watches us warily as we wallow in cool water tinged a dark orange by the fine silt that squeezes up between our toes. It’s opaque enough to hide the cheeky fish that nibble at us in defiance. An afternoon’s easy paddling winds up at our overnight stop on another handsome expanse of rock, with filter coffee, tea and biscuits served in the shade of a thorn tree. I’ve had worse assignments, I think. While dinner is prepared, Jess takes us up to a natural amphitheatre 900m away. We’re surprised at the number of white butterflies flitting about and understand only when the path opens up into a surprisingly springlike gully sprinkled with white blossoms. ‘We’ve had unseasonal bouts of rain,’ explains Jess. The quiet energy of the ancient formations is palpable as we walk; large nuggets of rose- and white-quartz litter the route. I pick up one of the countless coloured rocks to find it dotted with garnets, an indicator of diamond-richness in the vicinity. Sunset brings the welcome sight of pitched tents, inflated mattresses and a table decked with snacks and aperitifs. Later, pleasantly fatigued, we watch the moon rise into a star-studded desert sky over a delicious stirfry and glasses of cold white wine. A highlight of the next morning is the sighting of tell-tale paw prints from a Cape clawless otter and a possible visiting spotted genet. Over a hot breakfast, the challenges of the day are discussed: Scorpion, Corkscrew and Screwdriver. The ominously named rapids, we soon discover, become progressively more vigorous, culminating in the 1.5m-high Mini Falls. The intense concentration, then joy, of the paddlers as they negotiate their way around each of the twists and turns in the river is evident. We recover from the mini-maelstroms in Bird Alley, home to ospreys, black eagles, European and swallow-tailed bee-eaters, kingfishers and vervet monkeys. It’s an avian delight, even if you’re not a twitcher. We pitch camp in the shade at The Trees and later stroll over to the Other Side: the ‘forbidden’ gorge, not run commercially due to its risky river features, forges its own way alongside our own section of the river. Jess produces a sundowner snack table with the juicy, locally grown grapes, and we sip on chilled Chardonnay to the sound of the Orange gushing its way through the Ritchie Falls, into a parallel universe. The prelude to our roast lamb and baked vegetable dinner is a digeridoo performance by Montana Mandy around the fire – she’s been playing since she was nine. A ‘Kalahari Ferrari’ scuttles across the sand clutching a moth – it’s our only sighting of a solifuget and, fortunately, the scorpions indigenous to the area appear to be in hiding. ‘Ready? Hup!’ Day three begins with a team effort in portaging the seven rafts and their contents over a 50m stretch to a precipice high above the next section of river. Jess belays the boats down with help from Alex, while we receive them on the baking rocks below. In the heat of the day, it’s a supreme test of patience and unity, and we’re rewarded with an in situ ‘shower’ under a waterfall just upstream. We’re oblivious, visually at least, to the turbulence that looms ahead. We alight and clamber alongside Big Bunny, watching in reverent silence while the guides discuss how to approach it in muted tones. ‘Rock straight ahead! Paddle hard, right!’ my shipmate Simon’s staccato voice breaks through from the stern, barely audible in the roaring, swirling mass of water around our raft. We bounce about like a fizz ball in a running bath, swiping furiously with our oars. As we’re sucked along on the current, I pray fervently that the trucker’s knots we’ve tied hold fast. Miraculously, we stay upright in the inflatable craft. Spurred on by the cheers of the guides who have preceded us, we all make it down, virtually dry – some backwards. It’s a unifying achievement that spells samesyn, in the words of the locals – the spirit of togetherness. Life’s like riding on a raft, they say: no matter which way you approach it, you have to go along with it. You can trudge through it, or you can take charge and make it an axis-tilting experience. Much like this one. GRAVITY ADVENTURES has 15 years of experience in river rafting and operates Orange River Gorge expeditions on ‘untouched’ river sections. Groups are kept to a maximum of 12 for the Upgrade trips, and 24 for their Standard rafting option. Inflatable two-person boats with personal flotation devices are standard, but five-person rafts, steered by African Paddling Association (APA)-qualified guides, are also available on request for less confident paddlers. A reasonable level of fitness and good health are advised. The trip begins and ends on South African soil, so passports are not necessary. gravity.co.za, 021-683-3698 ACCOMMODATION The Upgrade option includes an evening before, and an evening after the river trip at the comfortable Oranjedal Guest House on Rooipad grape farm at Onseepkans. During the 35km trip downriver, guests camp in tents, and mattresses, sleeping bags and pillows are provided. MEALS: All meals, prepared by Gravity’s guides, and evening aperitifs are provided. COST: Trips span either three days and four nights, or four days and five nights. The Upgrade trip rate varies according to group size, starting at R6 000 per person. A Standard trip costs R3 500 per adult for four days/five nights and R3 100 per adult for three days/four nights. Children, group and family discounts apply. ORANGE RIVER GORGE 101 The Orange – or Gariep, as it is known by the local Nama people – is SA’s longest river, rising in the Drakensberg in Lesotho and emptying 2 200km later into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay. The featured section of the gorge runs through the arid region of northern Bushmanland, a desert wilderness area. It’s a lively stretch, offering a variety of conditions from flat, calm pockets with flowing channels, to adrenaline-pumping rapids, flanked by mountains on either side. Days are usually hot and sunny, and midsummer temperatures can reach up to 50°C. Rafting trips are best enjoyed in the cooler months from March, through to January (30–40°C). GETTING THERE The tarred road from Cape Town to Pofadder takes about nine hours, and from Joburg, approximately 10 hours. The last section of around 50km to Onseepkans is usually a good dirt road. Gravity Adventures can arrange hired vehicles and accommodation for guests that prefer a more leisurely drive. Fly-in tours, or a bus with a driver are also optional. This travel feature was originally published in the June 2012 issue of House and Leisure.