‘Old Man River’ is a doozy, but watch out for the rabbits
Over five days on the brown swirling force of nature known as the Gariep, Paul Ash experienced the pleasures of rafting
We put in at Raap en Skraap, a sprawling grape and date farm on the banks of the great river. The palm trees and manicured lawns are a green shock to the eyes in this dun landscape.
With its electric fences and security blockhouse, it was not the most welcoming start to a river trip but it offered one of the few access roads to the river and space to pump rafts and pack boats.
So it goes on the great river, or what the first people here called the Gariep.
On the shuttle from our camp at the border town of Onseepkans, the priest driving the bakkie told us the water was as low as it had been in years. Was it because farmers were taking too much, we asked? He shrugged and said nothing.
Over the next five days we were to make our way along the green stripe, from Raap en Skraap to the Gariep Falls, about 80km as the river flows.
The flotilla was a mix of heavy rafts laden with supplies, two-person Crocs for the clients and guides … and me on a vaguely unsuitable inflatable sit-on-top-of that Bruce, the other lead guide, promptly dubbed U-571 on account of its submarine-like qualities.
The party was mixed, a group of trainee river guides showing off their skills to a handful of paying clients. Leading the party was Graeme Addison, Old Man River himself, professor and kayaker who brought whitewater rafting to SA in the late ’70s.
The guides were young, eager after the grinding pandemic, which had almost killed the whitewater rafting industry.
The old man’s eyes miss nothing, not from a misstep in a rapid or the food prep at the end of the day. But even he would be tested by the sluggish flow as, bent to his oars, he manhandled one of the two eight-man rafts, bloated with supplies for the weeklong expedition.
Never mind all that. We were on what the Koranna people called the mother of all rivers. It rises as the Senqu River in the Lesotho Highlands and then flows west, gathering strength from other streams that join it. By the time it reaches the Lesotho border, it is already a brown swirling force of nature, laden with topsoil and detritus from its tumbling journey through the mountains.
How it figures in the SA consciousness depends on your place in history. Is it the Orange River, a borderline or simply a geographic entity? Or is it a place of war and sadness? For many it is a lifeline, running 2,250km across the country from its source until it spills wearily into the Atlantic Ocean at Oranjemund.
It has made some people very, very rich while others are simply grateful to catch yellowfish from its banks, water their livestock or just watch it roll by.
Dutch trekboers called it “the great river” but it was Dutch explorer Robert Gordon, commander of the United East India Company who, during an expedition from Cape Town in 1779, named it for his prince, William V of Orange.
There is nothing orange about the colour of the water. It is at best green and occasionally black, depending on the amount of topsoil it is carrying at any time. This time it was simply green.
The priest was right: the water was low and the great river had braided into channels threading among sandbanks.
We quit paddling early that first day, dragged the boats up on to a grassy beach and flaked out while the guides made camp.
These are the pleasures of river hiking. Building a fire out of driftwood and staring into the flames as night comes on and a hush settles on the river, listening to the splash of fish and frogs croaking, a breeze rustling the papyrus, evensong from the birds. Over there the chatter of the guides as they make dinner, the pleasant thock-thock-thock of a knife chopping onions on a board, the hiss of a gas stove. Ice cubes in a glass. The great river gurgling over rocks.
Sleep came easy that first night.
In the dawn, as Graeme, with a voice like a revivalist preacher, began rousing the camp with exhortations to greater labour, we were sore. Also cold. Mist rose from the water, dew shone on the grass and our tents.
He wanted an early start. The low water meant we could not simply float along. There are choices to be made with every braided channel. Which was deepest, where did it end, how deep were the rocks scudding by beneath?
A fast breakfast, top up the boats with air and load the whole camp back onto the oar rafts. Then, crank off into the day, rising sun burning the mist off the water, warming our backs.
It takes a day or two to get into the rhythm of a paddling trip. There is the sensation of manhandling a sluggish boat. Arm and back muscles, grown soft in winter, stretch and creak.
But look where you are.
The river is pushing to the desert. It is not as stark as the Richtersveld, but the contrast of the fecund, malachite stripe of the river against the dun granite landscape makes us grateful to be close to water, on a boat, alive.
So we paddled down the green stripe, SA on our left, Namibia on our right, floating on cool water where it was deep, warmed like the lizards on the rocks.
It is easy paddling when there are kingfishers trilling and fish eagles driving overhead, leguaans (Nile monitors) splashing off the bank at our approach.
There were a few easy rapids that even the U-boat sailed through without trouble, until the last one of the day, a class two with a hook in the tail that lifted my stern and rolled us into the green. I surfaced amid floating drybags and drifting paddles. My Soviet army bush hat, a relic from Afghanistan, was lost forever, no bad thing. I flopped back onto the kayak while Bruce calmly paddled around, collecting my stuff. The river’s embrace was complete.
On the third day we came to Onseepkans. It was a chance to stock up on chocolate, energy bars and beer. After a day in the wilderness, the town and the vehicles on the bridge between the two countries were jarring and we soon pushed on into the early afternoon, putting as many river kilometres as we could between us and civilisation.
That night we camped at Flat Rocks. River explorers are not noted for their enthusiastic place names, perhaps as a deterrent to mass tourism, for Flat Rocks is postcard pretty — granite slabs rolling back from the river, a view of the mountains across the plains to the south and papyrus full of red bishop birds. The boys fished, the guides made camp and we lay on the warm slabs, feeling the heat ease out of the day, wondering who else had rested here in the past 20,000 years.
It felt as far from human scratch as was possible on Earth.
That night, Old Man River warned us of the trial ahead. We would shoot an easy rapid and then hug the right bank to the top of Gariep Falls.
The name comes from a German tourist on an early trip who kept asking, ‘Ven iss ze the next big rabbit?’
“You don’t want to get sucked over the falls,” he said.
The cataract, the second highest on the river after Augrabies, plunges 30m into a gorge scoured by water and flood. The falls are not considered runnable, not even by mad people, of whom there are many in the world of kayaking.
The gorge compresses the river into a chasm that is just metres wide at its narrowest point. The rock walls are deeply undercut at places and there are siphons and whirlpools to trap the incautious boater.
First, though, we had to get there. As the falls are not runnable, all the boats would have to be portaged. As unloading the boats would only mean more work, they would be carried — loaded — across 300m of slippery, heated granite to the lip of the gorge.
“We will be done in a few hours,” said the old man.
In the end it took all day to portage the boats. For a day we were extras in Old Man River’s SA remake of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s film about the madman dragging a steamship through the Amazon jungle.
We dragged, hoisted, grunted, and cursed the boats over the rocks. To the left the river roared over the falls. To the right, the sun beat down on Namibia. At the lip of the gorge, the boats were lowered on ropes down the cliff. It was dark by the time Old Man River came paddling out of the gorge to a rocky campsite above Big Bunny rapid.
In between the day’s war stories, Graeme prepared us for Big Bunny, the last and biggest rapid of the trip. The name comes from a German tourist on an early trip who kept asking, “Ven iss ze the next big rabbit?”. QED.
Big Bunny is a class four on a scale of one to five with five being the hardest. “It has a real bite,” says Graeme. “It keeps you hopping from rock to rock and it’s inadvisable to treat it like a harmless pet.”
In the morning we scouted the rapid from the river bank. Old Man River pointed out the line: start at that rock there, bear right, go around that rock, watch that pour-over, paddle hard to the middle, done …”
In the end all but one of the boats made it through without trouble. One guide’s boat lost its rear paddler who swam the rapid. That’s how it goes on rivers.
Next up, Dolly Parton (yes, two big rocks making islands in the stream and no prize for rapid naming here), and then a long, slow paddle to where the priest was waiting for us in his truck.
“No quitters now,” said Old Man River. “Paddle on.”
IF YOU GO: Riverman offers bespoke family-friendly, fully catered trips down the Orange Gorge from June to September. Rates start at around R6,570pp (adult), depending on group size. Phone 084 245 2490 or see www.riverman.co.za/orange-gorge for details.
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