Orange River


M.L. van Eeden
Expeditions: Upper Orange River & Orange River Gorge
Location: border between South Africa & Namibia
Length: 3 weeks total expedition time
Looking over the Orange river valley at Sunrise.

Looking over the Orange River valley at sunrise.

A short adventure tale by M.L.van Eeden

Part One: The Wild Paradise Bar

Upon my arrival to the Wild Paradise Bar & Campground at the edge
of the Orange River after a nine-hour drive into the desert, I knew I was in for
adventure. I had arrived at the whitewater basecamp to guide my first of three
flood level expeditions of the upper and lower Orange River Gorge, which marks
the boundary line between Namibia & South Africa.

I was fresh out of Missoula, Montana with five years’ experience in glacier
ice melt water entering a flooded desert river crawling with black spitting cobras,
parabuthus scorpion, flash floods, mud slides, bush fire and a night sky with zero
light pollution.

At basecamp I soon discovered that the barman was also the local sheriff
and head of border patrol. His name was “Mossie”, an Afrikaans speaking man
who crossed the river from Namibia and opened one of the only campsites within
100 kilometers in the middle of the desert, a place known as “Onseepkans”.
Mossie had a deep smoker’s cough, an impressive belly and a brandy/coke
habit. A rough yet gentle fellow who occasionally drove the shuttle lorry and once
shot a cobra with his handgun after it fell out of the tree he set on fire – legend
has it.

It was high summer and over 100 degrees in the shade. Even the barefoot
Capetonians had to wear their sandals when crossing the sunbaked sand. The
dry campsite was crawling in roosters, scorpions and over 50 different types
of tropical birds. Mossie’s son left school when he was 16 to become a fulltime
farmer and he kept the place tidy, carrying out his daily chores with the help of
two local “colored” children.

Our guests arrived after driving their BMWs for over an hour on the 4x4
potholed road. They fell asleep on the first night under the bright Southern Cross

to the sound of muffled grunts coming from the local pig, which stood 4 feet at its
shoulders. I was assigned to relocate all the rubbish bins when the boar could be
heard rummaging through the campground in and around the peaceful sleepers.

Part Two: The Gorge

I was given a faded purple and white 14-foot ARK (African River Kraft) raft
with a leaky floor. The raft was overloaded like a gear boat and tied down with a
rope, which had been used as a goat lead. I was to paddle guide the raft with the
help of three teenage girls and one woman with a broken wrist. The girls were
able bodied and the journey through the flooded channels and long grass was
exhilarating yet successful. We ran many small rapids and rescued many clients
from unfortunate flips and swims through reeds before portaging the waterfalls
and abseiling the boats down a cliff and into the gorge.
Mandela playing didjeridu

Mandela Plays the didjeridu on the banks of the Orange River.

We camped for the most part on the Namibian side of the river. The
campsites were covered in traces of baboon and cape leopard. The cape
leopard is small and loves rocky terrain. In fact, we came across two different
leopard kills along the way. Immediately after arriving at camp, the guides set up
a large gray Bedouin tarp for shade and the clients sank into the muddy warm
water holding gin and tonics sans ice. The guides covered all subject matter with
the guests, from how to run rapids to how to read the night sky. I spoke about the
didjeridu, its musical anthropology and how it is played. I also played a song or
two when the moon was out and the fire was burning.

The day before we entered the gorge we saw drug smugglers crossing
the river from Namibia with an inflatable black tubes and rucksacks. A few hours
later we took a right channel and ran a rapid called, “Mini Falls” about 100
meters up river from a series of waterfalls called “Richie Falls”. The left channel
was a class 5+ gorge, which is not used commercially. The right channel and
portage of the waterfalls lead into the Orange River gorge. The record water
level run with clients was broken by these expeditions.

The rapid above the falls was behind a blind corner and at the bottom
there was a hole the size of a UPS truck. The clients mostly paddled in “crocs”,
known as inflatable kayaks in the states. I was the only full size raft and we
stayed up river holding onto the Congolese bush with one hand and doing river
signals with the other. I sent off kayaks one at a time. When it came to be our 
turn our fully loaded raft hit an eight-foot standing wave and sent us backwards
towards the UPS truck-sized hole. After an upstream ferry angle, and a little help
from Jah, I was able to hit the downstream V and eddy out on the right above the
waterfall.

That same day our group peered over the cliff and watched the group
ahead of us run the first rapid of the Orange River gorge, “42 Man Hole”. Nine
out of ten boats flipped. We camped above the waterfall and fell asleep to the
sound of thundering water.

Using a safety kayaker, the clients were directed through the reeds along
the right hand side of the river just above the waterfalls. The empty kayaks were
sent down using teams of people next to the rocky drop in the mist above the
falls. The boats were pulled out just before the drop off. Groups carried the
boats to the abseiling station where upon sending them straight down into the
gorge. The raft was the only craft sent over the rocky drop with a person inside.
With a single man anchor system, I draw-stroked backwards down three short
drops with my feet tucked under two large blue barrels. My heart was pumping
so hard it felt like it was going to break my breastplate in two. About twenty
meters above the waterfalls I jumped out onto the orange desert sandstone and
lay my cheek against the warm earth as five strong men grabbed my raft and
held it against the strong flow of water.

I spent twenty minutes tightening down the gear on the raft before seeing
it disappear over the edge of the cliff with a loud “SLAP”. I hiked the steep path
down into the gorge and after the lead guide abseiled the raft down the cliff I met
it at the bottom. All my gear was hanging at the front of the raft in a bombproof
bundle and I had little time to retie everything. Safety was setup in an eddy
downstream after the first rapid of the gorge. As I was retying the gear some
guests were backing out and starting to climb out of the gorge in order to walk
the rapid. The parents of the teenagers were asking me about my experience
with whitewater this big and if it was safe for their children. I explained the power
of water and that it is hard to guess the outcome in an uncontrolled environment.
Two girls walked the rapid and were replaced by a man with a helmet camera
and another with an extra 100 pounds. I quickly instructed the new team how to
paddle in sync while a team of adults held onto the raft on the boulders at the
bottom of the gorge. I touched my prayer beads and counted to three… the
anchors let go and within 15 seconds we disappeared into the rapid like a grape
in a creek.

I looked from side to side and all I saw was towers of brown waves and
foam piles five times the size of our raft. The raft looked like a children’s
swimming pool with gear floating in 2 feet of water. Two waves crashed onto the
raft from either side and as the water flowed out from the top of the tubes it took
with it the two teenage girls in the back. I grabbed their feet with one hand on
each girl’s ankles and screamed “HOLD ON!” After the rapid we waited around
the corner before the series of rapids, which gives the gorge its reputation. The
two men hiked back to take abandoned kayaks down as the girls and I sat and
pulled people out of the water as they came floating down without their kayaks. I
couldn’t stop smiling.

That day we ran rapids such as “Dolly Parton” and “Big Bunny”. Time
went by as fast as the water flowed and multiple campsites were missed due to
the strong current and carnage. At the end of the first expedition I was convinced
that a river, which cuts through the desert, provides more than just a glass of
murky water to cracked parched lips.

Part Three: Winter in the desert

The 4x4 bakkie raced through the desert terrain creating a red dust cloud
as it took the bends with haste. I held my bleeding finger above my heart as I
grasped the open window & caught glimpses of the local people going about
their evening business. Woman in brightly colored sarongs carrying several
gallons of water on top of their heads passed men with broken faces swatting in
a circle wetting their dry lips with a single bottle of cooking brandy.

We were on our way to the nearest clinic after a blunt chopping mallet cut
the tip of my pointer finger halfway off at basecamp. I was losing a significant
amount of blood and my cotton bandaging was soaked through attracting
hundreds of flies. The nearest clinic was a Tuberculosis & HIV/AIDS clinic in a
township 30 kilometers from Onseepkans, South Africa. When the small truck
halted in a cloud of dust in front of the clinic chickens and goats scattered the
empty lot. The lead guide, Roche’, a burley pro-kayaker from George soon
discovered that the clinic was closed. Some boys playing with a hubcap in the
road instructed us as to where the nurse lived and they jumped onto the back of
the truck.

Smelling of brandy, the nurse smiled a toothless smile and rolled off her
bed and onto the mud floor of her thatch hut. The nurse lived in a reed hut,
surrounded by a reed picket fence and hundreds of faded plastic bags, which

crossed the desert like tumbleweed from the nearest petrol station – about a two-
hour drive away in a town named Poffadder. I blacked out and woke up to the
reality of tetanus shot from a drunken nurse in a TB & HIV/AIDS clinic. Due to her
condition she sent me to get seven stitches from her colleague in Poffadder.

Poffadder is the last settlement in the deserts of the northern cape where
overland trucks fill up and drive through the Namibian border across the driest
desert in the world. This was the last serious episode of two back-to-back winter
expeditions of the upper Orange River at flood level.
Water rushes over rocks on the Orange River.

Water rushes over rocks on the Orange River, South Africa.

Part Four: The flash flood

Two weeks before my incident with the blunt knife, I arrived at basecamp
after months of flooding to find that many thatch shelters had been washed away
since my first expedition in the summer. A guide with one eye, who set sail for
three months during Apartheid & returned 23 years later, brought to my attention
that high water made scorpions more active. One species of scorpion,
parabuthus, has the same potency of venom as a cape cobra. Alas, we still slept
on the ground and in the morning found the little androctonus under our sleeping
pads.

This is Africa.

Our guests for the first trip were from all over southern Africa, namely TV
producers from Johannesburg and health food promoters Camps Bay. I woke up
early every morning to prepare yerba mate’ and watch the colorful sunrise. That
day our team of guides loaded up the lorry truck with all the gear, boats and
cliental. The guests and I lay bundled under PFDs to stay warm as the lorry
passed through the barren landscape like a horse with no name.

I was guiding the two winter expeditions with two other guides from
South Africa. The lead guide was a pro-kayaker from George and the other a
young “bushman” from the deserts of the northern cape.

The shuttle lorry drove into a dry riverbed towards the flooded river among
the Congolese thicket. The shuttle lorry slowed down and the engine turned but
to no avail. We were stuck in quick sand. Baboons were all over the cliffs and
they watched us unload the gear out of the truck and carry it to the river’s edge.

I set up the kitchen tables and gear in the moving shade of a massive

bridge buttress. The children danced around and asked questions as I prepared
lunch and moved the kitchen according to the sun’s rays. Even in the winter
the sun is harsh. A passing tractor from the 1960s rescued the lorry truck.
Consequently we put on the river late.

The fast muddy water flooded through countless strainers and created
an endless obstacle course in and around submerged trees and broad reeds.
Our boats floated past great blue herons resting on nameless islands and under
circling vultures. It was getting late in the evening and on either side Congolese
thicket crawled five meters over the river. There was no opening in the oasis of
growth stemming from the desert river. Finally the lead guide signaled. He was a
distance away from the opening of a dry river mouth and a channel through the
brush. The dry riverbed was slightly damp and there was a 15-meter mud wall
on either side. As a rule of thumb, one usually does not camp in dry riverbeds…
unfortunately there was nowhere else to camp.

Four clients and I pulled the raft up the riverbed, turned it upside down
and propped it up with two paddles. Underneath I lay a tarp and built a small
fort nest for the evening. Around 10pm when all the guests had retired to their
expensive tents we heard the first rumble and crack of thunder. I could see the
lead guide’s face in the glow of the campfire and his expression changed from
sedate to dread. He informed us that no guide would go to sleep that night and
that we needed to prepare the boats for the potential of flash flood. We destroyed
my fort and loaded all the kitchen gear and food into the raft then tied it to an
acacia tree above the mud enclosure. Next we dug a staircase out of the mud
and placed branches in the grooves for an escape route. I put on my PFD and
as I sat against the raft waiting for the rain I wondered why we didn’t wake the
clients during the thunder and anticipation of rain.

At 1:05am the shit came down. It started raining like a cow pissing on a
flat rock. We starting waking up the guests and announced:

“Good morning, sorry for waking you but we have a small emergency
situation and we need you and your family to higher ground immediately.”

Within 15 minutes there were streams running under and around the tents.
It was pitch dark except for the occasional flash of blinding lightening which lit
up the chaos. I tried to direct people up the mud wall but the mud had slid and
covered the makeshift staircase. The local guide made it to the top and set up
three rope systems tied to tree trunks so the guests could climb to the top. In the

chaos people had thrown coolers, shorts, shoes and my didjeridu into the thicket
higher than the water level. By 3am it was over.

The rest of the trip went well relatively speaking. A parabuthus scorpion
stung a client’s child and there was a small bush fire. Africa is a wild continent
offering a plethora of adventure; be it on the river, in the ocean, or through the
jungle. My gut instinct was correct; there’s always adventure to be had in Africa.

2 thoughts on “Orange River

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