The Orange River is South Africa’s biggest and longest river. Despite having paddled many sections of the Orange, there are still some sections that neither Vagabond’s Celliers Kruger nor Graeme ‘Riverman’ Addison had ever been on.
A number of weeks ago, Graeme gave us a shout to see whether we’d be keen for a winter kayaking trip to scout a lesser-known section of the Orange: the stretch between Prieska and Koegas. In writing his book ‘Run the Rivers of Southern Africa’, Celliers was mostly after whitewater, so he had never ventured to this area. We were in!
We knew that this section would be mostly flatwater with some islands and channels and some easy rapids – perfect for our Vagabond sit-on-top kayaks and inexperienced paddlers. The water here is regulated by outflow from the Vanderkloof Dam, which generates hydroelectric power. Flow fluctuates between 40 and 200 cumec.
This was to be a partly supported trip as Graeme planned to take along three rafts carrying camp kitchen equipment and dinner for 23 people for three nights. The kayakers needed to carry their own breakfast, lunch and snacks. Graeme carried containers of drinking water on the rafts; we carried a gravity water filter.
We were all in for an exploratory trip; a four-day, three-night journey to discover the best features of this area.
Kayaks are faster than rafts
With three rafts and 14 kayaks on the trip, there would be a discrepancy in speed. As kayaks are faster, we decided in advance that the rafts would depart earlier each morning with the kayakers catching up during the day to meet and share the overnight camps.
The kayakers joined the rafters at two of the three camps. We waved goodbye to each other on the morning of Day 3 as the rafts were to take out earlier than planned and the kayakers needed to cover more distance.
Doing anything outdoors in winter is primarily a matter of packing warm gear for the cold nights and mornings. We woke up to considerable frost and ice on our kayaks. The days warmed quickly once the sun chased away shadows.
In contrast to the sweltering summer days in this area, winter days are sunny and mild. At night, from our cosy places around the campfire, we were treated to a magnificent night sky with exceptional meteor sightings.
As expected, the water was primarily moving flatwater with thoroughly enjoyable ripples and channels.
We covered shorter distances on days one and two, and made up for this on the third and fourth days to get to out take-out in good time. In total, we covered 98km! A superb effort by the kayakers. Now that we know the lay of the land, we can accurately plan a shorter and more leisurely trip for our next visit to this section.
We enjoyed hearty meals on this trip. Each person packed their own breakfast, lunch and snacks; dinners were communal. Ahead of the trip we split the 23-person strong group into three teams, each assigned to providing and cooking dinner for one of the nights on the river. Who says that camp cooking has to be relegated to smash (dehydrated mashed potato) and tuna!
For the first night, Group 1, the rafters, prepared a delicious braai (aka barbeque) complete with potatoes, a tomato-and-onion sauce and a green salad. For dessert, we were treated to chocolate mousse with cream.
For the second night, Group 2 pulled out an oxtail stew. Francois’ wife (not on the trip) had pre-cooked and frozen this five-star meal. This was accompanied by polenta cooked in a three-legged pot on the fire. Rozanne’s chocolate-brownies-with-custard dessert was, understandably, well received.
With the group splitting on Day 3 into rafting and kayaking contingents, the kayakers loaded a cooking pot and their dinner ingredients onto their kayaks. The rafters had sufficient food packed, which left the 16 kayakers to enjoy Lisa’s ‘red lentil sloppy joes’. These were served with bread baked in tin cans on the fire, and Shane & Chantelle’s funky salad.
Lienkie and Herman’s dessert was the figurative cherry on the cake. Lienkie created individual layered desserts served in cups; cookies, strawberry pudding, flaked almonds, goji berries and cream. As Celliers eloquently says, “It tasted like a rainbow”. That sums it up beautifully.
Day 1 stands out for its unbelievable rock formations. The layered and folded cliffs defy belief. The world’s largest deposits of tiger’s eye, a metamorphic rock that is prized as a gemstone, are found in this area. Mountains of the stuff!
Day 2 was big on birdlife. This stretch of the Orange River is well vegetated along the banks, which would account for the abundance of birds. Flotillas of ducks and geese, fish eagles around every bend, sightings of the striking green plumage of white-fronted bee-eaters, numerous Goliath herons with their two-metre wingspan, giant and pied kingfishers, and also coots, egrets, darters, cormorants, bulbuls, barbets, weavers, wagtails… Sighting a martial eagle was yet another bonus.
The sky on day 3 was spectacular. It was the most magnificent blue made exquisite by patterns created by cold-font clouds. Birds, especially fish eagles and Goliath herons, were constant companions.
On day 4, we saw dozens of leopard tracks at a snack spot. The final kilometres leading to Boegoeberg Dam were characterised by long sand banks, which gave the river a completely different feel.
While there are farms on the banks of the Orange River between Prieska and Koegas, the countryside is sparsely populated, rocky and unforgiving, especially in summer. This gives a sense of isolation – an experience to be treasured in our always-connected world. The combination of pleasurable paddling, the variety of sights and the feeling of being in the middle-of-nowhere will draw us back to paddle this section again and again.