Text and photos by Ron Swilling
Paddling on the Orange River that divides and joins the two countries of Namibia and South Africa is to find and enter a crack in the everyday book of rules that we follow far too rigidly. There lies a timeless journey into river rhythm that doesn’t heed the ticking of a clock, but listens and moves to a beat deep within the earth, a beat that hears rain and wind, moon phases and earth revolutions.
Initially I thought of many reasons not to join a river adventure, as it entailed schedules and deadlines and distance. But then I felt the pull of the river making its way to me on some earthly energy undercurrent. I replied to the invitation: ‘Perhaps I can squeeze it in’ and then immediately another, ‘Yes, I’d love to, tell me about the rapids’ as I felt another tug from the watery depths.
She replied with patience for her indecisive friend and understanding of the lure of the river, that the small rapids offered touches of excitement in between stretches of calm, but that it wasn’t about the rapids at all. It was being out there on the river, camping on riverbanks under the stars and exploring the mountains in the late afternoon. The river had clearly spoken to her and she had heard.
With the Sendelingsdrift border crossing opening up between the two countries, it not only makes it possible to cross from one side of the Ais-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park to the other, but also opens up various travelling possibilities. Crossing the river by pont will give the traveller the opportunity to explore the four-wheel-drive territory of the South African Richtersveld, recently awarded World Heritage status, to cross over to enjoy Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, second-largest in the world, as well as Ais-Ais Hot Springs and the Huns Mountains, and allowing a river journey in between paddling in the vein of life between the two.
Although day trips are most popular with tourists on a hurried itinerary, two-, four- and six-day options are available to tune into river time. Canoe equipment, guide, food and expertise are provided by the various operators, so that the river experience is restful, allowing your senses to move with the natural pulse of life, far from traffic, cellphones and television.
The night before we began our four-day journey, the conversation turned to ‘hippos’, the name given to the tops of submerged rocks that stick up above the water like hippo ears and can crack and capsize a canoe, and rapids with names like ‘Dead Man’ and ‘Sjambok’ (whip). I listened apprehensively and began to wonder if I had taken on more than I had bargained for.
After an initial paddling lesson and some hours on the water I soon discovered that although the rapids are small and the Orange River is not considered a white-water experience by any means but rather a more gentle alternative, rapids still punctuate the river journey in quick staccato beats and fortissimo flourishes. The more gentle ones run like laughter under your canoe, the larger ones belly laugh with splashing waves, the rocks creating obstacle courses to manoeuvre through. The largest of all, a long wild run of bumps and waves, can be walked around if too daunting.
All luggage is stored in plastic containers and lashed onto the canoe, and lifejackets give buoyancy in the event of an unexpected dip. With the rear paddler steering the boat and the front paddling as powerhouse, the canoe can glide over currents with the ease of a duck on water.
But it’s not about the rapids, I agree once I’ve overcome my initial trepidation. The river meanders through Phragmites reeds that blow in the wind, banks of grass mown short by goats and rocky islands where cormorants and darters sit and sun themselves. It nestles in the arms of large mountains sculpted in a medley of browns, rusts and ochres that stand strong and vivid against the blue sky, their reflections mirrored in the water, doubling their stately presence.
There are periods of rhythmic river time where all stills into meditative moments, paddling on glassy surfaces with the peaceful sound of water lapping against the bow, water droplets spraying from the paddles, birdsong emerging from reeds and trees, and large goliath herons rising up into the sky.
There are long lunches on grassy banks with time to swim and loaf, and nights of sleeping under a full moon and shooting stars, with the sound of water skipping over stones singing lullabies to send you to sleep.
Crossing over from country to country, as you lunch on the grassiest banks and sleep on soft river sand, you link the two countries in a zigzag of watery slipstreams that veer behind the canoe and disappear on a cross-border journey that would befuddle customs officials completely.
This article was originally published in the January 2008 Flamingo magazine.