Words by Shane Raw
Images by Chantelle Melzer
Journey to the centre of the Orange
23 June 2019
Some of the best adventures happen on the spur of the moment. Maybe this is due to the lack of time to build pre-conceived expectations – meaning everything is a surprise. This was certainly the case when Chantelle and I, at the eleventh hour, joined a multi-day trip organised by Celliers and Lisa from Vagabond Kayaks as well as Graeme from The Riverman, to explore a little-known section of the Orange River near the town of Prieska, roughly half way along the 2500km length of SA’s longest river. The primary purpose of the trip was to look at suitability for running future guided kayaking trips on the same section. The added value was spending 4 days / 3 nights on the river surrounded by spectacular scenery and birdlife, completely dis-connecting from the outside world and making some new friends along the way. The group was fairly large, consisting of 3 rafts and 15 kayaks.
In true “lastminute.com” fashion, I returned home late on Friday afternoon from a busy week of kayaking on the Ash River near Clarens and hiking in the Drakensberg, despite the fact that we needed to leave well before any sign of the sparrow cracking on Saturday morning for the 1200km drive to Prieska. There was barely enough time to unpack, wash gear, think, pack, re-think and re-pack everything needed for a self-supported river trip in what threatened to be freezing conditions, as a major cold front system swept over the country from the south. Our tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, warm gear for off-river and food for 4 days needed to be packed into our First Ascent drybags in order to stay dry for 4 days on or inside the kayak. In temperatures that dropped well below freezing at night, having wet sleeping gear would have been an unthinkable tragedy!
I was actually pretty excited to test out the new Vagabond 2 seater sit-on-top recreational kayak named the Mazowe. It turned out to be perfect for Chantelle and I with ample space in the front hatch to store our food and enough deck space to strap on the drybags with all our clothes and sleeping gear and of course the camera bag. Due to its width, the Mazowe is extremely stable meaning that the flowing water and small rapids we encountered were handled with ease. It is also surprisingly quick for its size. Despite its width and the fact that we were heavily loaded, it never felt sluggish on the water – even on the dead-flats we were comfortably able to keep up a cruising speed of 7-8km per hour.
The sheer remoteness of the Orange river in this area means that access points are few and far between. The chosen put-in point involved a significant chunk of time spent doing a 140km shuttle of the vehicles on manky dirt roads to a take-out point roughly 90km downstream. As a result we only got onto the river around 14h30 on day 1 and it wasn’t long before the sun and the temperature started dropping sharply. Rafts generally move slower than kayaks so they had set off much earlier, not knowing how long we would have to wait before getting on the water. There were some anxious faces among the kayakers when we still hadn’t caught them by the time the sun disappeared behind the hills – mainly because dinner and some of the sleeping gear was on the rafts! Temperatures plummeted to the point where we soon began to lose functional use of hands and feet. This turned out to be a feature of the next 3 days. Luckily, just around the next corner the rafters had set up camp and already had a welcome fire burning.
At night temperatures dipped well below freezing and anything left outside, including wet paddling gear was frozen solid in the morning. The kayaks were also covered in a thick layer of frost until the sun climbed high enough to spread its warm rays over our campsite each morning. I was very grateful for remembering to pack my “big jacket” (First Ascent Glacier down jacket) which I have seldom had need to use in this part of the world – it was a life-saver on this trip. Despite the fact that the days were clear and the sun’s rays promised some degree of warmth while paddling, the chilly water and wind-chill factor kept things icy for a lot of the time. However, the slight temperature discomfort was a small price to pay for the incredible show…
Although semi-arid and seemingly harsh, this area has a rugged beauty to it and some fascinating geological features, including exposed parts of the Kaapvaal Craton - continental crust which was formed 3 billion years ago and therefore comprises some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Another feature is the huge deposits of the semi-precious gem Tiger’s Eye, which litter the river banks and surrounding areas – the colourful, layered rocks are literally everywhere.
The birdlife was outstanding too, with several new sightings for us KZNatalians. Water birds from Goliath Herons to Kingfishers abound and the most enormous gaggle of Egyptian Geese ever – hundreds and hundreds of them. As we paddled, Fish Eagles called out constantly from their fishing perches. We were lucky enough to see successful swoops / catches on 2 occasions. Iconic African moments for sure!
Another unique natural feature of the area is the slow-growing Aloe dichotoma or Quiver Tree which despite being a protected species, grows quite abundantly on certain mountain slopes next to the river. To top it all off, each day we were treated to a spectacular sunset which turned the waters of the Orange to pure gold! And then, as if even this wasn’t enough, a meteor shower ensured that the crisp clear night skies were frequently streaked by shooting stars. What an incredible place to be…
By the end of the 2nd day we had done only 32 km out of an estimated 90 km and we needed a change of game plan. The rafts were simply not able to cover the necessary mileage with the low water and strong headwinds. The decision was taken to split the group with the kayaks needing to push at least 30km per day for the next 2 days to reach the vehicles, while the rafts continued at a slower pace and planned an earlier takeout. This required some considerable vasbyt from those members of the team that were not accustomed to such distances in a kayak… especially not in those testing conditions. Hats off to all for bucking up and getting the job done – a total of 98 km over 4 days.
I highly recommend doing a trip like this if you get a chance – especially now that the logistics have been dialled in. I believe Lisa & Cilliers and The Riverman will be running future kayak and raft trips on this section and there are also many other seasoned operators that run trips on other sections of the Orange. It’s something everyone should do… #getoutside