The Orange River may have been named after William, Prince of Orange in 1779, but anyone could be forgiven for thinking it was for the folded ochre mountain ranges or the red tinged water at sunset or the rising moon glowing gold with desert dust. Even the flesh of the 6ft mud-dwelling Barbel fish, turns an impossible tangerine hue as they are hung to dry.
Orange is also the colour of harmony and this border river between South Africa and Namibia is the perfect place to feed the soul and row with the flow. The guides on the Felix Unite 4-day canoe adventure appeared already on the path to enlightenment - after all Budda found it in the flow of a river - and their calm confidence and soothing canoe-side manner seemed an appealing and desirable state of mind to any city dweller.
An Odd Bunch
We were an unlikely bunch in our 2-man Canadian Mohawk canoes, aged from a mature twelve to a youthful seventy-five, half from South Africa and the rest a scattering of European tourists. South Africans have long visited this river for its beauty and solitude and I felt privileged to have been let into the secret.
The canoe launch site is 7 hours drive north of Cape Town near the South Africa/Namibia border crossing at Vioolsdrif where the river forces the two countries apart. The idyllic Provenance camp site situated high on an irrigated grassy river bank on the Namibian side has views of barren steep flaking cliffs dropping into tall thick reeds in which hide electric blue malachite kingfishers and golden weaver birds.
From this stunning vantage point I watched an immensely tall Goliath Heron cruise in like a silent satellite then stand as still as a statue until its arrow-like beak pierced a passing fish. The distinctive echoing cry of the Fish Eagle rang through the rocky heights in a siren of freedom and with a raptors arrogance swooped down and stole the silvery fish right out of the Heron's mouth.
In its haste, the eagle dropped the meal and a peculiar Laurel and Hardy chase ensued with the spindly-legged Heron running madly to recapture its dinner, while the disgruntled Fish Eagle flapped wildly.
Stranded like Noah after the Flood
Gliding silently in your canoe, you can almost get close enough touch the glistening wet Darters also named Snake Birds for their long s-bend neck. They sit mid-stream on rocks and spread their oil-less wings to dry like a vampires cloak. Also found perched on semi-submerged rocks are canoeists whose boat has become stranded like Noah's Arc after the flood.
The current sways the marooned boat right and left or just jams it further between the rocks like a cork in a bottle. The only solution is to poke one foot out and push frantically whilst trying to keep some element of balance in the dangerously wobbling craft.
Fail this and you fall in while the now lighter canoe floats effortlessly off. We were all destined to get wet anyway from the occasional water fight and during the first day's 'Nappy Run.' In a most undignified but hilarious manner, we put the life jackets on nappy style through the legs, and threw ourselves into the bubbling water of Hammerkop Rapid to let the current shoot us to the bottom. It was such fun that everybody did an infantile walk back up the river for another go.
Unlike most great African rivers, there is nothing lurking in these waters that is likely to harm you unless you believe the century old legend of the Great Snake as thick as a barrel who eats goats, calves and children. During the evening you will certainly hear loud sploshing sounds, but this is just one of the huge but harmless barbel of the cat fish family, not a gastronome's choice. There are few (non malarial) mosquitoes and no burrowing bilharzia snails and even consuming the water had no adverse effects.
River food supplied by our guides was nothing sort of miraculous. They managed to produce smoked mussel hors d'oeuvres, crunchy cauliflower salads, bacon and egg brunch and a last night speciality cooked in the coals of tender roast leg of lamb, sweet honey and raisin butternut, baked potatoes and succulent stuffed cabbage.
'It only tastes this good because you've been paddling all day,' said guru and lead guide Dale. He was far too modest but the twinkling stars over a flaming fire on a remote bank of the Orange River certainly helped set the scene for feasting, sipping brandy, stories and song.
Loo with a View
Not one sweet wrapper, banana skin or cigarette butt was ever discarded thoughtlessly - it all came back with us. Felix Unite River Adventures adherence to the eco-tourism motto 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' is rigorous and commendable.