Canoeing down the green Orange

Camping has never been one of my favorite pastimes. The bugs, lack of flushing toilets and no hot running water, are but three of the many disadvantages I can think of that define camping for me. So now you might wonder, what is a dedicated creature of comfort doing rowing down the Orange river -which is bright green by the way- through the desert, for up to seven hours a day?

It was a moment of madness, temporary insanity that drove me to this. Kelvin ,a very old friend, said come rowing with me. I, having nothing better to do with my time, agreed. And without so much as a second thought paid, in full, my non-refundable fee. At which point second thoughts were not necessarily impossible just unnecessarily expensive. So I bowed to the inevitable . I would spend five nights camping and four days rowing. Do I need to do anything to prepare myself I wondered?’ Yes”, says Kelvin: “It is imperative that you run around the house at least once a day rowing with a broomstick shouting, PULL!”. Yeah right.

The day of departure and Kelvin arrives with a bakkie load of the necessary camping gear to make the trip as comfortable as possible. All I had to do was bring appropriate clothing and get us from Cape Town to Namibia and back. No sweat, driving long distances, that, I do like.

The drive took a tad longer than the six hours the tour operators promised; but as we are both photographers there was much stopping to photograph the fields of ground lilies and the very photogenic kokerbome. Also I am unable to drive anywhere without getting off the highway to’ explore’ so we popped in at Clan William for breakfast. We tried to buy koeksusters in Nuwerus, Bitterfontien, Garies, Karkams and Kamieskroon (love those names). No luck. But it was a public holiday, and those dusty little towns still observe a day of rest. Lucky lucky folk.

After a sweltering hour at the Namibian border post, we arrived at the very well appointed Felix Unite base camp just in time to pitch our tent for the evening. At this point I discovered one vital piece of equipment missing from the camping kit; a nice comfy air mattress for me. So there I was with only a thin exercise mat between the bare, hard, cold earth and me. This was going to be a long trip. To add to my woes; on the very first night sharing our dinky little tent Kelvin proved himself to be a world champion at the ancient art of snoring. While, with a well-placed jab in the ribs, I was able to control my companions snoring, the felling of trees going on all around was not so easily stopped. Lesson one when camping; be aware that tents are not sound proof. So tent positioning is a vital factor in getting a good nights rest.

But now the moment of truth, we have a bakkie load of gear and it must all fiit into three twenty-liter plastic buckets. This was going to be a test in traveling light. In the end we took too many clothes; one set of clothing for rowing, one set for eating and sleeping, one bathing suit, one towel and one warm item. That’s all you need and that easily fits into your bucket. The sleeping bags and pillows (important item) squash into bucket three; everything else; camp chairs, tent ect get lashed onto the canoe.

Once packed, we made our way down to the river to meet up with our means of transportation for the next four days. I was totally unprepared for the multitudes that were occupied in the same way. Visions of silent solitude and peaceful communing with nature vanished like mist before the sun; as armada after armada of canoeists set off in the morning breeze. Departures were timed with military precision so each group of 24, plus three guides would experience some semblance of exclusivity. The timing did not however include the other river operators, so it was a pretty crowded river.

But not to be disheartened, after a detailed safety and environmental briefing, we leapt into our vessel and discovered that we were quite the rowing team. From that moment we endeavored to remain ahead of our particular pack. Out front where the air was clean, the river clear as glass and the birds undisturbed. The only one allowed ahead would be our trusty river guide. A very patient young man with commendable environmental savvy and astounding cooking skills. You try preparing roast chicken with all the trimmings for 27 ravenous people, or how about de-boned roast leg of lamb with mint sauce, and then also prepare an extra vegetarian dish for every meal. All this with just a campfire and a kitchen you can transport on a canoe. We ate very well, I was super impressed.

With the river so full, finding a spot to pitch camp proved a little difficult ( we rowed and rowed and rowed). Seven hours of rowing on day one. By days end we had tackled several small rapids, honed our rowing skills, had managed to stay relatively dry and surprisingly, it was far less strenuous than I had expected. So in general we were on top of the game.

But now… the sleeping arrangements.

Camping in what were also the sleeping quarters of a pack of (wild?) horses was very romantic on the one hand, with the horses grazing and sleeping all around. Not so romantic was having to move horse patties with no spade in order to find a spot to pitch your tent.

Kelvin decided no more jabs in the ribs for him and opted to sleep outside the tent. This resulted in me now having to get out of my sleeping bag, open the tent, climb out, kick him in the ribs, get back in the tent and climb back into my sleeping bag. Giving him just enough time to start snoring again. This was going to be hell and then, suddenly, a miracle, no more snoring, bliss. Now all I had to do was come to grips with the hard bed. Come morning the no snoring miracle was revealed. Kelvin had completely disappeared! The rib kicking worked so well he dragged his bed to the furthest comer of the camp . There he snored to hearts content to wake- as fresh as a daisy- to a hot cup of coffee. Felix Unite brings you coffee in bed! Such luxury, simply brilliant.

The days slid past tortured and twisted rock faces, over small rapids and around tall green reeds that provide refuge and nesting material for a few of the inhabitants of this bird watchers paradise. By letting the river pull you silently forward it is possible to get a fish eye view of kingfishers diving, and wading birds ignore the canoes as they stalk their breakfast in the shallows. The Fish Eagles tantalized with their calls, but a sighting alluded us. With jumping fish just missing our canoe and birds all around we did commune with nature, we even swam in the cool green water (something we had both emphatically stated we would never do) and it was all good. My evenings were spent mainly staring at the stars – so many it was awe-inspiring- an astronomer would have been a very welcome addition to our group.

Day three saw us at the dreaded Sjambok rapid; the downfall of many a canoeist. But first we had to find parking. The canoes must go through this rapid one by one so it was like four-thirty homebound traffic on a Friday afternoon. Hot, sweaty and stationary. In the sticky silence we waited for our turn. As more and more canoes arrived I was expecting at any moment a self appointed parking attendant to leap from the reeds, waving his arms wildly to indicate an empty parking spot on top of a rock.

And finally our signal, we were up. Our strategy, don’t stop rowing. Stop rowing the river takes control and you are going for a swim. We hit the rapids rowing like champions, through the first wave, down the S- bend and then…WHOA!!! They didn’t tell us about the washing machine down the bottom. No stopping now. ROW we’re going in!! We hit the machine just as two waves meet. We are rowing so hard we ramp right across the wave and are airborne to thunderous applause from the waiting masses. That was pretty cool let’s do it again!

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Gliding silently past rocks that change from lilac to umber, punctuated by the sudden flash of brilliant turquoise as a kingfisher sights its prey. Sitting in silent darkness staring in awe at a star filled sky. Waking before dawn as the moon sets to make way for the rising sun and the mountains change from grey to brilliant pink. Swimming in the cool Orange when the midday sun beats down relentlessly. Climbing mountains where the rocks are green and rust and the plants mere skeletons. These are all images that I could easily live again, with a smaller more select group of people -mid week when the masses work- and with a soft air mattress.

Our trip

Tour group Felix Unite, I have no complaints

Dates 27 April to1 May 2005

Weather Perfect not to hot in the day, not to cold at night

Timing If you like meeting new people, drinking wine around the campfire talking rubbish, nonstop, until all hours, the long weekend option is perfect for you. If not, choose midweek with a group of like-minded friends

Adventure rating Easy

Don’t forget Tent, it does rain, air mattress, sun block and good polarizing sunglasses, the glare off the water is ferocious and a big hat

Don’t take Endless clothing, I don’t think our guides changed once .If you do get a bit whiffy the river is all around, take a swim, the water is brilliant for your hair.

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