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Paul Lee takes on the Orange River

The Orange, or Gariep River as it is locally named, is the longest river in South Africa. This transfrontier waterway rises in the Drakensberg of Lesotho as the Senqu River, at an altitude of 3000 metres above mean seal level. It follows a meandering route across the breadth of the southern sub-continent, brushing the Namibian border to emerge on the west coast at Alexander Bay, some 2 200 km from its source. Along the route it passes several spectacular gorges and waterfalls, including the well-known Augrabies Falls, the lesser known Orange River Gorge, and the remote and wild Kumkum Falls. Perhaps the most wonderous scenery and outstanding geology is to be found where the river runs through the ancient Richtersveld Mountain range. Unable to push west through this impenetrable barrier, the river takes a tortuous detour northward through gorges and deep mountain valleys. This is a remote area, which an all-terrain vehicle cannot access and trekking is avoided due to the heat – to reach this wilderness you must take to the water.

Having guided in a full-time capacity on the Orange River with numerous descents and also having paddled at least three-quarters of the river’s length, Umvoto’s Senior Environmentalist Paul Lee was relaxed to take his family and a few friends on a five day rafting trip, starting in Noordoewer (a small Namibian agriculture town just across the border). Canoes were used and amply packed with tents, tables, cooler boxes, firewood (as using the natural driftwood is refrained), plenty of cold beer (its hot up there) and food. On the first night on the river it rained, which was a most unusual event in a mountain desert that has mean annual rainfall of less than 50 mm. While this cooled the atmosphere, it also provided a change of weather and tail winds that pushed the group onwards and down through the gorge to exit at the largest grape farm in the southern hemisphere, Ausenkier.

We asked Paul how he felt about going back to the Orange River after many years and questioned if it had changed over time. He replied that certainly the river does not have the flow it had twenty years ago and sadly there is too much abstraction to support the growing agri-business of grape and citrus farming along its banks. On the positive side however he said, it mostly it remains a pristine wilderness in the Richtersveld and provides space and time for a holiday, with thrills, and spills, some physical activity and a feast of geology. Nothing will beat this one!

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