by Kathy Sass 

“Paddle, paddle, paddle” yelled my husband Michael, sitting behind me in the two-man inflatable canoe.  The fact that he had not yet experienced a hard thump from a paddle on the top of his head was proof that we were traversing some of the most majestic landscapes known to man. The awe-inspiring beauty shrouded me in a private cacoon of euphoria, which rendered me immune to any amount of irritation from my fellow paddler. 680km North of Cape Town lies the Richtersveld National Park, a unique mountain desert wilderness, home of the oldest desert mountain range in the world.  Through the park winds the wide Orange River, and it was down this river that we were rafting for four days over the New Year – probably the hottest time of the year.  The climate is harsh and dry with mid-summer temperatures of 53 degrees centigrade being recorded.   The Nama people live, graze their livestock and fish the river in the reserve.   They lease the entire area to the South African Parks Board.  While Orange River rafting is classified under “white water rafting”, one does not embark upon the trip for the white water experience.   There are a few rapids and their intensity depends on whether the sluice gates have been opened up river or not.   On the whole one paddles along fairly calm water on its way to the Atlantic Ocean and enjoys scenery and spiritualism in a class of its own.  This is the real essence of the adventure.  Mountains and rock faces stand guard on either side in a palette of colours, ever changing with the passage of the sun.   

The harshness of the climate and the terrain has resulted in one of the most unique eco systems in the world.   The park is home to a vast kingdom of succulents, including ‘Quiver trees’ and the strange phallic ‘Halfmen’, always pointing north.

The rafting company we joined had inflatable two-man canoes.   Some of the other companies use fibreglass canoes and it is a matter of choice, depending on what one prefers.  We enjoyed the inflatables as we could flop overboard into the water to cool off and then just as easily roll back into the inflatable without any major wobbling or capsizing.  The guides prepared sumptuous meals for us and we were not deprived of fresh vegetables and fruit.   Lunch was mostly bread, cheese and salad, which we quickly made into sandwiches and took with us into the river, where we wallowed like hippopotamuses to keep cool while the fish nibbled our toes.   We camped on the banks of the river at night under the stars, and the most dominant half of the couples (or the most pathetic as the case may be) got to use their inflatable turned upside down as a bed.  We saw very few people at all during the trip except a few shepherds, grazing their goats along the thin strip of vegetation on the banks of the river, and a few fishermen.   New Year’s Eve was a very memorable one.   Exhausted and at peace with the world we sat enjoying our sundowners around a blazing campfire.  

Not many paces away from us sat a Nama fisherman who had had a very successful week.   All his fish were splayed out on sticks to dry before he made the long trek back to his village.   Our guides were preparing a gourmet barbeque complete with stuffed pumpkin and cabbage for the vegetarians.   Topics of discussion were meaningful, subdued and in keeping with the environment, which we were privileged to be a part of for four days.   All of a sudden there was a commotion of chaotic proportions.   We were jolted out of our relaxed state to see a huge baboon snatching one of the fisherman’s dried fish and darting off with his bounty to the other side of the mountain.  The fisherman was yelling in Nama while waving his arms vigorously above his head at the retreating baboon.  We did not understand his language, which was probably just as well!    Once everyone had settled again and dinner was served, we proposed a toast to the New Year, to the Nama fisherman (who was muttering to himself in Nama and shaking his head while eating his dinner) and to the baboon, who was having a New Year’s feast all of his own.   After a prolonged silence one of the group said quietly: “I wonder what the rich people are doing tonight”.  There was no need to answer.

For more information on paddling the Orange River, please go to: