Orange River Rafting
When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.
On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.
Daytime on the Orange River
As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.
The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.
With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.
This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?
Don’t date those people.
Nighttime on the river
African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.
With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.
Earning your experience
We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.
The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.
Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.