We all have a place we can go to hide. To run away. To find ones soul. To be lost, even if just for a while.
For some it is in the mountains, the slow lingering beauty of the landscape beneath in reaching the summit, or in those brief few moments of absolute focus found while precariously hanging off a vertical cliff face as fingers crawl over the rocks searching for a hold. For a musician it is in the union of notes tickled out on the ivories of a piano or the emotions wept through the melancholy words of a sax. For the athlete it is the feeling of absolute harmony when the body and mind flow as one, legs outstretched in a simple, fluid motion of stride, and return, and the mind is left free to wander. For the artist it is in the focus on the creation in front of him, the canvas drawing him in one brushstroke at a time, or the sculpture around which his hands are wrapped in a constant interaction.
And for some it lies in the faraway places we dream about returning to, over and over. A place on this earth so special that we fall asleep at night thinking about it, returning by day to let our thoughts wander and take us back.
For myself I feel I have been more than richly blessed in finding this place. For me it is the mountain summit, the rock face, the music strummed out, the harmony of running, and the creation of an artwork all rolled into one beautiful place on this planet earth that I know I can return to over and over. To find my soul. To find that peace. And that place lies on the edge of the Kalahari desert through which a beautiful river called the Orange, or !Gariep*, runs. I feel eternally grateful that, despite starting high up in the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, it chose not to simply drop 300kms down and come out on the south coast of KZN but rather to meander its way over two and a half thousands kilometers across South Africa, through some incredibly harsh and equally beautiful terrain, to flow out into the Atlantic.
Rewind to 2005.
I was invited to join friends on a trip down this mighty Orange river. I gave it up for work, worried if something happened I may not get an order out in time. I try to live life without regrets, everything happens for a reason, but this was one that got about as close to regret as they can get. As it happened the trip was not without incident, and two of the four man team had to run out into the brutal landscape to get help after an accident left one of them injured and unable to paddle.
The following year I begged and pleaded and made sure I was back on the invite list and was honoured to experience my first trip north. This time I was frightened. Frightened about this absolute, complete unknown. We had been into the sea off Hout Bay for a few paddles to get used to the kayaks which we would be taking, but it was all very different from a river that was pumping in flood that year. It was the highest it had been in 20 years, and in hindsight it was the worst imaginable introduction to river kayaking.
All too often I was at the back, behind these strong and experienced guys, struggling to keep up, and way out of my depth. Literally. Our boats were so heavy that with enough of a sideways push the momentum just rolled you out and next you were swimming downstream alongside an over turned boat. I will never forget my first swim – and how scared I was – being swept through tree branches and bushes and over rocks, and trying desperately to turn the boat over while treading water and flying downstream at an alarming rate towards the noise of an approaching rapid. Eventually my white knuckles gripped the edge of that boat and flung it with everything I had to get it upright, hop in and discover I’m going in backwards. Note to self – turn the boat around next time. The learning curve continued.
That particular section of river has a stretch of the most ridiculous channels one could find – one moment you are going down a wide river the next there are 4 to 5 islands ahead, dividing the river into any number of channels, all looking completely identical. So you must choose one. The right choice could lead you uneventfully back into the main channel further downstream. The wrong choice could see the river dividing further into more channels. And more. With a bit of luck you might end up somehow back in the main channel. At worst it will narrow down into impenetrable bush and you’ll have to paddle back upstream to try and find a way out.
When a river is in flood and flowing that fast, paddling up into it becomes near impossible, and again the trip ran into trouble late one afternoon, being swept down into dead-end channels and trying to paddle across fast flowing criss-cross currents in an attempt to get out of the mess with one broken rudder in the group to complicate things. We eventually did make it out, but uncomfortably close to nightfall. It had been a narrow escape between finding somewhere suitable to camp, and spending the night shivering on the rivers edge in a thicket of bushes. We got off lightly, and the more time I spend on the river the more I’m learning to recognize that very fine line between things going blissfully well, and things going dreadfully wrong. Crossing it takes an instant. And it’s a dangerous line to cross.
I cant recall how many times I fell in on that trip, how many bushes I got swept through, and how many rocks I got bumped over to remind me over and over that I had a lot to learn on the river and I began feeling horribly accident prone, like a Joe Simpson of the paddling world. It wasn’t a comforting thought at all, but I came out of that trip with a strange thirst for more. The beauty was overriding the danger and before I knew it I was back on the road north a year later.
This time things were very different. From a raging flood the year before the river was now in its lowest that I have ever experienced it. From grinding over rocks mid-stream, to being able to hop out and walk in the river alongside your boat.From the bottom of the kayak scraping over weirs to making slow grinding progress downstream.
As always with the river, it wasn’t without surprise though and on the last day we hit a rapid unknown to us, one moment we were drifting leisurely downstream homeward bound, and the next the paddlers in front of me disappeared down from sight – it was so quick and so unexpected I didn’t even have time to reach forward to put a life jacket on. More fear and more bouncing down into the waters below, out of the boat, over submerged rocks and through white water and going under and coming up until the calmness of the water below the rapid eventually floated up to greet me. I have since learned that this particular rapid is known as ‘Graduation rapid’. And with that it suddenly started feeling like unfinished business. That year was a new section of the river to us and provided more beauty and more experiences that should have quenched my thirst for this unusual landscape of harshness and richness and beauty all rolled into one. But it did exactly the opposite and it was still months after returning that I felt this strange longing to get back.
The following year I eagerly hassled my friends to find out if there was a trip planned but no one was committing and a year dragged restlessly by.
Frustrated, by 2009 there was still no trip in sight so I figured, how hard can it be. I was desperate to get back and so started organizing it myself. I planned on running the same stretch that we had done two years before, a few phone calls later I had managed to organize transport logistics, where to stay on the first night, and had even made a contact with a guide in that area who was more than happy to share his knowledge of the river conditions that year. How hard could this be I remember thinking. To cut a long story short, the trip was one of the most memorable I had done, the river conditions were a stark contrast to the previous year – rising every day as water was being released upstream. And it was just myself and Lara, 5 months after our wedding. While most would have viewed this as a trial by fire for newly-weds we went into it thinking of it as an extended honeymoon!
It was dicey going so small, while I don’t like big groups this was cutting it fine with no margin for error between the two of us and no outside contact, back up plan or escape route until 90 of the 120kms, and I remember on a few occasions wondering if we had bitten off more than we could chew. It was an exciting and eventful trip – almost losing our camp on the first night to the rising river, having to shoot too many weirs, a sinking boat with a hole in it, and lots of action including a monster 3 hour portage to cover not even one kilometer of river, it had been draining but in equal doses, rewarding beyond belief.
The scenery and the bird life and the feeling of isolation – just the two of us out there in the wilderness – is something that we will cherish and remember for as long as we are alive. The tough moments strengthened the bonds and formed memories and sent us away with an amazing sense of achievement. For the full story click here
I’ll be the first to admit, there were also moments of near panic, where I deeply questioned myself for committing us both to this and swore blind that I would never be coming back, but again it wasn’t long after leaving the river that I found this strange longing to go back. Staring endlessly at the photos and finding any excuse to be distracted by thoughts of being up there again and beginning to wonder if there was maybe a clinical term for this.
And so the planning began again. And the more it developed and gained momentum the more excited I got. This time we had planned on running from Vioolsdrift down. The downside to this is that the first 50 to 90kms are very popular with the commercial operations but a few phone calls later to find out when they were leaving and we managed to time our departure absolutely perfectly and didn’t see another soul on that river.
We had been advised by a local farmer to extend our original trip because the water was flowing well and we had boats that could handle the distance, so we opted for a take-out at Sendelingsdrift, 165kms downstream that would see us paddling through the entire Richtersveld area. Again the trip did not disappoint, from the fine company of Paul – a potter by trade with a wicked British humour that entertained us from start to finish, & Andre – long standing friend and one of the most solid blokes to have along on an adventure, to the always spectacular scenery, to the river sending us packing with a pocketful of respect on the last day after ditching us in a rapid that we appropriately named the ‘b*tch-from-hell” rapid. Battered and bruised and limping I cursed and swore at the river for my foolishness at being thrown out so close to the end, while we fired up a brew to regain some sense of humour, but it only took a few hours of driving back that last night along the Namibian river bank to have time to reflect and start longing for more.
By now I was itching for another trip north, but after very heavy summer rains upstream, the river was in full raging flood once more. Worse than before. The friends I had been with on the first two trips were re-running the section I did in my first trip. In my heart I desperately wanted to go back again but for once, for about the first time in my life, I listened to gut instinct that said it was not a good idea. I had been swept downstream through those channels in flood before and had no desire to put myself through that again. The fine line. Remember that fine line between things going well and disaster. And I left it there. With a heavy heart I phoned and cancelled with them. And I am very grateful for that little voice of instinct that spoke that day as the trip turned into an epic disaster. It is a story for another day but they had nearly met their fate on the second day, at the start of the channels, losing two out of their three boats in an instant in a horrible sequence of events that only they can tell. After being separated and finally reaching the river bank, huddled in a state of shock, they were faced with another long walk out. One boat drifted past and Tony shot off downstream to recover it. The other boat is still up there, most likely lodged high up in a tree somewhere, with everything inside. They were lucky to come back alive.
With their misfortune unknown to us, we still had our sights on heading north, running an entirely new section – slowly piecing in the gaps of what has become a small goal to cover the entire distance form Augrabies to the river mouth at Oranjemund. We could find no one to give us advice on what to expect in this section, and the closer it got to leaving the more we felt the river was not exactly welcoming us with open arms. As news filtered through on the other trip the decision was sealed. It was heart-breaking, we had everything organized, all the food bought, gear packed, and were 5 days from leaving. The disappointment of going home empty handed when we hadn’t even left was just too much to swallow so over a few beers and maps plan B was quickly conjured up – a trip completely on the other end of the scale that turned into a grueling 10 day adventure, tackling the full length of the Breede, from the source above Ceres to the sea, unassisted. (For photos click here.)
By the following year I was itching for the river up north again – it had been two years and this year the river seemed to be respecting our patience. Monitoring the river flow carefully, it showed a nice steady level and we all agreed it was time, the trip was called and the departure date set. Out came the maps stashed from last year, the crew was assembled – Paul and Andre from the previous trip, along with Craig – an insanely interesting character that fitted in perfectly to round off a whacky crew.
Craig’s years of experience living with the bushmen while filming their spectacular award winning documentary, The Great Dance, proved to be incredibly exciting, and suddenly this trip started feeling a lot different from previous trips, packed with knowledge and lessons and experiences I would never have expected on a river trip. It was a very leisurely time, in stark contrast to previous trips where we had to crank out 35kms a day, on the water from early until late with few stops.
We now had time on our hands and at first the spare time was almost stressful, but by the second day I had eased into river life completely. We went for early morning hikes to see the sunrise from the mountain tops, and from where we could get an amazing perspective on how the river was carving its way through the mountains. Around mid-morning we would eventually be packing up, followed by a yoga session to loosen up then onto the water. Completely different! Fish eagles would be playing overhead, and goliath herons our guide down the river as if following us on our journey. After what felt like an hour, or when reason or urge spoke, we would find somewhere suitable to stop for coffee, basking in the sun while we soaked up the landscape. Another hour or two downstream and by early afternoon we’d be looking for camping spots. And they did not disappoint, providing some of the best camps I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Raw, untamed, unspoilt. It’s how we found them and how we left them. There were no human footprints in sight, only animal tracks that Craig soon had us tracking and putting together the story of who had visited here recently. There is a place along that stretch of river that I will return to again one day, it’s accessible only by the river and takes a few days to reach but it is beautiful beyond words, the kind of place I could go back to camp for a week, or a month, before paddling out. Back to the world.
Night times were filled with roaring bonfires that were as tall as us, spreading its warmth and light around the camp, until it faded down and we could stare in awe at the star filled skies. Sleeping under this canopy of endless sparkling lights is always a privilege, we lay there watching the millions of stars and constellations moving overhead during the night and seeing shooting stars flit across the sky like fireflies.
Again, this trip seemed all too short, and a week later we were rumbling back straight into rush-hour traffic. That evening we even took a diverted route along the coast road and over Chapman’s Peak to get away from it – my system just wasn’t ready for that shock.
And it still isn’t.
A week later I found myself out for a morning run. I must have been the laughing stock of the suburb, running head first into a road sign, repeatedly tripping over my feet on the pavement, and on more than one occasion crossing the road mindlessly unaware of oncoming traffic until they were hooting inches away. The mind wanders easily.
A month later and I am still reliving the laughter and the memories. The out of this world campsites, Paul’s baboon whispering, the Danie Lama rapid, mastering frothy cappuccinos with condensed milk, photographing time-lapse sunrises, glowing quartz and balancing rocks, reading animal tracks and ‘the 3 hat story’, smokey water, the lava-tree, the nagging urge to torch an entire tree one night (it was dead, dried, and desperately begging for it but we were mildly concerned about the rest of the countryside going up in flames so at the end of the day reason won), Craig’s skirt moment in the super-conservative Springbok lodge for being the first one to fall out, the Dug-&-Tug, and “its-medicine-but-its-not-the-cure” bonfires, and Einstein Lawrence !Kudu and Cookie.
I always used to say it takes a day to get into the river, and a month to get back and settle down. After a few trips that became two months. After this trip it could be a lot longer. I guess we have to come back sometime but I always feel like a bit of my soul stays up there. Or maybe we view it like that by choice, so we always have somewhere to escape to, and something no one can take away from us.
Speak to me in two months time and I doubt much will have changed. If you can find me that is, for I may have bowed out gracefully from life to return to heaven for a while.
* Gariep, Garieb, or !Gariep were the attempts to represent the Nama word “!gari-b” meaning “river”, for the part of the Orange river downstream from the confluence of the Vaal River.