Gently Does It
Words Fiona McIntosh, pics Shaen Adey
A goliath heron eyes us from a rock in the middle of the river. It’s followed us down the river for the last hour, gracefully launching and then flying a few hundred metres downstream as we approach.
As we sit eating lunch on the beach, two kingfishers hover overhead, their wings flapping like hummingbirds. One dives then retreats to a perch on a dead branch before resuming its hunt again. Darters sun themselves on rocks not a hundred metres from us and we can hear more birds calling from the dense vegetation on the riverbanks.
Beyond the river’s flood plain, craggy mountains jut into piercing blue skies. There’s no noise other than the gurgling of the river, no other river users, no sign of human habitation. I’m in heaven.
This is our third day on the Orange River. Since putting in on the Namibian side of the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, near the confluence with the Fish River, we’ve drifted past dense stands of exotic reeds (Phragmites australis), sandy beaches and vast, polished boulders, some with basin-sized potholes, that line the river’s bank. After each day of floating down the river, running the odd small rapid, birdwatching, swimming and taking in the magnificence of our surroundings, we’ve pulled our boats up onto a beach to find our overnight tented camp already set up, the camp chairs round the fire, the kettle on the boil and our smiling camp manager preparing dinner. It’s been a total spoil.
Desert Kayak Trails, a transfrontier venture that will officially launch in early 2016, is the latest in the array of adventures on offer in the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Its base is Gamkab River Camp, a small, tented, eco-friendly camp, with hot showers and flushing toilets, that was built by the Desert Kayak Trails team. After overnighting there we’ve averaged about 10 kilometres a day, spending two more nights on the river at temporary camps set up by the support crew, who also transfer the overnight bags. Tonight, at De Hoop, will be our last evening before we take out at Donkiewadrif tomorrow.
I shall be sorry to leave. For the last three days there has been no contact with the outside world, no pesky cell phones nor email interrupting the peace and companionship. Time has been irrelevant. We’ve risen with the sun to see the rugged landscape bathed in golden light, the mountains reflected in the still water, then enjoyed a similar scene at sunset before dining out in the pink and purple afterglow of early evening.
This is not a high adrenalin trip. Most of the time the river is flat and meandering so you can lie back and enjoy the views, the quiver trees adorning the mountain flanks and the river life. Few of the rapids, which are never more than grade one or two, have names. Most are just entertaining wave trains rather than big drops or scary runs through rocks. But they’re enough to add an edge, particularly in the two-person Fluid Synergy sit-on-top kayaks, which tip if you get broadside to the wave, as we discovered when one of our party unexpectedly fell out of his boat on the aptly named Surprise rapid!
Our Transfrontier Park community guides, cousins Neville and Nicodemus Kooper, have lived in the area all their lives and are sensitive to our interests and pace, orientating us to the park’s landmarks, explaining the cultural history and pointing out birds that our untrained eyes failed to spot. The birdlife is exceptional. There’s a grey or goliath heron on almost every big rock and island, with white guano stains proving they are not occasional visitors.
In addition to three types of kingfisher we see fish eagles, darters, wagtails and, around camp, spurfowls (Cape francolin). The highlight is watching cormorants dive, then surface with fish in their gullets. Often their catch is so heavy that they can’t fly off so they dive again as we drift towards them. Unable to make its escape one spits out a huge mudfish, which Neville plucks from the water as the bird takes off.
As we approach De Hoop we pass a herder minding his goats. “The Richtersveld is a contractual park, owned by the Richtersveld community but managed by SANParks. The terms of the agreement allow stock farming,” Neville explains. “It’s one of the last areas in South Africa where one still finds traditional semi-nomadic stock farming.” Unsurprisingly, given the scorching heat of day, we see little game, though nocturnal rustlings at Richtersberg suggest the presence of rodents, spotted genet and grey mongoose.
Our last day is short so that we can transfer back to the border and catch the last pontoon over to Sendelingsdrift where we left our cars. The wind is with us so there’s no need to paddle. Rather we marvel again at how the Orange River, the lifeblood of the region, cuts a verdant swathe of green through this barren, mountainous desert. It has been a privilege to spend four days and nights out on a stretch of river that is not accessible to other commercial operators. This kayak trip is a soft adventure that I would heartily recommend to all lovers of wilderness. Easily accessible from both the South African and Namibian sides, it’s a perfect add-on to a trip to the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
How to get there: The put-in, Gamkab River Camp, is on the C13, about a 90-minute drive from Sendelingsdrift or 40 minutes from the Noordoewer border post.
Cost: R4 500 a person sharing for the four-day, four-night tour. This includes park fees, tented accommodation, all meals and soft drinks. Transfers from, and back to, Sendelingsdrift can be arranged at an extra cost.
Duration: Four nights, 40km. A two-night luxury option, overnighting at the gorgeously located and well-equipped Tatasberg Wilderness Camp, as well as day and half-day trips, are offered on request.
Difficulty: This is an easy trip that is ideal for novice paddlers, families and birdwatchers.
When to go: The kayak trails run year round, when there is enough water. September to April is probably the best and most reliable period.
Extending your trip: Try to factor in a few extra days to explore the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park before or after the kayak trip. Accommodation options include the campsite and well-equipped two- and four-bed chalets for self-catering at the main rest camp at Sendelingsdrift. Conservation fee for South African citizens R70 an adult, R35 a child, Wild Card members free. The park entry fee at Hobas (to view the Fish River Canyon) is R60 per person plus R10 per vehicle for SA citizens. Accommodation options on the Namibian side of the park include camping at Hobas and camping or chalets, as well as a spa, therapeutic indoor and outdoor pools, at Ai-Ais Hot Springs Resort.
Source: Wild Magazine