Words by Lisa de Speville, pics by Ray Chaplin
Two months ago Ray Chaplin began an ultra long-distance adventure with the aim of riverboarding the Orange River from source-to-sea. He slogged through the first section, dragging and carrying his Fluid Anvil riverboard and all his equipment and food from the source through Lesotho’s mountains. A week later he got on to the river, braving cold and frostbite to make quicker progress. Nine-weeks into this adventure and at the Gariep Dam wall, Chaplin is now 1 000 km into this 2 300 km adventure.
“From a tiny trickle to raging whitewater to slooooooooooooow, I've seen it all,” says Chaplin. The Orange River starts as a marshy expanse on top of the Drakensberg, filtering into a rocky stream that grows as it descends the highlands of Lesotho. Back in South Africa, the river is wide and shallow, filled with sandbanks and what Chaplin describes as “horrible, sticky mud”. That he has chosen winter for this adventure seems odd; cold versus warmth.
“While the river would be deeper and faster flowing - and A LOT warmer - in summer, the dangers from high water volume are far too risky, especially as I’m on my own. Rapids and strainers still exist, but the power isn't there so the danger that would usually be presented by these river hazards has pretty much gone. Now the cold is my biggest enemy!”
Chaplin classifies this expedition as “staged, with unbroken footsteps” as he regularly leaves the river to visit schools in nearby communities to speak to the children about litter and river pollution. And then he returns to the same spot to continue the journey - under his own power - by riverboard and walking, where the river is un-navigable.
“The response from schools has been amazing,” he says. “Schools have committed to regular river clean-ups and in Zastron the schools will hold an ‘Interschool Clean-up Competition’. I've visited a wide variety of schools – from township to private. The best response has been from the junior schools.”
Chaplin was recently in Cape Town for the African Marine Debris Summit (6 to 8 June 2013), which coincided with World Environment Week and World Oceans Day. He was invited to speak on his up-close observations of the river.
Since Mokhotlong, which is about 120 kilometres from the source, Chaplin hasn't travelled more than 100 metres without seeing waste in the river and along the banks.
“Bethulie was disgusting,” he remarks. “Raw sewerage was flowing directly into the river and with a strong wind blowing I could smell it from as far away as 10-kilometres upstream!”
After spending hours each day in the water, Chaplin has had some stomach issues and skin infections. “Many cuts and scrapes have become infected despite using disinfectant soaps and antiseptic creams daily,” he explains. This is directly related to water contamination.
The African Marine Debris Summit highlighted marine debris as an international concern. Pollutants - from cans and plastic bags, to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels - wash up on beaches and shorelines worldwide and can be transferred from one country to another via ocean currents.
Rivers too are links in this chain of pollution, as the trash and sewerage dumped and pumped into rivers ultimately ends up in the oceans.
And this is why Chaplin, in partnership with Plastics SA and Nampak, visits schools and communities located on or close to the Orange River.
“Adults and children in these communities have never seen an ocean. They’ve never been to the sea and so they are ignorant of the end effect of littering. For them, the river just carries waste away,” he says.
Chaplin shows the community photographs of the ocean and beaches; of birds and turtles trapped in plastic, of dead sharks, whales, seals and dolphins that wash up on the beach, their stomachs packed full of plastic bags and other man-made waste; and of litter on beaches, which is spread so thick that the sand cannot be seen.
“Some laugh, saying that I’ve staged or set up these images and that this is impossible. Others are shocked and horrified. Others connect the river-litter-ocean association with, ‘I’m killing these birds and animals’,” he explains.
After the Summit Chaplin returned to the river to complete the next 1 300 kilometres, which will take him to the Atlantic Ocean. He expects to complete this journey in August.
For more on the African Marine Debris Summit (6-8 June 2013, Cape Town), visit www.plasticsinfo.co.za
Ray Chaplin’s journey can be followed on:
In a Nutshell
Expedition: The Plastics SA Nampak Rigid Plastics Orange River Project
Adventurer: Ray Chaplin
Home town: Cape Town
Discipline: Riverboard (with hiking for the first 80 kilometres)
Route: Start from Mnweni Cultural Village (Central Drakensberg) and following the length of the Orange River from its tributary, the Senqu River in Lesotho, through the Free State, into the Northern Cape and to the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay.
Start date: Saturday, 6 April 2013
Expected duration: 4-6 months
Nature of expedition: Alone. Re-supply in towns.