the orange river :: south africa

by mania

thumbnail of Celliers Kruger

I had the pleasure of interviewing Celliers Kruger about the Orange River, South Africas longest river. Celliers is the top dog at Fluid Kayaks in Parys, near Johannesburg. He is also the author of Run the Rivers of South Africa which was inspirational to me in seeking out this interview.

Interview with Celliers Kruger

[W.A.] The Orange seems to be a very long river (2245km). What sections would you recommend if you had two weeks and wanted the best combination of whitewater and scenery?

[Celliers] If you want to do one long trip of two weeks, your best bet will be Onseepkans to Goodhouse. This section goes through the desert, which makes for some awesome scenery. There will be a couple of long flat sections, but there are some very nice rapids (class 3 to 4 mostly) that make it more than worthwhile. The Onseepkans gorge specifically is quite unique. The river splits into two channels a few kilometers downstream of the Onseepkans bridge. The right channel stays fairly flat with one or two nice rapids, while the left channel drop into a gorge with class 4 and 5 rapids. After about two kilometers, just below the biggest rapids of the gorge, the right channel joins the left channel with an unrunnable waterfall. There are still fairly big rapids below the waterfall, really cool.

One thing to keep in mind is that it's always hot here, so it will be difficult to keep food in good shape for two full weeks. An option might be to arrange a re-supply at Pelladrif, roughly halfway.

The Onseepkans gorge has a special place in my heart, my wife and I did our honeymoon on this section. Just the two of us on a two man raft, taking a week to do a trip that normally takes four days. We are actually going back to this area later this month after Christmas to do a trip on the section just above Onseepkans gorge. The river is flatter on this section, but the scenery is still beautiful. We're taking our 15 month baby girl along on our oar raft, so we can't tackle a too difficult section this time.

[W.A.] What time of year would be ideal for optimal flows and temperatures?

[Celliers] The Orange is dam controlled, and all the dams are pretty full at the moment, so a good level can be expected any time of the year if you plan to come in the near future. Temperature wise, autumn and spring will be best. Although I've done an Onseepkans trip in the middle of the winter (July) as well, and it wasn't too cold. The days were actually quite warm, just the nights were a bit chilly.

[W.A.] What kind of experience would you recommend for someone attempting these sections?

[Celliers] If you want to run Onseepkans gorge and don't plan to run the main gorge (most people don't) you will run everything with class 3-4 skills. The river is completely of a pool drop nature with long flat sections, so less experienced paddlers can easily portage the bigger rapids. There are some interesting rapids in the Pella section as well, but nothing more difficult than you'll find below Onseepkans. Remember that this section is not just an adrenaline rush, it's a whole experience.

[W.A.] Tell us a little about the camping, wildlife and side hikes? Any hazards to look out for?

[Celliers] The river runs through a desert so there are not too many big animals. But there are many small animals and lots of different bird species. The fish eagles especially are quite a treat to see and hear. There are many side hikes you can do to explore the side ravines, and you have to climb at least one of the small mountains alongside the river to get a bird's eye view of the area. Apart from the main Onseepkans gorge, which you'll miss completely if you stick to the right channels, there are no serious hazards to look out for. There are also very few people in this area, chances are good that you won't see anybody else during the trip. The people that you do find in this area are always friendly in any case.

[W.A.] Where is the closest international airport? Is it possible to rent equipment and transportation?

[Celliers] You'll fly to either Johannesburg or Cape Town, and then catch a flight to Upington. From there you'll have to arrange shuttles. Remember that public transport is really bad in our country unfortunately, so you'll either have to rent vehicles or arrange your transport beforehand with somebody you know or with commercial operators. It won't be too difficult to get transport arranged though, I'll put you in contact with guys who can do that for you. As for equipment, it is possible to rent, but if it's a big group you might find it difficult to rent everything you need. I would recommend you bring at least all your gear and just rent kayaks here. It will most probably be Fluid kayaks, of course. :-)

picture of Augrabies Gorge
Augrabies Gorge, Orange River, South Africa

[W.A.] Do you think it will ever be legal to paddle the Augrabies Gorge? Is there any sort of pressure being put on the park authorities to allow this?

[Celliers] Well, I've paddled it legally a few times. The first time was when I did safety for the Camel Whitewater Challenge in 1999, we ran the section at a few different levels then because we arrived a few days before the river reached the competition water level. I've also run it again in 2001 when we did safety for a movie shoot, this time at a fairly low level. It's quite pushing at any level, really awesome.

Basically, if you can find a good enough reason to paddle the gorge, like doing a movie, it's possible to arrange permission. But if you're talking about legally paddling it any time when you want to, chances are pretty small. It's really a shame, this is a gem of a gorge. There is no sort of pressure being put on the park authorities as far as I know, only requests from a few commercial operators who are keen to take kayakers down the gorge. No luck yet though.

Okay folks, you heard the man. Lets put our thinking caps on. I know! We could make a movie where Kevin Bacon forces us to run the gorge at gunpoint. I'll play Kevin and I need someone to play Meryl. "I am a nice guy. Just a different kind of nice guy."

picture of Fish River
Look Familiar? Its not the Grand Canyon
Fish River Canyon, Namibia

[W.A.] I am intrigued by the Fish river in Namibia (the second largest canyon in the world and a tributary of the Orange). What time of year holds the best chance of running that river?

[Celliers] Only a few guys have ever paddled it. The river only comes up after heavy rain in the catchment area, and as you probably know, the catchment area is pretty much a desert. It will be very difficult to try arrange a paddling trip in the Fish canyon from overseas, unless you have lots of money and can book a ticket the moment the river is up. The rains do come in most years though, but not always at the same time. Bargain on one or two weeks when it will be possible to paddle, any time during our summer.

[W.A.] What other rivers or attractions are worth visiting while in the country?

[Celliers] There are lots of rivers to paddle, but not in the same region as the Northern Cape where the Onseepkans - Pella section is. Most consistent rivers are in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where there are all sorts of rivers to choose from. We've recently started to explore previously unrun rivers in the Transkei region and have done a couple of first descents this year. There are still a few rivers waiting for us, but it's very difficult to arrange transport, so it's not something I would recommend for your group. The Lowveld (in the Mpumalanga province) has some really good rivers of a technical nature, but not as consistent as those in KZN. The area around Cape Town has some world class creeks, but they are also very rain dependent and it's a winter rainfall area. There are plenty of attractions, depending on what you're into. Game lodges, ocean surfing, mountaineering, whatever you can think of.

Well that wraps it up. I hope to make it to Africa someday and run some of these rivers. As always you can contact me with feedback.

Resources

You'll definitely want to study up on this trip before taking my word for it. Take a look at this info before you buy that airline ticket.

Maps

Click on the markers from left to right to see the takeout, put-in and an absolutely amazing satellite view of the Augrabies Gorge.

Books

All of the books listed here describe parts of the Orange river as well as other rivers in Africa.

Run the Rivers of Southern Africa World Whitewater Whitewater: The World's Wildest Rivers
Run the Rivers of South Africa
Go Big Distributions (for US orders)
by Celliers Kruger
World Whitewater
by Cassady and Dunlap
Whitewater: The World's Wildest Rivers
by Graeme Addison

Websites

Fluid Kayaks - No hype just fluid.

Orange River - WikiPedia entry.

Augrabies Falls National Park - official website.