The Maluti Meander
How will I survive without my Blackberry? Was it a mistake to leave it under the seat of the car at the guesthouse in Zastron?
Already I miss its blinking red eye telling me that someone wants to chat or that I’m missing something desperately important on Facebook. It sounds pathetic, I know, but many of us feel this way. We’re trapped in the nine-to-five daily grind and we’re always available.
Well, not for the next four days; I’ve made myself unavailable.
Ruvan and I are about to experience the white waters and wilderness of the Orange River as part of a group of guides and paddlers exploring a “new” section of the river on twoman inflatables, known as crocs. Our starting point is around the corner from the Tele Bridge border post between South Africa and Lesotho.
This trip promises to be a real adventure. No operator has done a commercial trip on this 94km section of river before. 94km? Don’t worry, when the route is opened to the public later in the year it will cover a shorter distance.
Our group leader, Andrew Kellett from Gravity Adventures, has paddled the route before. In 2006 he was a member of the support team for six people who swam the length of the Orange River. And I thought we were crazy.
The rest of us have no idea what lies ahead. How wild are the rapids? Is there a waterfall somewhere? Where will we sleep?
More worryingly, however, is the snow on the peaks of the Maluti Mountains. It’s mid-June and it’s frostbite cold. Gravity wants to launch this route in summer, so we have to freeze our bums off now. The things a journalist will do for his readers…
So here we are, a group of 15 paddlers in wetsuits, with beanies pulled low over our ears, ready for action. Bring it on!
A whole new world
The most important part of the paddling safety talk is learning the cocktail position: If you get separated from your croc, float on your back and your life jacket will stop you from sinking.
“Imagine you’re lying back with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other,” says Ant Hoard, one of the guides.
My hands are turning blue; it’s certainly not strawberry daiquiri weather.
The other paddlers in the group are a varied bunch: Ian is an apple farmer, Eugene and Sarel do complicated sums at Absa, Leith exports flowers, Rinnet is an entrepreneur, Mickey is in the army and Elsabé is a tour operator. They have one thing in common, though – they all look much fitter than I do!
Fortunately this isn’t a race. The focus is on chilling out. Literally.
Each croc has dry bags that we’ve filled with clothes, a tent and sleeping gear. We tie the bags to the croc. This will become one of the rituals over the course of the next few days.
A paddling trip like this is a heck of a logistical operation. Besides the dry bags, we’re also carrying a cool box and a blue tub with the ingredients for our meals, which the guides prepare. “Rasta Pasta” is scribbled on our tub.
We’re out on the water now. Sloop-sloop go the paddles. For the first 2km or so we paddle on the Tele River, which joins up with the Orange so sneakily you almost don’t notice. On the right is Lesotho, on the left the Eastern Cape.
The source of the Orange is 550km behind us in Lesotho, where it’s known as the Senqu.
The water under my croc has nearly 2000km to go until it spills out into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay.
There’s time for reflection on a trip like this, especially once you and your paddling partner find a rhythm. There’s not much to do besides paddle, talk nonsense, look around and think.
Right now I’m thinking about my previous paddling trip, also on the Orange, but on the well-known Richtersveld section between Noordoewer and Aussenkehr. It was 2007, the silly season between Christmas and New Year, and there were hundreds of crocs out on the water. Some paddlers were dressed up as pirates and swiped at each other with their paddles, yelling “Arr!”
This trip is radically different: new mountains to gawk at and no other paddlers on the water. The only sign of a human presence in the landscape are the shreds of plastic tangled in branches high up on the river banks, carried downriver earlier in the year when the Orange came down in flood.
Later we see cattle and goat herders on both sides of the river. Surprised to see us, they shout “Molweni!” on the Eastern Cape side and “Dumelang!” on the Lesotho side. Xhosa and Sesotho, two cultures and countries separated by a ribbon of water.
We paddle for about 12km before we call it a day and pull the crocs up onto a sandbank.
We’ve been paddling into the wind, but the current is strong and the going has been relatively easy.
We perform the unpacking ritual: Open the dry bag, hang up the wetsuit, pitch the tent and put on warm clothes, while the guides erect a Bedouin-style tent that will serve as our kitchen and living area, light a cooking fire and prepare coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
After a spicy chicken stir-fry, we sit around the campfire until late in the night. It’s cold, but nothing some Old Brown Sherry can’t cure. The river boils a few metres away, the fire crackles and sparks flash in the dark.Close
Today we plan to paddle about 20km. The wind died down during the night and the sun is breaking through the clouds.
You’d think you’d get bored paddling for kilometres on a flat river, without the excitement of rapids with names like Big Bunny and Sjambok. Not at all. The sloop-sloop rhythm gives you something to do while your mind goes wandering and the landscape unfolds like a 3D screensaver: weeping willows, poplar trees, aloes – an entirely different world to the rocky Richtersveld section of the Orange.
Mickey is desperate to see a fish-eagle and I often catch her looking up into the blue; Sarel and Eugene have picked up a small frog, which rides on the nose of their croc like a ship’s figurehead; Leith is standing on the back of his croc – it looks like he’s cruising down a canal in Venice.
One of the more bizarre encounters happens a while later: A woman wearing a bright red headscarf runs down the slope towards us, beside herself with excitement.
One of the guides gives her a carton of milk as a present. She hugs him, then whips out her cellphone so they can exchange numbers.
Who would have thought?
After lunch, we bake in the sun like dassies. When we push our crocs into the current again, it hits me like a gong: Paddling is a form of meditation. The repetitive motion, the focus, the discipline. It’s pure Zen.
Not everyone attains nirvana on a river, however. Around the campfire later (after a plate of Rasta Pasta, which turned out to be an amazing tomato pasta with almonds, garlic, olives, bacon and peppers), Andrew tells us an anecdote about a Chinese couple who went on a paddling trip in Swaziland.
The route ended between a big rapid and an 18m waterfall. The Chinese couple couldn’t speak English very well. They misunderstood instructions and didn’t stop after the rapid.
Instead, they paddled on and plunged down the waterfall!
Luckily they both survived. Afterwards, soaking wet, all they could say was: “No more wappid, no more wappid…”Close
I unzip my tent flap and peek outside. The landscape is white with frost. More heads pop out of tents and look around in wonder.
Apparently it got down to -6°C last night!
All the things that remained out in the open – dishcloths, wetsuits, toothbrushes and even two bottles of Ina Paarman spices – are encrusted with ice. We shiver around the fire and wait for the sun to crawl over the hill.
All you paddlers who camp here in summer, please observe a moment of silence for us, the guinea pigs.
Today’s paddle kicks off with some excitement: our first white-water challenge, a high weir with a big wave. We stand on the bank and watch the water.
“My will is in my inbox,” Sarel says.
It’s not too hectic, though, and we all bounce over unscathed.
The plan is to paddle another 30km downstream. After the weir, the river levels out again. Sloop-sloop. Lesotho is behind us now and the right bank of the river has become the Free State.
Mickey calls out excitedly. She has finally spotted her fish-eagle! With wings spread wide, it soars low over the crocs, a fish clutched in its talons.
“Now my trip is perfect,” she says.
One of the perks of paddling a new route is naming the landmarks you pass. We stop for lunch near a big boulder that juts from the mountainside.
“Welcome to the Hard Rock Café,” says Ant while he and his team chop stuff, spread butter on the bread and unpack the preserves.
Later in the afternoon we glide beneath the steel bridge over the Orange that we crossed en route from Zastron to the starting point a few days ago.
The current is strong and fast, and soon we drift into a narrow gorge where 20m-high cliffs tower over the river. Andrew gets naming rights this time; he dubs it “Lava Gorge”. Good one.
Later, we gather around the fire as the smell of roast lamb rises to meet our noses.
It’s not nearly as cold as it was the previous nights. The river flows past peacefully; above us the stars flicker in the sky. Ant is keeping an eye on the lamb. He’s been a river guide for 10 years. “I wanted more than a gap year after school,” he says. “In my yearbook I wrote that I wanted ‘a gap life’.”
River guides tend to be hippies at heart, but to do your job properly you need to be disciplined and have an exceptional work ethic. If I have kids one day, I’ll send them to work on the Orange for a year after matric.Close
A short cut to calm
A BlackBerry? What’s that? Can you eat it? The swift current is making the last 30km to the farm Kromhoek as easy as can be.
We float along, paddles resting across the pontoons. “It’s like lying in a hammock,” Elsabé calls out.
The scenery on the river banks has changed. On the left, the Eastern Cape side, hundreds of aloes stand guard on the arid hills, whereas the Free State side is covered in dense riverine vegetation. Willows in shades of winter yellow quiver in the breeze.
We make short shrift of two rapids in the afternoon and paddle against the wind for a while before we drop anchor at Kromhoek farm. Neels and Marianna van Rooyen are waiting for us with a coffee pot on the coals and home-made rusks.
Mission accomplished. It was only four days, but if feels like I’ve been unplugged from real life for much longer. Our group of recce paddlers all want to do the route again, but preferably in summer this time.
Standing on the back of a bakkie on the way back to Zastron, I watch the Orange River fade to a thin stripe in the distance. In some ways, a river journey like this is also a personal journey. A short cut to calm.Close
Know before you go
Best time to do the trip:
January to April is the best time, but you can do the trip at any time of the year if you can get a group of 16 or more people together (except Easter weekend and New Year, when the Gravity staff are busy elsewhere).
The starting point:
Home base is the town of Zastron in the southern Free State, about 50km from the Lesotho border. We stayed over at the Mountain View Guesthouse in town. Camping is included in the cost of the trip, but if you want to sleep more comfortably book a room – it costs R350 for two people sharing.
Call 051 673 1040
What to pack:
Gravitywill send you a complete pack list. The basics are a tent, a sleeping bag, sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, drinks and snacks.
R3500 per person. This includes camping at Zastron for two nights (before and after the trip), all equipment, meals, dry bags, plus transportation between Zastron and the river. Ask about family packages and group discounts – school groups of 20 people or more pay R2200 per person.
go! covered all of Erns and Ruvan’s costs.