Are adventures always about adrenalin? Joey Monson describes paddling through the Richtersveld - a really good way to calm down.
So often trips are planned for their extreme quality - can we go the highest, or the furthest, or the fastest - and just sometimes it's a treat to use all those fine honed exploring skills to ease ourselves into the remotest parts of the country for the uncomplicated thrill of total quiet and isolation.
In April 2001 ten of us set off to paddle on the Orange River, specifically the 140 kms from Noordoewer down to the Fish River. The river runs along the South African - Namibian border through the Richtersveld and apart from the silence, at first there seems little else but rocks! Yes, rocks! Of every twisted melted shape and size possible.
At first all these towering toppling rocks are hard to take in. It's like those 3D pictures that you have to look at in a certain kind of way to get the depth in the picture, to see the space around what you are looking at. In the Richtersveld, that space seems to be filled with the silence and stillness of millennia. Some of these very same dramatic formations started thrusting themselves around not so long after the world began -- we're talking about 1996 million years ago! There's something about ancient that's truly awesome. Our "strutting and fretting", as Shakespeare penned it, and even the violent trials of our era, put in the perspective of eternity.
Winding its way through this topography of the ancients is the Orange River on the last lap of its 2 300 kilometer journey toward the ocean. The Orange creates an oasis from the relentless heat intensified by being reflected from the rocks, and of course provides a sanctuary for all kinds of bird and beast and plant life.
There's the stuff that's hard to miss, like the Giant Heron or the baboon swimming in family groups across the river. Then there's the stuff that's not so obvious. Graham Williamson, Richtersveld guru and author of The Enchanted Wilderness published last year, calls his chapter on the invertebrate fauna in the area "fairy shrimps, minute butterflies, lethal scorpions and bizarre beetles." Tiny life forms evolved over centuries to the intense climate and geography. This other stuff is like the 3D picture again, you need to learn to look between the spaces -- lichen steeped into the rocks, strange star shaped flowers or a tiny succulent in an inch of shade.
Certainly the Orange River gorge is the only place we mere mortal humans are able to survive for very long in this environment. On the river swaddled up against the sun and snugly sealed up a kayak, it's easy to feel like a new kind of astronaut cocooned in a tiny fragment of time holding your breath for the next spectacular vista, which is so stark it could almost be from another planet.
Our own sun rages like one from a far flung galaxy and settles into a hot red glow in the afternoon but at evening time the shifting light reveals colours so fragile and transientory. Mysterious purples suffused into a pinkness and expanding into the falling temperature. Suddenly there are shapes written in the rock such as you've never seen before. And then comes the night exposing a milky way so thick and creamy that it does seem to be the "back bone" of the sky as the Khoi, early inhabitants of this area, liked to explain it.
Surely there is no more profound or simple pleasure than curling up under the stars, listening to the river slide by and the vast stillness of the night stretching toward eternity. Even now, and surely for the millennia to come, not much happens to break the silence in the Richtersveld. You can hear your own heart beating on the horizon and then merge into the shimmering light.
WHAT HAPPENED TO CARLOS?
There is nothing like being stuck in the middle of a very hot nowhere to get the old cognitive juices into a slaver. After 6 days on the Orange in the Richtersveld, we had put out at the confluence with the Fish and arranged with Carlos at Felix Unite to come and collect us and our kit (for a fee). For whatever reason there was a mix up around the time we were to be collected and in the three hours we waited for our pick up, imaginations started running wild. It was in this highly creative time that Joey Monson asked each member of the crew: "What's happened to Carlos?"
· He's distracted by his tourists - we're low priority (Heidi)
· Maybe he had trouble with the road or maybe he's just late (Costa)
· He was keen to get here early…. so he was driving along in the dark, then a space ship landed with Elvis in and took him away - when we do drive back we'll see the burnt out crop circle…. (Tony)
· Tourists got swept away on the Orange and he had to go and rescue them….(Mariam)
· The whole world has exploded and we're the only ones left! (Joey)
· He's got stuck on a strip of road between here and Vioolsdrif….the River has washed the road away on both sides and he's driving back and forth … gradually the vehicle becomes bogged down and ……(Jono)
· We've pissed him off somehow - anyone got a sheep we can sacrifice? (Paul)
· I don't know where he is, but I know where I'd like to be -- a worm in his genetic make up! (Ken)
· It's just "Africa"! (Adrian)