“I hate these swirly things” - an invisible hippo monster surges from beneath the depths and violently sucks at our kayaks, testing our newly acquired and still fairly precarious balance to the limit. It is January 2000 and what better way to begin the millennium than travel down a mighty river such as the Orange from “Zastron’ bridge to Aliwal North.
After involving almost the entire municipality of Zasron in storing our boats, we encounter further warmth and hospitality from the Ottos at Mayaputi (a reserve right on the banks at the bridge). Boats and all, we head off riverwards on the lodge’s 4x4. While Joey and I come to terms with just how limited space is in the kayaks, Mr. Otto systematically digs his 4x4, then back-actor into the treacherous, treacle like mud
The maiden voyage begins: - my boat launches itself and solos full seam ahead into the fast flowing current. Joey’s boat is firmly stuck on the bank, realization takes a while and I dive, splash deck and all, and swim like a demon after my errant craft. Mr. Otto has little faith in us after this spectacle and shakes his head at us ‘vroumense' But soon it’s just us paddling into the sunset
The river is murky, swollen and fast flowing from recent heavy rains. It winds its way through the first of many gorges and eddies and whirlpools continuously boil and seethe on the surface. The sky becomes ominous and we camp on a high beach. We relish the solitude and simplicity of our surroundings and celebrate with beers and supper on a huge warm boulder. The storm breaks, rain and wind lash at our tent and threaten to demolish it. Unwilling to drench our only dry clothes, we rush out naked into the blinding rain seeking some rocks to anchor our shelter.
Day two and we are are familiarizing ourselves with our crafts and our new relationship with the river. Accelerations and rapids we wouldn’t even blink at in a raft or a crocodile seem like grade 5s and more. Being almost level with the water surface we feel very vulnerable, We opt to portage several accommodating obstacles and only just cope on the flats with the bubbling vortices.
Camping seems like a brilliant idea, we do as we please, what power, we feel like queens! We spend the afternoon trying to orientate ourselves on a map we didn’t have! Nevertheless we felt that we had conclusively found our site and feeling pleased as punch, we star-gazed and fire-gazed the night away.
Day three and the boats begin to feel more like an extension of our bodies and we move as one with the river. The sun bakes down relentlessly and rocky cliff faces are silhouetted against a vivid blue and cloud-streaked sky. Our map reading skills improve dramatically when we finally paddle onto the maps that we do have. Fortunately the river direction helps reduce many possible permutations! The landscape flattens out and the river becomes lake-like in the last 30 kilometers or so. The sides are fringed by willow and poplar trees and we are lucky the levels are high and thus remain unhindered by the notorious sandbanks on this stretch.
We take out just before the weir, leave our boats in someone's garden and start the long arduous hitch back to our car. Looking like wild women fresh out of Joubert Park, we were extremely grateful to Telkom for a lift, otherwise we’d still be in Rouxville!
In fact, all of our various encounters with locals gave us a small insight into their lives and left us with a really warm feeling. Unaccustomed to river trips in such a small unit, with just the two of us to rely on each other, we were conscious that the margin for error is narrow. This consequently led to a heightened awareness and alertness to the environment. But if the learning curves were steeper, the sense of freedom and peace were also greater.