Fiona McIntosh needs little persuading to paddle a new kayak trail on the Orange River as it runs through /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey
“My dad saw the advert at /Ai/Ais Hotsprings where he works for Namibia Wildlife Resorts,” Nicodemus Kooper tells me when I ask him how he became a river guide for Desert Kayak Trails. “All you needed to apply for guide training was a passport and to be able to swim. I was working at Shoprite in Karasburg so thought it would make a nice change. I love nature. I didn’t enjoy working in a shop.”
Nico was one of 16 applicants accepted for the guide-training course, which started in March 2014. Most of the training was at Sendelingsdrift on the South African side of the Park – the almost 6 000km² /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is an amalgamation of the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa and the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Game Park in Namibia. There they worked on their swimming and kayak skills with Andrew Kellett of Gravity Adventures based in Cape Town. Nico recalls, “Then we did a five-day river trip down the Augrabies Gorge. That was serious!”
Five guides made the final cut, and we gather with them for a briefing on the Namibian bank of the Orange River at Gamkab River Camp, a permanent tented camp that serves as the base for Desert Kayak Trails. As they outline the tour for the next couple of days, teach us the basics of paddling two-person plastic kayaks and go through safety procedures, it’s clear that the guides know their stuff and we’re in for a treat.
Briefing over, we take to the water and drift downstream in Nico’s wake, gradually getting the hang of synchronised paddle strokes on a long section of flat water.
A Fish Eagle cries from down river prompting us to reach for our binoculars. The bird life is amazing. I’ve done numerous other river trips, most recently down the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River, but it always amazes me how alive and rewarding the Orange River area is. And since only Desert Kayak Trails has permits to run this previously inaccessible section of the /Ai/Ais-RichtersveldTransfrontier Park, it is a privilege.
Nico lifts his paddle, the signal for us to stop behind him. After a quick recap on technique and safety we run our first rapid one boat at a time. We all make clean runs but Shaen and I almost topple over as a small wave catches the side of the boat. It’s a good lesson not to get too complacent.
As we relish the jaw-dropping natural beauty of this rugged landscape on the next flat section, Marion Siebrits, a veteran of five Orange River trips who is with our group of four for her sixth adventure, says, “I just love this place. I celebrated my 50th birthday, and my daughter’s 30th, on the Vioolsdrift to Aussenkehr section. This part of the river’s course is very different to upriver. The mountains there are higher, and the changing colours of early morning and evening are more pronounced. But this section is just so pristine. And here we have the river to ourselves and can see the park from a different perspective. I feel that we’re going where no man has gone before.”
Marion can’t remember how many times she’s been to the Richtersveld over the years. “I love the wide-open spaces of this park; it’s such a beautiful part of the world. But I always feel humble. I know that this is not my place. The people living here have such wisdom. They need it to survive in such harsh conditions. That teaches you respect. Life here is simple, uncluttered. There are no communications; it’s inaccessible. I’m constantly reminded that if I don’t listen to nature I will be taken out.”
The river is talking to us. There is a rapid ahead. Nico slows down and explains how we will run it. We follow him, negotiating a big rock midstream and then whooping with glee as waves splash over our boat. There’s nothing big or intimidating on this mellow stretch but the riffles are fun and refreshing.
“People who come with cluttered heads have to relax up here,” Marion tells us when we pull up on a natural beach. “It’s a great leveller. And it’s timeless. The strata in the rocks and the deep potholes in the boulders of the river’s edge have been here for aeons. You have to take off your watch and just let the rhythm of the day dictate the schedule.” Nico and guide Neville Kooper prepare lunch and we swim and study the bird book before bumbling our way down to Tatasberg Wilderness Camp, our home for the night.
We had recently finished the punishing Richtersveld Wildrun® and had had our fill of camping so opted for the most upmarket of the Desert Kayak Trails, a three-day, two-night trip. Tatasberg, which sits among vast granite boulders, is a real spoil, but even the standard, fully catered, four-night trail – with overnight stops in temporary riverside camps – is luxurious. Tents and the boma are set up for our arrival, our overnight bags waiting and top-quality meals served on ‘proper’ crockery.
Seth Domrogh, the hut attendant, greets us and helps carry our bags over the boulders to camp. Hailing from the nearby settlement of Kuboes, he was one of the labourers who helped built the Tatasberg chalets in 2002/3. As we tell him about our sightings, it’s clear that Seth is not just passionate about the mountain desert that he calls home, but is also a fundi on the natural history of the area. After completing a conservation course he worked as a freelance guide in the park, before taking up permanent employment in 2012 as a gate guard, nursery assistant and then hut attendant. He’s happy to be an ad hoc guide if guests are interested, so we eagerly sign him up for a guided walk the following morning – our chill day off the river.
Built in similar architectural style to the Kgalagadi Wilderness Camps, the beautiful canvas and reed chalets of Tatasberg look onto the Orange, and the rugged mountains of Namibia. Each is roomy and well-furnished, with en-suite bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen and a spacious wooden deck with a braai. Marion is impressed. “No slumming it on this trip then,” she notes with delight, extracting a bottle of ice-cold Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler box.
After a fascinating outing with Seth we spend the remainder of our second day reading, dozing and lazily appreciating this oasis in the wild, remote park. As we sit out with our sundowners, ducks fly over in formation and the rugged peaks become black silhouettes. The first stars appear in the darkening sky. It’s idyllic.
On the final morning we hit the river early to enjoy that golden hour before the sunrise. The journey follows a similar pattern to day one – occasional rapids interrupting our gentle float down South Africa’s longest waterway.
Having just explored the park on foot we’re interested to see it from a different angle. For the most part we are silent, lost in our own worlds and, as we approach the take-out, I realise I haven’t checked the time, my phone, or my email for three days. I’ve just gone with the flow and feel refreshed and content. It’s going to be hard to return to ‘civilisation’.
Up to it?
- This is a mellow trip that requires no paddling experience and is ideal for novice paddlers, families, birdwatchers and anyone needing time out. You paddle about 10km per day.
- The standard trip is four days, four nights but shorter, three-day, two-night trips overnighting at Tatasberg Wilderness Camp, as well as full- and half-day trips, are offered on request.
When to go
- The trails run whenever there is water (most of the year). September to April is usually the best and most reliable period.
How to get there
- Gamkab River Camp on the C13 is about 90 minutes from Sendelingsdrift or 40 minutes from Noordoewer border post.
- The Richtersveld National Park hospitality manager, 027 831 1506 [email protected], or Francois Snyders, +264 81 2088 083, [email protected]