The vast open spaces of the Northern Cape in South Africa are breathtaking. Not in the way a Renaissance Cathedral in Rome, or your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon would do it, but rather a slow realization that here you need to calm down and breathe, or somehow be out of place.
The vegetation is sparse and desert like, with scraggly bushes eeking out a life virtually devoid of water. Koppies of granite and great boulders steam on the landscape in perpetuity and serene, seemingly endless vistas, devoid of man, draw the eye.
But simply add water and this outwardly inhospitable land sustains crops of all kinds. Huge vineyards stretch to the horizon and fruit of every variety thrive. The small towns are quaint splashes of green against the backdrop of the desert and the local people friendly and relaxed.
Then through all this runs South Africa’s largest river, the mighty Orange.
A mate of mine, Eddie, who likes fishing, called to ask where I thought he should take a group of 14 male friends (myself included) to celebrate his 60th birthday and enjoy a bit of fishing along the way. After considered thought, I suggested he do the 4 -night canoe trip down the Orange River below Augrabies Falls. I had been down this stretch some years ago with my whole family, ranging in age from 6 to 60, and then been back twice since to fish and film there.
Given that the Seychelles trip I also mentioned would have cost him a couple of million Rand, Eddie grabbed at this far more reasonably priced option like a hungry Pitbull snatching a steak off the braai. At less than a fifth of the cost it’s not surprising really.
One call to Craig Eksteen, owner operator of Kalahari Outventures (KO), who has exclusivity on this section of the river, and it was all set up.
Eddie couldn’t pay the deposit fast enough, especially when I mentioned Seychelles again in passing.
As the August date drew closer there was a flurry of activity on the Whats- App chat group set up for the purpose. Warnings were posted regarding whistling in front of spouses while packing, and thoughts concerning how much a case of whisky weighed, given that space was at a premium on the boats, were bandied about. More consideration was given to the potential problem of disappearing ice than at the last global warming summit. There was even the odd mention of fishing tackle.
A jaunty bunch of Joburgers in large SUV’s fetched me at Upington Airport. I had used the far more comfortable option of flying Airlink from Pietermaritzburg via Jhb, leaving in the morning and arriving before lunch. As all tents, chairs, cold boxes and food are provided, flying is definitely worth considering, especially if time is tight. A transfer of around an hour and a half is easily arranged with KO.
We meandered our way to Augrabies, past vineyards and farm stalls, stopping only to check on the ice in the cold boxes and for a delicious lunch at Vergelegen Country House in Kakamas, a town not much bigger than a large TOPS at Spar bottle store. How they managed to serve 15 (our numbers had grown slightly) hungry men who descended on them with no warning, and to do it with panache and humour remains a mystery. But if you’re after superb Karoo lamb and hospitality, in the local vernacular, “maak a draai”
We drove through the town of Augrabies- but I was opening a beer and missed it.
We weren’t stopping, but fortunately I’ve seen the spectacular 60-meter waterfall named after the town before. With immense water pressure ripping through a narrow 240 meter high gorge its busy creating – it’s well worth a turn.
Due to the dithering of 4 truckloads of semi-inebriated males of all ages, we were now racing against the sun beginning to set somewhere over Namibia. It behooves a gentleman to be seated with a wee dram to hand at the going down of the sun-I was sagely advised.
Accordingly, in a billowing cloud of dust we finally arrived, in good time, at the well-appointed self- catering farmhouse Craig uses as a base for his trips. The fire was set in the boma looking onto the golden orb dropping away in a blaze of orange and purple captured all around in the dust hanging over the immense barren vista.
Since I last did this trip, Craig has added to his fleet of old canoe’s and now also uses the more spacious and stable Ark type inflatables. Fortunately, we were issued these and early morning packing began.
This was an amusing scene as us city dwellers suddenly realized we had space only for the bare essentials and needed to make the heart wrenching decision on which of the 3 sweatshirts and 4 pairs of underpants we brought all this way should be left behind. It was essential to allow space for the whisky.
Finally, locked and loaded, we meandered by vehicle through vast vineyards and date plantations, arriving at the broad expanse of the river as if to an oasis in an Arabian desert. A quick safety briefing and the motley crew staggered onto their boats and wobbled away onto the water like newborn ducklings. Ugly ducklings, I might add.
3 days of fun, laughter, camaraderie and friendship ensued on that river. Stopping to fly fish in likely looking rapids and holes along the way, then pulling up on a sandy beach in time for sunset and making it home for a night where the galaxies sparkled overhead and the fire crackled with good cheer. With the help of the excellent and willing young river guides camp was set and good hearty food prepared. Other than the odd scorpion there are no dangerous animals to worry about, which is an unusual sensation on a remote river in Africa.
We did not see another human being for 3 days. There are few places left where that’s possible.
The water was colder than the Smallmouth Yellow fish we were after prefer when feeding, yet this fishery is so protected by distance and its custodians, that every single person (including some novices) on our trip caught fish on fly. The Orange River this far down is clean enough to drink and clear enough to see the vast numbers of fish moving below. Long may it last.
So Eddies birthday on the Orange was memorable in every way and I was reminded that this region of Southern Africa is a jewel, much like the rough diamonds that enticed men here in the first place.
Seriously, if you’re planning a family excursion, a bunch of friends on a break, or a proper fishing trip, consider this fun option….
It’s really hard to beat.