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FLAMINGO - In-flight magazine of Air Namibia

This 2000 km waterway rising into Lesotho and flowing towards the Atlantic, is rich in history and legend, says Dorian Haarhoff.

Most tourists flying to Namibia from the south see the Orange River as a narrow, silver strip, demarcating the South African-Namibian border some 25,000 ft below the plane. If visitors arrive by car, the river seems merely a stretch of water flowing under the bridge.


Yet rivers as mythical paths invoke a sense of journeying. One recalls with joy, for example, Mark Twain’s Hucleberry Finn and his adventures on river.

Southern Africa is not blessed with a navigable river such as Huck’s Mississippi. Yet there are a few river passages that invoke the same spirit of adventure. The 2000 km Orange River, rising in the Mont-aux-Sources in Lesotho and flowing westwards past wheat fields and diamond claims towards the Atlantic, is one.

It is rich in history and legend. The Afrikaner family who raided deep into Namibia at the beginning of the 19th Century were river brigands living on the islands of the Orange River. Adolf Luderitz, the German merchant associated with the founding of Luderitzbucht, sailed through the Orange River mouth in an attempt to make his way up-coast to the town of Angra Pequena (Luderitz), and he was never seen again.

One of the better known legends concerns a people escaping an aggressor. (Some versions indicate the Nama were the fugitives.) As they crossed the river, fleeing southwards, they looked back towards their homeland and were changed into Halfmens plants, forever gazing north to the land they left behind.

To Orange River Adventures (now Bundi), one of the companies offering four to six day river trips starting at Noordoewer, the Orange represents a different kind of consciousness. I was fortunate to experience such a trip down river in a two-person Mohawk canoe with a group of friends. The trip was lead by Louis Milne, who has journeyed along that stretch of river at least 150 times, and his assistant, Melt van Schoor. Both men are keen conservationists and attuned to the abundant wildlife that lives off the river system.

We arrived at the camp-site on a Sunday night in early September and set off on Monday morning after a grand breakfast, taking to the water in our life jackets. Our five-metre canoes were completely self-contained, carrying our needs for the five day trip – two sealed drums which acted as ballast at centre, and a drum at each end for personal gear. Strapped at centre was a coolbox with liquid refreshments. Our city shoulders soon settled into the easy swaying rhythm as we paddled in mid-stream, novices easily mastering the maneuverable canoe.

From Noordoewer to the confluence of the Fish and Orange we dropped into river time… time measured by the flow of the river from source to mouth… by the sun and waxing moon and by the Southern Cross. Our Mohawk moved through the wide river, then spun through rapids as the river narrowed and the water swirled around rocks. Most of us sank at least once as waves swamped the canoe. But our guides had prepared us for such minor misadventures and we soon re-floated and continued the journey. When the midday sun shone too fiercely we dabbed on the block-out and took to the water for a swim. Then we swam the rapids in life jackets and surfed through the white waves.

Beyond the green strip of river on the left side lay the stone Richtersveld desert, impressive in its antiquity. Here one sees crusts that were formed millions of years before man. Beyond the right bank lies the barren Namibian landscape interspersed with rich farmland both drawing life from the Orange. We pass plantations of sultanas and tomatoes and fields of Lucerne cultivated on the expansive farm, Ausenker.

There were times when we spent hours drifting to the current, in the guise of amateur ornithologists. We saw half-a-dozen Fish eagles, and were reminded of a fable retold by the Malawian writer, Kasiya Makaka, explaning why the Fish eagle is a lonesome creature. At a meeting, other birds who had been slighted by this magnificent creature decided not to talk to the snobbish Fish eagle as punishment for its behaviour. So Fish eagles now sing out their territory and hunt alone, without another bird in sight.

Being spring, we saw an African Shell duck with some six ducklings following frantically behind in her wake. Goliath herons with necks like question marks, Grey herons, cormorants hanging out their wings to dry, as well as the smaller weaverbirds, accompanied our trip.

There was also time to drift under the overhanging tree-lined banks in the cool of the day. River willows, Black ebony and Tamarisk created the temporary illusion of a mini jungle, while Wild fig clinging higher up to barren rocky slopes rose above the river reeds. On one occasion some of the party climbed an outcrop to view the Halfmens plant.

At noon, we stopped on the grassy banks for lunch and a siesta in the shade. Unlike the mad dogs and Englishmen of the popular song, we kept out of the midday heat. Then we took to the water once more. As the sun slanted, we beached our canoes for the night at one of the many camping spots, replete with a ringed rocky fireplace and grass embankments. As night approached, Venus, the western star, indicated our path for the next day.

Our evening task was merely to gather firewood uprooted by the floods of some few years back. Our guides turned out to be excellent yet effortless chefs who treated us to leg of lamb with garlic and herbs done in foil on the coals. Meals on other evenings consisted of Angel fish with Orange River potatoes (done in a black pot), sirloin steaks, fresh salad and apple crumble with crushed ginger biscuits. Then, after tea or coffee, the evening opened out – time for anecdotes and perennial jokes by the fireside till we slept in our sleeping bags to the distant roar of rapids, snorers separated from the closet snorers, to wake with the calls of the birds. In the morning our hosts served an English breakfast, on one occasion including kippers and seed bread.

In places we passed fishermen trying for barbell and Yellow fish. Some anglers dry the barbell and sell them up river at the village. On one day we landed and walked a few hundred meters to find an abandoned feldspar mine. The feldspar, used for coloring glass, makes a brilliant fireworks display when thrown into the fire. The stone glows for a moment, then green-blue sparks fly. On another occasion we passed a diamond claim with a rusted license stuck amid a clump of rocks. The air was thick with the ghosts of old prospectors searching for elusive fortunes.

On the last day we paddled reluctantly towards the waiting truck and trailer. For five days we had looked at neither watch nor mirror. We loaded the canoe and were transported back to Noordoewer for the last night of camping at the Orange River Adventures campsite, set in the farmland along the river.

The next day we parted from our guides. They had a day to prepare for the next group. As we traveled back to Windhoek, all the members of our party concurred with a sense of well being: for fathers bonding with sons and mothers with daughters, for friends and family, for anyone aged seven to 70, this is a river trip worth taking; a memory stored for the days when we relive old times from our rocking chairs.

Parties can vary from six to 30 and the season runs all year round, with the exception of February, when temperatures soar. Timely booking is advisable.

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