Dawn Kennedy and her two children, Jacob 12 and Tara 10, return wetter and wiser after a four day family adventure along the Orange River.
Copy: “Left, left!” I yell, seeing the rock approach – the one our guide has spent an hour instructing us to avoid at all costs. My daughter pulls with all her eleven year old might and after a few bumps and bobs we are spat out on the other side of the rapid. We hug and high five each other. It’s one of those perfect moments…
I have rat from “Wind in the Willows” to thank for this peak experience. I remember that wise rodent proclaiming, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
As my children approach adolescence and spend increasing amounts of time in shopping malls and on computers the memory of the slow, pleasurable pace of life along a river bank that Kenneth Grahame captures prompts me to look for a water adventure that the children and I could enjoy. The four day family trip along the Orange River in the Richtersfeld offered by River Rafters fits the bill and budget perfectly.
We arrive at the Orange River just as the sun is setting and are paddled across the river to the base Camp, under a full moon. My soul sighs as I sink into the peace and spaciousness around. However, that night, during the safety talk around the camp fire, I realize that we will not be “simply messing about in boats”, “Wind in the Willows style.” Indeed, no. We will be navigating rapids. None of the literature on the internet had mentioned that! I feel a surge of adrenalin and wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew.
The next day, as sunrise paints the river with pink and orange hues, we pack everything that we need for four days on the water: sleeping bag and clothes are squeezed into a waterproof barrel and snacks, juice and water packed meticulously into a cooler box. Instead of traditional canoes we are using inflatable boats called Crocs which are easier to clamber in and out of during the frequent swim stops.
Only a few hours into the trip and my hands and arms begin to shake with strain. I look across and see Annelise, another member of our group, red faced and sweating. She yells: “my husband told me we were just going to float down the river.”
The first rapid is aptly named the morning shower since it greets you on the first hour into the trip. It is great fun and we emerge on the other side confident and in good spirits. Too confident, it turns out, as on the second rapid I capsize: One minute I’m paddling through the river and the next I’m bouncing along the river bed getting bruised on the rocks.
I’m reminded of Eyore when he recounts falling into the river:
“Even at the very bottom of the river, I didn’t think to myself, `is this a hearty joke or the merest accident’. I just thought, `it’s wet’.”
This minor incident made me realize that the river must be respected.
Until then my major concern had been what we would eat for four days. I need not have worried. On the first night as we sat under a blanket of star speckled night, succulent roast chicken prepared by the lead guide and his assistant appears like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. Our appetites were in good hands.
I had determined to minimize my baggage as every extra item represented extra weight to row. In the end I went too far. I’d been advised that a tent wasn’t necessary and the idea of sleeping directly under the stars really appealed. However, my son hated not having a private space. Then, off-course, on the third night it rained and I spent ten guilt drenched minutes sheltering my shivering children under a tarpaulin.
We might have got wet but we did not get sunburnt as my concern to avoid this calamity had been pathological after listening to a friends description of the misery of being trapped in a canoe under the Namibian sun with burned skin. Consequently, I had browbeaten my family into such a terror of sun that for the first few days on the river, wrapped almost entirely in sarongs, we looked like a strange cloth-clad sect as we made our way slowly down the river.
It was hot. The sun beat down relentlessly. Anyone thinking about taking this trip must bring factor 100 sunscreen and a wide brimmed sun hat. A peaked cap is not enough for children- if their ears are exposed to the sun they will inevitably burn.
The combination of physical exercise and relentless heat makes dehydration a danger. I carried the required amount of water but at the end of the first day it was evident that my son had not drank enough. If you take this trip with young children you need to carefully monitor their liquid intake.
When our guide gave us a pep talk on how to navigate the biggest rapid I listened, ears strained, after my earlier mishap. The challenge with this rapid is to keep right until the last moment when you have to veer hard left to avoid a nasty rock and pop over the top of a small ridge.
Our guides wait at the river edge as we go down to our doom. In the event, two canoes in our five croc tribe capsize and the four occupants emerge downstream, shaken but not harmed.
Certainly for some parents the prospect of capsizing out of a canoe is not appealing, but for those with an adventurous spirit this is an exciting and ultimately safe trip.
River Rafters is the oldest river rafting company in South Africa and enjoys an exceptional safety record. Spokesperson Candice Jerling says the trip is “Guaranteed almost 100% safe. We have never had any life threatening incident; nothing more serious than a few scratches and bruises from kids playing.” Every trip is accompanied by a lead guide who has expensive first Aid training and considerable experience of the river.
The final strait
The hardest part of the trip is the long stretch of flat water known as the divorce strait, to be covered on the final day. My arms, already hanging like lead pendulums from my shoulders, began to seize up. My daughter, an ardent rower for the first three and a half days, went on strike and began to whine.
But every bit of muscle strain was worth it, everyone agrees, as we share our experiences over miraculously cold beers and cool drinks, at the camp on the last night.
Annelise and Coibus Pieterse came on the trip with their 2 boys’ cf (8) and Conley (6). Annelise is a teacher and admits to being unfit. She says, “I push chalk for a living and the rowing was much tougher than I anticipated. I’m finished; exhausted. But there was never a time when I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
Annelise says, “It was so worthwhile because of the quality time we spent together as a family. We were forced to spent time with our children under relatively stressful conditions. On the night when it rained, we took shelter under two crocs and it felt like the happiest time of my life.
For Thea Jonker the trip strengthened family connections. She says, ”As a family, it’s important to have a memory bank. Even though the boys (Juvan age six and Marcus age five) were too young to row effectively we made them believe that they helped. Because they didn’t feel like they were contributing to the effort at times they found the stretches of rowing a bit boring. However they never nagged: Water has such a calming effect. And they loved the camping.”
She advises parents to bring lots of high protein snacks such as biltong and nuts: “Although the meals cooked are nourishing, kids are fussy and might not eat the meals provided.”
River Rafters organises a 4 day trip especially designed for families. They offer trips throughout the year. September – April is considered the best time. However there are advantages to all times. In the summer, it’s very hot but the river is full and the rapids are the most exciting.
Over winter the water level is low but the river is quiet and you can really appreciate the solitude of The Orange River.