Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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White water, Orange River

Dunking, dining and diamond-hunting -- thrills of a canoe adventure in South Africa

From mountainous Lesotho, close to the shores of the Indian Ocean, South Africa's Orange River runs west through mountains, farms and deserts to its mouth on the Atlantic. Its name could easily have derived from the orange glow reflected off the jagged desert mountains through which it has carved deep valleys. Shades of brown, pink and burnt umber contrasted with the deep blue water which reflected the turquoise sky, green grass and reeds along the riverbanks.

Our paddles whooshed through the river's mirror-calm water. Not too far away we could hear the roar of the first rapids.

"Life vests!" shouted Vanie, our lead guide. "This one is easy. Just follow my path. Four boat-lengths apart. All ducks in a row."

We gathered speed to manoeuvre, I concentrating on our paddle to steer, in response to Andy's shout of "port" or "starboard."

We were with a party of 13 South Africans, including three guides, on a four-day canoe trip down the Orange River, along the area where it forms the border of Namibia. Named after the Dutch House of Orange, the river reflects the strong influence of the Protestant Voertrekkers -- Afrikaners who, hundreds of years ago, crossed the deserts in ox carts to build a new nation and language under a burning African sun. The river is South Africa's longest. Along its route it runs through much of the agricultural heartland of the nation and its waters irrigate thousands of highly productive farms.

The base camp was a seven-hour drive north of Cape Town. Mohawk canoes were supplied, as was all the food. We brought tents, sleeping bags, clothes and personal gear. With everything stowed securely in watertight containers, it didn't really matter if we took a dunking or two: after a refreshing swim, everything dried quickly in the hot sun.

At midday we'd pull up to a grassy shore with a few shade trees. The guides erected tables, complete with tablecloths, for delicious salads, breads, cheeses, condiments and gallons of juice. We would all eat too much and feel like taking a siesta, but the stores were soon back in the canoes and we were on our way again. Now was the time to lay back and let the current slowly take us downstream.

Then, through our half-slumbering consciousness, came Vanie's voice. "Life vests everybody! This one is a little tricky. Head down the V formations into the breaking turbulence. Don't get over to the sides where the rocks are. Just follow me. Ducks in a row and happy days!"

Duck Duck Dunk
Some of us ducks got piled up on a big rock but managed to untangle ourselves and get going again. We all felt pretty good about reaching the other end without having smashed a hole in our canoes. At the end of the day, there was plenty of time to put up our tents, have a swim and freshen up in the cool water.

One evening, two guides, Vanie and Jacko, led us up a steep slope, high on a precipice, for "sundowners." Sipping wine, our eyes feasted on the red-pink sunset, mirrored in the dark river, which set the mountains to the east aglow. Far below, our canoes sat on the riverbank and smoke spiralled up from the campfire. Kira, the third guide, was busy preparing the evening's braii, a barbecue over an open wood fire, almost a daily ritual of South African life. There were sirloin steaks, garlic potatoes and cauliflower baked with herbs and spices.


We had brought wine bags to pass around the fire, and conversation flowed easily: stories and histories, memories and aspirations, along with regrets that so many of the group's children were leaving all this behind to seek a new life in other lands. Almara, an astronomer, pointed out planets and constellations. Lavinia and Terry told us about their work in the ongoing struggle for social justice. Robin sang Afrikaans sea shanties (work-at-sea songs) in his deep voice. We heard of canoe trips on the Zambezi where hippos sometimes plummet into the river from the banks high above, and stories of prospecting for diamonds and digging for gold. We went to bed under the brilliant mantle of countless stars, soothed by the gurgle of the river.

The next day it wasn't even close to lunchtime when Vanie beckoned us over to a bank. We could hear the loud roar of water ahead. Vanie wanted us to survey the rapids from shore and familiarize ourselves with the path through bends in the frothy water.

"First stay on the right-hand side, then, after the first bend, follow the V-formations in the middle. Make sure you get over to the left before the next bend -- but not too far over or you will be swept into that group of rocks. It's all easy -- happy days!"

We watched as Vanie took his canoe through the boiling water. Happy days? We weren't so sure.

Andy and I went first and, amazingly, came through unscathed. We quickly pulled over and scrambled up rocks to take pictures of the others. A few turned over and floated downriver beside their waterlogged canoes. But we all felt like heroes and talked that night about signing up for a white-water adventure on a wilder river.

Diamonds In The Rough
We met a herd of goats and two Nama herders. They were nomads, moving with their animals. The herds were a sign of civilization in the otherwise seemingly wild landscape. Diamond mines were another. We found rose quartz, fluorspar that glowed blue in the campfire and tiger's eye among the stones, polished by the river. Yuri, a Russian mining engineer turned up.

"Are you looking for diamonds?" he asked.

"No, of course not," we lied.

With a smile he replied, "There are hundreds of tons of pebbles in that pile of rock and we've checked every one. If you find a diamond you deserve it."

Mornings were cold and we warmed our hands against our coffee cups around the fire. While the mountainsides came to life in the orange glow of the sun, we helped ourselves to fried eggs and bacon or muesli and fruit. By the end of breakfast the sun had risen over the hills, beckoning us to new adventures.

"Port! PORT!" Andy's shouts made me paddle harder still, but I was going the wrong way! We crashed into a rock and got stuck. The next boat shot past us, then another. Andy stepped onto the rock and wiggled us loose and we continued without further mishap. Through the rapids all our attention had to be focused on the river, not on studying a Goliath heron perched on an outcrop -- though that's what we would have liked to do. There were many different species of bird fishing at the water's edge, not taking flight until we were very close. Sometimes we were alerted by a movement in the trees and would see families of baboons foraging along the shore.

At our destination a truck was waiting. We had a cold beer before being taken back to base camp. What had taken us four days of paddling, scraping and drifting took an hour's drive. But the drive couldn't even start to give us the pleasure and fun of our adventures -- the unintentional dunkings were enjoyed.

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