The longest dirt road in South Africa is the R355 between Ceres and Springbok via Calvinia. Sharp stones and stark isolation (there are no towns or fuel stations on the route) have given this stretch of road a reputation as the stereotypical “dangerous shortcut”. Break down here and you may be spending the night in your vehicle. There’s no cell phone signal and passing vehicles are almost as frequent as rain in the desert.
It was on this road that our journey began. With a K2 Kayak on our roof we made the perfect juxtaposition to the dry and waterless landscape. Juxtaposition: an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. What a great word to describe this adventure that we had embarked on. My paddling partner, Stu Maclaren, and I had signed up to do the Green Kalahari Canoe Marathon in South Africa’s Northern Cape. Derived from the Tswana word Kgala, meaning "the great thirst", the Kalahari is one of the hottest and driest regions in South Africa. Vast areas of red sand, low preciptation and the absence of permanent surface water are a few of the things that qualify this region as a desert. It’s harsh, arid and probably isn’t the first place you would expect to do a paddling race.
So what makes it possible to do a 3-day canoe marathon in such a place? Well the answer is the mighty Orange river, South Africa’s longest river. Rising in the Drakensberg Mountains, it flows 2200km westward across the country, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The Orange supplies the majority of South Africa’s water and plays a vital role in supporting agriculture, mining and industry. For Upington and the smaller satellite towns in the Kalahari region, the Orange is life. Without the regular supply of water that it provides, they simply could not survive.
We were indeed only racing on small section of the Orange between Upington and Khamkirri, a camp just above the Augrabies falls. Small being a relative word, it was still going to be 100km over 3 days. Neither Stu nor I had done this race before, so we had no idea of what to expect. Lucky I was able to get some valuable input and advice from my good mate Jasper Mocke, who won the race last year.
Jasper talked me through the obstacles and channels on the river via Google Earth. If you’ve ever looked at a map of the area you will notice that the river splits into a maze of channels in certain areas, like the branches of a quiver tree. Go down the wrong channel and you will be kilometres away from the right line and risk missing the finish completely. Not having time to trip beforehand, I had a feeling that racing this river blind was going to be tricky.
Our first look at the river was on Wednesday afternoon at the end of our 9-hour drive from Cape Town. A lower than usual water level meant that the granite boulders that usually line the riverbed were sticking out like hippos in a drying up watering hole. It was a maze of boulders, channels and flat pools. There wasn’t much flow to speak of and the air was dry. Racing in these conditions was going to be tough.
We lined up on Thursday morning next to some very competitive crews. Dusi Champions Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi, the doggedly evergreen Graham Solomon and his equally tenacious partner Ivan Kruger as well a crew with probably the best knowledge of this section of river, Louw van Riet and Luke Stowman. There were also two crews from Europe, most notably the Czech crew of Michael Odvarko and Kamil Mruzek, who both have world championship medals in whitewater paddling. Kamil is the current World Champion.
It was apparent from the start gun that this Czech crew was a professional outfit. While the rest of the field headed right into the first portage, about 800m after the start, the Czech crew headed off to river left. This was the only section that Stu and I had managed to trip and we waxed the portage, sprinting off to the first bridge prize 1 km downstream. It was only 500m out from the bridge that we realized that we weren’t in fact in the lead. Having been in Upington a few days before, Micheal and Kamil had done their homework and found a much faster line on the left. They now had a 50m lead on us and took the first bridge prize.
Their lead was short lived however. They got stuck on a very low weir 500m after the bridge and the rest of us managed catch and pass them by shooting the weir on the right. The rest of the day was much of the same. With there being so little water and a myriad obstacles and channel options, it was a day of limiting mistakes and marking one another. To make things more difficult the milky coffee colour water disguised submerged rocks and sandbanks so well that you only knew about them after making contact. The lead group fluctuated so much that it was difficult to keep track.
The main break happened at a portage a few kilometres from the end of Day One. We got away with Graham/Ivan and the Czechs and before we knew it, the finish line was in sight. It was a sprint for the line with Graham and Ivan narrowly taking it. More importantly the three of us had opened up a gap on the rest of the field and it was most likely that the three of us would be doing battle on Day Two.
The highlight of Day Two was a decent into the Neus Gorge. But before that we had to contend with many of the same obstacles we faced on Day One, plus two rather long portages. The longest being 1.6km. I was worried about our boat. She’s a veteran of quite a few canoe marathons and was taking strain on the low river. We’d had to do some repairs after Day One and I knew that it was likely that we were going to get damage on Day Two as well. I realized that managing the damage to the boat was as critical as every other aspect of the race. We decided to play things as safe as possible. The importance of this decision came to light when Graham and Ivan suffered a race-crippling gash to their hull at about the half way mark on day 2. This was a cruel blow and ended the chances of an overall win.
Neus Gorge is an experience like no other. The river narrows into a corridor framed by massive granite walls that rise up out of the water like a dragon’s back. Water that was once slow moving and sluggish, boils and swirls as it is forced through a rocky tunnel of jagged edges and sharp bends. There are some awesome but tricky rapids in the middle of the gorge. It was at one of these rapids that we lost touch with the Czechs, a tightly snaking s-bend with a narrow exit between two boulders. They took advantage and opened up a gap of 80m. It was then a flat out chase to the finish. The narrow gorge meant that we only caught glimpses of them as we zigzagged our way out. At the finish of Day Two they had 50 seconds on us. It was going to be a difficult task to dent that gap on Day Three, especially with a batch start.
Day three was almost like starting a new race with everyone starting together in a batch. It was frenetic from the start gun with crews jostling for positions like they do on a 10km dice. The bunch was again large with 7 boats up front. We made some silly mistakes and lost touch with Graham and the Czechs at the major portage over a large weir at Marchant. Some damage to the boat and tired arms meant that we weren’t in it for the end sprint on the final day but we were still able to hold our overall position of second. Graham and Ivan had a great day taking the stage win and the bridge prize. Thulani and Sbonelo came second with the Czechs third on the day.
What a privilege it is to a paddler in South Africa. We are a group of a few who get to really experience wilderness in our country. They say paddling is not a spectator sport; well I kinda like it that way. The most prevalent spectator on the Orange River is the Fish Eagle and the closest you will come to a cheering crowd is the hiss of cicadas on the riverbanks.
My thanks must go to the charismatic Gawie Nieuwoudt who had the vision and drive to bring this event to life. His passion for this region and for paddling, is the driving force behind the event. The rest of the GKCM team, thank you. I have never felt more welcomed at a canoe race before. I must also say thank you to the Northern Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism. They know what they have in this province and it is great that they are so excited on sharing it with the rest of us. Also thank you to Protea Hotels who sponsored accommodation for us in Upington and my company Holdfast for again allowing me the time off to follow my passion of canoe racing.
Sign up for next years race. You wont be disappointed!