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I Paddled A Canoe 65km Down Africa’s Orange River & Realised Camping’s Not That Bad

I Paddled A Canoe 65km Down Africa’s Orange River & Realised Camping’s Not That Bad

Amazi Trails tour on the Orange River in Namibia

I don’t camp.

I grew up in rural NSW and spent a large chunk of my childhood and teenage years swimming in rivers and sleeping in swags. But as an adult, I’m more a splurge-on-a-fancy-hotel than a go-off-the-grid type of traveller.

But when two of my closest friends invited me and about 20 of our mates on a canoe trip down Africa’s Orange River before their wedding in Cape Town, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — one that I’d kick myself for missing, whatever my feelings about camping.

So, having crowd-sourced a good chunk of camping equipment from colleagues and friends who do this for “fun”, I set off for South Africa.

Just down the road

Our group was to make its way down the Orange River under the guidance of the folks at Amanzi Trails River Camp. The main camp and starting point for the four-day trip is in Namibia, just over the South African border and about a seven-hour drive down — I kid you not — a single highway from Cape Town. I could count the number of turns we took on the way there on one hand.

After passing through immigration, we settled in for dinner and a couple of Windhoek beers, which come cheap in these parts — ZAR220, or about $2 — at the main Amanzi Trails camp.

The Amanzi Trails camp on the Orange River in Namibia
The Amanzi Trails main camp

While visitors can elect to stay in cabins at the main camp, our overly enthusiastic group took the all-camping-all-the-time route, so we set up our tents and settled in for the first of five nights under the stars.

All aboard

Our first morning on the river kicked off around 5:30am, thanks to a combination of jet lag and some chipper native birds. After indulging in our last shower for several days spent under the hot African sun, our guides — Chris, Saki, and Saka (who would come to be affectionately known as Captain Jack Sparrow) — loaded us and all our worldly belongings into a fleet of 12 two-person canoes.

Amazi Trails guide on the Orange River in Namibia

Given the size of our group and the fact that the guides travelled solo in order to transport the equipment necessary to keep us fed, one person was flying – or, rather, paddling – solo.

After a brief lesson in steering and rock-spotting, we were off. In vessels like these, the person sat at the back (generally the heavier of the two and, in this case, me) steers, while the person at the front is responsible for rock-spotting. My friend and I executed both with varied success over the course of the next four days, thanks to the thousands of rocks scattered along the riverbed and an over-inflated belief in the strength of my abs.

The Amanzi Trails camp on the Orange River in Namibia
Look at me go!

With nothing to compare it to, I expected a Lazy River-type experience — that we’d crack a couple of Windhoeks and be swept the 65-ish kilometres along the river to the pick-up point, emerging relaxed and sun-kissed four days later.

While I wasn’t necessarily wrong about the trip’s potential for relaxation (being forced out of reception and off your phone in the middle of the southern African wilderness does wonders for the mind) and ability to bring out my freckles, I was surprised by how physically demanding the paddling was. While it’s not the hardest thing you’ll ever do, long days spent paddling between camps (around 15km per day) mean some level of physical fitness and endurance is required.

Amazi Trails tour on the Orange River in Namibia

Days were punctuated by long stretches of paddling where the river was wide and the current weak. It was tough going at times, but any discomfort we felt was quickly replaced by exhilaration at successfully navigating a particularly rocky rapid without capsizing or the wonderment of spotting a family of baboons congregated for bath time on the banks of the river.

Up a river with a paddle

You read that right: we encountered more than a dozen rapids on the Orange River, navigating each with varying degrees of success. Early on, there’s the aptly named Entrance Exam rapid (our entire fleet passed, if you were wondering), followed by the somewhat disconcerting Dead Man’s and Rocky Horror rapids, among others.

A few boats tipped, others (mine) caused traffic mayhem when they became wedged on the rocky river floor in shallow water, and a couple even made like Robert Frost, taking the road – or, in this case, fork in the river – less travelled. (Rest assured, they were rescued by Captain Jack while the rest of us took a nap on the riverbank.)

The Amanzi Trails camp on the Orange River in Namibia

It could – and probably should – have been an absolute disaster, but bloody hell it was fun.

All the gear and no idea

I learned pretty quickly that a camping trip – especially one of this magnitude – is made or broken by one’s access to the right stuff. Not in the metaphorical sense, but in the very real access-to-toilet-paper-and-sunscreen sense.

The Amanzi Trails camp on the Orange River in Namibia

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Fortunately for us, the team at Amanzi Trails lead wildly unqualified folk like me safely down the Orange River year-round, so they have stuff like the transportation and cooking of food nailed. I never thought I’d enjoy seeing anyone make toast, but when you’re up at daybreak and waiting for breakfast on the banks of a river in Africa after a night spent on a sleeping mat less than a centimetre thick, you appreciate the slickness of the operation Chris, Saki and Saka were running that little bit more.

Equipment like tents, beach umbrellas, camping chairs, sleeping bags and mats, plates and cutlery, and toiletries, however, were our responsibility, and we got pretty good at strapping various pieces of camping paraphernalia to our canoes wherever they would fit. A hat, sunscreen, a long-sleeved shirt and pants, reef shoes, and sunnies (with a strap, unless you’re happy to lose them if you end up in the drink) are absolute necessities when the temperature regularly reaches 40 degrees and above, and so were rightfully given prime real estate.

Oh, and say it with me: wet wipes are your friend.

Take it all in

The best thing about being forced well and truly out of our comfort zones on the Orange River was the appreciation we got for Africa’s astounding natural environment. There’s a special kind of perspective that comes with seeing stretches of sandy desert or rocky, moon-like landscapes from the water – one that everyone should make time to experience in their lifetime.

The Orange River in Namibia

Better still were the evenings spent drinking beers around the campfire as the sun sunk behind the mountains, followed by nights sleeping under the stars.

I wouldn’t say that the experience has converted me to a life spent off the grid, but it’s one I won’t soon forget – even after my freckles have faded.

Amazi Trails tour on the Orange River in Namibia

(Images courtesy of the groom, James Stirzaker)

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