Canoeing on the Orange River in South Africa

While we were in South Africa, our tour through Drifters included a two-day canoe trip on the Orange River.

We used a company called Felix Unite River Adventures, which included staying at their campground overnight in preparation.

orange River canoe trip

The company campsite we used before and after canoeing down the Orange River

Our tour of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe had a whopping 8 people on it. We spent three weeks really getting to know everyone, and we were lucky enough to make some lasting friendships on this trip.

Any tour less than 25 people, we find, is best, if you want to get to know people on a more personal level. We had to clean together, in some cases bunk up together, cook together, and the best part, we got to eat and drink together:

Making lunch in South Africa

Food: the universal language that binds us all together.

In 1779, Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutch explorer and commander of the Dutch East India Company, named the river after the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange River is the longest river in South Africa at roughly 2,200 km, snaking its way through Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa. The river eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean between Namibia and South Africa. But we were only going to explore a short length during our two-day journey.

canoes on the banks of the Orange River, South Africa

Our canoe trip included a one-night stay on the banks of the river. The big white buckets in the photo below? That’s where we stored our overnight bags, gear and personal snacks for the trip. The buckets protected everything from getting wet.

Canoes packed for Orange River canoe trip

All packed up and ready to go!

I’m actually not a big fan of being on the water. But the canoe trip wasn’t exactly optional on this tour, since we were canoeing for two full days before returning to our base camp. Luckily, we went in September, which is the dry season, so the water table was low. This eased my anxiety a lot.

Canoeing on the Orange River, South Africa

In several spots, the water table was actually too low. More than once, our canoe dragged on the rocks on the river bed and forced us to a complete stop. Mark had to get out a few times, in ankle-deep water, to give our canoe a push. This made for a very leisurely ride though, and we got to see some beautiful scenery. See the wavy lines in the hill just below the bird? That’s nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint”.

Orange River God's Thumbprint

Beautiful views of nature were all around us.

We also experienced some unexpected local wildlife along the way:

cow standing in the Orange River

The rare and deadly River Cow. Just kidding, it’s just a regular cow. Mooo.

Despite its length, the Orange River actually doesn’t boast a great variety of fish species.  A survey conducted in 2011 only identified 16 species of fish, including yellowfish, rock catfish and river sardines.

When we stopped on the banks to set up camp for the night, we had to unload all the buckets and get our gear. We didn’t bring tents either, just sleeping bags. It’s surprising how chilly it can get along the river once the sun goes down.

unpacking by the Orange River

Everything we needed for the night was packed into those white buckets.

Once we got a bonfire going it was a bit warmer, but it caused a new set of issues: the men decided to burn a huge tree branch without breaking it up first. Then, when they realized it maybe wasn’t such a good idea, they dragged the tree back out of the fire. This caused sparks to shoot into the sky, and one ember landed on someone’s sleeping bag, burning a large hole into it. Well, live and learn, I guess.

We only experienced a few very minor rapids that first day. And with the water levels being so low, it didn’t amount to a lot of speed or excitement. By the end of Day One, I was feeling pretty good about doing it all over again.

Canoes on the Orange River South Africa

The second day was a much different experience, however. There was one particularly nasty spot with a large boulder protruding from the water, at the precise location of a sudden dip in the river.

Our tour guide warned us that the boulder acts like a magnet and will pull our canoes towards it, causing many to overturn. So he instructed everyone to paddle away from the boulder for all we were worth.

My fear of water gave me the adrenaline rush I needed to paddle like a maniac. There was no way I was going to fall in!

Mark and I paddled frantically as we approached the boulder, pushing away with all our combined strength. There was a split second where I’m convinced we became airborne as our canoe dropped down the rapids. But our synchronized paddling gave us just enough counterpull to steer away from the boulder. We managed to stay dry and not tip the canoe!

We rowed to the banks to await the rest of the group in case anyone needed help. About half of our 8-person travel group weren’t as lucky as we were. Many canoes overturned over the drop. Hats, sandals, and sunscreen were lost in the rapids. But no one was seriously hurt, just a few minor bruises here and there.

Orange River canoe trip group

The whole group together. We all made it back alive!

After all that excitement, we were all starving. So we stopped along the river bank for lunch. While we were back on dry land, we took a few snaps of the amazing plant life growing along the river. Look at the spikes on those leaves!

thorny flower along the Orange River, South Africa

After a few more hours of canoeing, we reached the end of our excursion. We all hopped out of our canoes at this rocky shoreline and dragged the canoes out of the water. By this time, we were all tired, a little sunburned, and ready for a sundowner.

waiting on the banks of the Orange River, South Africa

We had to wait a while for our ride to come pick us up, so we walked around and explored the immediate area. How amazing is this landscape? It almost looks like volcanic lava flows.

Orange River landscape, South Africa

Overall, canoeing on the Orange River was a very memorable and enjoyable experience. I’m glad I didn’t let my fear of the water stop me from trying this amazing adventure! In fact, I’d love to try it for a longer journey, because at the end, I was really getting into it!

Orange River canoe trip Felix Unite

All good things must come to an end. Off we go, back to our campsite to prepare for the next adventure!

Several canoe companies offer equipment rentals and guided tours along the Orange River. I’ve listed a few below, but this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means:

Felix Unite River Adventures

Umkulu Adventures

Orange River Rafting

Amanzi Trails River Adventures

Leave a Reply