New Year’s Eve spent canoeing down the Orange River in Namibia for 4 days.
Here’s my story of Namibia – for those who care (Shout out to World Of Heroes SA for providing us with GoPros with which to illustrate the tale:)
America is freezing in a winter that makes the Game of Thrones writers look into the nibs of their pens, in bemused awe – searching for the magical ability they possess to have indeed made ‘the winter come’.
Down here in ‘Africa’ (I don’t know why I put that in commas, maybe to emphasise the ‘Africanness’ that ‘Africa’ embodies to the rest of the world. Deserts, jungles, lions (and tigers. shudder) and the solitary fly placed on our faces) it is summer. Obviously. Do they know it’s Christmas time in Africa? No Band-Aid, your song is right – there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas. Get an Atlas. Keep your snow, Northern Hemisphere. We’ll take our ‘Africa’ any day. Extended holidays in summer time, Santas in sandals and red, green jolly ice-lollies will prevail here.
Not being content with the scorching (sometimes windless) days of Cape Town, my room-mate Siv Ngesi and I packed up our essentials (including my Argentinian) into the air-conditioned luxury of Siv’s Audi and headed north. To the desert. The ‘AFRICAN’ desert. In Namibia. That’s like not even SOUTH Africa, that’s REAL Africa.
We are off to NAM. *cue the Flight of the Valkyries music* I love the smell of lip-balm in the morning!
(ok, ok, I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek – for now.)
Honestly, the drive isn’t that bad from Cape Town to Namibia at all. It’s closer than most places in South Africa are to Cape Town – it’s only 7oo odd kilometers. And I mean that ‘odd’ literally. Have you SEEN Springbok? (the town not the team) No? Well, you might have actually passed through it, but blinked at the time – so yes – you’d have missed it.
We didn’t miss it. Springbok offered a VERY welcome pee break for me (it sucks being a girl and needing to pee on a road trip through the desert… “we’ll just stop at the next bush for you to go behind…. oh… there are none. Cross your legs.”) Springbok offered an interesting pit-stop for our final ‘South African essentials’ like bottled water, bottled alcohol and bottled food. BOTTLED FOOD!? Yeh, ok – just normal food. Alright, not normal food. Candy! Fine, whatever. But I was liking the whole ‘bottled’ theme.
People in the local Spar even recognised Siv (of course they did, he was wearing his “I’m on TV” t-shirt. – No he wasn’t. Yes he was. No, he really wasn’t. Or was he?) He was mostly upset that The Town That Time Forgot wasted money on Dstv subscriptions. “These people shouldn’t know who I am. Spend your money on getting out of this place, not on satellite TV!”
We retreated into the safety of the air-conditioned Audi escaping (what we thought couldn’t get any hotter) the hottest heat ever and (what might have been) the start of the zombie apocalypse. We continued on our northerly voyage, singing along to the Twilight – Breaking Dawn Soundtrack on repeat (yes, really).
Arriving at the border, on opening the door – each passenger greeted the air with the most South African of expressions: “Yoh!” followed by a more emphatic “YOH!” and a panicked glance at each other.
It was HOT. Like, HOT. Like, ‘my eyes are burning and the air is making me feel like it hates happiness’ kind of hot. Also known as 47 degrees celsius. Halfway to boiling. The South African border control is (obviously) more thorough and (surprisingly) more friendly than the Namibian side despite the fact that the Namibian side has air-conditioning (please, nobody tell the SA side that! They might strike – if they can muster the energy to move in the warm air that is getting displaced from one part of the room to the other by that rickety fan.) The SA police sized us all up before stamping a piece of paper that said we had 3 people in our car, to give to the border patrol guy. (Pro Tip – they don’t check the boot*. So anyone wanting to smuggle humans out of the country – there’s your gap. Oscar Pistorius; you might want to look into this.) *Boot is a trunk for my Northern Hemisphere readers (assuming you could dust the snow off your laptop to read this.) Boot is not a shoe. Cars don’t need shoes; they have tyres. You’re welcome.
After enough paper work to make the rain-forests cry, we were on Namibian soil.
Sarcasm aside, Namibia is beautiful. It really is. It’s this vastness of nothingness that both humbles and calms you. (Calms you, as long as your car isn’t breaking down – then I think it would evoke the opposite of ‘calm’)
We arrived at the Felix Unite River rafting company base-camp and it was more like a frat-party. New Year’s eve with throngs of canoers returning from their trips to relax into the last party they’ll ever have in 2013. We were directed to our guide, who was a very relaxed Malawian by the name of Moses. (No one shared my delight at the irony of Biblical Moses being found in a basket on the river, and this Moses making his living by paddling alongside bulrushes in a river – although granted, PROBABLY not the same river… But I was satisfactorily delighted all the same.)
Moses had a quick wit and a too round and jolly a belly to belong to someone who makes a living from being fit enough to paddle down a river on back to back trips for weeks a time. He quietly told us all we needed to know, in a manner that made you aware he was probably quite used to prima-donna tourists complaining a lot. “It probably won’t be, but sometimes, at night it gets windy, so if that’s going to annoy you, you’d better buy a tent.” He seemed to relax into us when he realised that the three of us wanted some (tame) ‘adventure’ and the notion of sleeping under the stars appealed to us more than keeping the wind off our delicate little heads might have. Moses informed us ‘You sleep on the floor, under the sky, and in this desert, you’ll see: it’s a thousand star hotel.’ :) I enjoyed that. Moses usually works in the white water rapids of the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe, but it wasn’t season for that so he was working west, in Nam*. He was used to much more challenging adventures than a few submerged rocks and gentle rapids, so we were in safe hands.
*(Hey Namibia, you should be more upset that Americans gave ‘Nam’ to Vietnam. it’s the END of the word. You’ve been robbed, Nam. Or, ibia.)
Moses told us everything we needed to know about ‘where on the grass we could put our sleeping bags for that night.’ Like homeless people. Like a colony of a hundred homeless people. Where the shops were, how to get ice and what the POA for the morning was. We stood, vigilant like school children, trying to focus in the heat. Wishing the ice would arrive sooner than “the morning” and that there was more shade to sleep in than “when the sun sets”. The one thing Moses forgot to tell us about, almost poetically – because discovering it ourselves was measurably sweeter – was the massive swimming pool overlooking the river vista!!
We couldn’t dive, face-first, into the water fast enough. (Well, actually – we did pause to buy ice-cold beers in the shop.) But then it was beers, water, music from the nearby dance-floor already pumping for the evening’s countdown and shortly afterwards, canapes of food delivered under some trees! The holiday had begun. Proper.
(Pause for a movie-montage style photo moment. For full effect, hum Mungo Jerry ‘In the summer time’ whilst looking at these.)
The midnight countdown was heralded with top 40 music, lots of cheering and an impressive display of fireworks. (Guilt-free fireworks, because there aren’t any suburban dogs to torture with the bangs.) I couldn’t resist kissing my Argentinian during the display and whispering ‘I hear fireworks when we kiss’ – He rewarded this with a monosyllabic ‘ha!’ My comedic talents are WASTED on him, WASTED I tell you! ;-)
The next morning was a race to beat the unforgiving sun in a bid to be packed up and relaxed before the rays hit us. And an amusing display of one of the other river guides attempting to rouse his (previously very rowdy and now very hung over) group of ‘party animals’ to embark on their trip. They sat up mumbling profanities, with lumo paint still caked in their hair and in half-rubbed-off tribal designs on their bodies. I realised I’d gotten old when I was relieved that we weren’t part of this group. Five years ago I’d have been disappointed.
The rest of our 26 persons group was made up of a couple on their 29th anniversary (aw!) an entire wedding party. The bride an expat South African, the groom a New Zealander – both living in London, so the group was made up of Saffas, Kiwis and Brits. In my opinion, the bride and groom had a pretty awesome omen, not only in the fact that Brenda and Rob were on their 29 year anniversary – but that the very same restaurant that the Argentinian manages is where their wedding was going to be a week later. And he’d be working their wedding. Strangers we were, no-more.
After a brief demo on how to steer a canoe (peppered with enough dry wit to make me very pleased) what different sounds and signals mean, and how best to navigate rocks in rapids from Moses – our rowdy group shimmied the canoes into the river. Our home for the next three days. The stronger paddler at the back, the more shrewd (navigator) at the front. We were off like bumper-cars. Finding our water bearings, and still finding it novel to paddle (an action that would make our tired shoulders wince in days to come).
The river can be summarised as: Amazing views, fun rapids, warm water to be jumped into and splashed at passing canoes (and then bailed out of canoes with sawn off water bottles as make-shift buckets) and a great training ground for teamwork and arguments as couples navigated rocks. (There is even a section called ‘Divorce Straits’ because of it’s arduous paddling in the hot sun – making couples fight. I’m pleased to say, the Argentinian and I didn’t fight – at THAT part of the river. But some hilarious miscommunications lead to a few ‘ughs!’ and tongue clicks. We’re that sickening couple who forgets a fight 3 minutes later, and were high-fiving smugly on our ability to navigate the rapids so successfully (somehow blissfully forgetting the tension). The rest of the group would say ‘oh here come the power-couple’ every time we’d paddle effortlessly past, with only a touch of malice in their voices. I’m convinced we had a German engineered canoe, with a faster cruising ability, because our ability to paddle faster than people like Siv defies the laws of physics (and egos).
Siv and his ‘luck of the draw’ partner were a source of much amusement, proving that Siv didn’t have all that much ‘luck’ in this draw. Somehow their paddling never seemed to sync and they were a flailing egg-beater who’s only true course appeared to be ‘directly into any rock’. The distant (because they were always far behind us) sound of Siv yelling “left, left, LEFT, LEEEFT!!!!!…” followed by the crunch of rocks into fibre glass was the soundtrack to most rapids. Oh Siv, ever the comedic relief. Even against his will. lol.
The sun is the enemy, and if you’re considering doing this trip in summer, my main advice would be to take light cotton, long-sleeved shirts bandannas or buffs for your face, as wide a brimmed hat as possible (but not one that comes off in a breeze… a dorky tie under the chin will probably help) and sarongs to keep damp and drape over your legs. No one looks cool on the river. What happens in Nam, stays in Nam – and on the internet – forever.
We bathed in sunscreen, running through 2 bottles in 2 days between 2 people. Everyone was so bundled up from the sun, that around the campfire at night I wouldn’t recognise people without their hats and bandannas on. Brand new faces I’d never seen before.
Moses and his team of river guides fed us like kings (Roast chicken with rosemary and roast Lamb), with the promised ice in our cooler-boxes making water and beer heavenly. The outside temperature was so warm that beer quickly lost its chill and so had to be downed pretty fast. Needless to say, evenings were jolly.
One of the highs for me was on the last night, when Moses had decided that he liked our group enough to teach us some traditional Malawian folk songs around the camp-fire. But first, he insisted that we offered our own songs into the mix. After a bit of coaxing, the Kiwi-men agreed to perform the Haka. Due to their initial hesitance we assumed that they probably didn’t know the moves, but when Moses (filled with unbridled childhood glee) told them that it would be the first Haka ever performed on the river and repositioned himself to get the best viewing vantage point on the other side of the bonfire, the Kiwis committed hard. Ripping their shirts off and topless, in the firelight – executed a near perfect Haka. Faces glistening in the firelight like the Maoris of old. (Watching the joy on Moses’ face during this haka will forever make my heart smile.) The South Africans countered with our national Anthem (which a lot of the expat Saffas only really joined in with half way through – when it got to the languages they knew. Tsk tsk.) And then, under infinite stars of the milky way – satellites and the occasional shooting star, Moses taught us songs about school children apologising for being late to class due to the river being too fun to swim in, chants to taunt the rapids from your boat to tell them you’re not afraid and a song literally translating to ‘You are wonderful, you are amazing’. Malawians are a beautiful hearted people.
The title of this blog What’s your favourite colour? Orange! is born from the aforementioned party-hooligan-lumo paint wearing group of boozers who were also on the river, under the other guide. We would sporadically find ourselves paddling past them as they haphazardly dotted the river, usually stuck in reeds along the side, always ‘woo hooing’ and always downing shots together. Some of these hoarse voiced girls waved to us from their place, jammed in the bulrushes and yelled out “What’s your favourite colour?” and then “ORANGE!” and then a few more ‘woo hoo’s’ (woohoo is drunk girl speak for ‘my daddy didn’t love me’.)
This same group of party revelers were right behind our group on the worst rapid of day 2, known as the Sjambok (African whip). It’s not ‘dangerous’ it’s just ‘wavy’ and most canoes took on too much water from the waves crashing over the boats, thus sinking, flipping or tipping. You store your things in water tight buckets, that get strapped into the boats, so sinking is not to serious, the buckets act as flotations (and keep your things dry) but there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam to collect from the random things on board, and much bailing out to be done.
About 4-6 boats in our bevvy of 12 happened to capsize in the Sjambok rapid, and whilst we were still helping bail out those few, catching water bottle and rescuing the magic cooler boxers from the rapids, we heard the tell-tale ‘whoo hoos’ of the other group… ALL OF WHOM tipped over in the rapid. None of whom cared.
After 3 nights, lots of laughter, a few arguments and too many rocks… We managed to make it out alive, with minimal sunburn – 3 mosquito bites (one of which was ON MY FOREHEAD) and lots of stories.
And thank you to @WOHZA for the Go-Pros to make this illustrated blog possible.