About the Orange River

More about the Orange River

The Name

The Orange River, also known as the Gariep, Groote and Senqu, is the longest river in Southern Africa with a total length of 2200 km. The colonial name of “The Orange” was given to the river in 1779 by a Dutch VOC official, Robert Jacob Gordon, who named it after the Dutch Royal House of Orange in honour of William V.

The Flow

The source of the Orange River is at 3000 m above sea level in Lesotho in the beautiful Maluti / Drakensberg Mountains. Here it is known as the Senqu River, where because of the high altitude it often freezes during the winter months. From the escarpment, the river flows westwards through South Africa.

Major dams on the river include the Gariep Dam (the largest dam in South Africa) on the south-western side of the Free State Province and the Vanderkloof Dam 130 km further downstream.

After leaving the Vanderkloof Dam, the Orange River flows south-west of Kimberley where it confluences with the Vaal River near Douglas. After the confluence it flows in a north-westerly direction and then moves through the southern Kalahari where 100 km downstream of Upington it tumbles over the Augrabies Falls. It meets Namibia in the Karas-region, passes through Noordoewer / Vioolsdrif and flows into at the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay (South Africa) / Oranjemund (Namibia).

The Climate

The western section of the Orange River has an average annual rainfall of less than 25 mm. The summer temperatures usually average 38 – 40˚C with the climate being very dry and seldom humid.  In the winter months, usual day-time temperatures range from 22 – 25˚C with night-time temperatures between 5°C and 12°C.

The Economy

No economy can survive without water. The catchment area (basin area) of the Orange River covers 973 000 square kilometres, 81% of the total area of South Africa. It therefore plays a major role in supplying water for the following:

  • basic human needs in both urban and rural areas
  • agriculture
  • hydro-electric power
  • mining
  • tourism

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was conceived to supplement the water supply in the Vaal catchment area. Water is supplied from the Katze Dam via tunnels to the Vaal Dam to service the highly populated urban areas in Gauteng and the North West Province in times of drought.

Further downstream, the Gariep Dam was built in 1960 as the integral part of the Orange River Project. With a storage capacity of 5 340 000 megalitres (one megalitre is equivalent to one million litres), this dam is a reliable water source for cities in the catchment area. Water is also tunnelled to the Eastern Cape Province into the Fish River catchment area.

The Vanderkloof Dam, 130 km below the Gariep Dam, is the main storage area for the drought-ridden lower Orange. Hydro-electric power is also generated here, with this scheme having the first plant in South Africa built entirely underground.

After leaving the Vanderkloof Dam, the Orange River flows among thousands of hectares of semi-desert. The agricultural areas around Upington, Noordoewer / Vioolsdrif (where your paddling begins) and Aussenkehr (where your paddling ends) are all possible thanks to the constant water supplied by these large dams.

Through weathering, diamonds have been eroded out of kimberlite pipes and swept into the Orange River system. They have been carried downstream over a period of 90 million years to the ocean. In South Africa, the first alluvial diamond was found near Hopetown on the banks of the river in 1867. Since then, mining has been continued along the river on a small scale. Large commercial diamond mines are operational at Oranjemund and Alexander Bay. Mining also occurs north and south of the mouth because waves and currents have removed and transported the diamonds deposited at the mouth.

The Orange River also provides tourism opportunities. The Augrabies Falls, well worth a visit, lies within a SANParks national park. Lodges are located all along the river and boating is permitted in some areas of the dams. The major tourist activity however, is river rafting and canoeing. The most popular and most easily accessible wilderness section is in the Richtersveld which starts in the Noordoewer / Vioolsdrif area and ends at Sendelingsdrif.

The Fauna

Sadly, few large mammals remain on the banks of the Orange although the elusive Cape Leopard is still to be found in the mountains of the Richtersveld. In recent years Cheetah have also been reported. As much pleasure, however, is to be gained from appreciating all manner of bird, insect, reptile and small mammal species.

The latter include Cape Clawless Otter, Slit-Faced Bat, Vervet Monkey, Chacma Baboon, Black-backed Jackal, Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit, Klipspringer and Steenbok. The sudden splash as a Cape Monitor (“likkewaan”) launches itself into the water and the call of Barking Geckos on summer nights is common. Red Romans or “Haarskeerders” are an interesting species of the class Arachnida. They are related to both spiders and scorpions and can move at speeds of up to 16 km/hour in an attempt to catch prey or to move out of light into shadows. Common endemic fish in the Orange River are Yellowfish, Mudfish and Catfish.

The Flora

The Richtersveld has a rich diversity of flora, many of these species naturally being succulents. Many species are endemic with some only found in 1 small area, for example a single gorge or mountain side. Quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma), White Karee or Rosyntjieboom (Sersia Pendulina), Wild Tamarisk or Abikwaboom (Tamarix usneoides), Buffalo Thorn or Haak-en-Steek (Ziziphus mucronata), Namaqua Rock-Fig (Ficus cordata), Shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca) and Elephant’s Trunk or Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) are to name but a few of the trees found in the area.

The Canoeing and River Rafting Activities

Canoeing and river rafting on the Orange River is a very popular activity and a huge tourist attraction. Tours are run throughout the year with each time of the year offering a different experience.

Trips of different lengths are offered to suit the needs of South African, Namibian and foreign paddlers. From an access and logistical point of view, the Richtersveld section of the Orange River is probably the easiest to paddle, hence the majority of trips beginning in the Noordoewer area.

The river rafting and canoeing trips are not only about the paddling but also about the wilderness experience, the magnificent rock formations and landscapes and the camaraderie and friendships that develop as the trip progresses. They are about appreciating the tranquillity and looking out for fauna and flora. They are about gaining pleasure from merely being “out there” instead of in the busyness of daily life.