The Orange is South Africa’s largest river, 2250km long, draining a huge catchment area in the order of 1 000 000km² in the eastern part of the country through the barren Northern Cape. Its source is in northeastern Lesotho, where the river is called the Senqu. Further down its course the Vaal and other rivers add to the water level. It forms the border between the Free State and Northern Cape in its upper reaches, and also the border between the Northern Cape and Namibia further downstream.
Contrary to popular belief, the Orange River was not named after the reddish orange colour of its silt-laden water. It was in fact named in honour of the Dutch House of Orange, back in 1779.
It is mostly a wide, open river with mind-boggling stretches of continuous flat-water and many parts of it are suitable only for K1’s or touring boats. It does however boast a couple of nice whitewater sections.
Good weather, stunning scenery and guaranteed water make the lower stretches a popular destination for overnight trips, where various operators offer commercial rafting and canoeing. The people of the Northern Cape are also well known for their friendliness and hospitality.
When planning a trip on the lower stretches of the Orange, downstream of Augrabies, keep in mind that the river forms the international border between South Africa and Namibia. It is not really a problem; just remember your passport if a put-in or take-out point on the Namibian side will be used.
The Orange River has a strong history of source to sea attempts. The most notable of these attempts should be: Willem van Riet’s trip from Aliwal North down to the sea; David Needam’s trip in 1953 from the source to the sea in a plywood boat, when a donkey carried his boat in Lesotho and he had to hike the last section from Vioolsdrift to the sea; Gavin Patterson’s trip from the Zastron bridge to the sea on a surfboard in 1983; Brian Lion-Cachet, David Manley, Allen Wedderburn and Sonja Bonzack’s record breaking trip in 1994, when they completed the source to sea trip in 40 days using K1’s, including a hike over the first 270km in 5 days with their boats; Ray Chaplin and Roche Schoeman’s separate solo riverboard descents.
An interesting note about the Orange River is that it is probably the river with the most “Entrance Exam” rapids, as every commercial operator on it seems to call the first rapid on his particular stretch “Entrance Exam”.
There are now three main storage reservoirs on the Orange River, namely Gariep Dam and Vanderkloof Dam inside South Africa and the Katse dam in Lesotho on the Senqu River. The Gariep Dam forms the largest reservoir in South Africa, while Vanderkloof Dam forms the second largest reservoir.
The Vanderkloof Dam is the last major dam on the Orange River and effectively controls the flow of water along the 1 400 km stretch of river between the dam and Alexander Bay on the Atlantic Ocean.