Orange River – Onseepkans Gorge

This is the best part of the Orange as far as whitewater is concerned (except for the inaccessible Augrabies Gorge, of course). The scenery is brilliant with the added excitement of good rapids, a serious gorge and a waterfall.

  • Ideal for: Kayak, croc, raft at higher levels
  • Grade: 2 to 4 (5)
  • Length: 40km
  • Duration: 3 to 4 days
  • Type: Open, scenic, some big rapids
  • Put-in: Onseepkans border post, take dirt road to left just before bridge, 300m to put-in
  • Take-out: Pelladrif pump station
  • Dam controlled: Vanderkloof Dam, Bloemhof Dam
  • Permits: None
  • Commercial operator: Gravity River Tours

MAP 61

The trip starts at Onseepkans, where the river is wide and open. It is quite flat, with some small rapids to negotiate. The river divides into channels every now and then, forming islands with lots of flora, birds and sometimes sandy beaches. Stay in the main current, especially when the water level is low, as some of the smaller channels come to a dead end.

After about 3km the river gradually splits in two with a long island in the middle. You want to be on the right of this island, unless you have suicidal intentions. That means follow the channels to the right all the time. All the water on the right joins up eventually, forming a wide open channel. After some flat-water, there is a nice rapid called Little Falls. If you happen to swim here, get to the right bank fast with your boat. A big eddy on the right makes it easy enough.

You have now entered the scene of major attraction on this section. There is a perfect camp spot on this right bank, with sand, shady trees and a koppie to explore. Keep in mind that other parties also use this campsite, so keep it clean.

If you walk down a hundred metres or so, you will realise why you had to keep to the right of the island and get out after Little Falls. The right channel ends in the spectacular Ritchie Falls, where it plummets down into the left channel, which has been transformed into a serious gorge. The falls are not runnable, and for most paddlers, neither is the gorge.

If you have time to kill, it is a good idea to paddle across to the island from the camp spot. It is possible to scout most of the gorge from this island. Closer inspection will show why only a few paddlers have run this gorge; some almost paid for it with their lives. It has some serious undercuts and siphons, and at high levels a couple of bad keeper holes. When the water is high, also look out for the deadly whirlpool that forms where the currents of the gorge and falls meet.

To get past the waterfall and into the gorge is quite a mission, but fun. Use ropes to lower all equipment; there are a few big studs in a flat rock, and these can be used as anchor points. Abseiling is also possible here.

After the falls the gorge continues for a distance, but the really mean rapids are over. Just be careful for the rapid just below the waterfall when the water is high, it forms two bad pour-overs. The next rapid, Big Bunny, forms nice big waves at any level, making it fun to run.

Some more rapids follow, which can all be run after scouting from the left bank. The gorge opens up a bit further, becoming flat with a few good rapids all the way to the take-out, some 15km further. The pump station on the left at the take-out cannot be missed.

The easiest way to experience this section is to book for a commercial trip, but competent private trippers can enjoy it on their own as well. The river flows through a spectacular mountainous desert and it is common to meet no other humans on the whole stretch.

This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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