Most tourists follow the eastern reaches of the Orange River’s border with Namibia, yet for surreal calm, its relatively untouched western bank has no equal.
On a balmy, moonless night in late spring, a tiny stretch of the rugged 560km-long river border between South Africa and Namibia was turned into a paradigm of sublimity.
It was a symphony of light; a perfectly silent, natural phenomenon that called to the senses to form words like “surreal” or “magic”. Actually, this was simply one of nature’s most beautiful gifts to man.
The last time my eyes listened to insects performing their own version of “The Sound of Silence” was on the “Butterfly Road” to Bwindi near Uganda’s border with the Kongo, when a million colourful wings swooped and fluttered around our vehicles for mile after mile.
Then, as now, it was unexpected. Which, of course, is the reason why we travel.
This spectacle on the banks of the Orange River felt like a parting gift. It was the last night of an eight-day trip to do an update on Namibia’s most dramatic tourist entry passage, the C13, and to disappear into The West… that is, the other side of the Fish River Canyon.
It was an eye-opener. Having encountered dozens of cars in the 200km of C13 gravel travel between Aussenkehr and Rosh Pinah, we saw only one other vehicle in three days and over 450km of gravel through the panoramic landscape west of the canyon.
Most tourists who cross the border at Noordoewer head straight for the major northern attractions, ignoring the scenic trails near the Orange, or a visit to the western rim.
One has to wonder why. As an alternative, staying in the far south demands less time, less fuel and less money: Sossusvlei is nearly 800km away, Swakopmund more than 1000km distant. And you still have to drive back. Using the Orange as the start and end of a trip around the canyon via the B4 in the North, or a loop on the western side, covers about 700km. The south even qualifies as a substitute for the Richtersveld.
Having been up the eastern side of the canyon, camping at or visiting Ai-Ais, Hobas, the main viewpoint, Canon Roadhouse and Naute Dam, I used the C13 as a connection to a western loop, while also enjoying numerous scenic 4×4 trails near the Orange and meeting some very interesting people.
Amongst them was an extraordinary farmer, charitable and full of revelations, like a book turning its own pages; a park ranger as keen as wild mustard to show his hidden treasures, and another farmer who had once solved crimes and was now a goldmine of local knowledge. Then there was an encounter with a red-listed zebra, and a moment to witness tree pods and sweet water calming wild horses. And then, while a childhood dream got mixed up with a nagging wish to meet “the French woman who farmed with leopards”, I also came up against the hazy battle lines being drawn between tourism and conservation, and the glaring ones between science and religion.
For the rest of this story and more, grab the December 2017 issue of SA4X4.
By Pieter Oosthuizen