While the rest of us went through Netflix re-runs this year, freelance guide James Kirsten escaped to Red Rock River Camp on the Orange where he lost himself in the gorge.

The Gorge near Red Rocks on the Orange river
The Gorge near Red Rocks on the Orange river

“Lockdown!! The world gone mad.  Everything is locked down; cities, suburbs; public transport and worse than that . . . Johnny Walker is behind bars in South Africa. As a fly fishing guide and wildlife enthusiast, this was worse than load shedding during happy hour on a Friday night.  I just had to get out back to where I belong – the great outdoors.

The Orange River has always been a special place for me. Having started my guiding career here a few years ago, my love for her waters and all they produce is endless. From paddling to nymphing for smallies, sight fishing for bream and straight sticking largies, this was a drug that I was now craving.

After four weeks of strict lockdown my fly box was overflowing and I was cabin fever positive. In need of a vaccine, it was time to make a move. After a lengthy chat to my good friend Roche Schoeman, owner of Red Rock River Camp, my destination was confirmed. The idea was to explore the upper sections of the mighty Orange River Gorge. I had paddled and guided the lower section of the Gorge, but it was always my dream to head up river to find out what could be hidden in its upper reaches. I had heard stories from Andrew Kellet, owner of Gravity Adventures and renowned South African river master, of how treacherous the top section of the Gorge could be. It is a place that only a handful of mad kayakers and adventure-obsessed hikers have seen.  It begged the question, have these waters been caressed by a brazen muishond or an inconspicuous PTN? Has any fisherman dared to make the trek through these unforgiving cliffs and ravines? Could it even be done?

With all these burning questions I packed my VW Caddy to the roof and began my journey from Durban to the Northern Cape right up near the Namibian border to perform what I called ‘‘essential plant research, Meneer” on the banks of the Orange River.  Let’s go!

After a half way stop in the bustling metropolis of Wepener to pick up my fellow “botanist”, Dan Duncan, we began the endless journey through the Northern Cape. After hours of travelling on roads so long and straight that you could watch your dog run away for three days, we arrived tired and dusty but 120% stoked at Red Rock River Camp. Winter had etched her name on the landscape – dry, apocalyptic, yet undeniably beautiful. The Orange herself was looking like an over-priced postcard from the Pienk Padstal, boasting an aquatic world of wonder with her crystal clear, winter-washed waters. Notwithstanding the cold conditions – bloody freezing to be precise – the river was full of life. From Goliath herons and kingfishers, to leguaans and baboons, an incredible ecosystem was thriving off the life-blood of the Orange.

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After fishing around camp for the first few days it was evident that the fish weren’t too phased by the cold and didn’t care much for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown rules. Big smallies were smashing streamers and even a few smaller largies came out to play.

With our appetites whetted, it was time to head to the Gorge and into the unknown.

Carrying everything we needed for our first two-night mission, our packs were  incredibly heavy – a comfy 20 kilos. In between the essentials – our fishing gear – we squeezed in a couple of cans of tinned food, oats, pasta and two rolls of boerie* into our bags. Along with two sleeping bags and a hiking mattress, we adorned the outside of our packs with pots, pans and a braai grill, like traveling gypsies.

The first part of the hike along a dry river bed was relatively mellow but, at about five kilometres in, the landscape abruptly changed and we found ourselves boulder hopping and orienteering through a maze of rock gardens and pot holes. The ‘comfy’ 20 kilos on our backs began feeling like 40 kilos. Our shoulders were screaming and our throats were scratching for a drink. Right when we thought we could go no further, we heard the low, thundering, rumble of the Gorge. We were getting close.

Fuelled by a second wind, we gave it one last push up the ridge and came across a sight that I will never forget. A picturesque, deep pool the size of a rugby field with fast, turbulent water pushing in and then flowing out into a steep, narrow, sharply cut gorge. From our vantage point with the sun lighting up the picture, we saw that the pool was teeming with fish. Schools of fat smallies were holding in the current, scores of mudfish could be seen moseying about the rocks but, most importantly, we were seeing largies! My visions of this top section paled into insignificance when I saw the real thing – better than a dream come true!

I threw my pack down with overwhelming relief and declared this our camp site for the first night. We fished the pool for the remainder of the afternoon and were treated to smallies reacting to big baitfish patterns and largies emerging from the depths at the most unexpected moments. By nightfall we were all well on our way with some good fish under the belt. After a big fire, some wholesale pap and boerewors, and a distinct lack of dop,** we crawled into our double sleeping bags, excited about exploring deeper the next day.

James Kirsten surveys the gorge
James Kirsten surveys the gorge

Apart from a 3am wakeup call from Dan crying wolf – or leopard in this case – we survived the cold and actually got a fairly decent sleep. After a quick cup of coffee and some oats, we packed up and continued our exploratory mission through the Gorge. Unbelievably, as we progressed down, the pools and various sections just became better and better, showing off some massive, dark and very fishy pools. The big pools all seemed to squeeze into narrow tail-outs and then into fast rapids. Each pool was unique in character, meaning we spent a lot of time scouting for fish. With the viz so good and six eyes to leverage, there was no need to blind fish a spot.

The walls of the Gorge are high, so accessing the water became a mission in itself and sometimes it was just not possible. After a morning of scouting and exploring, we stopped and had a quick tuna pasta lunch above yet another majestic pool. It was as deep and dark as ever, with just enough flow to keep things interesting. We gazed upon carp the size of turtles and golden slabs of smallmouth yellowfish feeding just beneath the surface. Then I saw her, my African queen.


For the rest of James’s story, check out issue 23 of The Mission below:



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