Thursday, May 25, 2023

A tale of four rivers

 Michael - alternate Thursdays

There's an old joke about a film director in southern Africa who asked his guide to take him to a “typical African river,” expecting something along the lines of the kilometer-wide Congo River. The guide took him to something like this: 

The Auob - typical African river - with lions

Most African rivers are dry beds most of the time. This month we did a tour of the north of the Northern Cape and into southern Namibia. It's an arid part of southern Africa where the dry Kalahari is fighting for territory, some of which has already been lost to the Namib desert—an expanse of seemingly endless sand dunes. Along the way we met four rivers, the longest river in South Africa and one of the few perennial ones, the two dry rivers of the south-west Kgalagadi - the Auob and  the Nosob, and the Fish of Namibia that has carved out the world's second largest land canyon. 

Given the dryness of the area, it’s surprising that one of southern Africa’s largest rivers, the Orange, flows along the border between the Northern Cape and Namibia as it heads into the Atlantic at Oranjemund (German for Mouth of Orange). Of course, the Orange starts far away in the Drakensberg Mountains where it gets a kickoff that keeps it going for a long way.

 Before it gets to Oranjemund, the river negotiates the Augrabies Falls, dropping sixty meters into the gorge. The name comes from the original Khoikhoi residents who named the waterfall "Ankoerebis" — "place of great noise". The falls were beautiful when we were there, but relatively tame. However, when the Orange is in flood, it’s scary. The last time that happened it damaged the observation platforms from which these pictures were taken… 

Augrabies Falls

Exit gorge

If one heads north-east from there, one reaches the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) that I blogged about last time. Although the Kalahari is very dry and the life there is adapted to water scarcity, there is life and there is water. As I mentioned in my last piece, the South African section is bounded by two rivers that are normally dry at the surface, but flow sluggishly below the sand at depths of around 100 meters. That ground water supports a rich ecosystem of animals, birds, insects and plants. Springbuck, with their drought resistant physiology, take the niche the Impala hold in the Kruger Park. Oryx are also fans of the dryness, as are Ostriches. But it’s very noticeable that animal concentrations are much higher in general along the rivers with their trees and less sparse vegetation than up in the rolling, scrub-covered dunes. Also, the boreholes originally drilled when the Union of South Africa thought it might need to supply troops defending its north-west borders from the Germans in the First World War, are hugely popular with animals. Even if you can go without water, that doesn’t mean that you choose to do so.

Everyone's a critic...

Cape Oryx at waterhole

Ostriches heading into the dunes

Yellow Mongoose taking its ease

Wonderful Kieliekrankie dune lodges in KTF

Dunes from Kieliekrankie with small waterhole

Wildebeest seeking shade

These two rivers join up at the southern tip of the KTP before wending their way to the Molopo River, which is a tributary of the Orange.

Next we crossed into Namibia. The iconic Quiver trees of the area are suddenly all around one. Actually a type of aloe, they grow tall and in winter are resplendent with yellow candelabras of flowers.  

Quiver tree in flower

Quiver tree forest near Keetmanshoop

Quiver tree being taken over for a sociable weaver nest

The Bushmen people of the area hollowed out the softer inside of the the branches making quivers for their arrows, leading to the name.

Then came the visit the Fish River Canyon, the second largest land canyon in the world. We spoiled ourselves and stayed at the Fish River Lodge, which has twenty separate bungalows spread along the edge of the canyon, each with a magnificent view. 

View from the main lodge

The canyon has a two-phase history. Originally at the bottom of the sea, the first level was created when tectonic plate movement lifted the hills and mountains of the area millions of years ago. Then the Fish River was responsible for scouring a second layer of the canyon from the softish limestone rocks.

View along the canyon


Track into canyon

...and back

Rock pool at the bottom of the canyon

 It was a day’s trip by rough track down into the canyon to reach the rock pools that are currently the only evidence of the river itself. Nevertheless, the Fish does flow most years, and supplies an important dam. Water that makes its way beyond the Hardap Dam eventually ends up in the Orange.

Near the Orange River mouth

We said farewell to the Orange and its tributaries when we left Namibia at Vioolsdrif and headed back through the Karoo to the relatively wet parts of the Western Cape. It was a wonderful trip, and also a lesson in the importance and power of rivers in this arid part of the world.

Giant's Playground near Keetmanshoop

Pictures: Pat Cretchley


  1. There is certainly a stark beauty to an arid countryside, but give me water and greenery of a near rain-forest any day. Otherwise, I fear I'd crack, flake, and blow away in the wind...

    1. Yes, I live on a coastal estuary with native forest. But there is something about deserts.

  2. Michael! This is such a wonderful and incredibly informative post and the just make my heart hurt. Thank you so much for sharing all this. It puts me in mind to rewatch Bob Rafelson's Mountains of the Moon about Burton and Speke's search for the origin of the Nile...Cheers from LA!

    1. Thanks, Wendall. Perhaps you need a book set in the Kalahari for a site visit?

  3. What an amazing trip, Michael. Following the path of a river can be fascinating. I started my second Lakes novel, Bones In The River, by tracing the course of the Eden from its source down into the valley. The river – and what/who ends up in it – is part of the story so it seemed a fitting introduction.

    I love those Quiver trees. Are they unique to the area or found elsewhere?

    1. Yes, they only grow in that area and grow pretty slowly given the harsh conditions. But they are amazing!

  4. Just read The Forcing by Paul Hardisty, where Canada has just become the next 13 states of the USA. There's no fuel. No food. And the water has run dry. A real thought provoker.

    1. I really like Paul's work. I must get my hands on a copy...

  5. lovely to read, Thanks for sharing Michael and Pat.

  6. You are a master, Michael, at getting me to realize what I've missed in not making it over to your part of the world. And that comes from one who grew up between two great rivers forming third, though none ever ran dry. Yet.