The River Runs Wild

Story and Photographs by Chris Marais

In January 2011, fellow photographer Ryno Ferreira and I drove up to the Gariep Dam to see the high waters. The normally majestic dam was filled to 115 percent capacity, and its sluices were wide open. Right there, in the spray, with the dam wall vibrating through our boots, we decided to follow the Orange River down to where the Big Snake sleeps: the Augrabies Falls.

The year 2011 began with floods all over the world: Australia, the Philippines, Brazil, Sri Lanka. Everyone was talking about La Niña and climate change. My mates in Jo’burg said they hadn’t had a sunny day in ages.

Up-country rains and flood surges had turned the Vaal River fat and treacherous as well. It joined its Orange River brother at Douglas and together they flowed into the thirstlands of the west, devouring grapes by the vineyard as they passed through soetwyn country.

The grapes were mostly on the vine, but not ready for the plucking. If the floods had come a month later, most of the crops might have been harvested. Terrible timing.

Peaceful Prieska, with the Orange flowing past it.

First Stop, Prieska

On the N10, our first sight of the Orange River in flood was at Prieska, from the hilltop heights where an old Anglo-Boer War blockhouse – made of tiger’s eye – stands flanked by two quiver trees.

There was no panic in the streets, however. Prieska welcomes water. It’s so dry out there that the goats kiss each other for spit. But reports from the air revealed extensive flood damage in the area. When we arrived at Groblershoop, the southern gateway to the Orange River Wine Route, we could smell the rotting grapes.

Meanwhile, back in 2011, Radio Sonder Grense, our travelling flood info service, told us 11 people had been evacuated from Kanon Eiland. Food parcels were being dropped by military helicopters. In Keimoes alone, more than 500 houses had been damaged by the floods and all along the route, bridges were under water. Damage to the grape crops and general infrastructure was estimated at between R100 million and R1 billion.

Early reports indicated that the government would offer some compensation for lost infrastructure but not for crop damage. Enraged farmers along the lower Orange said the impact of the floods could have been mitigated with better management at the dams. Sputnik Ratau, who spoke for the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, insisted the whole thing was a “natural disaster”.

A river gone wild – the Orange in full spate through Bushman Land.

Python in the Desert

Conservationist and author Pieter van der Walt describes the Orange River islands eloquently in his book, Augrabies Splendour:

“Dream islands with ample grazing and rich soil. Where many a crop variety flourishes and droughts are not feared – but, oh, the floods that destroy farming achievements!”

We drove into Upington. The caravan park was in deluge. The main bridge traffic was like the Concrete Highway at rush hour. But the sight of the Orange, South Africa’s Mother River, was something to behold.

Imagine a very thick greeny-brown python slithering through your living room, from the front door into the passage of your home. You’re on the couch, watching. At first, the movement of the snake seems slow, rhythmical. You are mesmerised. But leave it be. If you try to hold it, you will find out just how fast this python is moving. You will feel its immense strength.

That’s how it was with the flooding Orange, in January of 2011. Some locals fell in and were never heard of again.

The people of the Great Karoo have flash floods. A storm breaks, a normally-dry river turns into a raging monster, people die, lose their homes and possessions and then tomorrow morning it’s all quiet again. Bar the lingering nightmares.

Up in Bushman Land, where the Orange flows, the floodwaters rise slowly. It’s a deceptive, deadly flood.

The bridge near Kakamas makes a great flood-viewing platform.

Dream Islands

We were headed west, to Kakamas, via Kanon Eiland, Keimoes and a host of little worker-settlements beginning with Louisvale. Grapelands stretched over the horizon and it was clear that this industry had matched its river for magnitude and market force.

Despite the fact that the livelihoods of many of the seasonal fruit workers were now in dire jeopardy, a carnival atmosphere reigned. Kids were playing in the side-spills and canals, chasing crabs and posing for flood tourists who had come from all over to see the rising waters. It was a beautiful day for a swim: the Bushman Land heat clasped us in a muggy bear hug. I felt like dropping boots and gear and joining the chillums. But I would have looked dead silly, so I didn’t.

Up the road at Keimoes, however, there were fewer inhibitions. A cluster of cheery locals – possibly fortified with late-afternoon libations – were dive-bombing off a little bridge into one of the canals.

It was quite hard to imagine that, just over the hill, emergency services were struggling to find missing islanders, ferrying the ones they could locate to safety and feeding hundreds of stranded villagers.

Kids will be kids, especially on a hot summer’s day at the Orange River.

People and the River

If it all sounds a little cavalier to you, just remember: this community, in some tribal form or other, has lived by the river for centuries. To them, the river is everything. It is food, drink, entertainment and fear. They watch its moods and seasons constantly. It’s better value than all the TV channels in the world. It blesses and it bites.

At Kakamas, we went down to the blocked-off bridge, where a police rubber duck was ferrying people across the waters. One grateful worker dug deep into his pockets and offered the surprised cop some change as a reward.

“No man, I don’t need taxi fare,” the policeman said. And off they sped, past the ruined grapes and onto the next rescue.

Just near the river stood Die Pienk Padstal, which acted as Flood Central for curious tourists. In the tea garden, there were wall displays of number plates gathered over the years from who knows where. There was a plaque commemorating the high-water mark of the 1988 floods, that infamous 1-in-200 year event. No one told the January 2011 flood it had come a full 178 years too early.

Heatwave bridge-jumping at Keimoes.
Police rescue patrols through the vineyards of Keimoes.
Augrabies Falls, January 18, 2011.

The Great Falls

But the real drama lay north of Kakamas, at the Augrabies Falls, one of the world’s great waterfalls. It has a ‘free fall’ of more than 60 metres and was once privately owned by a Mr Piet Nel. He sold it to the Union Government for nine thousand pounds in 1910.

Right now, there was hardly a bed to be had in the area, the national park itself was booked out for the week, and day visitors like us parked in a long queue to gain entrance. And even then, once we were within sight of the falls, we could not actually see them. The best falls photographs were taken a few days later, when the water and the spray had subsided a little.

The regular walkways from where I normally photograph the famous flat lizards were blocked off and drenched with spray. Said lizards, attendant dassies and baboons had all ducked – too many tourists, I think they said.

But just being there and seeing the Bridal Veils was pleasure enough. After taking a couple of shots, we packed our cameras away and just stood in the spray, sharing a delicious shower with a whole bunch of folks, fellow flood tourists we’d never met before…

This is an extract from Karoo Roads II – More Tales from the Heartland. For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at

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