To the Orange River in Richtersveld, South Africa

by Scotty Kyle

The Richtersveld is a World Heritage Site situated on the west coast of Africa near the mouth of the Orange River between Namibia and South Africa. It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth as it almost never rains and, while summer day temperatures are constantly in the 40’s, winter nights can be so cold that the air sneaks inside almost any clothing or sleeping bag. The Orange is the longest and one of the largest rivers in South Africa and has origins and inputs from places as diverse as the pristine highlands of Lesotho and the sprawling townships of Johannesburg. From another perspective, however, the Richtersveld is one of the very best, and yet least known, sport and game fishing destinations in Africa.

Unlike rivers to the north of it, the fish diversity of the Orange is fairly low: the river hosts only about 15 species. Its origins, however, ensure that there is enough water (from the highlands), and increasing nutrient loads from the townships and farmlands upstream. Fortunately, just upstream of Richtersveld are hundreds of kilometres of rapids and waterfalls, including the spectacular Augrabies Falls, which aerate the water and process nutrients. There are no feeder rivers for about 500 km, no towns or factories for about 300 km and so the water is safe to drink, suitable for swimming and even snorkelling, and hosts lots of big fish.

Reception area of a national park
Reception area of the national park

Many sport anglers head to the lower reaches of the Orange to target the mighty largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis), which can grow to about 15 kilograms (33 lb) in weight, while others target the massive sharptooth barble (Clarias gariepinus), which can be as big as 40 kilograms (88 lb). Personally, I go to have fun. Having already almost used up my “threescore years and ten” I am not yet dead but do find energy levels lowering and the attractions of dangers and true excitement are not what they used to be. My offspring, however, still have endless energy, enthusiasm and passion and will do almost anything to cast the furthest and catch the biggest fish.

Richtersveld is the perfect destination for all of us. Apart from scorpions (lots), snakes (some), and the generally extreme weather conditions, it is mostly a safe and fairly easy place to camp and fish. Sendelings Drift, the headquarters of the Richtersveld National Park, is run by the South African National Parks Board who provide camping and chalets for visitors. From there you can travel about 100 kilometres upstream to several camps beside the river but 4×4 vehicles are essential for travel in the Park. The distances in this region are great but the tar roads are usually long, straight and in good condition while the gravel roads are generally not too bad.

Amy and barble
The author’s daughter-in-law with two large sharptooth barble caught in the Orange River

Our home is about 1 800 km ( miles) from Sendelings Drift, and it is easiest and best for us to simply jump into a suitable vehicle, share the driving, and go straight there, nonstop. Those who need to fly to get there will find the nearest airport, Upington, is about 450 km by road, but it’s probably much easier to fly to Cape Town, which is 500 km away. For about 300 km upstream of the National Park the river passes through private land, where there are several lodges and operators on or near the river. Quite a few outfits operate guided rafting or kayaking fishing trips down the river as well. Overseas visitors can also organize a DIY trip by flying to Cape Town or Johannesburg and hiring a good 4×4 vehicle.

As the younger generation of our crew could get only a week of work, our trip had to be squeezed between Friday afternoon right after work till the next Sunday night, for everything from driving there, fishing and driving back to work. This was not our first trip and anything that was not fishing was regarded as a waste of precious fishing time. We started out at about 17.00 on Friday, completed the driving part by 13.00 on Saturday, and were on the river fishing by 14.00. The return trip was a mirror image. In between there were 6.5 days of fishing, and we made the most of every single minute. With six people in one Toyota Hilux double cab with a trailer, it was at times the opposite of a relaxing drive, but the trip generated many excellent memories of fishing, family and fun.

The camp kitchen
The camp kitchen

We were tired after the trip and so only fished just upstream of our camp till dark on the first day. The youngsters ran upstream to a good largemouth spot while I went to a nice rapid where I had been fortunate before. I initially used a cast with two small nymphs on my 5 weight fly rod, the rig I use in KwaZulu Natal for the Natal scaly (Labeobarbus natalensis) which is a close relative of the smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus) of the Orange River.

As I mentioned, my offspring are energetic and targeted while my primary aim is to have fun, be safe, spend quality time with the family and catch as many good fish as possible. The boys’ target was trophy largemouth yellowfish and each had spent much of the time since our last trip designing and creating the perfect fly to entice them to bite. The ladies and I use more “conservative” flies and target anything and everything but still usually apply the “bigger the better” principle. The river is large and strong but the water is fairly clear and at selected spots it is possible to wade across, into Namibia, and even to cross the river to find a better place to land a hooked fish.

The author and a fish
The author with a largemouth yellowfish caught during the trip

From the first cast the magic of the place engulfed us and we had an amazing fishing and exploring holiday. Everyone caught excellent fish, lost magnificent ones, laughed, cried, were frustrated, learned a lot, made mistakes and fell into the river more than once. We were roasted, almost frozen, and even feared our camp would be washed away in a flash flood only to have it blown away in a sandstorm. We had some amazing “ups”, one or two “downs”, but by the time we had to pack up to go home we had all firmly resolved, yet again, to come back as soon as possible to this amazing, truly unique, very African, prime sport fishing destination.

P. S. Richtersveld is such an amazing place and the trip was so special in many ways, that I will probably tell you more about our adventure in a future blog. In this time of COVID restrictions and fears not everyone of you may be able to travel to the Orange River. But it’s an excellent opportunity to explore the exciting, and still greatly unknown, world of fishing destinations from the comfort and safety of your home computer. Your can learn a lot about fish and fishing, infrastructure, accommodation, guiding operations and access to Richtersveld, or any of the other numerous out of the way places full of fairly naive, sometimes massive, fish, so you will be ready when the opportunity to travel presents itself. After all, preparation and anticipation is a very important part of the fun of fishing!

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