Gariep Dam – Multi Day Touring

(Not exactly whitewater, but the waves were so big on the dam that I’m sure it qualifies!)

The Gariep dam lies on the Orange River, smack-bang in the middle of South Africa. Nikki and I decided to go check it out and camp on one of the many un-spoilt uninhabited islands to be found and explored. Little did we know that our chosen long weekend was to be synchronised with the 1st serious cold front of the winter to hit the country.


On the way there, the wind was so strong; the boat kept getting pushed to the one side on the roof racks. My main concern was the fact that the dam is situated in the Karoo region, and for those not familiar, it is a semi arid desert with very little features that can act as a wind break. The Karoo is very flat and open, possibly due to the fact that it used to be a sea floor millions of years ago.


So needless to say, we expected strong wind and huge waves on the open expanse of the dam, not to mention cold and rain to boot! We got there later in the afternoon than I had anticipated - much closer to sunset and the ever approaching cold temperatures, but I wasn’t going to give up before trying, and Nikki is game for anything adventurous.


We loaded the boat with all the gear, albeit rather hesitantly, not knowing what to expect once exiting the safety of the sheltered little harbour. The harbour already had scary waves and strong gusts of wind, despite being sheltered by a little hill on the upwind side.

Thanks to Google Earth it was possible to plan the route carefully, and I even printed the images and had them laminated for quick reference out on the water. We left the harbour and nervously hugged the rocky shore. Luckily the island we had chosen, lay straight downwind, but after about 1km we had to leave the safety of the land and head straight into open water - roughly 5.7km of it.

The seriousness of our plan now became very apparent! The wave size was increasing exponentially as we headed more and more downwind, the land was suddenly out of swimmers reach, and the strong gusts of wind were making things very unstable! A capsize 2km from shore would almost certainly mean drowning, or at the very least near fatal hypothermia. A swimmer trying to reach the shore would be pushed at a tangent by the wind, turning a 2km swim into a 6km effort.

We soldiered on, too late to turn back, too foolhardy to give up and head for the nearest shore. I steered the pig heavy kayak dead ahead towards the conical island, which luckily was also straight down wind. The waves were battering us from all sides, washing over the deck between me and Nikki. The sun was getting low and every few minutes a we would suddenly hear a rush of water and be eclipsed by a wave shadow - they were that big!

It was stupid too look back to see what to expect, because doing this would throw one off line with the wind direction and threaten a capsize. So with these monster waves approaching, all we could do was look ahead and hope for the best. Physics was on our side though, because we would be lifted up and over every time.

After about 45minutes and 5km into the dam, the waves reached epic proportions, and I really started doubting my decision to go through with this. We were now trapped on a dam that was out of control! The only way out was forward, so we sucked it up and kept paddling, occasionally surfing the set waves!

We reached the island and hugged the rocky shore and popped into the lee, or shall I say what I was hoping to be a lee-side. Being conical in shape, the island had no lee, and the wind speed actually increased in strength (due to the venturi effect as it is known by those who happen to paraglide) as it slipped around the side. We quickly beached and nearly lost a paddle to a strong gust of wind at my estimate of 90 km/h. Pitching the tent was another challenge, but essential as Nikki was now shivering uncontrollably and had lost almost all the feeling in her hands. With hypothermia knocking at the door, I had to get her into her down sleeping bag ASAP!

Finally we got the tent up, and I put Nikki into her bag and piled mine on top of her for extra heat. She warmed up quickly. It was dark now and the temperature outside was dropping fast.

We spent a cosy night in our tent, totally alone on the island. The next morning brought with it one of the most beautiful and dramatic scenes of nature I have ever experienced. The sky was an intense blue, the scattered wind swept clouds with occasional rain were dark grey, and the air was crisp and clear. Amazing!

We just sat in the sun and took it all in. Other than moving camp to a more secluded spot on the next door island, the rest of the weekend was pretty uneventful as it was spent lazing in the sun, soaking up the heat as the wind was still freezing. The sunsets were incredible and climbing to the top of the hill on the first island afforded a spectacular view of the surrounding karoo desert.

Our morning of departure was blessed with zero wind, and we got back to the car just as the westerly headwind started picking up again. Wow!


Kitting up.


The island after dark.




Interesting sedimentary layers.


Rock art.


View from the top.


Camp one.


Beaching - day two.


Camp two.


Fire = warmth.


Dinner preperations.




Starry night.




Pebble beach.


Sunset pic.


Tending the fire.


Our complete setup.


Not a breath.


The route.


Words: Kobus Oosthuizen

Photography courtesy: Kobus Oosthuizen


Thanks for contributing and sharing your experience Kobus, and also for the top class photos. As a windsurfer I know that dam can get huge waves! Winter time in the Freestate Province can get super cold for those that don’t know South Africa, with temperatures dropping below freezing almost every night in winter. South Africa - it's a great place... Have fun! Over and out – Adrian