From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
At Pretoria, our administrative capital, I attended to official business, and for the next few weeks I was in bondage. Then I broke loose, to the far west, to the lower reaches of the Orange River.
This great stream rises in Basutoland, and runs thence across the breadth of South Africa to empty itself into the Atlantic, eight hundred miles away. It drains the entire Free State and much of the Transvaal and the Cape Provinces, so that in the summer nearly half the waters of the Union roll between its banks.
On the islands towards the coast are European settlements, and there was something like civil war among the irrigators owing to quarrels in respect of the distribution of water in the canals and furrows. I found them nursing shotguns and rifles across their knees as they fiercely eyed each other from opposite sides of the sluice gates, and it cost me long days of difficult negotiation before the factions came to some kind of agreement.
The most important centre along here was a place called Kakamas. I had operated in these parts as a Boer guerrilla nearly twenty years before. At that time it was a mere outpost with a few reed huts; now it was a thriving hamlet with power-driven mills, electric lights and other signs of progress, including the doubtful blessing of hostile political parties whom I had to address amid the cheers and boos that are an invariable feature at similar gatherings in our rural districts.
From Kakamas we travelled slowly down the left bank of the river, and so came to the Aughrabies Falls. These are little known on account of the remote desert country in which they lie, but they are among the highest in the world.
Close to the edge of the falls the river narrows down to a granite portal, not more than fifteen yards wide, and through this restricted gateway the accumulated waters of half a continent plunge down five hundred feet sheer into a mighty gorge not unlike that below the Victoria Falls at Livingstone. A lonely farmer lives in the vicinity, and one of his sons guided us to a point from which we could not only watch the immense column leaping over the rim, but see the foaming cauldron far below.
The young fellow had grown up beside the river, and he said that he knew a way to the bottom of the gorge. The rest of my party hung back, and they were sound judges, for it was a fearsome descent. We had to go by a crevice in the face of the cliff and we slowly made our way, testing each foothold before trying the next, until at last we got to a spot where a jutting ledge gave us standing room just above the heaving cataract. We were now some four hundred yards below the falls and, looking up the gorge, we could see the water coming over with a roar of thunder, and there stood a cloud of mist and spray. From the falls the torrent came racing down towards us in angry flood, throwing up great waves and eddying wildly.
But I watched the driftwood, and I noticed that some of the logs slowed down at a certain point, and even started to float upstream again. From this I concluded that the water, probably due to submerged rocks, was taking a rotary movement and that, for all its frightening aspect, the gorge was not as dangerous as it seemed; and I decided to make a test.
I stripped and dived in, and it was as I thought, for there was something of an upstream current, and I was able to make headway. I was tossed and buffeted a good deal, and at times there was a sensation of remoteness from the outside world, for on either side the walls of the mighty canyon stood so high that but a strip of blue sky showed, making one feel a mere speck in the waste of waters.
I am a good swimmer, and I covered the four hundred yards by dint of battling, and I was even able to get into a vast cavern behind the fall. The water came over with such force that it set up a downward current of air like a giant ventilator in a mineshaft. It was a vivid experience.
After cruising around in the calm backwater at the rear of the falls, I returned the way I had come and rejoined my guide who had been watching my escapade with some alarm. We now climbed up the cliff and, after another terrible scramble, we reached the top in safety. At the Boer homestead the old farmer held up his hands on being told what I had done, but when I asked him whether the gorge had been swum before, he said bluntly that no one had been such a damn fool as to try.
All the same, my record stands.