Riding the great Orange River

By Garth Johnstone

Four locals with a love of mountain biking and the outdoors completed an epic 2400km ride along the length of South Africa’s most famous river – the Orange – from source to river mouth… and it seems they are now itching for more.

Howick educational advisor Paul Rencken was among a group of six who in 2010 spent 18 days cycling from the Midlands to Cape Town. The crew, all locals, had a ball but Rencken said after this they were looking for another challenge that would not take them away from their families and businesses for quite so long.

The idea was borne to cycle the entire length of the Orange River – in four separate stages.

First up was an extended weekend adventure back in October 2013, where the four – Paul, Gary Preston, Wayne Twigg and Mike Pallett – journeyed into Lesotho to the Senqu to try to get as close as possible to the “cyclable” source of the great river.

These original and core members of what would become known as the GORR (Great Orange River Ride) spent two nights at a remote clinic before cycling into the rough terrain and deep valleys of remote Lesotho.

When they could go no further on bicycles, they had a conflab (read “near-mutiny!”) and boldly declared their starting point – the first stage was completed to St James Mission close to Mokhotlong.

Feverish logistics

Returning home in between the remaining three legs, the GORR undertook feverish logistics and planning in order to complete the three rides:
*St James to the Gariep Dam in the Free State (824km);
*Gariep Dam to Upington in Northern Cape (734km);
*Upington to Oranjemund in the south-west corner of Namibia (776km);

The 2400km was covered between October 2013 and July/August 2016. Navigation and route planning was done through printed maps, use of Google Earth and a trusty Garmin with GPS.

“We did not adopt a cause but undertook the ride purely for enjoyment and a sense of adventure. We couldn’t leave our lives for long enough to do one long stage, but this way worked out well as family and others who wanted to, could join us for a stage or a short period,” said Paul.

Core members

While there were originally the four core members, at times they had up to 14 riders in the group. On average they covered about 100km a day.

There was a back-up vehicle (two when required) which the riders took turns to man and drive. That person was also in charge of food and supplies for the day.

“We decided to only choose the driver after we had had a rest and some food in the evening. This was because most people who volunteered to drive retracted their offer once they’d had a nice rest and supper and felt stronger. Sometimes we had to resort to ‘ching chong cha’ to secure a driver,” he laughed.

Left to right, Mike Pallett, Paul Rencken, Wayne Twigg and Gary Preston reach their journey’s end. All pictures Supplied

Most days they would ride about 40km before meeting up with the vehicle and a stop for breakfast. They would meet the vehicle again at the end of the day.

The ‘quartermaster’

One character who emerged on the Great Orange River Ride was the “quartermaster”, Hannes Mentz – when at home a handyman/woodworker sponsored by his church to do outreach work. Paul said Hannes is a master organiser, sourcing food, helping to plot routes and where to stop. He was basically the guy who got things done.

Full steam ahead for Midlands cyclist Thami

A couple of highlights during their trip were a stay in the village of Goodhouse in a remote part of the Northern Cape, where the home owner, “Ouma Oliphant”, cleared the house and put up the GORR and rest of the crew for the night. Her sense of hospitality in this hard-luck place really made an impression on the crew.

Arriving at the enclave town of Orania on June 16, Youth Day, was a surreal moment, while they also spent a magical night camping on the banks of the Orange in the Richtersveld area.

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After 2400km of mainly district roads, dirt roads and tracks alongside canals – seeing the land as very few South Africans get to do – the weary but excitable crew finally arrived at the end of their journey in Oranjemund.

And Paul said some of the cyclists were itching to do another big ride soon – hinting that planning was already under way… watch this space