Orange River Mouth

One expects that the longest river in Africa south of the Zambezi, would end in spectacular fashion when it eventually reaches the ocean. Surprisingly, it is not so.
The road from Port Nolloth to Alexander Bay.

With a total length of 2,200km, the Orange River is the longest river in South Africa. It originates as the Senqu River in the Drakensberg mountains of Lesotho at an altitude of 3350m, flowing westwards through South Africa and ends at Alexander Bay in the Atlantic Ocean, more or less half-way between Cape Town and Walvis Bay. The main tributary along the way is the Vaal River. A smaller tributary, the Fish River in Namibia, joins the Orange River in the lower catchment.
The river flows into the Gariep Dam, largest dam in South Africa, and then into the Vanderkloof Dam. Along its way, it forms borders between South Africa and Lesotho, and between the Free State, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. Further downstream, just west of Upington, it crashes down the 60m high Augrabies Falls, before acting as the border between South Africa and Namibia for the last 400km to its mouth.
The river, one of few perennial rivers in southern Africa,
is the source for extensive irrigation activities, especially in the flatter areas on the western side. There are no crocodiles or hippos in the Orange River which makes it a sought after river for recreation and adrenalin action sports.

The wetland

The Orange River Mouth as seen from the Namibian side.
The Orange River Mouth is a Ramsar wetland and a typical wetland by definition. There is very little evidence of a river in flood, as the water was slowed down into multiple channels, making it difficult to see or pinpoint the actual mouth.

The importance of the site becomes even more apparent when one considers the fact that the next nearest coastal wetland is the Olifants River mouth, some 400km to the south in South Africa, and Sandwich Harbour, 500km to the north in Namibia.
The area designated as a Ramsar site comprises the estuary of the Orange River before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, between the river mouth and the Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge that links the border towns of Oranjemund in Namibia and Alexander Bay in South Africa. While the exact boundaries of the Ramsar site are somewhat unclear, the South African section of the wetland covers approximately 2000 hectares while the remaining 500ha falls within Namibia.
The Orange River Mouth can be described as a delta type river mouth which comprises a distributor channel system between sand banks covered with pioneer vegetation, a tidal basin, the river mouth and the saltmarsh on the south bank of the river mouth.  At times the Orange River flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean, but sometimes its access to the sea is blocked by sandbars.
The Orange River Mouth falls within the winter rainfall area of southern Africa, receiving between 11 and 88mm of rain per annum. 
The two Ramsar wetlands on both sides of the Orange River virtually overlap and share many common traits and challenges.

Ramsar criteria

The Orange River Mouth is regarded as the 2nd most important estuary in South Africa in terms of conservation importance after the Knysna Estuary. In Namibia it represents one of three globally important coastal wetlands (the others being Walvis Bay lagoon and the Kunene River mouth). It supports several fish and bird species that are listed in the Namibian, South African or international red data books. 
More specifically, it supports more than 1% of the world population of three species of waterbirds that are endemic to southern Africa, namely the Cape Cormorant, Hartlaub’s Gull and Damara Tern. It also supports more than 1% of the Southern African populations of six species of waterbirds, namely the Black-necked Grebe, Lesser Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Swift Tern and Caspian Tern.
It is regarded as one of the most important coastal wetlands in southern Africa in terms of the number of birds supported, at times supporting more than 20,000 waterbirds of between 50 and 57 species. It is consequentially also recognized as an Important Bird Area (SA030) and is the only place where the near-threatened Barlow’s lark can be seen in Southern Africa.
The Orange River Mouth is an important staging area for Palaearctic migrants such as Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint and Common Ringed Plover, and intra-African migrants such as Damara Tern and Lesser Flamingo. 
The Orange River Mouth on the South African side received its Ramsar status on 28 Jun 1991. Following the collapse of the saltmarsh component of the estuary due to adjacent diamond mining activities and flow regulation of the Orange River as a result of dam construction, the site was placed on the *Montreux Record in September 1995.
The Namibian side was declared a Ramsar wetland on 23 Aug 1995.


In 1908 the first diamonds were discovered along the west coast of southern Africa at Kolmanskop near Lüderitz in Namibia. This led to the subsequent prospecting at the Orange River Mouth where rich deposits were discovered at Alexander Bay, South Africa, in 1926. These deposits proved so rich that in 1927 the Government prohibited all further diamond prospecting on state owned land in Namaqualand and started mining operations at Alexander Bay. Later diamonds were also discovered and mined elsewhere along the vast coastline, including areas in Namibia just north of the Orange River Mouth.
Alexkor is a government owned mining body that operates at Alexander Bay in South Africa. Although mining is not as prevalent as in the past, Alexkor has indicated plans to continue mining in the area well into the middle on the century (2050).
The welcoming party to the author (3rd from left).
Alexander Bay is a small diamond mining town in a very arid, semi-desert location. Due to mining activities having been scaled down to a large extent, parts of the town are almost deserted. Access to the town is controlled by way of an entrance register.

Namdeb Diamond Corporation, a 50:50 partnership between the Namibian government and De Beers Centenary, has the mining right to mine diamonds a few kilometers north from the Orange River Mouth. Oranjemund town was subsequently established.  You need a pre-arranged permit to get past the gated security entrance of the town that falls inside the restricted area known as the Sperrgebiet.
Oranjemund - centre of town.
Mining activities were scaled down and there are even talks that access to the town can be opened up to enhance tourism. The town is in good shape. It is clean and green with irrigated lawns that are well kept. Oryx antelope can be seen in the streets. Residents and businesses enjoy free water and electricity courtesy of Namdeb, but this may end early in 2016 when the town becomes governed by an elected town council.

Land ownership and management

The South African section of the Ramsar site was previously owned and managed by the mining company Alexkor for many years. Following a land claim by the Richtersveld Community Property Association, the community was reinstated with the right to ownership of the land. In collaboration with the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation, proposals have been put forward for more effective management of the Ramsar site. New legislation in 2008 recognized estuaries as a marine environment and thus the management mandate now lies with national government, Department of Environmental Affairs, who is in the process to proclaim the mouth as a marine protected area.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) is the South African implementing partner for the international project called ‘A water secure future for southern Africa: Applying the Ecosystem Approach in the Orange-Senqu basin.’ EWT is a Non-Governmental Organisation and has undertaken to provide support to the provincial and national departments responsible for the management of the site. They undertook to build capacity within the local community and implement various activities outlined in the ‘Strategic Management Plan for the Orange River Mouth Ramsar Site.’
This is all very confusing and does not provide a clear picture of who is actually responsible for what. As with many other Ramsar wetlands in South Africa, land ownership issues and the accompanying uncertainty in management mandates over the years, left the South African side of the Orange River Mouth unmanaged for most of the time. I hope that the involvement of the Endangered Wildlife Trust will assist to find a suitable management system for the long term.
The wetland on the Namibian side of the Ramsar site forms part of a large protected area— the Sperrgebiet National Park. Namdeb, the mining company in the protected area, also managed the town of Oranjemund. But the town is now excluded from this area and transferred back to the Namibian government. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism are therefore now formally responsible for the management of the Namibian section of the Ramsar site.

Recreational and tourism offerings

At the time of our visit (October 2015), there were not sufficient recreational activities and amenities that will attract tourists from far away.
The Alexkor golf club is still active in Alexander Bay, albeit mainly for employees of the company. Old signs for a couple of guest houses are still visible but there are not really accommodation options in the town.
It is difficult to reach the actual mouth on the South African side. Without an off-road permit, one cannot drive there. The only way is to walk the 2 to 3 kilometers on the beach and over sand dunes – not within the capability of most tourists.
The old bird hide is still there, but it is difficult to reach and it is overlooking the old dried-up oxidation ponds.
Fishing (both freshwater and estuarine) is permissible with the appropriate permits. The catch mainly comprises silver and dusky kob, white and west coast steenbras, and elf. Use of boats is also permitted in the estuary, although currently restricted to just a few locals.
Entrance to Oranjemund Golf Club.
On the Namibian side things look a little bit brighter. The impressive Oranjemund Golf Club on the banks of the Orange River close to the mouth is an obvious attraction. It is well maintained and with Oryx antelope appearing on most of the fairways, this is a unique way to play golf.

The community do fish in the Ramsar site provided they have permits which are obtainable from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource’s local office in Oranjemund. No permits are required to drive on the beach.
No bird hides exist although there are birds worth watching in the area.
The roads alongside the river towards the mouth are accessible by most sedan cars and provide excellent viewing of birds on the estuary islands.
"Op My Stoep" as seen from Swartkop.
Guesthouses are available in Oranjemund and include those operated and used by NAMDEB and a limited number of private concerns. Other recreation facilities are the Oranjemund Yacht Club, Oranjemund Off-road Club and Oranjemund Riding Club.

Pink Pan is situated between Oranjemund and the river mouth. Strangely, it does not form part of the Ramsar wetland and because it is inside the restricted Sperrgebiet, it cannot be visited by casual visitors.
Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge linking South Africa and Namibia.
Swartkop Nature Reserve is basically a small hill overlooking the town of Oranjemund and its surroundings. It is situated just outside the Namibian border post and can be visited anytime by anyone. It provides a magnificent view of the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer bridge, the Orange River and its mouth.


The major threat to this wetland is the loss of inflow of water and sediment through human manipulation of water in the Orange River catchment.  The two major extant dams (Gariep and Vanderkloof) on the middle reaches of the Orange River, already limit floods in the lower Orange River. Development of further dams and diversion of flow in the headwaters as part of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme are likely to further reduce water availability in the Orange River Mouth. Construction of the proposed Neckartal dam in the lower Fish River in Namibia will further compound this situation because the Fish River is currently the main source of floods at the Orange River Mouth.
With more than 20 major dams and numerous weirs within its catchment, river inflows to the Orange River Estuary have been markedly reduced with only an estimated 44% or less of natural flows still reaching the system.
There are other minor threats such as the diamond mining activities, access roads to the beach and access control to the Ramsar wetlands. Most of these should be resolved with proper management.

Many plans

According to various management plans for both sides of the Ramsar wetland, future developments will focus a lot on tourism. Although only plans on paper at this stage, it includes the following:
·         The region has the potential to offer a unique product, in terms of pristine diversity and un-spoilt arid environment. Further potential has been identified based on the desert, mountain and ocean scenery, as well as the bird life hosted in the estuary.
·         Marketing and developing the area as a regional destination that offers visitors a variety of nature and culture-based attractions as well as accessible cross-border linkages and tour routes.
·         Oranjemund and Alexander Bay have been identified as development nodes to support the unlocking of the tourism potential in the area. Both towns will also be logical access points into the Sperrgebiet National Park when this is opened for tourism activities.
·         The Ramsar wetland at the Orange River Mouth has high tourism value for specialist bird watching tourists. Bird hides and other bird watching facilities at appropriate places in the Ramsar site need to be established.
·         Golfing & other sports facilities.
·         Fishing, both freshwater and marine species e.g. smallmouth and largemouth yellow fish, white steenbras, mullet etc.
·         Diamond mining tours.
·         Existing airstrips are to be found at Upington, Springbok, Alexander Bay and Oranjemund. These airstrips provide the infrastructure to deal with potential higher demand.
·         Applying for Alexander Bay Airport to regain national status.
·         Upgrading the regional road network.
·         Improving the connectivity with the Richtersveld National Park.
·         Linking Oranjemund and Lüderitz in Namibia.
·         Refurbish existing infrastructure and/or develop new accommodation options.
·         The establishment of a campground on the Orange River that provides an overnight stop for self-drive tourists at a location close to Oranjemund.
As mentioned many times before in articles of the SA RAMSAR project, it is my belief that well controlled eco-tourism can improve the general state of Ramsar wetlands and contribute to its conservation. Let’s hope these plans for the Orange River Mouth are implemented soon.

Date of visit: 20 October 2015

 Montreux Record is a register of wetland sites on the List of Wetlands of International Importance where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur as a result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. It is maintained as part of the Ramsar List.