Updated: May 13
This question gets asked all the time by people wanting to book a rafting adventure, so let's look at all the pros and cons of when the best time to raft is.
Peak Season Rafting (December-January)
Although the peak season normally runs from December to April, most people choose December-January due to being on holiday. It is normally quite hot in these months and the water level and flow is brilliant too due to the summer rainfall. The flow on the Thunder Alley section we raft on depends on how much water gets released from the upstream Vanderkloof Dam. A number of factors get taken into account with the volume of water being released daily.
During the summer rainfall months the major dams collect a lot of water from the catchment areas. The Gariep Dam feeds the Vanderloof Dam, and both can fill up quickly if the season is wet, like is has been the past two years. Once the dams are full, so 100% and above, more water gets released to ease the pressure on the dams, however, controlled release needs to be done sensibly to avoid flooding. As we know, this isn't always the case, and there have been regular instances of flooding the past two years. The normal volume released daily from Vanderkloof dam varies, but is around 300-350 cumecs (cubic metres per second), depending on the water level in the dam, and what is flowing in from the Gariep Dam upstream.
When there is flooding and the dam levels exceed 100%, the water authorities can open the sluice gates at any stage and release more water than normal. This could result in the flow reaching 1,700 cumecs or more at times, but it's uncommon to have this kind of release for long periods.
So rafting in the peak of summer could mean better water levels, higher flow rates, and wild, exciting rapids! Alternatively, when water levels are low, so during drought periods, the Hell's Gate rapid is not safe to run, so gets portaged around. Hubbly Bubbly rapid is another challenging rapid at low water level, as it has a major pour over, which can be dangerous. The guides normally take the rafts through the LHS channel of this rapid if people feel uncomfortable doing it themselves.
To summarize then, December-January is terrific but very busy, as most adventurers tend to raft then. The river can get a bit crowded sometimes as other rafting outfits are also doing trips. The climate is fantastic though and generally the water level and flow is brilliant, making for an awesome adventure!
Shoulder of the peak season (February-May)
February and March are also fantastic rafting months, with good weather and excellent water levels and flow rates. February tends to be the hottest month and there are a few thunderstorms in the afternoons, but they tend to clear up and the evenings are gorgeous. March is great, ahs it is still quite warm, but not like at the peak of summer. Flow rates are excellent and water levels great too.
The beauty of rafting in these months is that it's not as busy on the river as in December and January, so definitely worthwhile considering too.
April can be amazing as well, but the days start getting shorter and slightly cooler, particularly in the evenings. Most days are still around 30 degrees C, or slightly over, and the evenings are between 5-10 degrees C, especially towards the end of April.
May is a fantastic month to raft in, as the weather is normally very settled and dry, so no rain. The flow rates and water level will be slightly lower, however, the rapids at lower water levels are still very exciting!
The Thunder Alley section we raft has around 30 rapids to navigate in total, but most are grade 1 and 2 rapids. There are a couple of grade 3 rapids, depending on the flow. Hell's Gate and Hubbly Bubbly are the most challenging rapids, with the former being grade 4 or 5 at times, depending on the water level and flow, so will naturally get portaged around for safety sake. At higher flow levels Hell's Gate becomes easily runnable.
Winter rafting (June-August)
Similar to May, but cold nights and frosty mornings. The days are still sunny and mild (20-24 degrees), and very settled. For winter trips you need to bring along warm clothes for the evenings and mornings, a good sleeping bag, and a woolen beanie. There is always a fire at night and in the morning to chill around (oops, I mean warm up around) and the stars in the sky are just outstanding in winter!
Strangely enough, the river water is never that cold in winter, just fresh! It is definitely worthwhile pondering a winter rafting trip, so ⁰come on, move out of your comfort zone and toughen up! Winter trips are normally discounted a bit too, so well worth considering.
Spring rafting (September-November)
It now starts getting warmer again and the rain returns, especially from October onwards. The afternoons typically have the odd thunderstorm to cool things down, so bring along appropriate clothes and a waterproof top, just in case you do get caught in a storm. Normally we pull to the side when there's a thunderstorm, then resume once it finishes. The water levels increase and the flow gets better again as more water tends to get released from the Vanderkloof Dam, for both agruculture and hydroelectricity generation.
I really hope this article has given you some insights and that it has been helpful in choosing a great time to raft on the Orange River! Come along and join the team on a trip soon!