History

The Orange River was previously known to the pre-colonial Nama inhabitants of the area as “Gariep”, which means “great river”.

The name was changed in 1779 by Colonel Robert Gordon, then commander of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape, on an expedition to the interior. Gordon renamed the river in honour of William V of Orange.

But Gordon was certainly not the first colonist to have attempted to reach this far into the South African interior, with a few earlier expeditions having got close to the banks of the river as much as a century previously, drawn on by reports that they had heard from Namaqua traders who had travelled south towards the Cape.

A certain Jacobus Coetzee was in fact the first white man to cross the river in 1760. Coetzee was an elephant hunter and also an ancestor of the famous contemporary South African writer J.M Coetzee, who fictionalized some of Jacobus’ travels across the wild, arid northern reaches of South Africa close to the Orange River in his first novel Disgrace.

The Orange River has also been known as the “River of Diamonds”; it formerly carried diamonds into Namibia and all the way to the Namib coast, playing an important part in the diamond rush that Namibia experienced at the turn of the 19th century.

The longstanding cultural practices of the pre-colonial Nama people can still be observed today in the Richtersveld National Park that surrounds the banks of the Orange River; this is the only place in Southern Africa where the Nama’s traditional, semi-nomadic pastoral way of life has endured.

Since the end of apartheid, the name these people originally gave the river (“Gariep”) has had a significant revival.