Hiking in Namibia
The Fish River Canyon in Namibia is Africa's longest canyon, and second in the world only to the Grand Canyon. Besides being an important conservation area, the canyon is home to a 90km hiking trail which attracts the young, the old, the fit and the not so fit. In fact the only thing all the hikers have in common is a desire to get from Hobas in the north to Ai-Ais in the south.
Once again, on Day Three, the mission was to reach the elusive Palm Springs. We got up even earlier on this morning as we knew we really needed to hike far and fast if we weren't to end up staying in the canyon way longer than we intended. We soon discovered that, as in skiing, the third day is always the worst as you have undergone two days worth of wear, tear and aching that your body has not yet had a chance to get used to. In these circumstances it is quite possible to love an inanimate object so, when we rounded the first corner and saw a path of gravel, we felt strangely like following the lead of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and falling down and kissing it. However, if we'd done that, our rucksacks might have broken our backs so we refrained. Our first encounter with this wondrous substance lasted an irritatingly short time, but from then on there was a stretch of gravel on nearly every inside bend that allowed us to walk more than 5km a day. The presence of gravel was also augmented on this day by stretches of flat rock that were incredibly easy to walk across as they did not sink beneath our feet as the sand did, nor did we have to raise our knees to chest level to scale a boulder.
This blissful start to the day enabled us to wake up properly, and to get into a good walking pace, so that by the middle of the morning we began to smell sulphur and could see reeds and trees in the distance. We immediately stopped to fill up our water bottles as we had been warned not to drink the water for a few kilometres around the springs unless we wanted upset stomachs. When we finally reached the Palm Trees we went scrambling up the slope of the canyon floor to them. We needed proof that the springs were not just figments of imagination and we had actually reached them. After our brief photo opportunity we set off again and soon discovered a pattern to the terrain we were walking on.
After Palm Springs we found ourselves walking much closer to the river, this brought a tiny degree of coolness into our lives, but not enough to counteract the heat of the sun as it approached noon. It was at this point that I discovered I was not destined to have a good day in the Fish River Canyon. Or at least not yet. We were coming up to an inside bend in the river.
'There should be some gravel to walk on just before we stop for lunch'.
Of course we were over optimistic, we should have known that the world doesn't organise itself that nicely. Firstly Mum and I decided we would walk along the solid sand by the edge of the river. We had discovered that it was easier to walk nearer the river as the sand was usually damp and packed solid, and so didn't sink beneath you. Of course we had to be careful of the really dark sand which had become sticky and gave the feeling that you were walking over chocolate Swiss roll. But this was normal damp sand, or so we thought, until I found myself knee deep in it, attempting to keep my camera and watch dry (both were hanging off various rucksack straps) and get out at the same time. Meanwhile Mum alternated between fits of mirth and banal questions:
' Are you alright dear?'
Once I extricated myself she insisted on taking a photo of me as I paddled in the river trying to remove the sand from my boots.
The up side of this incident, for about 10 minutes, was that I had cool feet... a novelty at that time of any day. Unfortunately, of course, it didn't last long, and then not only did I have warm wet feet, but the fact that my socks and boots were soaked through made them even heavier and walking harder. When we caught up with Dad and Sarah at the bend (they were waiting to see what had kept us) they first expressed dismay at not having seen my exploit, and then announced that there was no gravel on this bend, just sand, but that we would stop for lunch just around it, where the 'path' came close to the river again. Of course 'soon' on sand is different to 'soon' anywhere else, so it was over half an hour later that we got to where we were aiming for, having struggled across baking sand (I would have thought it should have turned to glass over the years), only to find that the wind was channelling straight down the canyon, whipping the sand up everywhere and we could not find shade combined with shelter anywhere.
We did the best we could with a group of rocks near the river, and settled down to our sandy noodles and biscuits. Immediately after lunch came the next indication that it really wasn't my day. I went to fill my water bottle, and as it was one of the platypus plastic bag type ones it needed to be poured into, it wouldn't accept the river flowing into it. Also the river at this point was fairly shallow, and I had to make my way across quite a lot of riverbed interspersed with puddles. And on the way I slipped. I had the platypus in one hand and the mug (a rather nice red plastic affair from an international guide camp) in the other. And, as you do when you are about to land hard on your bottom, I put my hands down to break my fall. Which worked. Unfortunately I also broke the mug, there was a nice 'circular' hole in the middle of the base. Needless to say everyone else found this hilarious, particularly the prospect of seeing me drink out of a saucepan for the rest of the hike.
Then we moved on. We had got very excited at lunch about how far we had walked in one morning, and had been discussing how far we might get in the afternoon and which of the canyon's many flat topped sides was the one known as 'Table Mountain' (we were now out of the spectacular gorge and into a wider, shallower canyon). We were also discussing whether we should try and cross the river at this shallow point as the opposite side looked a bit more friendly to the hiker; riverbed stones, rather than slippery rock climbs and sand. We decided against it in the end, as we were not sure when, or whether, we would be able to cross back, and also we were coming up to an inside bend.
Of course we should have crossed the river. The slippery rock climbs were worse up close than we could have imagined. First came a set of buttresses on a slant, which we had to scramble up on to and then slide across, preferably sitting down. Then came a nice, smooth rock face sloping at about 450 down into the river. We had 2 choices here. Either we could climb up and along a very small crack in the rock, or we could take off our shoes and socks and paddle along in the river. Dad opted to take Mum's rucksack, freeing her up to act like a klippspringer, and she decided to try the latter route. However she discovered (by nearly sitting down in the river) that the rock ran down and under the river, and was very slippery. So she came back to follow the rest of us, and still had an advantage as she was barefoot and therefore able to get a better grip on tiny cracks than the 3 of us in clumpy hiking boots. Dad went first with his rucksack and then returned for Mums, saying that it wasn't a problem, we'd be fine. And we would have been fine, if we'd had legs as long as his.
Sarah and I inched gingerly along the crack leaning right in to the rock face in an attempt to counteract gravity's pull on our rucksacks that regularly threatened to send us flying backwards into the river. Then we had to scramble monkey-style (hands and feet on the rock) for about 15m until we discovered we were pretty much stuck unless we slid down a little way so that we could get off the rock. We just about managed to do this without landing in the water, and then collapsed on the sand and stuck our heads in the river to cool off, whilst waiting for Dad to guide Mum step by step over the rock.
After this we struggled slowly on through a sand pit of huge boulders all reflecting the heat down on to us, and then across the regulation sand, boulder, sand, boulder combination for a little while. However the scramble had taken its toll on all of us, especially Mum, so we found a place to camp early, and Dad carried her rucksack for the last bit, intelligently losing his hat on the way and having to go back to find it. We then discovered that one sensible group of people had crossed over the river to avoid the rock climb, and were camped directly opposite to us. We were all so exhausted we soon discovered that we really didn't care, and went to sleep, only to be woken up in the middle of the night by a howling gale, and being requested peremptorily by Mum to check that her clothes weren't blowing away. On the plus side the wind did wake Dad up, he had been snoring like a baby lion - rousing us all.