The Fish River Canyon Part 5

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The Intrepid Adventurors

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.

Day 5

The fifth day of the hike was our day of serious river crossings, short cuts and distance. It was also the day on which we emerged from the main section of the canyon. We started the day by working out where we should cross the river in order to pick up the short cut across a huge bend to the four-finger rock. And I would like to point out that this isn't a cheat, everyone does it, everyone is expected to do it as the bend is apparently horrid to walk round, and it's marked on all the maps (we checked on the official one when we got it). The walking was not too hard... there was some gravel, and the floor of the canyon was still in shade. Our first two river crossings were not without incident, on the first one Sarah was so eager to get across that she nearly slipped, while on the second one Dad actually did slip and managed to wet the base of his rucksack - fortunately he packed rather bizarrely so the sleeping bag remained unaffected somewhere in the middle of the bag. His boots, however, were hanging off the rucksack so both they and his socks were drenched.

This necessitated a quick snack break to give them a chance for them to dry off, and for us to psyche ourselves up for the short cut, a winding pass over the hills running along by the river. The path started by going straight up, but we were actually not inclined to mind the climb, as it was a gravel path so we were unlikely to struggle two steps upwards before sliding 3 feet back down. At this stage we were passed by some of the group of students we had met on the second day. In fact, by lunchtime, we had met pretty much everyone walking the trail at our sort of time. We were also picking up advice from them, as they had all done it before at least once, and were telling us where to cross the river, and where to camp, and they all told us that the walking on the last day was very easy...
But more of that later.

The short cut was wonderful. We got an amazing view up and down the river, and realised that we were out of the canyon, and into a river plain surrounded by hills. We had a view of the Three Sisters rock, and were very glad we didn't have to go closer to it - it was on the long bend we were cutting out. We could also see the Four-finger rock where we had been recommended to camp on our last night. However we couldn't see anywhere we would have wanted to camp - besides which the rock didn't even look like it had four of anything, let alone fingers, and we were also glad we wouldn't be walking 30km on the last day. We were, however, walking in one direction for the first time since we had climbed into the canyon (then we were going straight down, now we were walking fairly straight out). The shortcut cut out another bend of the river as we crossed over once again, scrambled up a very steep sandy bank, and set off down a wide shingle track, with tyre tracks on it just to indicate we were approaching civilisation again. Not that they made walking any easier, the shingle sank beneath our feet, the sun was getting extremely hot and there was no shade. But the four-finger rock did now look like it had four fingers (surely you should be able to identify the landmarks as you approach them rather than when you are leaving them behind).

The next entertainment on the hike was re-crossing the river, and this time one of the student managed to slip, dowsing his boots and his sleeping bag which were both tied to the back of the rucksack. Of course once we had crossed the river and continued a little way we discovered that this was one time when we shouldn't have got our feet wet. The route deteriorated into the mixture of sand and boulders that we had thought we had left behind in the canyon. So once again we crossed the river. By this point in time I was so completely sick of taking my boots off and putting them on again 2 minutes later, that I attempted to cross the river without getting my feet wet. I hopped from rock to rock across the river, while Dad just stood there mid-stream and told me I'd have to get into the river sometime. And so I did, but I wouldn't have if he had done as I asked and given me a little hand-held support so I could take long leaps from wet boulder to wet boulder. But he didn't, and as I couldn't be bothered to take my boots off, and had erased all memory of how hard it was to walk in wet boots, I just stepped off my perch into the river and walked.

Crossing the River

My feet were once again lovely and cool - for about 5 minutes. Fortunately the fact that they then became a large amount heavier didn't matter so much this time as we were not walking across sand, but over riverbed stones which were fairly much the same size and easy to walk across as long as you paid attention to where you put your feet. We didn't always do this, and occasionally slipped on a rock, landed on a wobbly stone, or twisted an ankle, and we were distracted this time by our need to find 'the causeway' a mystery path across the river, and also a hunt for a lunch spot. A good lunch spot needed to have somewhere comfy so sit, preferably in the shade, with a little shelter, fairly near to the water, and with an appropriate set of bushes nearby. We could find nothing to fulfil that description on the side of the river we were on, so we decided to cross the river at the causeway (and hoped we would be able to keep our boots on), we also thought we should cross over in order to cut across the wide outside bend of the river we were walking along.

When we arrived at the causeway we found a concrete track slightly submerged beneath the river, and also the modern wonders of a car, building, and Coca-Cola advert. We weren't sure quite how deep the water over the causeway was and, in order to see if it would soak through our boots at all, I was sent across first, the reasoning being that my boots and socks were already wet. Of course they got wetter, so everyone else sat on the stones to change into their sandals while I trundled on and collapsed on the other side to remove my footwear and give it a chance to dry over lunch. Inevitably, however, the site on which I had chosen to bestow my weary bones was not suitable in the eyes of other members of our party, so we had to move up the path, me treading very gingerly as my feet, having been encased in boots for nearly 5 days felt tender against any harsh surface.

We found we had stopped for lunch near the large family group who had started the hike on the same day as us and, as the younger members of their party had hiked the trail before, we picked their brains a little. They told us that we should follow the cairns along the gravel path, rather than going along the edge of the river or up the road toward the nature reserve (a sign said that it was home to the quagga - an extinct species similar to zebra). Also that if we then crossed the river, we would probably want to camp around the next bend - at Sandy Beach, as with the water so high it was unlikely there would be anywhere nice to camp further on, and it would then be a straight walk of about 4 hours out to Ai-Ais with only a couple of river crossings. We thought that this sounded fairly straightforward and decided to follow their advice.

The next river crossing however was highly interesting in that there were no rocks and the riverbed was all sand. The main problem was how to get across the river without sinking knee deep in the sand (and therefore waist deep in the river). Eventually we had to walk right up to the far end of the beach to cross where there were a few large boulders mid-river and we hoped the sand would be less inclined to sink. Also the river was narrower there, and we could stand on the rocks to avoid sinking on the sandbank in the middle. We then walked as fast as possible across the river, and miraculously managed to sink no deeper than our ankles. The sight that greeted us on the other side of the river though was less than cheerful. A vast expanse of sand, followed by a small patch of extremely large boulders to work our way through. However, we had not gone through 4 1/2 days training for nothing, and Sarah and I crossed the sand at a lick, arriving at a suitable hat-wetting location (wet hats are great for cooling heads) to wait a while my parents caught up.

From then on our afternoon walking was not too hard. We wound our way through the boulders and came out to meet another path across the flood plain. Once along this we found another expanse of sand - Sandy Beach, our stop for the night. We decided to camp up against the hill that bordered the beach, rather than right out in the middle, nearer the water where we would have been subject to greater wind and cold. However it was a nearly a 10minute walk to the river, so we sent Dad off with as many containers as he could carry to get water while we thought we would go for a swim. Just as Mum, Sarah and I were about to head down to the river carrying the remaining potential water containers we discovered that the hill behind us was home to a colony of shrieking baboons, all prancing around on the rocks. As Mum had previous experience of the ferocity of baboons from growing up in South Africa she opted to baby-sit the camp until Dad returned with the water. Meantime Sarah and I set off on our little expedition across the beach.

When we got to the river Sarah decided that the water was too cold to swim in, and so busied herself with examining the sets of animal prints in the sand, which she decided were very big and cat-like, and then requested to know if there were any leopards or cheetahs in the canyon area (we found out later that there were). Mum arrived a little later and decided that I hadn't filled the water bottles satisfactorily and sent me back into the cold river to refill them. We returned to our 'tents' enjoying the idea of spending our last night by the Fish River... the prospect that the next night we would be enjoying hot showers, well cooked (meat) food, and comfortable beds was very exciting. So we decided to make the most of our flavoured rice and droewors, and then stayed up late, watching the stars. We were getting fairly good at finding the southern cross and Scorpio, but were a little bemused by the way they went round. We didn't see how the Southern Cross could move across the sky and still point south. Equally, the place where the cross rose was not south, unless the sun was rising and setting in the wrong place. They were still amazing to watch though, but we eventually got too tired and had to retire to our sleeping bags at 8 o'clock.

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