A hike does not start when your boots hit the dirt for the first time. It begins with a to-do list. This I realise while listening to the rhythmic munching coming from the back seat of the car, with the arm of our friend Liesl Muller extending itself every so often to me and my wife Mia in the front seats, offering us biltong or chutney-flavoured maize bites. The biltong and bites were with us because they were on the list as snacks for our time in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, which is about 100 kilometres long. And if I am correct, we are now digging into provisions supposed to sustain us while on a long hike in the middle of nowhere. This is not a good time to reduce provisions.
The only way out is a medical helicopter
We have travelled about 1 200 kilometres from Johannesburg towards our destination in Namibia, and the nearest decent shop for restocking is about 300 kilometres away in Upington, back in South Africa. I say yes to another handful of bites as Liesl assures us this specific snack comes from a Ziplock bag marked ‘car snacks’, and won’t have any effect on our survival in the canyon.
Because the Fish River Canyon is so isolated, you leave nothing to chance and, besides a food list, Mia started a list of what to take to stay dry, warm, clean and healthy, a month beforehand. Weeks before the trip, our group of 12 hikers also shared lists and photos of gear and food on a Visrivier 2018 WhatsApp group. Paranoia abounds among hikers, it seems.
We stop at the Grünau Country Hotel. Grünau is a small town with about 50 houses surrounded by Karoo-like desert, and is the best place to overnight before setting off for the canyon. We also top up on some Namibian hospitality. The owner of the hotel boils us some eggs for breakfast the next day and doesn’t even frown when we request a helping of grated cheddar cheese for the braaibroodjies we intend to make the following evening on the hike.
Before first light the next morning, our car headlights break the darkness of the 100-kilometre dirt road to Hobas campsite. Here we leave the cars for the four nights and five days of the hike, and will catch a lift back to them afterwards.
We nervously peer into the canyon because we know that, once we start down the path to the river, the only real way out is an expensive helicopter ride courtesy of our medical insurance. To calm us down, Tannie Heide du Preez shoves home-baked brownies from her ‘car snacks’ Ziplock bag into our mouths.
Gazing at the stars
We chew gratefully and then begin the descent. It’s like walking down a 50-centimetre-wide staircase of scattered, uneven rocks. I hadn’t weighed my backpack before our start, but now it feels overpacked and my legs are turning to jelly.
Two hours later we finish the 2.5-kilometre descent. Our legs give way and we fall flat on our backs under a boulder for some shade, and catch our first close view of the muddy Fish River. I open a Ziplock bag marked ‘day one’ and dig out biltong and trail mix, wolfing it down like it’s my last meal, and rounding it off with a chicken-mayo sandwich. The others also dig into snacks and we discuss hiking menus like it’s an art to be studied.
After the chow we head off again and immediately the sand fights back our every effort to advance. “I can’t accept this,” says Liesl in awe, as we walk deeper into the valley that stretches thin, with neck-bending high cliffs, ahead of us. The river curves its muddy way endlessly ahead and we are like ants among its enormity. The canyon is the largest in Africa and it’s overwhelming.
The first two days of the hike are probably the hardest as you have to descend to the river, begin grappling with sand and intermittently climb over car-sized boulders. Our friend Hendri van Zyl, who organised the hike, had said he would not take any inexperienced hikers along and, after day one, we realise why. We cover only six kilometres before fading sunlight forces us to down our backpacks.
How we will cover close to 100 kilometres over the next four days no one knows. We find a spot between rocks to settle for the night. As we lose our battle against the last sunlight we can’t find enough wood for a fire, so I cook my sosaties on my camp stove.
After dinner we lie in our sleeping bags and fall asleep while gazing at the stars. No one has a tent and, when a slow drizzle wakes us early in the morning, we pull over canvas sheets and wait it out.
Soothing our aching legs
Then we begin a routine. After breakfast of oats, rusks and coffee, everyone goes to the river to get water. We add three drops of purifier for each litre of water, to make sure we don’t get sick on the hike. The dust here is so fine that it never settles and every day we drink the murky, but clean, water. At each rest stop we repeat our water routine.
At about the 15-kilometre mark on day two, a few palm trees are a sign that it’s time for a break at the sulphur springs. At this little oasis, water at about 65˚C seeps from underneath the palm trees into the river. And the advantage of hiking with a group largely of engineers is that it takes one of them only a few minutes to move a few rocks to divert the water into a mud pool.
This is what Michael van Jaarsveld does and minutes later we all lie in the warm water and soothe our already aching legs. It’s hard to leave the hot spring behind, but we head off again. We spot the first sign of life in the canyon, a horse grazing nearby and, for all its fairly good condition, we cannot see what it eats in this world of sand and rock.
From day three the landscape gradually becomes flatter and we begin covering more than 20 kilometres a day. Here we also start seeing a lot of kudu and leopard spoor. “Jis Uys, kyk daai sak,” my buddy Hendri chirps. He is not the only one with comments. Thanks to Mia’s lists, my breakfast, lunch and dinner each day are organised, but that’s all that I have organised. For the rest, I’m fraying at the edges and my backpack is proof.
Every morning when I finish packing and the group begins to head out, I realise I’ve forgotten to pack some bits and pieces, and end up strapping them to my backpack. Which means I have a braai grid, slops, swim shorts, scarf (for the sun), my rubbish bag (you have to carry your rubbish to the end) and my cup, all hanging from my backpack. The word ‘hobo’ flies around freely. And although the backpack lightens after every meal, it seems to be growing in size.
Following the river for three days becomes a safety line. For one, the river has water. And if you follow it you will end up at your final destination, the Ai-Ais Hot Springs resort, even without a map. However, now and again you do need to take shortcuts away from the wider horseshoes of the river.
On day three in the Fish River Canyon we wet our hats and scarves and take our first shortcut away from the river up to the desert plateau. Around us, rock towers jut into the sky like the arms of fallen giants. Here it is only us and a zebra carcass. But we are not alone, but welcomed to the vastness by koringkrieke (armoured ground crickets or corn crickets) that screech at us when we get too close. These creatures become our daily company.
The shortcuts are a must as the hard desert landscape gives you a new perspective on solitude. Every ten kilometres, white paint on a boulder announces another small victory. And before we know it, we hit the 80-kilometre mark on day five. We sit around grateful to be almost there but with a sense of dismay that the hike is nearly over. Everyone checks fitness watches and compares distances covered while finishing off the last snacks.
At this point, the big question on everyone’s lips is which is worse? Walking over sand, or playing hellish hopscotch over fields of large rocks? I’ll take rocks over sand any day. But for now, the Ai-Ais resort, with its promise of beer and hamburgers, is ahead of us. And so we trudge on into the last kilometres of beautiful isolation.