A Sucker For Punishment
Is exactly what I must be, when I agreed to repeat my 2016 performance of hiking the Fish River Canyon. Needless to say I couldn’t go back on my word so I saddled up the old back pack, loaded it with the bare essentials and set off on a nine day adventure to Namibia. We would hike for five days (doing a total of 90km) and sleep under the stars for four nights.
Getting away from a frosty Boland winter certainly was a bonus. I packed short sleeve tops, no jumpers, one pair of jeans for the return trip, a large tube of sunscreen and my daughter's old school bather. Nothing makes me happier than sunny skies and temperatures above 28֩C.
My saving grace of course was that I was comfortably fit having recently completed the Camino de Santiago (Portuguese), my core muscles have improved since my first Fish River hike (Yoga, Pilates and Jenny’s strength class) and I’d learned to reduce the weight of my load. My expenses had reduced by at least 50% too! Except. That I needed a new pair of boots.
Sore feet and blistered toes are a hiker’s nightmare. I had had enough of that and immediately Googled sore, swollen feet and what to do about it. The experts all suggested cross country shoes, light, non-slip and perfectly crafted and balanced they should be. Out with the old, heavy, leather boots. In any event the one’s I wore were rubbish, the worst choice on the market, and I was a fool to succumb to their exceptional marketing campaigns, a friend succinctly told me. Butch and I made a special trip into Town to get the pair that met all the requirements, which had been liberally doled out, by non-athletes and the pros alike. Based on all the opinions and expert advice, I had a list as long as my arm.
So on a wet Monday we bundled ourselves into the bakkie and set off. The drive up to Ai-Ais was a pleasant road trip broken up into short hops with our first stop for brunch on the Piekenierskloof. Our first night out was spent in the very quirky Sophia’s Guesthouse in Garies. We couldn’t wait to see the new alterations and additions to the décor both indoors and outdoors. We were not disappointed. I slept like a baby in the huge king-sized bed, under a down-filled duvet.
Spirits were high the next morning when we all trooped back into the bakkie and set off for breakfast in Springbok, where I might be enticed to buy a Kitsch pink crystal bedside lamp for our Honey Badger (Overlander truck). This according to Peter would be the final touch we needed and Butch would find peace and harmony when he closes his eyes at night as crystals have healing powers. I think not, I am all he needs in that department.
Springbok is a shoppers Mecca and Tweet was able to purchase a rather snazzy gold satin scatter cushion at Pep Stores. As far as pillows were concerned The Golden Orb scored 10/10 as my inflatable pillow sprung a leak on the first night and so did Mariclaire’s. Once we’d stocked up on all our last minute groceries we were off to spend our last evening before the hike at Ai-Ais.
I would rather not elaborate on the state of Ai-Ais as it’s in the process of being revamped (restoration work started last year sometime) suffice it to say that progress is painfully slow and the deterioration of buildings, pool maintenance, and ablutions is evident. The indoor hot water pools and spas are out of commission at the moment which was disappointing. The restaurant was open, we did not have a meal there, but did enjoy a fabulous toasted ham, cheese and tomato sandwich on the veranda when we’d completed our hike.
Notwithstanding all of this, the campsites were chock-a-block and most guests didn’t seem too fazed. Sadly clients are still charged at full price for amenities which do not stand up to accepted standards anywhere in South Africa and especially not Europe. The shop has improved since I was there in March, stocks are up and the staff are very friendly, helpful and very interested in hearing tourists and hikers stories. The lady serving me at the check-out was delightful!
Next morning we were up with the larks, packed up and headed off to Hobas. We paid our entrance fees to the Hobas National Park, handed over our Medical Certificates, we all have a clean Bill of Health, visited the shop to pay exorbitant prices for last minute packets of Jelly babies and Wine Gums. We filled our water bottles, had a cup of coffee at the Buffet and managed to sneak in a sandwich too.
Hobas National Park’s camp grounds have been upgraded and are really top-notch. The restaurant serves a buffet breakfast to clients (we’ve not figured who they are, could be guests staying in the chalets or by pre-arrangement to tour guides). There is an adequate shop with the friendliest staff (it would be amiss of me not to mention that all Namibians are exceptionally friendly.)
Burt kindly ferried us to the starting point of the hike, near the view point. We were delighted to escape the bumpy drive on the open Safari vehicle and we saved R350pp to boot! With a heavy heart Mariclaire said goodbye to her beloved Burt before stepping off into the abyss. While she and Peter scampered off like mountain goats Tweet and I took it one step at a time, clinging to the steel chain, not daring to look anywhere but straight down at our toes. My fear of heights kicked in immediately and a cold sweat dripped from my brow. With one or two slips and slides Tweet and I made it to our lunch stop and refreshing swim.
For me the worst was over. The Fish River is full of water. Deep, clear pools of sweet water snaked peacefully all along our route. Rock and boulder jumping seemed to be more this year but I managed a lot better and after a few kilometres on the thick sand I’d actually look forward to some stones (which are plentiful).
The grandeur of the Canyon was as awesome as last year and I was thrilled to have my camera with me plus all the batteries I needed. The pinks and blues of early mornings and the shades of gold in the evening transformed the skies each day. The relentless, unyielding burn of the sun at noon transformed the landscape and mirrored our mood, as we searched for a shady spot for lunch and an hour’s siesta before continuing our trek to find a campsite on a flat stretch of beach sand on the river.
At night we’d relax around our campfire after we’d rolled out our bedrolls, nursed our tired feet, taken a refreshing dip in the cool, therapeutic waters. We’d watch Mariclaire prepare our delicious one pot meals as we sipped our sundowners, chatting amiably. Lying in our sleeping bags listening to night sounds while we marvelled at the stars and the huge Milky Way was awesome and I’d drift off to sleep without having to count a single sheep.
This time the baboons were far more brazen, often making an appearance as soon as we’d unpacked our snacks, coming in closely to sit and wait for us to move on so that they could scavenge for easy pickings. We made sure we left nothing. They’ve become accustomed to walkers leaving scraps, a seeming kindness, but, we’re going to regret this at our leisure as they’re going to become even more confident in the future and will become a real threat and menace. Hikers are effectively killing them with kindness.
Sadly the wild horses didn’t make an appearance this year, but, we did see a Zebra, lots of birds, a scorpion a huge grasshopper and on a few occasions some klipspringers. I was fascinated by the flowering plants that grow in the arid soil sometimes surviving only on the few drops of dew they get at night.
Hikers are not necessarily environmentalists and this was evident again, lavatory paper decorates many bushes and trees. Bottles, wrappers, plastic, discarded shoes a shirt and debris often littered camping spots and fireplaces. I find it quite distressing, but, that’s the nature of the beast I suppose.
We made it back to Ai-Ais in good time on our fifth morning, not as exhausted as last year. We enjoyed a celebratory drink on the veranda, had a delicious toasted sandwich. I wallowed in the hot water pool, had a long shower shampooing my hair, shaving my legs and felt fitter than ever. I did not make the trip unscathed and have to admit I can say I did it my way, hands, knees and noggin or arse over kettle as they say. So my toes and my minor scrapes needed attention and a liberal dose of Mercurochrome.
Side Note: I bought a pair of Salomon Speed Cross 4, very comfortable indeed, but, I still got blisters and Salomons do not last terribly long, Butch had to replace his after 4 months. My GP says I need to pack a backpack with a my recommended weight, put it on my back, stand on a sheet of paper with bare feet, trace my foot and armed with this go and have boots/shoes fitted, he says my shoes are too narrow across my toes. I have lost 6 toe nails with one more to go! For me it's part of the fun though. I also found it's impossible to find a salesperson qualified to "fit" shoes in our shops. Nou ja, if the shoe fits I will wear it!
I won't hang up my backpack for good, but, this will most likely be my last Canyon hike, I’ve given it my best shot, repeated the experience, challenged myself and proved I could do it better, quicker and enjoyed it more. I am ready to move on to other exciting hikes.
Once we’d all caught our breath and freshened up we piled back into the bakkie and set off to spend a night on the banks of the Orange River at Amanzi River Camp, a beautiful campsite just an hours’ drive from the border post. We were set to resume our road trip after a 2 hour canoe trip the next morning which I was very excited about as it would be a paddle down memory lane for me, having done a 5 day trip down the Orange River with my son Joe 14 years ago. (In those days he could down a beer in 3.4 seconds which proved to be his very popular party trick and we had a repeat performance every evening. He was lucky to have me do ALL the rowing the next day.) A stay at Amanzi River Camp is my new favourite overnight location should I be in that area. Breakfasts can be ordered, the bar is open for drinks and ice and we could even enjoy a light lunch after we'd completed our canoe trip. The grounds are immaculate, the lawns manicured and the ablutions get a 5* rating from me, they're really hot.
And so we splish-splashed our way down the Orange quietly, sometimes just floating, lying on my back while our guide did all the work (he was the little engine and I did the steering). Unfortunately I decided not to take my camera along (just as well as I did get wet from vigorous paddling). I highly recommend a trip on the Orange River, whether it’s a short one or a few days under the stars. It’s so worth it.
We pulled into Sophia’s Guesthouse once again to complete our circle before heading home. A lovely supper had been prepared for us. Chicken pie with all the trimmings. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we set off through the Namaqualand. Sadly there were only small patches of flowers as the rains hadn’t come this year.
Thank you to Mariclaire who under very stressful circumstances still saw her way clear to organise our trip. I wish you all the very best with your new, exciting ventures, whatever they may be. You’re a star and success will always follow you. Tiny Tweet, I could go anywhere with you, we have similar strides. Although I don’t always get your “jokes” Peter, you have a fine sense of humour and I must say you’re a peach. I trust our Video will be as fabulous as last year. Thank you Burt for so patiently folding up my marvellous tent, stopping whenever we asked you to, for carting us safely to and from the Canyon and for nursing my sore feet. You all put up with me, my funny toes and obsession to see everything through a lens. Thank you I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of friends to hike the FRC.
P.S. I have tried to post photographs including hikers as a measure/reference of the scale of the landscape.