There is Just No Good News

It started on the 7th of August 2010.  The team consisted of Johan Bakkes, Doc, Kallie, Kokkie, Bonte, Paul and I. Before the hike commenced there were several e-mails flying between the lot of us, and it boiled down to one specific point:  All had to be intensely aware that water will be the main problem once we start the hike.

The idea was to hike down the Kuiseb River, from the bridge to Homeb.  The main limiting factor would be water, or rather the lack of water.  At about 17:00 the team were dropped at the bridge, and camp was set up around the first bend in the river. Our very first sighting were a small herd of young kudu, and it is a good indication that there is water around.  So it was, an open pool of stagnant water, slightly brackish to taste.  Food was prepared and we still had 20 litres of clean water, and it was used to good effect.

That night I had a good look at the men that would join me on this hike, and to be blunt, some of them seemed a bit old, what a surprise I would later get!!

At 05:00 Kallie awoke the camp with a lively “Good morning friends”.  This was to be the wake call every day.  At 06:00 we were off, and what a flying start.  All of us carried at least 7 litres of water and more, as well as a variety of other tools like spades, pots and other camp gear.  The rucksacks were heavy to say the least.  We would walk, at a very good pace, for half an hour and then rest for a while.  The first 2 hours we hiked in the shade of the canyon, and then the sun started beating down on us. At the 3rd stop of the day, Kallie and I started comparing distances with our Global Positioning Systems, and since then there were not a lot of good news.  Our distances were totally different, and would stay that way until we hit the Gaub River.

Lunch started at 12:00 and ended at 14:00.  After lunch we will walk for another hour or until we get a good water source.  On that first day, we found a pool at around 15:00.  While I and Kallie and Paul were discussing the virtues of the pool, the rest of the gang arrived.  Death were seen in there eyes, and by that I mean, some of the big men were tired, really tired.  Camp was made not far from the pool, and a “gorra” was dig next to the pool, in order for water to slowly cipher through. The pool was slightly reddish in colour, with a strong taste of Rock Hyrax urine, and an after taste of Mountain Zebra dung.  The pool was thus aptly named “Rock Hyrax Urine fountain”.

Day 2 saw us heading further into the canyon.  Thus far we have seen Oryx, Mountain Zebra and even some Klipspringer, so game were quite plentiful.  Slowly the canyon started narrowing as we walked south.  Underfoot it was extremely deceiving.  Smallish pebbles covered most of the ground, but once you set foot onto them, they will give way, and you will end up in very soft sand.  To avoid the pebbles you could walk in clearly soft sand, so we were between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The pace did not drop however, and my respect for these men grew as the day draw on. Kallie was in the lead most of the time, followed by the rest of us.  As we neared a bend in the river I could hear Helmeted Guinea fowl making some noises and whistling a lot.  Suddenly I saw the guys ahead of me stop, and as I looked ahead of them, I saw a Leopard running away into an inlet branching off from the main river.  All the guys were stunned into silence, and one could see the awe and happiness in their faces about this sighting.

Lunch on day 2 was at a beautiful big pool, the best one we have found thus far.  There were even some small fish in the pool and it was really cold and clear.  Sadly that was not our camp for the evening.

Again at about 15:00 we found a relatively big pool, and decided to camp here.  By this time there have been several discussions about going on further down the Kuiseb or trying to take a detour via the Gaub River.  The main reason behind this was that as soon as we pass the Gaub river inlet, the Kuiseb River starts to open up, and the pools of water will disappear quickly.  We can still dig, but we would have to dig to a depth of 8 metres or more.  The decision was made to walk out via the Gaub River.

At this stage Kallie and I were very nearly agreeing on how far it still was to the Gaub and how far we have come thus far.  Several mathematical calculations were used, sometimes add 40 %, sometimes add 120 %, but in the end we came to the same conclusion.  Doc and Johan Bakkes are the really clever guys of the group and they doubted the distances severely, but kept walking, like true men.

08:00 the next day we reached the Gaub River inlet, and started hiking up with it.  The idea was to reach the Gaub fountain for the evening’s camp.  I have been to the fountain 11 years ago, and it would come back to haunt me badly during that day.  The Gaub canyon started very narrow and very spectacular.  At one bend we found a Zebra digging a “gorra”, totally oblivious of us.  For a while we stood there, watching nature unfold in front of our eyes.  The sun was in our faces and the wind in our hair, the beauty of the Gaub was in our eyes, and we could smell the bushes and grass in the river.  We were slowly becoming one with nature.

Later in the day we came upon a big herd of Zebra, and from there the wildlife increased dramatically in numbers.  Lunch was had in the shade of a high cliff, and yet no fountain was in sight.  We started of again, water running low in our water bottles, but still firm in the believe that the fountain is near.  Two rest stops later, still no good news, as there were still no fountain.  Baboons in the hills, and a lot of animal paths indicated that there must be open water somewhere, but we just could not find it.  Finally we decided that we would walk for another half an hour and then start digging for water.  At this stage we only found 1 pool of water, so water in the Gaub was even scarcer than in the Kuiseb River.  As we came around a bend, the fountain appeared.  What joy there was in my heart, because I was doubting myself immensely by that stage.

Open and cool water and a brilliant camp site we found.  I, Kallie, Bonte and Paul walked upstream to realise that the fountain is nearly 1 kilometre long, with very fresh water near the start of the fountain.  Birdlife in abundance, and Mountain Zebra coming down to drink, as we sat and watched the sun set.  That evening there were some song around the campfire, and one could sense that the mood was light and cheerful.

The next day we reached the low water bridge at about 07:30.  We walked a total of 60 kilometres during the 3 days.  Andre van Niekerk of Wild at Heart Safaris collected us from the bridge.

What a hike it was. It was hard, and the pace set by the team was never less than 4 km/hour, at times 6 km/hour.  Each member of the team contributed in his own way.  The banter taking place and also the serious chats around the campfire will always stay in my mind.  Johan Bakkes with all his stories of his travels, walking stronger every day.  Doc, a man that does not hike that often, yet was always there when we rested.  Bonte, the oldest of the group, walking with his easy pace, seemingly not sinking into the soft sand.  Paul, the nature lover, always walking by every pool to look for tracks, eyes always scanning the sky for birds, and then Kallie, the quickest of us all. A long stride and never seeming to tire, he led us most of the way. Kokkie got blisters on the first day, treated them, and never looked back.  I could see he was limping at one stage but never had I heard a word of self pity, he bit on his teeth and kept going.

Although the news was not always good, this group of men were hikers of extreme competence.  To be honest I think the best I have walked with thus far, and I already did some serious hiking in Namibia and elsewhere. It was a soul enriching experience for me, and I will use the memories to provide me with fuel for my mind when on long and lonely hikes in Namibia.

Kobus  Alberts

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Three Women and the Fish River Canyon

THREE WOMEN AND THE FISH RIVER CANYON

Three women, Frau Ulrike, Frau Elisabeth, Frau Gerlinde Pinter and myself as guide,  descended into the Fish River Canyon in Namibia during the morning of the 15th of July.  The descent is about 420 metres, and it was slow going.  The morning was chilly, but with the excitement in the air, everyone was warm and ready to get walking.

Initially the going was good, but soon the weight of the rucksacks started taking their toll.  Luckily for me all three ladies were in good shape and fit enough for the walk.  Gerlinde and Ulrike took the lead, while I and Liz kept up a steady pace as we went down into the 2nd biggest canyon in the world.  At about 13:00 we reached the bottom of the canyon, and once everyone had lunch we started the hike in all earnest.

Before I carry on with the tale of the hike I must just first mention the other hikers that would grace our walk.  As we descended several young men passed us, and they were part of a group of 7 hikers from South Africa.  In front of us were a group of three hikers, also from South Africa.  During our hike in the canyon we will get to know these people really well, and I could sense a real sense of camaraderie between hiking groups as we passed and overtook each other.

After lunch we walked for another 3 hours before we found a nice little beach where we pitched camp for the night.  After collecting some wood, water was filtered and collected and soon the pot was boiling for coffee and tea.  The spirit in the camp was slightly tense, as we discussed what lay ahead, and the pace that we were currently setting.  Liz was really struggling and looked tired after the descent.  I had to make a call, and after discussing the route and what lays ahead in detail with all three the ladies, the call was to carry on. (In the end it turned out to be the correct decision!)

Day 2 saw us heading off at 08:00 after a quick breakfast of Muesli and coffee.  The terrain underfoot was a mixture of sand and rock, and every now and again we had to cross the river to get to the other side.  A routine was set and the plan was that we would walk for an hour, and then rest for 10 minutes.  At first it did not work, as the ladies were still a bit tired and tried to drag out the rest periods.  Later in the week, this routine paid dividends.

Following the twists and turns of the Canyon is not always easy. As soon as you have a walking rhythm going, you have to negotiate boulders and the pace would drop to about 1 kilometre per hour.  I tried to keep a pace of at least 4 kilometres an hour going, but this proved to be quite difficult.  Our aim for the day was to pass the Sulphur Springs, or to camp nearby.  After a long lunch we set off again, and at 16:00 arrived at Sulphur Springs. The ladies dearly wanted to bath, so the decision was made to camp there.  Not the most scenic of campsites, but the hot water flowing from the spring into the Fish River, proved to mend body and soul.  The morale of the group clearly was much higher than the previous night.

The same ritual as the previous night was held again, collect fire wood, collect water, then some coffee and tea.  (The ladies clearly did not like the taste of the water on the first day, but at the end of the second day, they were much more used to it, and realised it a necessary ingredient, if they were to complete the 85 kilometres.)

The third day saw us leaving camp at 07:30, and that really lifted my spirit.  The group of students passed us again, and as before we will pass them again later in the day, stopping for a chat and some laughter, and that was to be the same every day.  Later we got to know them by their names, and it was very good fun to hear the banter between the groups.

It did seem like the canyon were become slightly wider at places, and crossing the river became easier as we slowly moved south in our quest.  Passing the sandy slopes we steadily made our way to a campsite about 3 kilometres before the first short cut.  Game and birdlife were not too abundant, but we did see a Fish Eagle and 3 Klipspringer that were quite tame, or rather used to people.

After a good nights rest, we were off again at 08:00.  (The ladies were getting used to sleeping under the stars, and although there was some snoring to be heard, they always slept well.)

As we started walking we came upon another group of 6 women that we did not previously knew of.  After a chat we found out that they were a day late already in their hike, and some of their group have lost a sleeping bag and they found the going very tough.  Of course it lifted our morale even higher, because the ladies realised they can do this hike.  (I just must add here that the youngest of the three women were 51 years of age and the oldest nearly 60, so they were a very mature group that I led.)

The first shortcut took us over a jutting rock outcrop, and saved us quite a lot of hiking in the river bed.  At this point I realised that the ladies, hailing from Austria, were much more used to the mountain trails than walking in the river bed.  Our pace drastically increased.  Descending into the river and straight into the next shortcut, we came to the German war grave, where we also had our lunch.  By this time we had passed  the group of three that were in front of us for the last 4 days, and that says a lot about our routine and keeping up the pace.  Late afternoon we found a lovely little beach right by the water.  All realised this will be our last camp of the hike, so spirits were high, and all four of us sat around the campfire until quite late for our standards.

The last day saw us leaving camp again at 08:00.  Before we left I had a final talk with the ladies, just emphasising that they need to keep concentrating.  Most accidents happen in the last 10% of a journey.

Today it was Geraldine’s turn to be tired.  All through the walk she was fine, but today I could sense that she was getting tired, and to know that the end goal is so close, yet so far was demoralising.  It was quite a mission to keep the ladies walking and at one stage I was about 1 kilometre ahead, just trying to keep them moving all the time.  After a rest at 11:00 I told them that if we can walk for 1 hour solid, we will be in Ai Ais at 12:00.

We walked into Ai Ais at 12:05  and officially completed hiking the Fish River Canyon. What a sight it was!  After drinking an ice cold beer the ladies headed for the hot water swimming pool to soothe sore limbs.  Not a single person developed blisters.  There were days when the going were slow, but by keeping a steady pace we succeeded in finishing the 85 kilometre in 4 and a half days.  In the process we left the group of students behind, overtook the group of 6 women, and also overtook the group of 3 that were ahead of us all the time.  Not that the hike was a race, but it just showed me again what routine and a steady pace can do.

So, to the ladies:

Liz, you were always in the back of the group, yet you kept on walking.  You felt bad and sick at times, yet you kept walking.  A strong and determined will kept you going.

Ulrike, the youngest of the group, your high spirit and always ready smile kept the tempers down, even in the heat of the day.  You helped your friends more than I could ever hope for.

Gerlinde, the eldest of the three ladies, your steady pace, not going faster or slower, just a steady pace, made this hike possible.  Your strong leadership qualities also proved to be a helpful tool at times.

Thanks to all of you and to Stefan van Deventer as well, for providing the cold beer at the finish line.

Kobus Alberts – Wild at Heart Safaris