Into the Canyon
Words Keith Bain, pics iStock
It was probably 2am as I lay on the ground, snug in my sleeping bag, on the floor of Africa’s biggest canyon. Staring up at the inky sky, I wondered if those torrents of shooting stars weren’t in fact secret signals from the gods. Zipping through the atmosphere, some as big as rocket ships, I watched them burning out in fizzles of silent incandescence just as suddenly as they’d appeared.
Metres from my head, the moon and stars glistened off the Fish River’s surface, bouncing back enough light to get out a book and read. But that would mean missing the laser show in the sky.
Instead, as I watched another round of intergalactic pinball, I listened to jackals howling, guessed at the source of indistinguishable grunts, and tried to imagine the shape and size of some deep-bellied insect doing cacophonous imitations of cellphone ringtones.
When you lie awake like that, mesmerised by the world, it’s not insomnia. It’s an awakening, earned one step at a time.
It had started 550m up, staring down from the canyon’s rim, surveying the awesome crack that had millions of years ago ripped violently into the barren, bone-dry thirstland of southern Namibia’s Richtersveld. The canyon – among the world’s grandest – is riddled with immense gorges and swooping channels, mottled dolerite slabs and quartz-veined cliffs, towering coffee-coloured rock fingers, river-smoothed pebbles and flat sandy beaches. It’s hard to remain unaffected by such a sight, even more so by walking through it.
The initial chain-abetted descent into the canyon is a knee-quivering introduction to the days ahead. But, as the climb starts to level out after an hour or so, there’s a sense of arrival in some otherworldly place, heralded by the call of a fish eagle and welcoming grunts from unseen baboons. I’d expected a moribund wasteland. Instead, I was struck by the immense tranquillity. We celebrated our accomplishment so far by lolling on a golden beach and plunging in the river whose zigzagging course we were about to follow, give or take a few shortcuts.
Initially, the canyon is fairly narrow, hemmed in by steep walls offering visitors little choice but to follow the river’s meandering trajectory, scrunching along sandy shores, occasionally bounding over rocks. Later, the rift widens dramatically – up to 27 km in places – revealing a vast world where the waterway performs horseshoe twists and the sides resemble panoramic mountains with flattened buttes and plunging drops looming above huge plateaus.
Sometimes the terrain is Africa’s take on the Wild West. Amid this stark wilderness weathered and baked over millions of years, dotted with wild mustard bushes, time-smoothed boulders and slabs of pink feldspar, we spotted a dainty klipspringer leaping up red rocks and occasionally paused to ooh and aah at wild horses, in turn watching us from across the river. At other time, the landscape is as alien as that of the moon – or some further-off planet – a surreal desertscape of chipped rock and fine sand, grey and chalky brown, scattered with bedraggled hard-wearing weeds and scraggly, sun-scorched trees.
Making your way through this world, the sensation is of being unencumbered. Sure, there’s the weight of your backpack, a smidgen of clothing, a hat, a layer of sunscreen and your hiking shoes, but it’s the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other and repeating, ad infinitum, that liberates. Whether you’re trudging along, whimpering with blisters, hating yourself for overpacking; or marching, chest-forward, mission-bound; there’s magic in the connection between legs and earth. The hard slog transfers energy up through the entire body until it clears and empties the mind.
Plus there’s the joy of stumbling upon suitable beaches to overnight on, stowing backpacks, and unfurling sleeping bags for a night beneath the stars. We’d simply look for flat ground close to the river, perhaps where firewood was close at hand, and then spread ourselves out, prepare dinner, salve blisters and prepare for our next dawn departure. Plus unceremonious wanderings into the distance for ablutions, equipped with a tiny shovel, and skinny-dipping in the river with bars of biodegradable soap.
Still, our first night didn’t bode well. We found a perfectly fine camping spot on a flat stretch of beach, but so did a crazy wind that decided to stay, blasting us with a fine spray of sand, adding texture to our food and exfoliating anyone who so much as poked a head outside their sleeping bag.
Having survived that, though, the new day – and each one that followed – felt like a miracle. Time disappeared – not because of overwhelming workload, deadline hustle, or the race from one meeting to the next, but by the simple mechanism of being gobbled up by the wilderness.
Our crew steadily grew better accustomed to the rhythm of hiking, aware of the magnitude of our situation. This was no place for dithering dawdling, or messing about – a fact that really hit home on our second day, when a hiker went missing. He first lagged behind, then – not noticing where we were waiting for him – overshot us, causing mild distress. Search parties had to be dispatched in either direction, slowing our progress by several hours. It wasn’t a major disaster, but it brought into focus the canyon’s capacity for danger. After that, everyone reckoned it was safer to stick within sight of one another.
Our party intact, our second day also took us to Palm Springs, where there’s an oasis of date palms around thermal sulphur pools, with steaming hot water channelling into the river. Here we lounged in the muscle-relaxing convergence of hot and cold water, caking ourselves with mud like wallowing hippos, soothing aches in the natural spa. We became children again – just as we did whenever we rode miniature rapids, letting the river bounce us downstream.
It’s hard to compartmentalise the hike. Each day had its physical trials – that’s the reality of any pilgrimage, that it involves effort and toil. But – serious accidents aside – there is little chance the burden will compromise the scenic splendour. Everywhere, the hard rock, dry dust and cracked, fissured surfaces are like slowly unfolding sculptures, the sun endlessly altering their colours, shifting shadows, deepening lines and adding wrinkles.
There were man-made landmarks too. The abandoned wreckage of a Vespa left during a crazy experiment decades back, the gravestone of an unfortunate German, a concrete causeway and distance markers signalling each 20 km completed. Then, eventually, a dam wall and – like those fizzling shooting stars – it was over.
Reaching the Ai Ais Resort, with its dank spa, campsites and hotel rooms, TVs and awful restaurant, I felt more regret than sense of accomplishment. Regret that we’d finished, regret that more time wasn’t spent appreciating the little details. Regret that I sometimes slept when I might have been stargazing.
Now, the rush of honest, hard exertion and the thrill of the unknown were rapidly replaced by ease and convention – leaning across the bar for a cold beer, turning taps for hot showers. And, instead of celestial laser beams and rocket ships careening across the sky, it was back to the grid, where one flick of a switch brings the blackness to an end.
Our five-day hike took place at the start of the hiking season, which runs from May to mid-September. Daytime temperatures peaked at 37ºC, with perfectly mild evenings and even some light drizzle. During summer, besides the prospect of being fried by the intense desert heat (the temperature can rise up into the high 40s), the real danger is that of flash floods. No wonder the canyon is closed to hikers during these months.
In May, though, we had just enough water, enjoying deep swims in places and having to make almost 20 river crossings, for which water shoes are essential. If the river’s especially high, some crossings may require full-body swimming too (and safety bags for your backpack). We were fortunate to have pleasant nights. In midwinter, after-dark temperatures can hit zero – and bear in mind that the sun sinks early in the canyon.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Commencing 12 km from Hobas camping site, the 85 km Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail starts with a steep descent from a scintillating viewpoint high up on the canyon’s lip. An hour or two later, you’re 550m down and on your own for an average of five days and four nights.
You must be entirely self-sufficient, as only water (from the river) and firewood (collect your own) are available down below. Camp where you like, fend for yourself and follow the river (using the various prescribed shortcuts) until you reach Ai Ais Resort, where there’s a shuttle service back to the start or you can loll around in comparative comfort celebrating your achievement at the bar or in the natural spa baths.
This trail is very popular, so you have to book well in advance. You need a group of at least three, plus certificates of fitness, to apply. Bookings for 2015 are now open via Namibia Wildlife Resorts.
021 422 3761, www.nwr.com.na
Walk the walk
Don’t think you can simply turn up with a backpack and set off. Many of these top Southern African trails are booked a year or more in advance.
The Whale Trail, Overberg
As the name hints, in ideal conditions this four-day, 54 km hike is an ideal chance to spot the famous cetaceans from the shore (the best time for whale-watching is June through November, when large groups can be seen at once). The route hugs the coastline from Potberg to Koppie Alleen in De Hoop Nature Reserve near Bredasdorp, wending through fynbos and over limestone formations, with caves along the way. Besides marine mammals and sea birds, hikers should see a vulture colony and small antelope. They overnight in comfort at a series of cottages in pristine locations.
North Drakensberg Traverse, Drakensberg
Unless you’re an experienced mountaineer and very good with hiking maps and GPS equipment, it’s essential to hire a guide for this epic backcountry hike covering around 65 km over five or six days from Mont-aux-Sources to Cathedral Peak. Starting off with chain ladders, it then crosses a vertiginous escarpment with crazy rock formations, stupendous high-altitude views, waterfalls (including Tugela Falls, the second highest on Earth), river crossings, caves, San rock paintings and Basotho huts and herdsmen, before culminating at Cathedral Peak Hotel. Tough and remote, if this doesn’t sort you out, you could try the full Drakensberg Grand Traverse, which at around 220 km, will properly test your mettle.
Rim of Africa, Western Cape
Traversing the entire length of the Cape Fold Mountains, this whopping trail initiative spans nature reserves, wilderness areas and private land—both on and off hiking paths. The route incorporates several high mountain sections, starting in the Cederberg Wilderness and crossing the Hex River and Langeberg ranges to reach the Outeniqua Mountains on the Garden Route. Don’t panic at the thought of hiking more than 600 km in one go though. It can be broken down into more manageable sections lasting anything from six to eight days, and there are bite-size Weekender Trails too.
Otter Trail, Garden Route
Covering 42 km in five days, with four nights spent in rustic huts in fabulous seaside locations, South Africa’s most famous multi-day trail hugs the Indian Ocean coastline from Storms River Mouth to Nature’s Valley. Hikers venture along unspoilt beaches, hop over boulders and wend their way through fynbos and pristine Tsitsikamma mountain forest, with stops at rock pools, waterfalls and rivers. Many hikers find the long uphill stretches gruelling, but they are rewarded with exhilarating vistas. One moment you’re on a beach, the next you’re on a clifftop surveying swaths of rugged coastline. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Cape clawless otters gambolling in the water and, from July through November, whales too. There are a couple of river crossings, including the notorious Bloukrans River mouth, which are subject to tidal vagaries.
Amathole Trail, Eastern Cape
Commencing from Maden Dam, outside King William’s Town, this six-day 100 km hike ends just short of Hogsback, taking hikers through thick Afromontane forest with countless rivers, streams, waterfalls, rock pools, ravishing wild flowers and, sometimes, heart-stopping thunderclaps echoing through the valleys. With each day’s hike averaging nearly 17 km, it’s fairly hard going, but there are huts with water and toilets at the end of the day, and firewood is provided.
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, [email protected], 043 642 2571
Strandloper Hiking Trail, Wild Coast
Stretching from Kei Mouth to Gonubie, this four-day, 57 km trail takes in beaches, estuaries (including crossing the Quko, Kwenxura, Kwelera and Gqunube rivers), high cliffs affording panoramic views (perhaps spotting dolphins) and lush coastal forests rich with bird life. While there’s often a sense of deep isolation and quiet, you also pass through little settlements with pub food, even overnighting at the Haga Haga Hotel.
Hoerikwaggo Trail, Cape Town
Honouring the original Khoisan name for Table Mountain, the full 88 km five-day Hoerikwaggo (Mountain in the Sea) Trail brings hikers from the rocky cliffs at Cape Point, along the mountain spine across the peninsula, to the lower cable-car station on Table Mountain. It’s probably the ultimate way to put Cape Town’s spectacular geography into perspective, with some steep climbs, unforgettable vistas and stretches through Afromontane forest. Smart, eco-friendly tented camps afford relative comfort along the way, but, as the route is unmarked, either a guide or a good map sense is essential. The trail itself is free, but there’s an entrance fee at Cape Point and accommodation must be booked and paid for in advance.
Giant’s Cup Trail, Drakensberg
Laced with caves, rock pools and waterfalls, this is one of the less challenging walks available in the Drakensberg foothills. Covering around 60 km in five days, it crosses two nature reserves: Cobham and Garden Castle. Starting at the foot of Sani Pass, it ends at Bushman’s Nek Pass, where some hikers into Lesotho. Nights are spent in large, shared, rustic huts with bunk beds.
Source: AA Traveller