My thigh muscles were in spasms and I was wondering how I was ever going to complete the 90 km trek. The temperature was well into the 30s and there was limited shade and water. What a ridiculous idea to celebrate my 50th birthday by walking the Fish River Canyon, what on earth was I thinking?
This crazy idea all began when I was with a couple of hiking friends of mine in Eswatini, Anna and Ann, and we decided that we would take a punt at the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. I was super excited about this, I’d heard wonderful things about the stunning scenery and the idea of being completely cut off from the world for five days he was very appealing. So I promptly booked the three of us our permits and then it became a reality.
We had a few planning meetings and individually we began to train for the hike. My training went a little bit south when I pulled a calf muscle, when I was dancing around the fire in Mkhaya last Christmas, which was incredibly stupid of me, and so had to build up my strength again. I knew I was walking fit, what I didn’t realise was that I wasn’t mountain fit. Hence the reason for my quivering thighs.
I do put this muscle reaction partly down to relief, but mostly to not being mountain fit. The relief stemmed from eventually Anna and I being in the canyon, just the two of us. Unfortunately our friend and had to pull out and in order to get into the canyon, even though we had our permits, we had to be registered as group of a minimum of three. And now there are only two of us. We took a massive leap of faith and hoped that we would meet up with a group that we could tag onto, simply to get past the officials and to start the hike into the canyon. I would have been gutted if we could not do it.
It all fell into place. As I was booking into Ai Ais Hot Springs Resort, it sounds more exotic than it actually is, I surreptitiously asked the guy on the booking desk if there was anybody booked onto the transfer to the start of the Fish River Canyon hiking trail. Ai Ais is at the end of the trail and we were leaving our cars here and getting a transfer to the start. The guy behind the desk asked me how many there were.
“Probably three of us, we’re just waiting for our third friend…” I lied.
“Well, there are two already booked on the transfer so that would make you a group of five then.” He looked at me with a knowing smile.
“Let’s make it a group of four then,” I said excitedly. This was great, I could have found our saviours without having to traipse around the campsite asking every individual if there was anyone walking the Fish River Canyon tomorrow.
“What do these other two look like and I will go find them,” I asked.
“One of them is standing behind you.”
I turned round to an equally joyful and excited looking lady, who also looked as if the cat had got the cream.
“Hi, I’m Jenny are you walking The Fish tomorrow? Can we join up with you guys?” and then in hushed tones I said “We are only two really.”
“Yes please, Willie and I had a friend drop out, which we are not too happy about. This is great news, oh I am Juanita by the way.”
“Can I hug you?”
And there I was hugging a random stranger that had only just met for about 30 seconds, the relief of finding some other people to get into the canyon was indescribable! I’m not too sure which one of us was the happiest, both of us were beaming ear to ear. I had envisaged getting there and then not being allowed into the canyon, such a relief. We made a plan about when to meet the following day, it was all falling into place.
Day 1: Anna and I met Juanita and Willie and we all clambered aboard a rather dilapidated van, Anna and I clutching a can of Coke each. The reason for this was that we were so excited that we could get into the canyon that we had consumed a couple of bottles of wine and four bottles of beer the evening before, not really a good start to a 90 km hike. And on top of that very large baboon had wandered into our room, whilst we were packing, and had robbed some of our food. Admittedly there were warning signs up about the baboons but I had never envisaged one squeezing through the ajar door and nonchalantly walk into the room, clamber onto our table, defecate on Anna’s packing list and steal our lunch. Neither of us had reacted very quickly as we were both completely dumbfounded by the whole situation.
The hours trip to the start of the trail was exceptionally dusty, the old van’s doors didn’t seal properly and all four of us were enveloped in a massive cloud of dust for an hour. 10 minutes into the journey I realised I hadn’t got my proof of payment for the officials for our permits, so I had 50 minutes of worrying whether we would be allowed to go on the trail. If it wasn’t one thing it was another.
So it was with relief and excitement when we approach the start of the trial, everything was in order and we were ready to go.
I have seen photographs of the Fish River Canyon but nothing could really do justice to the view that layout before us; it was a jaw dropping vista that went on for miles in the distance we could see the canyon snaking its way through the desert. It looks pretty formidable. Even the drop off to get into the canyon was startling, it looked as if we would be stepping out into thin air, luckily there was a chain there to hold onto to start our descent.
As we descended into the canyon and it was then that we could only start to truly appreciate the spectacular scenery that was around us. We could see the layering of the strata of rocks, looking a bit like a multiple layered cake with a buttercream topping, all made up of rich earthy colours. Lizards skittered around the rocks in front of us and a little bird decided to follow us, to see if we were stupid enough to leave any food around, there wasn’t, we had learnt our lesson from the baboon.
The path was a simple track winding its way into the canyon, strewn with boulders, and we really had to concentrate on a footing, it was like walking on marbles for a lot of the time.
On our way down we passed a group of five people in red T-shirts, the last time we saw them was later on that day, and then that was it, no one else for four days. By now Juanita and Willie were ahead of us, we had overtaken each other a couple of times, but at this point they were ahead of us and there was no sign of them at all. Anna and I were completely by ourselves in the canyon, it was magical. It should have been a bit scary, but I was delighted.
It took us three hours to get to the bottom, it is that far, and we were relieved to find a rather murky pool to fill our water bottles up with. Little did we know that this was probably going to be one of the best water stops for the whole trip, needless to say we did not appreciate this at the time as we filled our eyed the slightly murky water and the oozing mud around it.
So there I was, with shaky legs, not feeling too great and feeling rather hot and bothered. After filling up water bottles we decided to move on a little bit and Anna found a great place in the shade of a very large rock for us to sit for an hour or so. Heat exhaustion is horrible, and I knew I couldn’t really walk too much further so we made a plan to walk another kilometre, from one rock pool to the next, until we found somewhere that we liked the look, and then make camp.
We found a lovely little pool, which I spent most of my time in trying to cool off, and we set up camp. I’m so grateful for Anna’s understanding, we could have walked further, but I think if we had done I might not have made the rest of the hike. I knew that after a good night’s sleep and I would be fine. After all the shenanigans of us getting there and wondering if we would ever get into the canyon, I was hugely disappointed with myself not being fitter for the descent.
We set up camp, which was pretty easy as we were using bivvy bags, so not much really to set up, simply roll out the bivvy bag, stick my sleeping bag inside along with my thermorest, and hey presto my bed is made. I love simplicity.
Both of us were thankful when the sun set and the canyon was suddenly immersed into shade, what a blessing. Never have I been more thankful to see the sun disappear! It was still unreasonably hot, but at least the sun was not beating down on us.
After supper we were both in our the beds, snuggled down into the sand and asleep by 8 o’clock! As I drifted off, looking at the starlit sky, I hoped I would fighting fit in the morning.
Day 2 turned out to be an epic day – but I need to write it first!
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Photo credits: Jenny Bowen