The Grand Silence – hiking in the second-largest canyon in the world
In our brief lifespans there are some rare and special experiences which only come along every now and then. Namibia’s iconic Fish River Canyon trail is one of them.
‘Oooo gonnas, hier is ons!” said my hiking companion as she squeezed out of her cocoon of a sleeping bag on the first day of the five-day Fish River Canyon trail, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked around. The last stars melted away into the pink clouds of the canary-blue morning sky and a golden tinge fingered the crests of the great canyon walls that towered majestically above us.
“Here we are!” And what a place to be. Soft riverbank sand to sleep on, clean river water gurgling through the rocks, dramatic rugged scenery and not another soul in the pristine canyon wilderness as far as the eye can see. Doing the maths is easy. In our brief lifespans there are some rare and special experiences which only come along every now and then. Namibia’s iconic trail is one of them.
Great effort, great rewards
The snag is that great adventures often require great effort. And the 70km to 90km trail (depending on the shortcuts taken) running from Hobas southwards to the Ai-Ais Hot Spring Resort is exercise intensive. Descending the steep shale path from the canyon plateau to the meandering Fish River far below with a backpack laden with enough supplies to see you through five days, clambering over rocks, negotiating endless rounded river stones, boulder hopping across rivers and following sandy tracks at the base of scree slopes in gusting wind and searing heat, are some of the tough 4×4 terrain encountered on the trail. Any takers?
“You must be a sucker for punishment” was the response of a hiker I met along the way when he heard that this was the fifth time that I was walking the trail. But the positives far outweigh the cons and draw you back again and again. Sleeping under the stars, swimming in the river and walking through dramatic scenery. It’s this healing balm of nature that reminds us who we essentially are, far from the busyness of civilisation. Simply put, it’s time out to recalibrate and to relish the opportunity of a great Earth adventure.
It begins with “Daunting”, with a capital D, the word that best describes the experience of descending a path that seems to lead into the bowels of the Earth, if you are fortunate enough to get there without toppling over, slipping or injuring yourself, and I unashamedly admit that I descended with some trepidation, concentrating on every footfall, appreciative of all the advice provided by my fellow hikers and saying more than a prayer or two to the canyon gods. Reaching the glittering water down below, fringed by a golden beach, signalled our arrival in heaven and we dropped clothes and ran into the water, laughing. Pied starlings hopped around us, yellow dubbeltjie flowers gleamed, the river sang us lullabies and a full moon lit up the night with celestial blessings.
Stiff muscles and a route of rocks interspersed with sections of soft sand provided a reality check over the next two days, as did nausea, dehydration and general fatigue, but refreshing swims and the exquisite surroundings gave us the strength and spirit to endure and cherish the moments of blissful abandonment. I unfolded a colourful old map reminiscent of a children’s treasure hunt and besides a rusted Vespa from a madcap 1968 expedition, looked out for landmarks like Sweet-thorn Corner, Wild Fig Bend, Zebra Pools, Dolerite Dyke and Table Mountain. I named one or two more, like Perspective Rock, not only for its sheer size, but for its humble reminder that we were walking through 1,500 million years of Earth history and that we were not even a blink of an eye on that epic journey.
A highlight on the treasure map is reaching Palm (or Sulphur) Springs after two days of walking. This is where a 57-degree hot-water spring gushes into the river, providing welcome relief and pleasurable lolling river time until scorched limbs, prune-skin fingers, rumbling stomachs and a sinking sun chase you out.
Back to nature
Reattuning to the cycles of day and night – closing eyes when it gets dark and waking at first light, drinking water from the river and sleeping outdoors shifts the body into gear, and as it does, so the mind starts to sift through the details of your life, realising priorities, making peace with some of it and letting some of it go. Around day three something kicks in and you start to feel stronger and more balanced, physically and mentally, and the feeling of well-being stays with you to the end.
After Palm Springs, we began crossing the meandering river and following the well-worn paths higher up to avoid the rocky river loops and to cut out distance as the canyon widens. Boulders emblazoned with hastily painted white numbers marked every 10km. We remembered to stop at times, taking a moment to pause and listen. The grand silence echoed. A deep, resounding affirmative to life. And a sudden toilet stop gave us a chance to watch two fish eagles flying high, circling and calling. The quintessential sound of Africa accompanied us the rest of the way.
We each had our turn to experience good days and more-trying ones, usually following a sleepless night of mosquitoes or sand, and we had wind, heat, cold and even a short rainshower to test our resilience, as well as a punctured mattress, unravelling boots and various aches and pains. The journey was punctuated with stories: the snake that carved the canyon walls, the Kochas Drift shop which once supplied hikers with hamburgers and ice-cold Cokes, the palm trees at Palm Springs said to have originated from the time when World War 1 prisoners of war took refuge at the spring, the grave of Thilo von Trotha who was shot while negotiating peace. A pair of wild horses watched us pass, glistening in the sun and glowing with the nutrients of a good rainfall season, never a given in the arid surrounds. And the constant, always, the canyon witnessing our human travails without passing judgment.
“Oooo gonnas, hier is ons!” said my hiking companion on our last morning as she looked around at the tamarisk trees that had sheltered us against the night wind and the canyon walls catching the gold of the sun. Our last stretch was a long one as we backtracked to find the shortcut that we missed the day before, cutting out many extraneous kilometres by leading us away from the river and across the sandy hills.
We boulder-hopped over our last rivers, had our last swims and negotiated endless paths on our way to reach the Ai-Ais restcamp by nightfall. Those hamburgers and beers were calling and it took all of our determination and depleting energy sources to cover those final kilometres as blisters burgeoned and sore feet protested. We weren’t so far gone that we were unable to appreciate the “Amper daar” sign painted on a rock before we entered the resort.
Campers clapped and whooped, someone rang the bell at the bar announcing yet another arrival of weary hikers. As hiking tradition dictates, we hung our packs on the racks and tried to mask our limps as we climbed the steps to sign in at the reception and order a round of beers. Burgers, showers and clean clothes later, it was way past our bedtime and we were soon asleep amid the lights of the camp.
I waved goodbye to my companions the next day as they departed for the drive back to Cape Town and work the following day, squashed all my grimy clothes into my washbag, packed up my tent and walked to the hot-spring pool surrounded by verdant trees and craggy mountains. I hesitated to tune into the outside world that pulled me in with noise and clamour and bad news. The canyon still drummed in my veins and the earth, stars and river still kept me in their rhythm and rocked me in their nurturing arms. I wasn’t yet ready to disturb the peace gained over the past few days. I switched off my phone, left my car parked in the shade of a tree and soaked up the sun and sky and canyon stillness until I could delay no longer. DM