Horses in the night
The ground began to shake and I could hear the pounding of hooves approaching me at breakneck speed, I stood rooted to the ground with my heart in my mouth…
It had been another early start, we were making the most of the cooler temperatures and this time we were up around 4 o’clock in the morning. We decided to forego coffee and tea and make a bit of headway before having breakfast. I was up first, and had decided to wait in the riverbed just away from our campsite. And that was when I had heard the horses.
At least I thought they were horses, but as I couldn’t see them I couldn’t be completely sure. It seemed as if they had literally brushed by me, but I’m sure they were a fair few metres away. Nevertheless it was very disconcerting, although it did wake me fully! Anna was concerned:
“Jenny are you okay?”
“Errr, I think so, but I nearly had a heart attack!“
I had obviously spooked the horses. We hadn’t seen anyone for two days now and I was beginning to wonder whether there was anyone in the canyon at all. No wonder I had frightened them!
In Search of a Shortcut
We really had to concentrate that morning because we wanted to make sure that we took a shortcut that would reduce our trek by 3 km. Walking in the dark, we kept an eye out for the footprints created by the multitude of people that had travelled before us. We found that stone cairns that were becoming more frequent, and sometimes there were even massive arrows created out of rocks pointing in the correct direction. It was all very helpful and it was nice to know that we were on the right route. Not that you could go that wrong in a canyon, but the shortcuts were something else.
I was rather concerned that we might not spot the start of the shortcut, but there was a very well-trodden path of beautifully compacted earth which made walking so much easier. It was a blessed relief not to walk on sand for a while. And to confirm we were really going in the right direction there was one of those wonderfully massive rock arrows. The section was really easy walking. In fact it was the easiest walk we had had so far and, and so we motored along the route. This was a complete contrast to our first mornings walk in the canyon, where I often felt as if we were going backwards.
We dropped back into the canyon to discover a series of pools and also what looked like old campsites with fire pits and we both decided this would be a great place to stop for breakfast. Looking back, this was the best decision that we could’ve ever have made. It was a combination of location and timing, but we had accidentally chosen a spot where the sunrise would be spectacular.
Sunrise in the Canyon
We gathered wood to make a fire to use for tea and coffee, as the stove by this time was a goner. We had worked out we only really needed one more hot meal, and that was in the evening. With there being a fair bit of driftwood around it did not seem to be too much of an issue.
We got the fire going, purified more water, sorted our feet out and re-adjusted packs; we were really a well-oiled machine by now. Just as the water came to boil the sun began to rise. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so extraordinary, the tops of the mountains around the canyon burnt orange and the contrast between the dark canyon made it look as if they were on fire. With the reflection in the water it was a photographers dream. I went completely bonkers taking pictures, thinking that the last one was the best one I would take. Breakfast had been planned to be a short affair, but we couldn’t ignore the scenery around us.
Eventually the sun came up into the canyon and then it really was time to get moving. The second shortcut was only a little bit further on with a trusty cairn to mark the way.
Lost in the Canyon
I was a bit concerned by the scramble up, it was very steep although it was a short section and annoyingly Anna was up it like a mountain goat whereas I laboured behind like an elderly one. We got to the top and surveyed our route, and this was where we had our first disagreement as to where we were on the map. It transpired that we had taken an earlier shortcut than the official one, which had really confused us both, putting us only 200 m out but the route going in the wrong direction. Fortunately there were a few other people who had done the same thing and we followed a smaller path back onto the main thoroughfare. From the great height that we were at we could see where we needed to go, it wasn’t too much of an issue. It also allowed us to see our route clearly for the next 2 hours.
The canyon now was much wider, at the point we were crossing I estimated it to be nearly a kilometre, a dramatic change from the 30m width we had experienced at the start. The sun was beating down upon us and there was no shade as we crossed the riverbed to the other side and to the start of yet another shortcut over a meander.
According to the map there should be another section of pools for us to get water from, and there was although this water was decidedly green and full of some rather disgusting slimy stuff. But beggars can’t be choosers and so we filled up again.
We climbed up out of the river bed and began walking up hill, along another wonderfully formed track, when I looked up and there were two people there. It was really weird seeing people as I had only spoken to and seen Anna for two and a half days now.
It turned out these were the heroes of the Fish River Canyon, the Rangers. Every day they walked about 20 km carrying jerry cans of water to fill up strategic water points for us hikers. I had seen them on the Facebook page and everybody had spoken so highly about them. It certainly took some commitment doing the same walk every day for weeks on end.
“Is it just the two of you?” asked one of the Rangers, “Where are the rest of you?“
“It is just the two of us, but there is another couple, have you seen them?“
“No, we haven’t seen anyone for a few days.“
I thought it was a bit odd that we hadn’t seen Willem and Juanita, but Anna and I decided that we might have over taken them in the dark at some point or at one of the shortcuts.
The Rangers did ask whether we had got any water from one of the water butts that they were filling up, but we hadn’t seen it, so we were given precise details to the next filling station where there would be fresh water to drink, and without purification, it was a dream. We said a huge thank you, on behalf of all hikers, and continued on our way. The next shortcut was really easy to follow and as we climbed up to the top we were greeted by two piles of stones, either side of the path, one with a massive 50 km written on it. We were pretty jubilant about it all, we were on day four and doing well.
Things Go Wrong
And that was when disaster struck. This time it was Anna that didn’t feel too well as she had to disappear behind the rocks on a few occasions. Complete role reversal from the first day when I was the one that was pretty ill. It wasn’t really surprising, we were drinking really mucky water, walking in the heat of the day and we were both pretty exhausted. I think the reason I was ill was I was also quite emotional about getting there as well as the heat. I really didn’t think we were going to be able to do the hike, with it just being the two of us. Anna was ill, probably due to her being overzealous with the water purification, we will never know.
We found the two water butts that the Rangers had mentioned and got rid of our mucky water and had clean drinking water for the first time in ages. We did purify it, just in case. Neither of us were taking any risks now.
We could see the canyon spread out for miles in front of us, but there was no shade. So we ploughed on and found a suitable place to stop, as best we could with the minimal shade that was in the area.
After a very hot few hours of simply resting, we started off again. That was when I realised I had left my sunglasses back at the last water stop. I doubled and tripled checked but nope, they were not on my bag and it was just too hot and too far to walk back to get them. And they were a good pair as well, that was the annoying thing.
The Pink Palace
The Pink Palace was the next stop. Basically it was a very small building, painted rose pink, and resembling nothing like a palace. It was where the rangers were staying.
The four of them were lying in the shade recovering from yet another walk that they had done. I did wonder whether they would get bored of lugging water along the same route, day in day out, for months on end. I was pretty impressed, their dedication to make sure that we got water on the trek was incredible.
I did mention my sunglasses to them, in the hope they might find them sitting next to the top water butt. Working out the logistics we realised that they wouldn’t be able to get my sunglasses to the end of the route before I left. However, this didn’t seem to matter, as for some reason I was convinced I would see those sunglasses again. So we made a plan that I would let reception know, saying I was “sunglasses lady”, leave my name and address, and they would try and post them back to me. I know, a bit of a long shot, but they were a good pair.
Under a Starlit Sky
Anna and I trudged along in the heat for another couple of hours and arrived at the campsite that we had aimed for on the map. This time, I was the one who scouted around for the best campsite, while Anna sat in the shade, doing her best to recover.
We found a good place and set up camp, we were now pretty well organised. We laid out our bivvy bags for the last time, for our last night under the stars. And what a night it was.
There was hardly any wind and we had aligned ourselves so that the Milky Way soared over our heads. It was so peaceful lying there, just the two of us, watching the stars slowly travel across the sky. It was the best last night and both of us slept really well.
The Last Day
It was still role reversal time, and this time it was Anna trying to wake me up, while I was the one that was really reticent to get going. I was dithering around and couldn’t pack a bag properly whilst Anna was standing there fully packed and ready to go.
Finally, we were off, and the last day had started. It began well, the walking was much easier with more solid areas to walk on at the canyon’s edge, and we got up quite a speed. There was no dancing from rock to rock and hunting for the best route, this was simply plain walking. Heads down and get going.
Anna had a shortcut, which she had got on the Facebook group. To be honest I was rather dubious about it, as I thought following the dry riverbed would be easier. But this could potentially cut out a significant meander of the canyon. We scrambled up and over a couple of sections, taking about half an hour doing all of this. I was really disorientated by the end, especially as we were doing this in the dark. When we came out the other side the canyon was running east-west and I had no idea whether we had to turn left or right.
The worrying thing was that there were footprints coming towards us. Neither of us knew where we were and I can now see why people get disorientated and lost. But walking out into the main canyon we found the main path with footprints and leading in the direction that my gut instinct was telling me. Luckily we were back on track, and seeing a large rock arrow on the ground was an absolute blessing. We were on the right course and I was beginning to think about the ice cold beer that I was going to drink. This was a massive mistake, because we still had another 8 km to go, and they felt the longest 8 km I’ve ever walked in my life.
Eventually, we had to stop for a while because I really needed to go to the loo. When I was round the corner I heard Anna say “I can hear voices.”
“They are in your head” I joked. We hadn’t heard anyone else for a while.
“I really can,” said Anna, and then so could I.
And there around the corner appeared Juanita and Willem. I am not too sure who was more surprised, Anna and I were still convinced that they were way ahead of us, even if the rangers had not seen them. Juanita and Willem hadn’t expected to see us again after they had left us, they had thought we might not make it.
So we ended the trail as we had started, as four random people with smiles on our faces. They were more like grimaces really. Juanita had blisters the size of small eggs on her ankles. Anna needed the loo. I was leaning heavily on my walking stick, and Willem was valiantly cajoling us all along.
That beer never tasted so good. If I even think about doing this trek again, please shoot me.
After the first beer we ordered lunch, the canyon burger with fries, and it could not have tasted better. Whilst waiting for our food one of the rangers popped up asking for “sunglasses lady”. Amazingly, he had my sunglasses! He had found them where I thought I had left them, and had then walked the day to get them to me. Words failed me. What wonderful people the Namibians are, and what stunning scenery Namibia has to be seen.
This blog was one of four covering my experiences hiking the Fish River canyon in Namibia. If you’re interested in visiting Namibia, or perhaps seeing the Fish River Canyon for yourself, why not check out one of our itineraries, or contact us to create your own.