A difficult night’s sleep
“Anna, are you awake?”
“Mmmm, shhhh, not really.”
It was about 4 o’clock in the morning and I had had the worst sleep ever, that is if I had actually got to sleep. My bunged up nose was feeling better. I just wanted to get out of this campsite, the campsite of doom.
“Anna,” I whispered, “I think it would be a good idea if we got going, we still have quite a way to go.”
“Give me 15 more minutes.”
15 minutes was like an eternity. I had it in my head that I wanted to leave, leave that very moment, but I couldn’t exactly do it without my teammate Anna. Luckily, the wind was no longer behaving like a sand blaster and it was beautifully silent in the valley. I watched the stars gently rotate above us for another 15 minutes.
“Anna, can we go now?”
“Only if it is very slowly,” came the sleepy and slightly annoyed response.
Waking in the Dark
That was my permission to start getting things ready. I got myself sorted in my sleeping bag and then immediately made my way down to the small pool to collect water. It was a bit of a mission to get there, especially in the dark, and I was trying to preserve our torch batteries. As we had used them for quite a lot of the time yesterday, I was becoming a bit concerned about the number of batteries that we had. Anna was on her second lot of batteries and I knew my torch was dimming a little bit. Not great planning really. But then I hadn’t envisaged us traipsing halfway along the Fish River Canyon in the dark.
I managed to fill all our water containers up, avoiding the worst of the silt, and got back to find Anna still in bed, but moving a little bit. I knew that coffee was going to be the answer for her, so I got the stove going for our tea and coffee. An hour and half later we were ready to go and then I realised I need the loo. I disappeared off above the water course to find a suitable place. Wherever I shone my torch white pieces of paper illuminated in my being, it was obviously a popular toilet break area. I was not impressed, why couldn’t people burn their loo roll or at least take it out with them until they could create a fire.
It took me awhile to find a suitable place for me to go, to dig the hole and also bury everything. I had wisely bought nappy sacks, which are ideal things to take on any expedition. If you’re planning to take anything that is slightly smelly out then the scented nappy sacks are brilliant, whatever is inside doesn’t stink up your bag. Having seen the landscape peppered with loo roll I wasn’t going to leave it there, and I’d forgotten the matches, so I used a nappy sack and took the offending toilet paper with me. I know, many may think this is not very hygienic, but it was sealed and put in a separate area of my pack until I could burn it safely.
The third day
And then we were off, the third day of five days of the hike, although in reality it was only the second day for us.
About a kilometre along we came to our first option of a shortcut, albeit a very small one and would reduce the track by 1 km, it was still one we were going to take as not only would it reduce the distance it would also be on firmer ground. Walking in sand is very, very hard work.
After 4 km we arrived at Zebra Pools. We were both a little bit curious as to why they were called zebra pools but as the day was dawning we thought it might be a good idea just have a little break for some food, we hadn’t had breakfast then. Tuna fish and rice cakes never tasted so good, and I wish that I had brought more although the tuna was quite heavy even though it was not in a tin.
To this day we don’t know why those particular pools are called Zebra Pools, maybe somebody had seen zebra there although there was no sign of them at all in the canyon, or it could have been similar stripes that we saw on the rocks, we never really found out.
The canyon is extraordinary with its meanders and you would have thought that the scenery would stay the same, but each corner we rounded there seemed to be something else to see; weird colourations in the rock ranging from pink to black, strange boulder formations, delicate flowers pushing through the sand, strangely shaped pools of water and the sun creating peculiar shadows across our trek.
We approached Wild Geese Pools and decided to stop for a brew.
An Unusual Encounter
This was when we heard the first sound of other life, the territorial barks of baboons. As we walked into this section of the valley we could see movement on the top of the cliffs surrounding us, baboons foraging high above as well as the odd baboon scurrying away in front of us in the distance. I have a healthy respect for baboons, they also do scare me a little bit. Who wouldn’t be scared with the knowledge that they have the largest canines in the animal kingdom, in relation to their skull size.
But we needed to rest and this seemed as good a place as any. We walked towards the pools I found a lovely shaded spot with easy access to the rather murky green water. Anna got the stove out and it was then that I notice a rather brave baboon about 30 m away.
“Anna, Anna, there was a baboon looking at us.”
“OK, you keep an eye on him, I’ll set the stove up. Use your poles.”
So there I found myself gesticulating with two walking poles trying to warn off a baboon so that it did not get too close. We had learnt the hard way whilst packing and there was no way we were going to lose any more of our food to the pesky wildlife in the canyon. And I was down on a couple of bags of food from that tenacious mouse, this baboon was not getting any of my food.
The baboon sat down, nonchalantly scratching himself, giving me a sideways glance. I suspect he was assessing the likelihood of him getting any food. I was standing between him and our backpacks, with the food that we were going to use placed on top of one of the rocks.
“Oh no,” cried Anna, “I think this is a dodgy cylinder. It has leaked liquid gas all over me.”
I turned round to look at her to see her frantically unscrewing the canister and liquid gas pouring down her hand.
“OK, best you wash your hand before doing anything else!”
“Yes, and I think it might be wise that you now light the stove, but be careful.”
I turned round to check up on our resident baboon to find that he disappeared. I raised my polls out in front of me and frantically searched the area, where had he got to? Then I caught him in my peripheral vision, to the left, slinking behind one of the boulders and around the trees and approaching from a completely different angle.
“Aargh,” I yelled at him, “I can see you, get away!” I was gesticulating wildly with my poles and getting rather exasperated with the whole situation.
Anna had washed her hands and we changed places. I was much more confident dealing with a dodgy stove than I was with a pesky, hungry baboon.
“How many canisters are dodgy?”
“I’ve tried two,” said Anna.
We only had 4, one we had finished, so that left two dodgy ones and a potential, with fingers crossed I tried the last one. As I attached the stove head to the canister there is a little spurt of gas and it connected solidly. We both breathed a sigh of relief, I was not relishing the remaining three days cooking over a fire, although it looked like one small canister was lasting one day, so it may mean the last two days we’d have to look for firewood.
I turned the stove on and placed our water over the top and looked up.
“Where is our baboon now?”
“Just over there,” said Anna pointing with my poles, the crafty animal had moved again to a better vantage point. Now he was picking his fingernails trying to look innocent. I think he was beginning to realise that getting any food out of us was going to be a lost cause. We could relax a little bit.
I filled our water containers up with gloopy green water and put in the purification drops. The timer was set. We had got into a good routine with the water purification, I had a stopwatch on my watch and we religiously timed the allocated 30 minutes for purification, and I always added a couple of minutes for good luck just to be absolutely sure. The colour of the water really did indicate that there were whole load of nasty’s swimming around in it.
We said goodbye to the neighbourhood watch and continued on our journey. The next area on the map had ‘Boulder Crossing’ written across it, and it lived up to its name. It can be very tiring walking over boulders because you have to really concentrate on where you’re putting your feet. There is no opportunity to simply let your mind wander a little bit at this stage. We passed humongous sandy slopes and Anna did a great job on route finding and locating the main path which cut out sections of the river bends. Although there were times we had to scramble over rocks, we eventually found an easier route than continuing along the river bed in the boulders.
Getting towards the heat of the day we began to notice that water sources were diminishing and I was really thankful for the map we had because it seemed pretty accurate and there were pools where they were indicated on the map. Although some of these pools were very shallow and I would question whether they would be there in a month or so. We still had not seen anybody for 40 hours. At this point I think I would have been disappointed if I had seen someone, the solitude was wonderful.
Lunch with Pelicans
We had made a plan for where we were going to stop for lunch, it was now the heat of the day again and we were still walking, despite saying to each other that we weren’t going to do this again. I managed to find somewhere before it got too hot, but we had tried to push on a little bit further.
As we were walking along the red sun baked earth, we suddenly spied lots of birds in the sky. There must have been over a hundred of them and they were circling in vortex up ahead of us gradually lowering themselves down to the ground. This was a good sign, I was sure there was going to be water there, the birds were certainly not vultures! It took both of us a bit of time to work out what they were because we weren’t really expecting to see these type of birds in the canyon. They were pelicans! I had never seen so many pelicans before and we crept up slowly towards an elongated pool to see these pelicans swooping down onto the water flapping their wings and landing in droves and in synchronisation.
We slowly stood up and watched this fleet of white pelicans tacking backwards and forwards up and down this pool in formation. It was an extraordinary sight which left me standing there with my mouth open. I couldn’t believe it! Anna had a camera out and was busy taking pictures whilst I had the pleasure of just simply watching this marvellous spectacle. And then all at once they suddenly took off in a blur of white, the clattering of their wings and feet as they took off from the water surface was unusually loud, we had been used to the silence of the canyon. And then they were gone. The only evidence of them having been there was the odd feather gently dancing in the breeze. How lucky were we to decide to walk to this pool for our lunch stop? It will be something I’ll never forget.
A More Restful Night
After our usual four hour stop we clocked a few more kilometres before we started to look for our campsite. This time we had learnt that we needed to make camp before it got dark and to be in our sleeping bags before the wind picked up. This time we chose somewhere that wasn’t an official campsite and on the opposite side of the river, although there wasn’t any river, to where the official path was. We made camp in a rocky outcrop of boulders and found a flat area nestled within the boulders and we hoped that would provide sufficient shelter for the night. Anna got the stove on and I built a fire to burn all our rubbish.
We camped at the 38 km mark, with only 27 km more to go. That depended on us finding the shortcuts tomorrow, if we didn’t it would be much longer.
We were in bed before eight o’clock and although the wind did pick up it was only for a little while. I don’t remember much else because I was asleep almost instantly.
This blog is the second of four covering my experiences hiking the Fish River canyon in Namibia. For the first blog in the series, click here, and for the second click here. Stay tuned for the exciting final part!