Walking in the Moonlight
The moon woke me up early on the second day, it was extraordinarily bright.
I had slept deeply and I have to say I was a little bit disorientated and unsure of where on earth I was. It was amazing how much I could see, simply by moonlight. I heard the plop of fish in the nearby pool that we had camped next to, I sat up to see the ripples echoing over the mirror-like surface.
“Anna, are you awake?” I whispered.
“Yes, have been for a while.”
I rolled over and found my watch, hit the dial and discovered that it was 1.30am. Surely we should be still asleep, although having thought about it, I did realise that I had been asleep for 8 hours, which is about the recommended time. There was no way I was going to stay in my sleeping bag for another five hours to wait for the sun to come up.
“Fancy walking in the moonlight?”
And with that we broke camp at a very leisurely pace. Tea and coffee was made on our stove and I managed to eat a couple of rusks – hard biscuits that resemble the rusks that some of us had when we were children, but these ones are for adults.
It took us an hour and a half to get ready and have breakfast and then we started Day 2 of the hike at 3 o’clock in the morning. We seriously needed to catch up after a restful afternoon the day before and time for me to recover. Initially the path was pretty obvious and easy to find in the dark although there were areas where there were lots of rocks which made it harder to find, especially as we couldn’t see that far ahead of us to discern where the next meander of the river would be. We probably chose the hardest route possible…
Navigating the Canyon
As we are at the beginning of the hike the canyon was probably only about 30m wide, so it was pretty difficult to go wrong. I had heard that some people got disorientated when they were walking the canyon, which I found very hard to comprehend. Surely walking in a canyon was rather linear and only an idiot would get lost? Day 5 would prove me wrong.
I was immensely relieved that I was feeling better, the night before I had seriously contemplated returning back up the arduous route that we had come in on. The feeling of incredible disappointment was off the Richter scale, so I was absolutely delighted that I felt strong enough and capable enough to give this hike a go.
I was amazed at the silence in the canyon, darkness and silence often goes together, not often in the African bush, but certainly in the Fish River Canyon. All I could hear was the rhythmic tapping of my poles as they connected with rocks and hard surface and the intermittent dislodging of the stone by Anna or myself as we trundled along the canyon river bed.
We both became very adept at spotting footprints on the not so obvious trail, in the dark, as well as during the day. Anna proved to be excellent at finding these and became the official team ‘route finder’, as she was more often at the front finding the way. I took on the role of map reader.
Anna had done a really good job of putting together a map with emergency exits and points of interests as well as shortcuts onto a map that someone had emailed her. There is a really good Facebook group called ‘ I hiked the Fish River Canyon’. Go there for any advice, people are brilliant and so willing to help. However, I had come up trumps and had been really lucky…
The Benefits of a Good Map
When I was waiting for Anna the day before, I met a number of people who come out of the canyon and one lady in particular, Sheila, was rather concerned that we had not got the official Slingsby Map for the area. She had got up early in the morning of our departure to wave us off and hand over her precious map so that we could use it for the journey. It was only on loan, but I was so pleased to have it, we could really accurately plot our way and our progress through the canyon. The only downside was that sometimes it was rather depressing seeing how slow our progress was!
This was evident when we were looking for the so-called Rapids, next to the Spring in the Reeds. There was hardly any water in the canyon, so I thought the rapids might be quite obvious. Maybe after a sharp drop there might be a pool of water at the bottom, denoting the spring. Might even be a few reeds there as well. I will never really know if we found it or not, but we did stop somewhere in the vicinity where we overlooked a small pool, but as it was dark we were never really too sure whether we had been there or not.
The route began to become tougher as the path weaved in between boulders and around large slabs of rock and ultimately disappeared into a gargantuan minefield of rubble. As neither of us had walked the Fish River Canyon before we had no idea how long this boulder field lasted for, it was dark and we couldn’t see far ahead anyway. This was really beneficial. Ignorance was bliss under these circumstances, and I was thankful I could not see how long the boulder field lasted. It was over a kilometre and it took us nearly 2 hrs.
“I need to stop and have a coffee,” said Anna. It was then that I learnt that Anna is a coffeeholic, and she needs to have a few in the morning to be able to function properly. I’m one of those annoying people that when I’m awake I am awake, and I just want to get going. Although, having said that, nothing was getting me going yesterday.
So we made a little camp, in the middle of the boulder field and had coffee and a second breakfast. We had been walking for four hours by then, and by my calculation had only covered 4 km, rather disheartening really.
Finding water was beginning to become an issue, partly because we couldn’t see the water in the dark, and there were only pools sporadically located within the canyon, so it was very hard to judge when we would next get water. We made a plan to fill up as often as we could and to always carry maximum amounts on us, so that was another 3kg each. I was pleased with the Slingsby map, it is very accurate, and the pools marked on the map in the river bed were there on the ground. Although some of them smelt rather unpleasant!
A Strange Place to Find a Motorbike
After more hiking we came across the Vespa Memorial ‘Vidi’ 1968. It is what you think it is, yes, there is a scooter in the canyon. How on earth it got here one does wonder. We were both delighted when we saw it, firstly because it was getting lighter and we could actually see things, and secondly we knew exactly where we were on the map. Not that I wasn’t confident about things, but it’s always nice to have confirmation. The downside of the whole thing was that we had only walked 6km. But, we had successfully negotiated a humongous boulder field, in the dark as well!
The next marker to head for was Wild Fig Bend, 3km down the river. Things began to get much easier and more pleasant. The sun had risen but the steep sides of the canyon still kept us in the shade and the cool and we could find the path easily and there were sections where it was solid underfoot and easy to navigate, the boulder field left behind us. Or was it?
The scenery is incredible in the canyon and it is genuinely worth doing the hike for the sights alone. Each corner we rounded there seem to be something even more spectacular to see. It was just us, there was nobody else in the canyon, and for the whole of this day we didn’t see a single person. There was a little bit of wildlife; a heron that silhouetted itself on a boulder overlooking one of the pools, and a Pied Kingfisher hovering above and then plunging into the water breaking the silence around us.
And then the sun came over the horizon of the canyon and beat down upon us. It was lovely to have the sun out but it seriously made it harder work, the heat did sap our energy, mine in particular. Every time we had a break I was taking the opportunity to dip in the pools to keep myself from overheating again. And when walking it was bliss to have a wet scarf around my neck and I made sure my hat was dunked in the water as well.
It’s Worth Preparing
One of the things I’d learnt from the Facebook group was to have gaiters to stop sand from getting into your boots and potentially causing blisters. I had put a very cunning plan into action, which, I have to say myself, was a brilliant idea. Anna has knee issues and she had special braces for them. I thought this might be a good idea to have some form of support on my knees when I went into the canyon, so I’d cut a tubigrip bandage in half and wore those for my knees. And then when I got into the canyon I simply pull them down, over the tops of my boots, and hey presto, my home-made gaiters. I was well pleased with myself!
As we passed Emergency Exit #1, I was mightily glad that we were not going to be using this escape route. Anna’s info map had advised to not use this unless it really was a dire emergency, and we could see the reason why when looking up at the sheer steepness of the ascent out of the canyon.
We were getting the hang of finding the best route on the larger bends of the river, taking the inside of the meander whilst avoiding the ‘cobblestone city’ which is often situated on the inside of the bend. The plan was to keep our route as short as possible and to stay out of the sun for as long as possible. Luckily these two goals coincided quite frequently over the 4 days.
An Unexpected Encounter
As we trudged along I suddenly saw movement ahead.
“What is that?” I asked. “Is it…is it a horse?! What on earth…”
“It is, it is,” replied Anna. We could not believe it. Where on earth had it come from and where on earth was it going? We knew there were wild horses in the canyon but had not expected to see one so high up it. It didn’t seem too bothered as we laboured past.
Lunch break for Day 2 was to be at Reed Bush. Sheila had advised us to go past the Palm Sulphur Springs, if we could manage it, and stop at Reed Bush, another pool of water. We knew when we had got to Palm Sulphur Springs by the smell. I had thought that a little bathe in the hot springs would do my sore legs a world of good, they were suffering a bit after the massive descent into the canyon. But we chose not to stop there and to plough onto our recommended lunch stop. The reason were twofold. Firstly, because there didn’t seem to be anywhere easy to get into the hot springs. Secondly, and most importantly, there was loo roll all over the place.
Now I know everyone has to go to the loo but really, why people can’t clear up after themselves is beyond me. Burn the paper or put it in the plastic bag and carry it until you can dispose of it adequately. This was the one recurring theme that we experienced on our trek, Anna particularly went off on a rant about it, and rightly so. You would have thought that people going into the canyon would be experienced trekkers or be part of a group that were experienced and therefore knowledgeable about how to dispose of loo roll and other litter. Apparently this is not the case. I think what compounded it all was the lack of water, especially at the campsites where people congregated because there was water and therefore more signs, shall we say (!) of human beings having been in the vicinity. If we had had the option, maybe when the river was flowing, we would have camped and stopped anywhere, but as water was scarce, we stopped at obvious points where the majority of people had stopped as well.
Lunch in the Sun
So we moved on from Sulphur Springs. It was now midday and it was boiling hot and we really needed to get out of the sun. Looking at the sun and the topography of the next meander we had calculated that there would be shade around the corner. It was just a bit annoying that around the corner involved another boulder field, albeit smaller than the one we had negotiated through in the dark, but still a boulder field. This slowed us down and the 1 km to our lunch spot took us 45 mins.
Our lunch spot had no litter, which we were delighted about, but the angle of the sun was not ideal and this was when Anna came into her own. I felt as if she had been away for about half an hour, and while it was probably only 15 minutes, I was beginning to get a bit concerned. She had found a brilliant little spot for both of us, not a lot of shade, but enough to keep us in the cool, and the water was only 30m away so we could have a swim as well.
Swim would be an optimistic use of the word. Realistically it was a wade through very smelly mud that was probably mostly bird poo. But there we stood in our birthday suits sloshing water over ourselves and desperately trying to cool down whilst trying to find the best place to get drinking water that was remotely cleanish.
We spent the next three hours sorting our kit, cooling off in the water, eating lunch and having a little bit of a snooze as well. According to the map we were at 17 km, only another 73 km to go then. Looking at it like this it was rather daunting and very depressing. We agreed that at 4 o’clock we would start getting ourselves sorted ready to leave at 4.30, which we did. Getting my feet dry and devoid of sand before putting them in my boots took up half the time, I really didn’t want to have sand in my boots which potentially could cause blisters.
Sunset in the Canyon
After walking for another hour and a half we arrived at one of the marked campsites just in time before the sunset. We had walked through the canyon with the setting sun bouncing off the tops of the gorge and Anna took some great panoramas. We had decided to take it in turns to take photos because we were not too sure about our portable charger, for some reason it wasn’t working very efficiently.
We were both going strong. Anna was in the lead again finding our routes, making it as easy as possible for us. We did have a moment of worry, although we had not discussed it, but I know it was both going through our minds. What happened if this marked campsite hadn’t got any water at all? The Slingsby map said that it did, but with the current drought situation we couldn’t take anything for granted.
It did not help when we passed a dried up carcass of a probably a kudu. Someone had stood it up against a rock and it was a stark reminder of how bad the current drought is.
Taken By Anna McGinn
Water At Last
As we approached the campsite we could both see nothing but sand and boulders and there was a tense five minutes as we got nearer to the camp area when we were praying for water. The sun was setting. Anna who was ahead turned round and raised her hands in the air with a big smile on her face, and I knew there was water. Not much mind you, but enough to keep us going. I will never forget the look on Anna’s face, I’m sure it reflected my own as I grinned back like a Cheshire cat. 21km done.
We were super chuffed with our campsite and we decided to camp where others obviously had done so as well but there was little litter here so we were very pleased. We got our beds sorted before the sun disappeared and then sat on the warm rocks heating up our yummy meal of vegetarian pasta. Believe me it tasted delicious. Having not had much to eat that day, I was starving.
As we sat there Anna recounted a story about when she had been walking around Sibebe Rock in Eswatini, formerly called Swaziland, where she had been camping out overnight and had woken up in the morning to find that a rat had chewed through her platypus straw and devoured her suction mouth piece. She said she couldn’t believe it because her platypus was right by her head and the rat must have been a very gutsy one.
I’m not too sure whether this was the kiss of death for that night but at that precise moment our pleasant evening turned into a nightmare from hell. First of all, as we were sitting there, Anna noticed a small mouse sitting on her sleeping bag, having a little nibble at her breakfast for the following day. We couldn’t believe it, it didn’t even seem perturbed when we ran over to it shouting and waving our arms, it simply looked at us, took one more gobble of food and scurried underneath the small overhanging rock next to our beds.
“I can’t believe it,” cried Anna, “after all I was saying and then this happens!” Unfortunately this little mouse had been at three of Anna’s bags of food, two breakfasts and one lucky dip of nuts and raisins and dried veggies, our trail mix for munching on the way.
Neither of us really wanted to eat this, we were now down a bit of food. This didn’t really matter, as we had got extra, it was just very frustrating. There was no way we were going to sleep where we had put our beds and we knew we had to move a fair distance to get away from this tenacious mouse. I was gutted, it was a nice little sheltered spot, but when the mouse came out again and simply looked at us, cheekily, the writing was on the wall for that particular campsite. We were in a mouse madness territory, and there was no way it would let her sleep peacefully tonight.
We had a scout around and found another place, only 30 m away, but we thought that this would be sufficient to escape the clutches of this particular mouse. So we began to shuttle our campsite away from mousy heaven and down a large rock slab into another area. Just as we were settling ourselves down, to get to sleep, the wind picked up. And I’m not talking about a normal small breeze.
Exposed to the Elements
It felt as if a massive hurricane was travelling through the canyon. I thought I’d been smart and had put a rock on top of my sleeping bag and thermorest, but even the wind picked that up and made them airborne. Luck was on my side, because they slammed into the overhanging rock face and whilst I had dived onto my thermorest Anna had managed to grab onto my sleeping bag. Luckily for Anna she was sitting on her sleeping bag, I had been cleaning my teeth. I have no idea what would have happened if we had not got hold of my sleeping stuff. I suspect I would have had a very cold three more nights.
The wind was relentless, it picked up the sand and blasted it into our faces. We did hope that this was a freak gust of wind but after 20 minutes enough was enough. There was no way we are going to get any sleep where we were, we were on the inside of the bend and the wind just whistled round at breakneck speed.
“Right,” I said, “I’m going over the other side to see whether there is anywhere else we can stay for the night.” Anna nodded in agreement and made the decision to start packing and make sure nothing else got stolen by the wind. So there I was, battling the wind, walking around in pitch dark, looking for somewhere sheltered to sleep. It was a bit of a tall order to be honest.
An Uncomfortable Night
I did find a new place, anything would be better than the place that we were in and so we moved for the second time, this time it was further and we had to make a couple of trips navigating past our pools of water. Bedroom number two was not comfortable either. We were on a slope and it felt that if we did move we would fall over a small precipice. After having lain there for about half an hour both Anna and I agreed that we needed to move again. This time it was only 20m away but still the effort of moving was proving to be exhausting.
Anna used my poles to dig us a ‘bed’ in the sand, levelling it off nicely so that we felt as if we weren’t going to slide down the slope. We spent a lot of time perfecting our beds, removing rocks and smoothing it nicely. We were adamant we were not moving again. It was now 11o’clock.
This time we were not in sync when it came to sleeping. I was just about to doze off whilst Anna was ferreting around in her bag for what felt like hours, looking for goodness knows what. She eventually then went to sleep and then I was wide awake struggling to breathe as my nose had blocked up. I was finding it hard to breathe and had to wake Anna up so I could get at the loo roll. She was probably not best pleased with me! I used rather a lot of loo roll, and it was fortunate Anna had packed extra. I had an awful night struggling to breathe. Every time I lay down I felt as if my throat was closing over, it was pretty scary and I suspect it was just because I was so tired. It was not a pleasant experience. I don’t think I got much sleep that night but I did manage to doze off every now and again. At around 3 o’clock I’d had enough of tossing and turning.
“Anna, are you awake?” I whispered.
This time the response was different…