Southern Africa - Southern Namibia

Social Weaver Bird nest
We needed to stay in the south of Namibia, since we were to walk at Fish River, but we were a bit ahead of schedule, and had time to go out to the coast, staying at Keetmanshoop on the way. The countryside north of the border was quite dry desert, and here we began to see social weaver bird nests, like huge piles of debris in the trees. Keetmanshoop is home to quiver trees (kokerboom), so named because the bushmen used to use the hollowed-out branches as quivers. Quiver trees aren't trees at all - they are giant tree-like aloes, and they look stark and dramatic out in the stony bushland. We drove out to the nearby Devil's Playground, where a walking track meandered through great piles of rocks, some performing amazing balancing tricks, a product of erosion by wind, rain and heat.

Namibia is interesting, with strong German influences in the cuisine and architecture, and we met people who couldn't understand us and only spoke German, although English is one of the official languages of the country. Huge tracts of the country are "forbidden territory" - the diamond fields are off-limits to visitors. Lüderitz, on the coast, is a nice little town with German architecture, perched on the edge of the Namib Desert. We drove out south of the town, skirting the restricted diamond areas, to visit Diaz Point, home to sea lions, and we spent half a day at Kolmanskop, a recent diamond spookmansdorp (ghost town). It was still operating into the 1950s, but now the sand dunes are softly reclaiming it, and former imposing homes are half under the sand. It still has an operating skittle alley, where visitors can try their hand with the heavy wooden ball. Just north of Lüderitz is Agate Beach, where we picked over the thousands of water-smoothed pebbles looking for, and finding, agates. The road out to the beach runs alongside another fenced-off diamond area, where a small soak is dammed to form a small lake. Here we saw our first oryx, as well as many springbok and the now ho-hum flamingos.

Lüderitz is out a dead-end road, so we backtracked most of the way towards Keetmanshoop before turning off onto a dirt road that cut down to the Fish River Canyon. We hoped to find somewhere to stay along the way, but after bogging the car in loose sand on one track to a lodge (and therefore never reaching it), and calling for lunch at another lodge which proved to be way beyond our budget, we pressed on to Ai-Ais, a welcome oasis at the end of a long, dusty drive. The car had collected a thick coating of dust inside and out; we couldn't move without getting covered in fine, pale particles, and every time we shut the car doors clouds of dust would billow up, to resettle over us and our belongings.

Walking in the Fish River is a fairly organized event. Only ten people are allowed in each day, and you have to book. We had booked some nine months earlier - this was the only fixed date we had for the entire seven months trip. Arriving a couple of days early, we set up tent at Ai-Ais, and had time to look around the gorge. Baboons called 'Gerroff!!!' from across the river, and dassies played slippery-slide on the rocks alongside the camp. We needed a lift to the main lookout, some 70 kilometres away, to start the walk, and were able to organize that with one of the local men. After waiting while we booked in with the rangers, he drove us out to the edge of the canyon and waved us off.

The Fish River Canyon is just a bit impressive, second only to the Grand Canyon in scale. The walk is nominally five days and four nights, and stretches for some 85 kilometres. You need to carry your food, cooking gear and bedding, but at that time of year (May) there was plenty of water. The weather was quite good, not too hot, and we didn't take a tent, just mosquito nets. The walk itself doesn't start until you are down in the canyon; you have to first descend a knee-trembling steep and slippery slope.

The descent should take about one-and-a-half hours. Unfortunately, not far down, Carmel began to get ill. We kept going, Geoff helping her down the slope. Eventually I did a ferry run, taking her pack and mine in turn, doing short up-hill and down-hill bursts, but it was nearly four hours before we got to the river, the start of the trail.

Fish River by Vespa
We wanted to cover some ground on the first day, and in the beginning we weren't quite aware of just how sick Carmel was, so after a rest we started off down the track. Mind you, to call it a track at that stage was a bit of an exaggeration once it got into the large boulders. We really didn't get far that day - less then five kilometres. Carmel went slower and slower, and eventually all but collapsed. We looked about for a campsite and set about getting a meal, but none of us felt like eating at all. Carmel was too sick, and Geoff and I were stressed and worried about how she was going and what we would have to do if we needed to go for help. None of us had any idea of what was wrong with her.

We weren't the only people having troubles at this early stage. Another couple of trekkers had set up camp even earlier than we did. They were part of a larger party of South Africans who had descended at the same time as us. On the second day Carmel was, if anything, even worse, and while we sat resting, waiting to see if she could walk, the couple camped behind us caught up. The girl was a pharmacist, and was carrying an entire pharmocopea in her pack (or so it seemed). Carmel is a nurse, so they discussed her symptoms then she dug around and found some anti-nausea drugs, some rehydrating salts and some high-glucose tabs, all of which might be of some use, and we gladly accepted them. They set off, and we slowly followed. Things weren't good, and we set up camp with a total of less than ten kilometres for the two days. At this rate we would take weeks to get through the canyon. I had been thinking of turning back, or taking the escape route not too far ahead, but Carmel swore she would rather die than climb back up the canyon wall we had descended, and the other trekkers told us that the escape route was even worse. With my poor sister thinking that she was going to die anyway, all we could do was wait it out and hope that we had enough food for an extended stay.

Third day, and things weren't too much better, but at least the trail was better defined. In the first ten kilometres it often involved scrambling over really big boulders and picking our way though, hoping we were following the correct path. Now the trail was over sand, large boulder fields and some solid tracks, but generally flat so we found it fairly easy compared to other treks we have done (Carmel dissented from this opinion). Actually, the walking was pretty good and the canyon was fantastic, with lots to see and wonderful views. All of this made little impression on Carmel, whose stock response to our pointing out that something was worth looking at was a resigned 'If you say so'. I imagine it also hadn't impressed the South African team who had tried to traverse the gorge with Vespa scooters. We passed the wrecks of the bikes as we progressed along the gorge; the first one didn't even make it down the initial descent. (see 1968 Vespa Expedition)

We got to Palm Springs, a thermal spring where we stopped for lunch and an extended rest, watching the baboons rummage around across the river. Another party of people passed us, having started a day later than we did, but this didn't discourage us. Carmel was starting to feel better, eating properly for the first time, and we pushed on for the afternoon, making quite a respectable distance for the day. By the time we camped she was tired but not too ill, and we figured that we would be fine, just taking six days instead of the usual five. We had plenty of food, and were all happy that things were getting sorted out. We never did work out what was wrong with her.

The last three days were a great deal better. We still had the endless boulder fields, and the miles of loose sand to slog through, but we were all feeling pretty good, enjoying the walk during the day and the camps at night under the stunning star-lit skies. The weather stayed mild; sometimes it can get up to 40 degrees Celcius even in winter and that would make it a different proposition altogether. The nights were freezing, sleeping out without a tent, and I resorted to wearing my thermal underwear to bed. I had carried them all the way down to the southern tip of South America and back and this was the first time I had worn them!. The baboons in the canyon were fascinating - they turn over large boulders to get at the roots of the reeds which grow beside the pools, and generally carry on life within clear view. We also saw klipspringers (small antelope which can run up nearly vertical solid rock faces!) and dassies.

On the last day we caught up with the pharmacist and three others in her party. Less than a day out of Ai-Ais they had run out of steam, and were waiting at a drivable escape route while the party leader went to get a rescue vehicle for them. There was nothing we could do to repay the help they had given us except wish them good luck and a good trip. We carried on and walked into Ai-Ais in time for a late lunch. Then it was time to set up the tent and head off to the thermally-heated swimming pool to revitalize tired legs and soak our blisters.

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