Monday, August 31, 2009

Fish River Canyon

As I drive south to the camp at Hobas, I do not worry about the warnings of people in Windhoek who say the Fish River Canyon is too dangerous to walk alone. I am confident that I can walk the sixty miles of rough terrain from Hobas to Ai-Ais without a problem. I have walked long distances alone before, and I know I have packed enough supplies to sustain me, even through minor injury. My fear is that the Namibian Wildlife Resorts officials will turn me away because I do not meet their rigid specifications for hiking the canyon. I should have known better. Namibia is the developing world, after all, and there is always a way around the rules, and things work out in the end if you keep your options open.

Fish River Canyon is touted as the second biggest canyon in the world behind the massive canyon of the Colorado River. The Fish River is in south-central Namibia, and has carved a canyon hundreds of miles long on its way towards the might Orange River, and the border of South Africa. Water courses from its tributaries in the north in the fall to fill the canyon with water in the spring and summer. The canyon is only accessible to hikers for the four months of winter while water levels are low but still flowing.

Control of the Fish River Canyon comes under the jurisdiction of the Namibian government, specifically the Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR). Besides limiting the opening and closing of the canyon due to water levels, they also limit the number of registered entrants to the park to thirty per day. Due to previous accidents in the canyon, hikers must form a party of three or more people, and each member of the group must have medical clearance from a doctor. As I pull the car up to the guardhouse at Hobas camp, just before sunset on a Monday evening, I have no registration to enter the canyon, no group of three hikers, and only a forged doctor’s form, from a fictitious Doctor Perriwinkle, stating my optimal physical condition.

Behind the desk at the camp office is a large black woman with a black and white scarf wrapped around her head and large black-framed glasses. I stand before her and stretch my back after the long 600 mile drive, and smile at her to get in her good graces.
“Long drive?” she asks.
“Yes, from Windhoek.”
“Oh, so you are from Windhoek. Do you hike the canyon?”
“And after?”
“Back to Windhoek.”
“You are alone?”
“You cannot walk the canyon alone. But I can put you with a group if I can go with you back to Windhoek. I have to see a doctor on Monday in Windhoek.”
“If you get me into the canyon tomorrow, I will take you to Windhoek when I go.”
“Now we make business,” she laughs.

I stand with my pack at the guardhouse of Hobas as the sun comes up, hoping to catch a ride to the canyon as early as possible. At seven a white pick-up truck with canopy slides to a stop before me and people pile out of both ends of it. It is a Afrikaans school group from a small Namibian farming community with four middle school students and three adults. They agree to give me a ride to the starting point of the hike. We turn our medical forms in to the park officer in the guardhouse and pay the entrance fee. The officer does not look at the documents, but counts to make sure he has the correct number of them. Dr. Perriwinkle has done his job, and I climb into the back to truck to start the hike.

A wide, rocky plain extends for miles around, broken only by a few small hills in the distance. Only on the rim of the canyon do I see the huge scar in the earth that is the Fish River Canyon. I walk to the rim of the drop off and stare at the valley floor 550 yards below, and my eyes trace the route of the river south thought the multicolored rocks. I eat breakfast and contemplate the four days walk ahead of me. I do not have a map to guide me because Luisa ran out of maps in Hobas, but I know that I just have to follow the river for sixty miles to the hot springs resort of Ai-Ais. I stretch, say good-bye to the group, and start the trail in the shadow of the eastern wall of the canyon.

The route is steep and rocky, with chains drilled into the rock face to assist in the descent. After many switchbacks the trail widens and follows a steep sandstone gorge towards the bottom. Quiver trees, a type of aloe tree, cling to the steep rock walls around me as I descend. After an hour I arrive on the sandy bank of the Fish River at the mouth of the gorge. The Fish River is not a river as much as it is a series of green pools connected by trickles of water between them this late in the winter. I am glad to have my water purification tablets, but don’t relish the thought of drinking water that tastes like chlorine for the next four days.

The sun is over the rim of the canyon and the temperature is already up to eighty degrees when I get down. I change into shorts and a T-shirt beside the river before heading off. I want to keep ahead of the group behind me and walk alone. I like to move at my own pace, focus on nothing more than my next footfall, and let my mind forget about everything except the environment around me. I make as little noise as possible to see as many animals as possible along the trail. However, within minutes of re-starting I turn a corner that makes me rethink my decision to walk alone.

I don’t like primates. In truth, they terrify me because they are wild, unpredictable, and often vicious. I know humans are above primates, and should be able to dominate them, but we have long since abandoned living physical existences, and I know that they could tear me to shreds. Most of all I hate baboons. I think it’s because of their beady eyes, huge muzzles and long, powerful limbs. Africa is full of baboons, and full of wild stories of baboons killing children, and even eating babies. So, as I climb a steep, narrow ledge high above the river I freeze at the sight of large, gray baboon staring at me from a boulder ten feet ahead of me.

He knows I am alone. He has been watching me approach, and was aware of me well before I see him. He is not scared of me because I am alone, and challenges me by standing his ground. He is sitting on his rump, his forearms resting on his knees, his small, black eyes staring directly at mine. I have to walk past him, or wait for him to leave. After a long, painful minute I start to walk to past him, hold eye contact with him, and try not to show my fear. His body doesn’t move, but his head follows my every step.

As I approach him his body becomes tense and rigid, and his weights shifts forward onto his hind legs. He tilts his head in my direction and opens his huge mouth, exposing his tall, bright fangs. One more step and he howls, the deep, primal noise that reverberates between the canyon walls and shatters the calm of the canyon. The strain of the howl wrenches his body and quickens my steps.

I pass the angry animal and move slowly backwards along the trail. As I move further from him, he sits back down on his rump, and relaxes. I pull out my camera to document the encounter. I focus the lens on him and he howls again at my insolence. The camera shakes in my hand as he howls again through the viewfinder. The video is short because focusing on him makes him agitated and I fear a charge. I do not check the footage, but back down the trail away from his perch.

At four o’clock I estimate I have walked twelve miles, and decide to make camp on a sand bank below the north rim of the canyon wall, twenty yards from the river. I spread out my plastic tarp, weigh it down with heavy rocks, and unroll my sleeping bag. This is the desert and there is no need for a tent. Within minutes the sun disappears behind the western wall of the canyon and the chill the shadow envelops me. I cook my dinner over my gas stove and eat quickly before laying my pack at my head and lying down. It is not even dark.

In the loneliness of the early evening a quote keeps resonating inside my hyperactive and slightly paranoid mind. An Afrikaans farmer once told me that, “baboons will do anything for food. They go absolutely crazy for anything you have. That is when they are most dangerous, yah.” The statement takes hold of my imagination and spawns a series of questions and terrifying scenarios.

Do baboons come out at night? Will they be attracted to the smell of the food in my pack? Should I make a urine ring around my camp? Should I leave my food away from my camp, and risk losing it all, or leave it beside me, and risk being attacked? How should I defend myself when they come? Where is my knife? Why am I here alone?

Sleep does not come quickly. The fear of baboons is enough to keep me awake, but at on the canyon floor I am also freezing cold. I am wearing every shred of clothing I brought with me, but I am shivering inside my thin sleeping bag. When I think it cannot get any worse the wind picks up and whisks waves of sand across my face and into my eyes, ears and nose. I bury my head inside the sleeping bag and draw the string tightly over my skull just as the rain begins to fall, lightly at first and then more forcefully. The only consolation is that I doubt baboons will come in the rain.

At the first hint of light I am out of my sleeping bag and packing up my sodden gear. It is still cold, and I need to get moving. Baboons howl from the cliffs above me, and I want to leave this spot and its memory behind me. Around the first bend in the river I see the first group of humans since dropping into the canyon. A man and a woman rest on a sandy bank beside the river. Seeing them lifts my spirits, and, despite my desire to walk the canyon alone I am glad not to feel isolated any longer.

The man’s name is Jerry, and within minutes he wants his new American friend to join his group of four South African hikers. Jerry is fifty-five years old. Jerry owns his own automobile repair shop. Jerry has two children. Jerry likes to talk. While we walked together I ask him as many questions about baboons as he asks me about America. He tells me that baboons do not come out at night, and I tell him that all Americans are not all fat and lazy. He tells me not to throw stones at baboon, and I tell him not to throw stones at Americans.

Jerry is not from the city, and looks like most Afrikaans farmers in Namibia, with wool socks rolled over the tops of his hiking boots, short shorts that barely cover his buttocks, khaki shirt with epaulettes, topped with a khaki safari hat. He is overly friendly, and overly excited by my company. By the third time he tells me that he can’t believe he has met a “real, live, American”, I know it is time for me to quicken my pace and leave him behind. I fancied surviving the baboons more than I did his persistent chatter.

With Jerry safely behind me I stop along a sunny stretch of river, lay all my belongings on a warm boulder, and strip down to swim. As my thing and my body dry on a warm rock I regain my composure and appreciate the beauty of the canyon. The scenery is not as dramatic as that of the Grand Canyon, but is still overwhelming when I consider the power and time it took to be created.

The trail varies between wide floodplains to narrow passes and back again throughout the morning. Beside a beautiful pool of green water I come across another hiker. He immerges without warning from a row of trees on the bank of the river as I am passing. We surprise each other and introduce ourselves. He is also South African, but I suspect he is from the city because he is not wearing short shorts, and tells me he has been to the States. His name is Hermann.

Hermann and I walk together and he tells me he is with a group of eleven hikers, all like Herman, about the same age as me. We walk until I want to stop for lunch, and he continues to catch up with his group. I swim again and relax on a sandy beach after eating my sandwich and filling my water bottles. When I rejoin the trail I find the rear guard of his group restarting down a wide stretch of river. “You must be Todd,” the first man says to me as I approach. We talk for a while before I catch another member of the group, who greets me again by the refrain, “You must be Todd.” I feel like Dr. Livingstone.

The group is made of up highly professionals from Cape Town and Johannesburg; five women and six men. None of them wear short shorts, and none of them call me a ‘real live American’, so I accept their invitation to camp with them on a sandy beach on the north side of the river. Pitching camp is easy with a group, and by nightfall we have plenty of firewood, fresh fish to eat, and even pass around Nalgene bottles of vodka mixed with energy drink. The night sky is clear, and the new moon is not yet visible, affording spectacular views of the milky way, the southern constellations, and even an exploding shooting star. Even though there are leopard tracks in the sand around the camp I have no fear of them or baboons as I fall asleep.

The sandstone buttresses around the camp alight with an orange glow at sunrise. I am not tired from the walk yet, and I am eager to start walking again. I leave while the group waits for each other to eat and pack up, happy once again to walk alone. The trail follows wide stretches of river before cutting the corners of long lazy meanders across dusty plains.

The twelve of us make camp together again as the afternoon sun disappears behind the canyon walls. There are only six miles left to walk before the town of Ai-Ais and the end of the canyon, and we all think about ordering food at the resort restaurant, and bathing in its hot spring baths. The night is cool and clear, so I sleep next to the fire, and stoke it at intervals to keep warm. In the morning I stir the coals and put more wood on to cook my oatmeal before heading towards Ai-Ais. My only concern now is getting back to my car in Hobas today. I have heard there is a shuttle, but I am not sure if it is running.

The trail to the end is wide, flat and unspectacular. The canyon has become a valley, and the river no longer has deep pools of water. I do not need to climb out of the canyon; the canyon has run its course and ended. Beyond a low dam I can see stone buildings that betray the resort. There is no ascent to get out of the Fish River Canyon, only a small sandy riverbank that leads up to the tourist resort of Ai-Ais.

The first person I see is Luisa, the manager of Hobas camp. We greet each other like long lost friends with a hug and a kiss. I am not sure why we are so familiar, it obvious that both of us are excited to see the other. Her happy mood suddenly turns somber and she says, “I have bad news Todd. “I cannot go to Windhoek with you tomorrow.”

Luisa does not have permission to go to Windhoek. She was not given time off to see a doctor and was forced to cancel her CT scan appointment that could diagnose her constant headaches. I am sorry she will not be able to see the doctor, but happy to hear that she is returning to Hobas in the afternoon and will be able to give me a lift back to my car. I wait for her in the resort bar and order a Windhoek draught and take off my shoes. My feet are blistered from the hot sand, and my muscles are now sore. I leave the bar and take a bath in the natural hot spring water of Ai-Ais.

The group of eleven trickles in to Ai-Ais as I am packing up for my lift back to Hobas. We exchange emails and say goodbye before I jump into the back of a pick-up truck with cases of beer and Luisa’s two children. As we pull out of the stone bowl that cradles the resort and drive the bumpy dirt roads to Hobas I realize that this is a very fitting end my Fish River Canyon trip; despite my concerns about Namibian bureaucracy and unpredictable weather and wildlife, and not knowing how I will get out of the canyon, everything worked out in the end.

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