Trekking in Fish River Canyon is a great way to take in the Namibian scenery, brush up on your survival skills and amuse the baboons, says MARK STRATTON.
The problem with locusts,” announced Chris, after one leapt on our burning campfire, “is they attract scorpions.” It got worse. For they in turn attract solifuges, he continued – red, fist-sized spiders that stalk then crush the scorpions in their powerful mandibles. The timing of Chris’s natural history lesson could have been disastrous – delivered moments before I was to retire to my roll-mat and spend my first night under the Namibian stars. I could have stayed awake all night fretting about when the first instalment of insect wars would be fought upon my sleeping bag. Wondering what the spiders’ mandibles would be crushing if scorpions were in short supply.
Fortunately, I was too tired to care. Our first day’s trekking in Fish River Canyon had been the toughest of my life. I was, if you’ll pardon the vernacular, completely cream-crackered.
Make no mistake, the 85km-long Fish River Canyon trail is Africa’s toughest yomp. In truly awe-inspiring scenery you follow the meandering canyon floor for four-to-five days, carrying everything with you, and battling both blistering heat and feet. “Africa’s not for sissies,” our no-nonsense guide, Chris Liebenberg, would subtly remind us whenever the going got tough.
Yet from the moment I stood on the lip of Africa’s greatest precipice (at Hell’s Bend Viewpoint on Southern Kalahari fringe) I was sucked in by the canyon’s magnificence. A plain of flat-topped hills was gouged 550m deep by the canyon several kilometres wide. The sun glinted in the river below and warmed the hills a burnt maroon colour. I felt the same wow-factor as seeing Victoria Falls or the Grand Canyon for the very first time.
Getting into the canyon, though, is pure madness. It’s a cartilage-popping scramble with full packs down a jagged 60 degree scree-slope that had the watching baboons laughing their asses off. Although once on the canyon floor, we were in for a pleasant surprise. Despite Fish River being largely parched along its course we were greeted by a swimming hole of inviting cool water. In 40°C heat we needed no second invitation.
Well, that’s where the fun ended that day. Our swim wasted valuable time as you have to start early and then, at midday, hide under acacia trees until the canyon’s furnace cools down. But now hiking around the hottest time of day to make up time we waded heavy-footed through caramel-coloured sand and endlessly zigzagged around the horseshoe meanders choked by boulders the size of bungalows. It was gruelling.
The day ended abruptly as one of my friend blacked out with heat exhaustion. We’ll camp here,” said Chris, looking worried.
Respite came during the blissfully shaded evenings spent under the starry desert skies. Rough camping near increasingly infrequent waterholes, we’d find a sand dune to bed down, rustle up culinary masterpieces (like dehydrated Irish stew on a fricassee of pot noodles), and then stargaze at the unbelievably bright galaxies around a driftwood campfire. Only the hooting owls and scrabbling rock-dassies broke a silence untainted by the world outside the canyon.
Fortunately after the first two days Fish River’s canyon widens and picking a route through the meandering boulder fields became easier. Feeling more comfortable underfoot I really began to appreciate the canyon’s 500-million-year-old scenery. In places the towering walls had warped into squiggly folds like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, or were cracked by honeycombed fissures. Sometimes skyscraper pinnacles had wrenched away from the cliff-walls creating a landscape more familiar in a western movie set in Arizona.
And quite unexpectedly the canyon was chock-full of wildlife – although mercifully never Chris’ gruesome red arachnids. Baboons, hundreds of them, greeted us around every bend with booming roars, taking pleasure one morning at breakfast to get in a little love action in front of us. I almost choked on my muesli. Nimble-footed klipspringers, meanwhile, were abundant and we were treated to several encounters with feral horse herds surviving on the threadbare vegetation. I later heard a myth that they’d swum ashore and formed their own colony after a 19th-century ship carrying them wrecked off Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
By the third evening, however, the only ‘wrecks’ around wore hiking-boots as our campsite resembled a casualty ward. Besides blisters and heat rash, chafing in unmentionable places was forcing me to walk like a cowboy who’d been in the saddle too long. Food psychosis had set in too. How much biltong (jerky) could be salvaged from a klipspringer’s stick-like leg I wondered upon miserably heating up another pan of couscous to be flavoured by tomato packet soup.
Yet we were all in a little bit better shape than Lieutenant Thilo von Trotha. On the fourth morning, not long after passing a mammoth pinnacle called Four Fingers Rock, we stumbled on the grave of a German soldier dated 1905. He’d been shot by Nama rebels hiding in the canyon and left to a lonely eternity spent on a sun-baked kopje. The rebel natives were fleeing brutal Germanic rule over South West Africa (as Namibia was then known) which was characterised by the systematic extermination of the local tribes. Ironically, the architect of this policy was the governor, Rudolph Goering, the father of Hitler’s soon-to-be right-hand man. Nice family.
Driven by the thought of a cold beer (call me shallow) we made up 50km in the final two days. Nearing the trail’s end you could scarcely see both walls of the canyon together as they were many kilometres apart. Cheating a little, we circumvented the vast ox-bow meanders by scrambling over the now-eroded stumps of the canyon walls and shortcutting the route. Joyfully this paid off as we hobbled into the end of the trail at Ai-Ais campsite a night earlier than expected.
We must have looked a pitiful sight to the South African holidaymakers rustling up their braais, and slightly desperate as we plunged fully clothed into the campsite’s refreshing hot-spring. Footsore and sweaty I was euphoric we’d survived the challenge although I’ll admit that returning to civilisation had never tasted so good.
• To hike the Canyon you need to be fit, get a guide versed in survival, and present a medical certificate signed by your doctor upon entering Fish River Canyon National Park. The trail is officially open to hikers between April-September and only one party is allowed in per day. Contact the Namibian Tourist Board for information on how to book the trail (020-7636 2924; www.namibiatourism.co.uk).
Five tough hikes
Continental Divide Trail (US)
Hiking between Mexico and Canada … you’ve gotta be kidding right? Nope. If you’ve got a spare year this 3100 mile-long mountainous crossing of the US is soon due for completion. See www.cdtrail.org
If you’ve ever fancied scaling one of the ‘Seven Summits’ without the scary climbing bit, Mt Aconcagua, at 6962m, is one of the world’s highest trekking peaks. Only one in four make the summit because of extreme altitude. See www.aconcagua.com
Dolomites Via Ferrata (Italy)
Nerve-jangling and slightly lunatic walks along the so-called ‘iron ways’ where hikers attach themselves to cliff ledges via wire ropes, pegs, and ladders. Great scenery but don’t forget the Prozac. See www.viaferrata.org
Kilamanjaro – Shira Route (Tanzania)
A challenging and less-frequented back door route up Africa’s perennial favourite which guarantees you’ll avoid the millions of ‘charity trekkers’ queuing at the 5900m summit. See www.tanzania-web.com
Larapinta Trail (Australia)
The ultimate Aussie bushwalk along 240km-long trail from Alice Springs through Macdonnell Ranges. It’s great, just ask the eight billion flies accompanying you. See www.treklarapinta.com.au”