We'd settled in for a post-hike rest on Day Two of the Fish River Canyon hike when I heard a groan from S: "I think I have rigor mortis!" Let me tell you, this hike is not for sissies and the Canyon has made mice of mightier men than S.
We got a first taste of this as we arrived at Ai-Ais where we would spend the night before setting out. This is where the 90km hike through the Namibian desert ends, and as we got comfortable with a cold Windhoek after our long drive the Walking Wounded started arriving. We heard tales of ten black toenails, saw heals with blisters the size (and appearance) of plums, and more shuffling and hobbling than in your average old age home...
So it was with equal amounts of dread and anticipation we set our sights on Hobas the next day. Day One is basically your descent into the Canyon from the main view point at Hobas. It is very steep (at times, you basically hang on to a chain and slide down the boulders). A backpack filled with everything you need for five days does not help. We had planned to start early, but due to various reasons we only started our descent at midday.
So in the blistering midday heat, we slowly made our way downwards. After three hours we reached the bottom and were greeted by a group of very seasoned hikers (one lady, referred to as Auntie, was doing the Canyon for the 29th time!) that would become good companions over the next five days. After a refreshing dip and lunch, we trudged onwards through rather deep sand (this would be my nemesis throughout the hike) for about an hour and then set camp. As the sun set, we cooked our dinner and then shared a sip of whiskey and a slice of dark chocolate before getting comfortable in our sleeping bags with a star-studded African sky as our ceiling.
Day Two involved a lot of boulder-hopping and more sand trudging and it took us almost 8 hours to reach Palm Springs (S certainly wasn't the only one to feel the heat this day). Here, we met all fellow hikers as everyone tends to aim for this stop on day two to enjoy the hot springs. In fact, I got rather cosy with the seasoned group here as it turned out they were of a naturalist persuasion (you can't really get much closer than sharing a small pool with ten naked people!). The water is around 65 degrees at source and much too hot to swim in, but where it seeps into the natural pools of the river the temperature is perfect. Be aware though, that this is pretty much a mud-bath as there's a lot of sediment in the pools. But hey, people pay a lot of money to do this in a spa; here it's free and you get a beautiful sunset as well (whether you consider ten naked people a bonus or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide)!
Day Three brought the first big surprise for me; there are shortcuts on the Canyon and there are Shortcuts. According to our map (this is, to my knowledge, the best map available), the first shortcut would be at around 45km, so when we saw one of the seasoned hikers making a beeline around the inner corner of the canyon we assumed he was looking for a suitable bush and merrily continued on our way following the riverbed. Some ten minutes later, we realised that by following the river we'd be going around the outside corner of the (very large) bend. As it were, all the seasoned hikers were taking the "shortcut" and we decided to cut back to follow their lead. Following the river probably would have added an hour to our hike that day. Later in the day, we encountered the first Shortcut, which took us far away from the river for over an hour. So our learning of the day was that shortcuts can cut an hour or so off your hike; whereas Shortcuts are likely to shave half a day. It just like the canyon; the proportions are vast. At the start of the trail, I wasn't sure I wanted to take the Shortcuts (I’m a tad competitive that way) but trust me you'll want to take all of them and you won't feel like you are cheating anyway.
Day Four continued much in the same fashion, and we felt that we got better and better at reading the tracks and finding the best way. There is no one way, but there certainly are better and worse ones. Something that D and I found out the hard way towards the end of Day Four (maybe we let our guards down, as things seemed to be going so well). I won't go into details, but let's just say that it earned us a massive row, a delay of about an hour (plus a few extra km's that we really didn't need due to backtracking) and I still have a scar on my leg to remind me. Lesson learned: never underestimate the Canyon.
Going to bed that last night, after the most spectacular sunset and dinner by a small campfire I felt a little sad. It would all be over the next day. Gone was the rage and pain from earlier, and I wanted it to last much longer. Final lesson: be careful what you wish for.
The last day seemed pretty short according to the map, and we figured it would be a quick one. Not wanting to leave just yet, we even went off the trail quite far to have one more lovely break by the river. After the break, we had just over ten km's left to Ai-Ais. Piece of cake, huh? Once again, the Canyon showed us who's The Boss. As the day got hotter (much hotter than any of the other days), the sand got deeper and the final bit seemed to stretch out forever. K and I agreed that it would be a looong time before we'd ever enjoy walking on a beach again. In fact, the Canyon had by now made me feel like I never wanted to see sand again. Ever. The final hour was walked in exhausted, grumpy silence, the mood falling even lower each time we turned a corner and still saw only sand... Then, finally, the palmtrees of Ai-Ais appeared in the distance. I want to say that our steps got lighter, but we were too exhausted even to celebrate.
And so it was that we too walked into the bar at Ai-Ais as Walking Wounded. Our seasoned friends were already there, giving us a round of applause and holding out a cold beer as we shuffled and hobbled in. The taste and feel of that cold, crisp beer in my parched throat is something I'll never forget. What I did forget quite soon though was the hardship of the Canyon. Now all I have left are the memories of the vast open spaces, the freshness of a dip in an icy pool on a hot day, spectacular sunsets that gave way to star-studded skies, and the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day.