Hiking the Fish River Canyon

Last week Johan and I travelled to Namibia to hike the Fish River Canyon. For those of you who don’t know, Africa is a continent, not a country, and Namibia is a country located north-west of South Africa, also a country. The Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon.

During summer months, temperatures can reach up to 48°C (118°F) in the day and heavy rains can cause the canyon to flood. The Namibia Wildlife Resorts department only issues 1000 permits per year, between 1 May and 15 September. These permits must be booked a year in advance. Our friends, Natali and Wynand, booked for us last year. At the time, we were a group of 26 hikers but only ended up being 7. 5 guys, and two girls. Wynand, Jacques, Lindo, Dirk, Nadia, Johan and myself.

On the morning of the 8th of May, we met up with Dirk and Nadia in Kathu, South Africa, and travelled the rest of the way to the Ai-Ais Resort, the ending point of the Fish River Canyon hike, a 12-hour car ride from Pretoria.

The border between Namibia and South Africa was nothing like the border between Zimbabwe (another country) and South Africa. In Zim, there were thousands of people travelling between the two countries, on both sides of the fence. Some loaded down with all sorts of goods, others with only a few belongings, and I couldn’t help but wonder where they could be headed. At the Namibia border, we were 4 of 10.

When we stopped at a gas station in Namibia, we were easily identified as tourists by our license plates and were soon surrounded by kids begging for money. The exchange rate between the Namibian Dollar and the South African Rand are the same, so they happily took my Rands.

About 45 minutes from Ai-Ais, we came upon two trucks parked along the side of the road. This was literally in the middle of nowhere and nowhere. As we got closer we saw that one of the truck’s wheels was turned in under the body of the truck and knew these people wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. We moved the stuff around in our cars to assist in bringing passengers back to Ai-Ais. Carl from Cape Town got into our car and started to tell us about his adventure. He and his friends had just come up the 2nd emergency exit from the canyon on their 5th day of hiking and used their satellite phone to call for help. No one in our group brought a satellite phone. I knew about the emergency exits but thought they would only be used in extreme cases, but Carl’s story was the 2nd time I’d heard of them being used in a non-life or death situation. He continued to tell us it was the worst, most difficult experience of his life. The decent was terrifying; the heat, sweltering; his backpack threw him off balance; all of it, hell.

I have to be honest, I didn’t research the trip at all. I spoke to a friend and her husband who’d hiked the canyon and she said it was difficult but do-able. It didn’t register to me that she was in her 20s when she did it. In my 20s, I was also up to tackling difficult/crazy tasks like moving to Africa. Another friend did it with his family at 17. If a kid can do it, so could I. I skimmed one blog post to ensure we had all the right gear, looked at #fishrivercanyon images on Instagram, but really, I left the research up to Johan. It’s a hike, how hard could it be?

Carl’s story about his journey really freaked me out. As we walked into the reception area of the resort I saw a big “NO WIFI” sign and reality started to sink in. We were in the middle of nowhere about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime, good or bad I wasn’t sure yet, but one thing was for sure, there was no turning back.

Sitting around the fire that evening we discussed the hike with our friends. It’s actually a 5-day hike I found out. One that could be done in 4-days, but most people try to complete it in 5. Johan and I only packed food for 4-days, we could have survived, but this wasn’t good news. I needed to be back in Pretoria 1st thing Monday morning for work, so there was no way we could finish on Sunday. Why would people push it out to 5-days? It can’t be that hard, I thought to myself. I run 21 km in +/- 2 hours, 70 km (43.4 miles) in 4 days will be easy peasy, lemon squeezy. We will hike for half the day, then relax the rest of the day. I packed a book, two decks of cards, and a journal for all of our free time and of course my mascara. It’s so light, why not?

That night, we slept in our tent in the campgrounds of the resort, and I got a taste of the rock-hard floor I would be sleeping on for the next 3 nights. In the morning, we repacked our backpacks, and I wondered why was mine so heavy. We finished breakfast and loaded into the van that would take us to the starting point of the hike. There was a group of 3 older men who joined us in the van, also starting the hike that morning.

As I gazed across the canyon, the vastness was breathtaking and nerve-wracking at the same time. There were tourists taking photos of the canyon, a brief stop in their journey to wherever they were going. We put on our packs and were excited to get started, adrenaline pumping through our veins.

70 km (43.4 miles), here we come. I looked down at the rocky path and it’s chain handrail and thought about Carl, what a baby. Down we went, slowly and steady, but then the handrail disappeared and I was grateful for my walking stick. The walking stick makes one feel like a granny, but I’m pretty sure it saved my life a few thousand times during the trip. Down and down and down, we went. The nice path soon gave way to slippery rocks and boulders that one needs to jump to reach. Or climb, or scoot. The sun blazed and sweat poured from our bodies. My fear of heights overcame my body and my legs soon turned to jelly. With each step, I became more and more scared. Johan held my hand through most of decent, I slid, scraped and bumped my way to the bottom. It took us 4 hours to descend into the canyon. The longest, most strenuous 4 hours of my life. At the bottom, I started to realize why someone would decide to take the emergency exit and why Carl had described it as hell. My body was beat.

I like to think of myself as fit. I run most mornings, do yoga on the others, and run races with friends on the weekends. We started to juice. Fit and skinny are way different than strong. Way, way different. On day 1, I came to the realization that I am not strong. All those hiking exercises Johan and I found on YouTube, yeah, we should have done them more than once.

So here we are, 4 hours in and have only reached kilometre 0, the kilometre count only starts once you reach the canyon floor. After a quick break, we were off again. More boulders, more climbing, more fear. I was now stuck down there, no turning back until the first emergency exit.

We reached our first river crossing, and what should happen? Of course, I fell in, butt first, boots and all. I’m not the best rockhopper, so it seems. Only a few hours in and I had to change into my second and only other outfit I brought with. Happy camper, I was not.

Day 1 continued like this, climb, slide, hop, jump, keep moving until we decided to set up camp at kilometre number 5. 5 down, 65 to go (3.1 miles down, 40.3 miles to go). At this point, I think Johan started to get a little worried that I wasn’t going to make it through to the finish or even through day 2. My spirits were down, and if I had an easy exit, I would have taken. So, he stepped in, set up the tent, washed the clothes, made a fire and cooked us dinner and continued to do so for the rest of trip. Never once shouting at me to shape up, just jump already, went slower than the others to stay with me, took my bag to assist with the climbs or river crossings.

Day 2 was pretty much the same; sweated like crazy, so much that my pants didn’t want to stay up; tried my best to avoid falling in the water or off a boulder breaking an arm or leg which would have clearly resulted in death; force-fed myself for energy thus ruining my love for biltong; and drank water the colour of a bodily fluid of the same consistency.

We found the well known Vespa which was left behind in the canyon in 1968 and found the hot springs, 75°C (118°F) of hot water pouring from the canyon wall. The hot spring was like the sirens in Greek Mythology, beckoning us to come closer, sucking us into its warm embracing and refusing to let us go. A warm bath, after a long and gruelling day, was exactly what our bodies, and most of all, our feet needed. Needless to say, we camped there that night, the siren had won. Kilometre 16 of 70 (9.9 miles of 43.4 miles) and only 2-days to go.

That night we had a bit of excitement. Jacques, one of the guys in our group had packed his fishing rod in the hopes of catching a fish in the Fish River Canyon. And oh boy, did he. When Wynand shouted across the camp, he got one, it was hard to jump up and go racing over due to the throbbing pain in my legs and joints, so we slowly made our way to see what all the excitement was about. All fishing jokes aside, this was the biggest catfish I’d ever seen. We guessed it weighed about 8 kgs (18 pounds) and almost as long as the fishing pole. And he caught it in his underpants! Hilarious. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Johan woke me up early on the morning of day 3. If we wanted to finish the next day, we needed to get a move on it. We had 54 km (33.5 miles) to go. So we said our goodbyes to the group knowing/hoping they would most likely catch up with us during the day. Thankfully this portion of the trail was a bit easier. A lot of river crossings, less boulder climbing and more crossings through the walls of the canyon.

Every once in a while we would come upon an arrow along the path made from stones, a path lined with stones or even piles of stones which gave us the security of knowing we were on the right path. Each time I saw one, I would say a little prayer, sending God’s love and light to all of those that came before us and all of those that came after us, which always made me feel a little lighter, happier.

As the sun began to set, we finally heard shouts from behind. Nadia and Dirk had managed to catch up to us and also wanted to finish on day 4. Man, they were a sight for sore eyes. I had taken photos of Jacques’ map earlier, but not far enough, we had travelled past the planned stopping point and had assumed the group would have caught up with us before then. Johan had a GPS, but it wasn’t as clear about the direction of the shortcuts as the map was. Thankfully, Nadia had photos of the map up until the end. Plus, as much as I love Johan, the change in conversation was most welcomed.

We walked a bit further and found the most amazing spot to camp at for the night. Close to the water, lots of firewood, close enough trees to hide behind for changing, etc. And so, the sunset on day 3, just the 4 of us. Kilometre 43 of 70 (27 miles of 43.4 miles). Roughly 11 hours of walking time. We were all asleep before our heads hit the ground.

No matter the situation, you can always count on Johan to be the early bird. Day 4, came fast and hard. At this stage of the trail, our bodies were aching. Dirk had a blister covering his entire heel; Nadia’s feet were wrapped, blisters popping up all over; I’d lost one toenail, had a nasty blister on top of my foot and on every toe in some shape or form. Johan, well, he had a bit of a foot ache. He’s a machine, that guy.

After coffee and breakfast, we set out to complete the Fish River Canyon in 4-days. Day 4 is one river crossing after another. The sun was out in all it’s glory, as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was sweltering, again. The sweat pouring off, I had to roll my pants over 3 times so they would stay up. Do not buy Columbia or Adidas hiking pants, they are both terrible.

The 4 of us walked into Ai-Ais around 6 pm on the 12th of May. It felt a bit surreal. A few of the campers cheered as we entered, bringing tears to my eyes. Later we would learn they were leaving the next morning to start their journey through the canyon. We tried our best not to scare them as Carl and his friends had scared us, but we were brutally honest. Pack as light as you possibly can was my number 1 tip and brace yourself, it’s really, really tough.

I had plenty of time for internal reflection down in the Fish and I do hope the above doesn’t come across as too negative. I tried my best to apply all of the self-help tips I have learned over the years, and at times it helped, others it did not.

From the beginning, I was beating myself up for not being strong enough, but in reality, I am. I faced my fears, I didn’t get over them, but I faced them and survived. I walked 70 intense kilometres in only 4 days, I am strong.

I stressed over all the things that could be happening in the outside world; were the kids okay; did Trump start WWIII; has anyone died; did I forget to do something at work; and the negative thoughts continued and grew into these outlandish stories until I finally had to stop and  realised there was nothing I could do about what was happening anywhere else than in the canyon and with anyone other than myself. I had to focus on the now, and getting to the end. And guess what? All those negatives thoughts I had, not one came true. Not a single freaking one. No one forgot to pick up Ava; work was fine without me; Jake, he was fine; both sets of parents, fine; friends and family, all alive and kicking. By focusing on the now, one can surprise themselves with what you can accomplish and how you can adjust your attitude.

Johan and I had a favourite type of path, the one with the small crushed up rocks. Mainly the trails on top and through the canyon walls. It was amazing how one of these paths could immediately lift our mood. But just like in life, one moment we would be on top of the world (it literally felt like it), walking an easy path, and the next minute we’d be back to boulder hopping. Life had literally thrown a gigantic boulder in our way, blocking our path, slowing us down, making us stop and try to figure out our next move. Whether it’s in our relationships or careers, there’s always going to be ups and downs, rocky patches and smooth trails. Continuing to push through is key because no matter what, there will be a better trail somewhere along the way, you just have to find it.

As for my attitude, the trail was much harder in the beginning when I was angry at Johan for signing me up for this crazy adventure, but it wasn’t his fault. From the first What’s App invite, I was in. I signed myself up for this and my fits weren’t going to get me to the end. Blaming others for your problems gets you nowhere.

Surround yourself with good people, people who make you want to be a better person. We had a great group. Johan has known most of them since grade school, but it was nice for me to get to know them all better. Everyone helped everyone else. At times, I had to push myself to stay with the group as to not slow them down or laugh at myself to not let my attitude ruin anyone else’s trip.

This trip reminded me that Johan is my rock. He never left me behind, even though he is much faster than me. He walked the path with me and I am glad I get to walk the path of life with him. Plus, I am pretty sure any other man would have left for me for dead down there. 😉

I have to be honest, I will never hike the Fish River Canyon again. If I had done more research, I never would have gone, so I am glad I didn’t because it was one of the greatest adventures of my life.

“The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.”
Richard Mullin.

*Photo creds belong to the group, especially to Johan and his amazing selfie abilities.