Friday, May 26, 2006

being the long-awaited update: the fish river post

"these springbok, they are not serious!"
our driver was not happy with the way the animals kept running at our car. we had just entered the fish river canyon; it was 9am and were wending our way along the dirt road to the park's entrance. our voyage had commenced at 5am in keetmanshoop, the "capital of the south," where we were overnighting at another volunteers' house. the real voyage had started the day before when we boarded the starline, from windhoek, celebrating a bit raucously on the way down in our very own sleeper car. the trip had been good, although a bit long. the trains in namibia take forever; we left windhoek at 7pm and arrived at 6am. the trip in a car takes about 5 hours. then again we hadn't left at 7pm and we did eventually make it, the real benefit is you don't have to contend with close-calls and near-misses. plus, as our groups "Transportation Czar" I have to set a good example for safe travel. at least it's impossible to "make a turn" using a train, otherwise the train would be heading over to someone's cousin's house to pick up three chickens and a grandmother.

in keetmanshoop we had laid in provisions for the trip as well as rendezvous'd with the rest of our troupe who were "hiking" down from windhoek. our host in "keets" jay haase lives at the youth center in sy blocken, the nama location, located about 20 minutes from town. it is much more arid there; the lack of greenery and trees is remarkable. it really is in the middle of the desert. but that's because IT IS the desert. the landscape is relieved by some mountains to the north as well as an ancient volcano. it was amazing to walk around with jay -- people really really like him. up and down the dirt road blocks would shout to him, "hello, mr. jay!" young and old, everyone wanted to wave at mr. jay. i think it partially had to do with the sheer spectacle of ten white people walking around in the location but everyone was exceedingly friendly. i particularly liked seeing the stores and shebeen names: chuck norris happy bar no' 3: we sell ostrich product.

back to fish river: so there were zebra and kudu running around near the car. at the park's entrance there was contretemps over our supposed reservations -- but after assuring the staff that we were actually resident teachers we were let in without paying foreign visitor surcharges. that's when the fun started. it's a hundred meters of precipitous cliff action, occasionally assisted by metal chains that were put in to avoid you falling off the side of the canyon, but really quite difficult terrain to manage, especially with a backpack. Within the first hour we had run into a couple who were hiking out to call for help -- another hiker they were with had fallen and couldn't hike out, two days later we saw a helicopter circling the canyon, presumably to help the fallen hiker. we made very, very slow progress. i had seen pictures on the internet with grannies making their way through "the toughest hike in africa," piece of cake i thought. wrong.

because we've had record rainfalls and this was the second day that the canyon was open to the public the water level made you hop among boulders for hours on end. according to all the guidebooks the first two days are supposed to be the toughest, but you are supposed to be at the first hot springs at the end of the first day. by the end of the first day we had run into a group from south africa that actually on their second day in the canyon, and like us they were stymied by the extremely difficult passage along the river. i immediately noticed something about their campsite. it was these shiny neon covers that they had drying on the sand. survival bags -- something we hadn't planned on. which would put us at a great disadvantage.

we immediately realized our position the next morning. the Afrikaners had elected to swim with their bags to the other side, while we were not fain to cross as it was still extremely deep (up to your waist) and quite quick moving. because they had survival bags to stuff their backpacks in the south africans could basically cross at will, while we were forced, for the next few days to struggle to find a passage where all ten of us could get across. i'm not going to describe the travails of the fish river canyon -- it's treacherous as hell, we almost got mauled by baboons luckily we invented a beef with the south africans which provided us with some zeal, especially in the dark moments of being two days into the trail and only having covered 15km of the terrain. zoom to the last night in the canyon, somehow we made it without any major scrapes, right as we're settling in after a 20+km day, one of the girls dives into what she thought was more than 1 ft of water, which resulted in a bit of gory mess.
the next day we found our way out of the canyon, that is after matt p and i were abandoned by the rest of the group who decided to break our most sacred rule which was never do a river crossing without the full complement of the group. we were walking around in the middle of the desert for 2.5 hours looking for everyone, because we assumed they hadn't gone on ahead, after all, we never had crossed before. i guess it was partially because me and matt had been up ahead, and we had the maps and the iodine. it ended up being ok, the group left a message in the sand that they had crossed "WE CROSSED HERE - NAM25" which basically explained what had happened and essentially everyone was in a hurry to get to the 70s era hot springs resort which awaited us in ai-ais. unfortunately due to the mixup on the last day we lost precious time and the Afrikaners were able to beat us to ai-ais. we had an elaborate plan worked out where we were going to send a windhoek lager to their table and then give them the thumbs up/wink/shit-eating grin when they got there after us. as it worked out they were there a good two hours before us, making their way to the spa and getting ensconced in the sulfurous jets way before us. we did have one conciliation-- when me and matt were trying to scrounge up the rest of the group i happened on a folded up piece of paper. it was the Afrikaners' map.

not that that made it any better. it would have been better to get there first.


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