If you can't stand the heat, get outta the kitchen......

All images ©Doug McKinlay

First published in The Times

It didn’t seem possible, not this early on. Only five kilometres in and already one of us succumbed to the heat. Sitting in a pile against a rock with just a sliver of shade for cover, he looks more like the survivor of a car crash than a hiker at the start of a four-day, 86-kilometre walk. This isn’t good. But then this is the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia, one of the most inhospitable but beautiful places in Africa and definitely not to be taken lightly.

Only hours earlier the four of us began in high spirits, arriving before sunrise at the canyon’s Main Viewpoint, 876m above sea level. Looking over the edge the trail was just visible 500 metres below as the stone drops. It weaves a narrow pattern following the slow moving river around Hell’s Bend into the hazy distance. As the sun edged over the horizon, a baboon perched on a far away hill seemed to mock us with a throaty howl.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

One final check of the equipment and we were ready to go. Since there is no such thing as porters or pack animals, everything we need is carried on our backs – food, water, stoves, fuel, clothes and sleeping gear, all of it. When I lifted my overloaded rucksack I let out an unintentional groan. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Chris, our guide. With the steely gaze of a guy who’s dealt with too many tenderfoots, he looked at me and said: “Africa ain’t for no sissies.”

There is only one way into the Fish River Canyon and that’s down. Beginning at Hiker’s Viewpoint the trail is steep, more akin to a bungy jump than a footpath. Ahead of me are Ian and Mark, my two other trail buddies. It’s slow going, every step needs to be examined and executed with precision. A wrong move and all that ballast on our backs will have us careening down the rocky trail at warp speed. After 90-minutes of baby steps we finally reach the canyon floor. Looking back up, it just doesn’t seem possible we made it to the bottom intact.

So far so good, the river is even flowing, something that doesn’t happen every season. Two years back the trail was closed due to lack of water. But not this year, in fact there is so much water we’re able to take a break from the 40-degree plus heat for a quick swim and a few belly flops from a rocky outcrop. Bliss.

Thirty minutes later though it’s back to the scorching sun, boulder-strewn trail and the straps of my rucksack gouging divots out of my shoulders. The only thing running through my head is ‘no pain, no gain’.

In these conditions walking is as much mental as physical. Getting the pace right is important. Too fast and you’ll burn out, too slow and four days will quickly turn into six – the last two without food. For me, my ever-present camera hanging from my neck acted like a metronome, bouncing off my continually diminishing stomach keeping me on pace, or so I thought.

Day one was always going to be the hardest. Chris mapped the trail at about 20 kilometres a day of walking, which would include a two to three hour break at midday when the heat is too intense to hike. From the outset our goal is a hot spring at the 19-kilometre mark. We made it as far as five.

When Ian went down I was secretly relieved. I was exhausted and in pain. But my relief quickly turned to shame as three twenty-something Israeli hikers waltzed past us. I swear I saw a smirk of disgust on their faces.

Let them laugh I thought. Ahead of them is four days of intense heat, where if you’re not careful, even the plants will kill you. As difficult as the terrain is, the surrounding canyon is truly stunning. At 550m-deep it is second only in size to Arizona’s Grand Canyon and one of the least visited areas of Africa. A dry, harsh environment, the canyon is made up of sandstone and compressed shale with volcanic rock almost two billion years old. The overall length is 161 kilometres with a width of up to 27 kilometres. Although Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge is deeper at 1000 metres, by volume the Fish River Canyon is much bigger.

After a hearty meal and a blood-red sunset it’s kip time. In order to cover some distance and beat the heat we need to be up at 5:00am and on the trail ASAP. Because the canyon is so dry there is no need for tents, just a thin air mattress and a sleeping bag.

As we turned in Chris stuffed bits of toilet paper in his ears. Ian asked him why.
“Earwigs,” he answered. “They’re the size of Mozambique shrimp down here and you don’t want one of those crawling around inside your head.”

Enough said. I think the rest of us managed to cram about a whole roll each in our ears.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Creepy crawlers aside the view from my sleeping bag is enormous. The night sky seems to go on forever. With no light pollution or smog from towns or cities the air is tack sharp; the constellations look close enough to touch. It’s easy to point out the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt or Cassiopeia. The Milky Way is a giant splatter of white paint stretching from horizon to horizon.

Day two proved to be just as difficult as day one. The heat so intense even my elbows sweated. The good news however, is our pace picked up significantly and we made it to Palm Springs by late afternoon.

It might be called Palm Springs, but you won’t see Frank, Sammy or Dean here. The only Rat Pack was a troupe of baboons climbing among the rocks and boulders high up the canyon walls. The name derives from the First World War when two German army deserters used the area as home until the war ended. They had a supply of dates with them and planted a few giving rise to a small oasis of palm trees. But for tired hikers, the sulphur rich hot water is a welcome balm for aching muscles.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

By day three the calamity of our first morning is almost forgotten. Although the heat is still oppressive and my backpack is still trying to murder me, our pace improved remarkably. Our top speed is now a dashing five kilometres per hour, practically jogging. Our goal: Four Fingers Rock.

Sadly we didn’t make it, and that had Chris a little worried. According to his GPS we were still a long way from the end at the small settlement of Ais Ais. He said if we didn’t pick up our pace even more we would be in the canyon for an extra day. And we all knew what that meant – twenty-four hours longer without an ice-cold beer.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

As barren as the canyon seems, life abounds here. At our third campsite, a wide stretch of warm sand with the river drifting next to a sun drenched canyon wall, wild horses splash in the water on the opposite bank. Not far off another troupe of baboons are doing things that should only be seen on the Animal Porn Channel. From time to time we see pairs of klipspringers – small antelopes – hopping among the boulders. There is also zebra and a wide variety of birds of prey; even big cats have been known to use the canyon.

Our last morning – hopefully – starts early. With muscles aching and fatigue taking its toll, we hit the trail well before sunrise. If we want to finish, we must dig deep for the last of our energy reserves. According to the GPS Ais Ais was still 27 kilometres away.

We make Four Fingers Rock not long after sunrise; the morning light casts the canyon in deep shades of orange and brown. From a rocky pinnacle the views of the canyon behind us are epic. But with so much ground to cover it is a view best contemplated quickly.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

After a hard, forced march across a sandy pan and a short break from the mid-day heat we push on. The GPS still has us about 12 kilometres from the end with the sun moving quickly toward the horizon. And then we get lucky.

Rounding yet another bend in the river we come across the Israelis. This time though, we’re smirking, if we were battered and tired, then they’re a train wreck. However, according to their map Ais Ais was only four kilometres away. The crafty use of short cuts by Chris slashed eight kilometres from the trail.

Less than an hour later we stumbled into Ais Ais. Not only did we finish one of the most difficult walks of my life, but managed to find an open bar in one of the remotest parts of Africa. With the glow from a couple of cold pints, I thought I would definitely do it again – but perhaps not right away.


Photo comment By Lisa Chambers: Wow that sounds like such a great trip. long distance hikes are the best.

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