I WENT TO NAMIBIA.......
I signed myself on as “Back-up” “Co-Driver” “Extra Hand” “Intrepid Explorer”, all the useful roles I could possibly invent. I refused to be left behind, so they took me and I was unequivocally rewarded. I saw yet another face of Namibia, a beautiful wild country with a strange air of expectancy, like a country holding its breath and at the same time embracing all who travelled through her. It took two days to reach our destination, the Namib Naukluft Park, going via Upington, Ariamsvlei, Karasburg, Keetmanshoop, Mariental and then we were there. Previous trips with Deon led us via Windhoek, over the desert and mountains to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, and I can still see the quaint coloured houses crowded in the towns, the big dunes, thousands of sea birds along the peninsulas, the ghost town of Kolmanskop, the stark grey mountains of the Richtersveld, the strong German influence very apparent, the crystals and rocks in the galleries and in the canyons. Now I stepped over the border for the third time and it was not unlike going right to the heart of a country, all of a sudden you are surrounded by mountains and canyons, plains, game dotted here and there. People were few and far between, mostly Nama folk, very friendly and helpful. We booked in at the Ranger’s office (Thomas) and were introduced to his wife Sanne and ranger Agnes. We came to know all three very well.
The first night was just a sea of backpacks, provisions, sleeping bags, dividing up of food for the Wednesday drop off by me, a quick supper then settled down for the night. This was at Hikers Haven where the 8-day trailblazers began their trek. Cars were parked down the hill at the ranger’s yard, perfectly safe. As my fellow hikers gathered their gear and walked down to the first leg kloof, they bid their farewells and I stood watching them go, feeling rather strange, I should be going with them I thought, but knowing it was physically beyond me, I turned and walked back up to Hikers Haven, where Thomas and Sanne had invited me to stay for the duration of the hike. They assured me it was perfectly safe and they were only 200 meters down the hill. And after all I had the car, three cars in fact, and could not possibly imagine any situation where I might need all three. . . . So I wandered around the big empty farmhouse over which I had proprietarily spread our belongings, in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and the main hall, which was massive. Decided, lets just pretend I’m at home. Shift a few things around, do some washing, hang it up etc. Check the birds and daisies. Great! Let’s go for a walk up the nearest ridge and see what’s on the other side. Right! This was looking promising. Off I trotted and started my first walk. I found lots of game trails and hopped from one to another. Got engrossed with the rocks as usual. The terrain was quite tricky, lots of loose stones spread over dry dusty soil and the occasional hard ridge of rock. Finally reached the top by behaving like a crab. Abandoned first plan, as there was just another ridge, and then, feeling foolish, looked down from my precipitous perch, decided NOT to wave a white hankie and crawled and slithered my way down. I watched the daisies leaping and running all over the rocks, some really tiny ones that made it look so easy. Should have been a dassie. The birds were interesting too. In fact, I added 8 new lifers to my list, the best being an Augur Buzzard. Watched hopefully for some zebras or any kind of buck. No luck, no buck. Suppertime had arrived – it was getting dark. Opened a tin then, Oh boy, the CANDLES! I lit 5 little stubs in record time, which seemed pitifully inadequate. Long shadows flickered, strange noises, creaks and thumps. Locked the doors, pulled curtains, shut off one bedroom entirely. Retired to master bedroom where my imagination ran riot. This was crazy. Where were my BHC nerves of steel? Got up, raced to the kitchen, grabbed a frying pan and a saucepan and lined them up on the next bed with the big torch. I tried reading by torchlight, and two hours later, three candles had snuffed it. I lectured myself, prayed fervently, and just as I dropped off , so did the last candle – straight to the bottom of the beer can, clang and OUT! PITCH DARK. I just turned over, my back to all imaginary invaders and fell asleep, exhausted.!
The next day, day two, dawned bright and sunny and after breakfast I got some visitors. Hooray! Thomas and Sanne came up to give me the good news. A party of training rangers coming up from Cape Town, possibly 8? Hiking on the Tuesday? Wonderful! I would not be alone in the house tonight. Then I got a warning about the baboons – don’t leave any windows or doors open if you leave the house. Thanks! I hadn’t even thought about baboons. Late that evening, 3 exhausted people turned up, Blackie, Lorraine and Lionel. They had done their own provision drop at Tsams-Ost after a long trek. Apologies were offered for the absence of rest of group, presumably sick or lost or more late than them. They soon unpacked, laid out backpacks and had supper. I slept like a baby that night. The next day (3) saw these folk depart on the 8 day trail but we were lucky enough to see 3 zebra trotting past us on the hillside at 7 am. I was leisurely planning the rest of the day and week when another hiker suddenly made his appearance. He introduced himself as the advance guard of a group of three from Pretoria who were just coming OFF the trail. My ears pricked up. Aha! So Manfred how was the hike? I surreptitiously slid my pen and writing pad on to the table and proceeded to jot down interesting sightings and names etc. Hurriedly recorded the 3 from Monday also. What was that? You saw a Black Mamba? Like THIS close? You were both drinking from the same rock pool? There are lots of them? They don’t even KNOW about the mambas I muttered to myself, thinking of our guys up there, unaware. Never mind the leopards. My hair was standing on end by now and the other two turned up and added their contributions to the story. Apparently they had left Kapokvlagte at 3.30 a.m. and came down by torchlight, arriving at 9.a.m. After a quick shower and change, they departed to the ranger’s office and their car, looking fresh as daisies. It now occurred to me that my role had changed subtlety and significantly, from back-up, co-driver and hanger-on etc. I had now assumed the elevated positions of hostess at Hikers Haven, hiking correspondent from the Naukluft Trail and equipment lender to unprepared hikers (gaiters to Lorraine). By now, I had explored the immediate surroundings which were a winding canyon leading to a campsite one way. It was well maintained and run by Jan, an elderly courteous Nama man, always with a ready smile. The other direction led upwards towards the pools and was the route for the hikers’ last day out of the trail. At that stage I had not ventured too far, being still absorbed by the endless variety of rocks and stones in the stream bed, which was mostly dry at my end, and of course, birds. I was very conscious of the possibility of a slip or fall, definitely not a good idea while alone. I had already shooed away one large female baboon who was hanging around, eyeing scraps of food put out for the birds. She would sit on the hillside, pretending to watch the dassies. By mid morning (Tues.) our next hiker arrived, brought up and introduced by Thomas, her name was Dorette, a Stellenbosch Univ. student, apologising profusely for arriving a day early due to transport problems. Her partner, Koos only arriving the following day (Wed). Needless to say, I was laughing because that meant two more nights with fellow hikers around. But it was really nice, showing people around, how the gas cylinders outside operated with prompt turn off after use and HOW to light the geyser which was a real bummer! We had great chats and when her friend arrived, it was interesting to see how they packed for 8 days, declining to use the provision run. Being only two , they also needed special permission to hike as the normal minimum is 3. I was constantly reminded of the rules and precautions in place to do the 8 day trail safely.
But Wednesday was my big day – I was driving to Tsams-Ost to drop off 12 hikers’ supplies and take back whatever. Distance 130 km each way, sandy stony road. As we exited the park 10km away, going past Bullspoort and continued in an expanding circle, I was staggered at the size of this park, mountain range after range. Still adjusting to the automatic Terracan and the state of the road, I took it gently, with Sanne on board with me to show me the way. Lodges, game, and the odd road maintenance tractor flashed by and finally we turned in again towards the mountains. A long winding road led us right into Tsams-Ost Shelter, and cheerful cries greeted us . We shared out Flip’s chocolate birthday cake (secreted at H.H.) dished out supplies and while grabbing a quick bite, heard some stories. There were two casualties, Daphne with cuts decorating her face, hands and legs, had been skilfully repaired, the full extent of injuries seen on the Sunday. She fell and her pack slipped over her head. The other was Flip, who had been ill, dehydrating and acquiring two feet full of blisters. Daphne stayed with the group, but Flip was unwilling to slow down the group by his weakened state and opted to come out with the now new title “Rescue Squad”. The details of the rest of the hike I will leave in Deon’s capable hands and summary, so I will just continue with my “in the wings” account. We flew back to base with our patient, and after a quick cup of soup he collapsed into bed. He stayed there for nearly two days, nearly ripping the rafters apart with his infamous snoring. He did make a very nice bully beef hash the next day.
Thursday, Dorette and Koos embarked on the trail and we had barely said goodbye, when our 3 Capetonians suddenly walked back in. Blackie, Lorraine and Lionel had to cut the hike short and returned on the walkout short cut of 22km from Die Valle Hut. They skipped Ubusis, but one of them was very sick with flu’. They were exhausted. It made me realise again how impossible it would have been for ME to attempt this hike, a heavy back-pack for 120km – this surely is a mission demanding strength, fitness and dedication.
But I would stand outside Hikers Haven and turn in a slow circle and wonder where they were, how far away and just how they were all faring. Little did I know more dramatic scenes were being played out. One was Deon’s confrontation with a black mamba which seemed now to be par for the course, i.e. a sudden face to face encounter, shock registering in open mouths and wide eyes, followed by the usual reptilian retreat, thank goodness. The other was Elmien’s sudden slip on the 28 m chain, resulting in her hanging over an 85foot drop to rocks below, by her hands only, trapped by her backpack which swung over the other side of a boulder. Only Rian’s quick reaction in sliding back down the chain and pulling her bodily back over the rock single-handedly, averted certain disaster. This illustrates perfectly the reason for a team to stay together, two people alone create a bad risk factor. If one is down, does the other stay or go for help? Hence the golden rule, a minimum of three, makes absolute sense.
The last two days saw a few more hikers hit the trail and we had a bad moment on Saturday when a large male baboon sat outside the main door of H.H., ignoring my indignant cries and hand waving. He was a really big fellow, weighing over 100kg, and his raids on the campsite invoked the penalty of being fired on by Agnes, ranger attached to Naukluft.
By Sunday, Flip’s feet had recovered a lot, so we trekked up the valley to the pools to make sure our guys and gals would be able to celebrate with a cold beer or two, and lead them back down the last couple of kms.
The last night was spent in Hikers Haven. From this point, on Monday, we split in 3 different directions, some headed straight for home, a couple went to the Fish River Canyon and six of us moved further inland to the Sesriem Campsite, visiting and walking through the famous canyon. At daybreak we raced into the Sossussvlei Dunes to watch the sun rise. These dunes are the highest in the world, the many tour buses bearing testimony to this fact. People just unloaded and started climbing. We said a reluctant farewell to this magical piece of Namibia and listened to the compelling strains of the Coastal Youth Choir of Namibia as we sped away. My heart was down, my head was turning around, I left a little bit of me in this old town. I would have said ‘country’ but it doesn’t rhyme! But I do know that when you have walked over some of it, driven through it, looked down on it from a sand dune, or mountain top, or climbed up some of the amazing gorges and valleys and stood in the streams, then you can say “I went to Namibia” and I will know what that means.
Bonny Barnett. Ex Novice Hiker, budding Hiking Correspondent and Back Up