Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fish River Canyon

View from the top.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]

After three days of driving, we have arrived.  Our destination is Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa and the second largest in the world[1].

It’s difficult to describe how remote this area truly is.

We have driven over 1,500 kilometers through vast desert regions.  These immense tracks of land are so barren and desolate that they have been given their own name, veld[2].  As we traverse the highveld, we see the occasional animal; an ostrich, a goat, a few springbok.  But, these sightings serve more as markers of time rather than an event.

Even with this dearth of wildlife, we see more animals than humans.  This is unforgiving country; life does not come cheaply for any in this part of the world.

We survive by stopping at each of the occasional outposts of humanity along the way.  Though the categorizations of these groupings stay the same, the definitions are much different.  The word house translates as a biltong[3] stand two hours drive from anything recognizable. Town is a single gas station, open for only five hours a day.  Village is a solitary farms that scratches its existence from the dusty landscape, clinging to the windmill that sluggishly pumps water.  The great truth of this region is water equals life.  The lack of water sets the stage for the great kismetic drama that unfolds each day in which all life must wage a tenuous struggle.

Now, we have arrived to the canyon rim and I stand overlooking our route for the next six days.  We have 100 kilometers[4] to travel before arriving to our destination, a hot-spring oasis that promises warm beds and luxurious swimming.

We descend 600 meters down the canyon wall with the fading rays of afternoon, arriving to the canyon bottom as the first stars appear[5].  We can afford a lavish dinner at this stage of our journey and opt to eat the heavy, perishable foods to lighten the packs and take-on additional calories.   Hunger is not assuaged with the main course, so we move to some of the back-up rice, finishing by roasting popcorn and sharing stories of past adventures.  Tonight we feast.  We feast on the meal, the sounds, the isolation.

The morning brings bitter desert cold, a sharp contrast from the heat of day.  I am awakened by the squawking of winged camp-robbers.  A few exploratory scouts have discovered the remaining popcorn kernels and begin calling in the main troops for an all-out assault to seize our leftovers.  I jump out of bed, a open sleeping bag on a sandy river bank, to mount my defense… a handful of sand that sends the noisy birds dodging and scattering to nearby rocks.

Ready for action.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]
As we finish breakfast, another group of backpackers exiting the canyon, pass our camp.  Today is the only day that we will see people.  First this group, then three day-hikers, and finally, a French couple that has decided to exit the canyon early, nature has proven too unpredictable for their tastes.  For the remainder of the trip, we don’t see people, we don’t see planes, we don’t hear noise.  Our isolation is emphasized and enjoyed.  We are away and removed.  Our only connection to the outside world are the satellites seen patrolling the night skies[5].  Each of us comments on the singular remoteness[6] that can only exist in a few extraordinary places on our planet.

Each day, we hike among the massive canyon cliffs, we trudge through ankle-deep sand, we move through boulder fields ranging from elephant to dassie size.  We find a big rock on which to cook lunch, we make camp and campfire, we cook and eat and drink boiled water.  Predictably, we find our way by following the isolated pools left by the fading river.  Practically, we must follow these pools for survival.

Conversation changes in these conditions.  There isn’t the need to say something for the sake of obligation.  We walk together, lost in individual thought, for hours.  There is unspoken understanding in the silence.  A different language develops in which a whistle is more appropriate than a sentence; a glance communicates more than a city’s paragraph.  When there is the need to speak, a hoarse whisper will suffice.

And so our routine continues.  Each relishes the time for solitary thought, enjoying the unparalleled desert beauty and irreplaceable camaraderie.  Day in, day out... sunrise, sunset.

We know we are close.  The map indicates a final bend in the canyon, but the sure-fire sign is a German couple that has hiked from the hot-springs.  They still have full water bottles; we can only be an hour away.

The next sign of civilization is a water pump station.  The sight brings an audible disappointment.  Without a word, we all know that the magic has begun to fade, the tranquility is ebbing away.  We all know what waits at the end of this pipeline.

We make the final steps, crossing a rock retaining wall and walking through the unoccupied campsites, to be greeted by clapping from an unknown group sitting at the poolside cafe.

Kilometer 85.
-Fish River Canyon [Namibia]

1.  Second only to the Grand Canyon found in the USA.   -return to the story

2.  Veld is an Afrikaans word (a derivative from Dutch) meaning “field”.  It is typically classified by the altitude of the region as highveld, middleveld, and lowveld.  In Namibia, the veld is amongst the driest regions of the planet at 8.0 mm (0.32 inches) of average rainfall and 3,707 average hours of sunlight per year placing it as #8 in both categories (#1 in average annual rainfall is Arica, Chile at 0.7 mm; #1 in average annual hours of sunlight is Yuma, Arizona, USA at 4,127 hours).   -return to the story

3.  Biltong, another Afrikaans word, is a dried meat product, similar to jerky.   -return to the story

4.  In full disclosure, let’s call it 100 ± 8 km, rounded to the nearest three figure number.   -return to the story

5.  What?!?!?! What new devilry is this?!?!?! That's right folks, there are now enough blog posts to begin cross-referencing... check out the linked story at:  Mostly True-Travel Log: Southern Africa   -return to the story

6.  Namibia is one of the least populated places in the world at 2.2 people per square kilometer, second only to Mongolia at 1.7 people per square kilometer and followed by Australia at 2.6 people per square kilometer.  This small country produced $900 million USD in the diamond industry in 2006 making it #6 in the world and is the #3 country in the world in education expenditures as a percent of the gross national product at 8.5% behind Kiribati (11.4%) and Moldova (10.3%) and ahead of Denmark (7.7%).   -return to the story

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