Wild West Walking in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon

The mules munched lucerne with complete unconcern as their clients struggled against the current. Although half our party had found a way around a tricky rock face, the rest of us had decided to zigzag across the river to Echo Camp, our third day’s destination. Now Valentin Wittich, the tallest of our group, balanced a bag of camera gear on his head. The brown torrent tugged at his shirt and he tested each step like a newly-blind man. I sat dripping on the far bank, boots full of mud and water, eyes riveted on his progress.

It was early March and the Fish River was particularly high. The mule trails – which take place in Gondwana Cañon Park about 40 kilometres north of the canyon’s main viewpoint – normally operate between April and September, when the weather and river are most predictable. But a small group of us were doing a test run of a new route, trekking south along the course of the Fish. Distances, temperatures and water levels were all to prove somewhat greater than expected – but so would the rewards.

Look out for the Sundance Kid

‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with “S”,’ I said slyly to my travel companion Simon Williams, who had been at the wheel for most of the nine-hour drive from Cape Town.

‘Sand? Sun? Sky? Shadows?’

‘Nope. Stripes. The ones on the road.’

Before Simon’s sanity could be tested further, we reached the gravel turnoff. An hour later, we drove our shiny Suzuki Grand Vitara past the two antique Chevy trucks and a cactus-decked Dodge that serve as Cañon Roadhouse’s welcoming committee. (The park’s director, Mannfred Goldbeck, collects classic vehicles from farms all over the countryside.)

The roadhouse, with its rusting wrecks, windmills and motel-style design, humourously plays up the Wild Western spirit of the landscape. You get the sense that John Wayne might slope through the shimmering noonday haze or that Thelma and Louise are about to roar past, scarves streaming into the sunset. Instead, we watched herds of red hartebeest, gemsbok and Burchell’s zebra wheel and trot over bleached grass towards Holoog Mountain. At its crown, we stood beside the silhouette of a quiver tree, watching as a streak of orange dust unfurled on the road towards the canyon.

Next evening, after an exciting afternoon tracking black rhino, we were driven out to the Cañon Mule Station, a converted farmhouse close to nothing but the start of the trails. There we met our four-legged porters, packed a small selection of kit into saddlebags and sat talking, eating and drinking around the braai. As stars pricked their spurs deeper into the sky, we dragged mattresses and sleeping bags onto the veranda, impatient to be immersed in the wilderness.

Sunlight steals up on you swiftly in the desert. We woke as dawn reached over the veld with furtive fingertips, but the day had already lost its cool by the time the 4×4 dropped us at the trailhead. The mules, having no interest in scenery, would follow a different route with mule trainer Frederik Witbooi. Our guides were young Manilow Beukes (his mother was a fan of Barry) and Hans Eichhof, a veteran explorer of the area. Also with us was geologist Nicole Grünert, who regularly leads special tour groups and teaches Gondwana’s guides about Namibia’s fascinating geology.

Manilow led us down a shallow gully that slowly swallowed us into a searing chasm and at last spat us out beside the remains of a seasonal river. Gratefully, we dumped our bags under a friendless tree, kicked off our shoes and waded in. The water was no more than knee-deep, but this didn’t prevent us from splashing around like hyperactive hippos, before collapsing in the shade for a picnic. It was some time before Hans could get us moving again.

Our route now kept to the riverbed. We took every opportunity to dunk our hats in tepid pools or to skive off in the shade of the high, red rock walls, so it was late afternoon when we arrived at Leeuwen Camp. Tents had been pitched on a grassy bank drowned in the evening shadow of a sandstone ziggurat. Beers were cooling in the river and biltong and smoked mussels were spread out on a candlelit table. After eating far more of Frederik’s spaghetti bolognaise than was strictly necessary, we spread out our sleeping bags and lay back to watch shooting stars tug constellations across the heavens.

Memories of stone

An egg-and-bacon breakfast next morning set us up for a short stroll to swim at the confluence of the Leeuwen and Fish Rivers. Along the way, Nicole pointed out 539-million-year-old raindrops frozen into stone. Geology came alive around us as she explained how the most fragile traces upon the earth – ripples swirled on mud by shallow water and the squirming of soft worms over them – can be preserved on time scales that turn all of human history into a wink.

We crunched over crackling mud plates that might still bear traces of our footsteps long after life has ended, and flung ourselves shrieking with delight into roller-coaster rapids. Because the water was too high to follow the usual path, we cheated and caught a lift out of the canyon. Back on track, the heat was made bearable by wonder at our surroundings and an extraordinary sense of solitude. As we rounded one corner in the gorge, two huge kudu bulls scrambled in slow motion up clinking cliffs, then turned to survey us before they vanished. It was easy to imagine we were the first people they’d ever seen.

Our camp that evening was perched high on the rim of a horseshoe bend in the canyon. Although there was no chance of another swim, the showers – set right on the edge of the precipice and open to the jaw-dropping view – more than made up for it. We greeted horse expert Telané Greyling, who’d just arrived from Klein Aus, with great enthusiasm: she’d brought along a cooler box full of ice and cold drinks. Frederik served up a three-course dinner in the cosy stone cabin, but it was all we could do to keep our eyes open over the apple dumplings. A brisk wind was blowing, so we burrowed into our tents and tried hard to remember not to climb out of the wrong end if we got up in the middle of the night.

Leaving the mules to take the high road over the plateau next day, we wound around the escarpment, over furrowed, black limestone and back down to the glorious cool rush of the Fish. Hans tried to keep the swim-breaks to a minimum, but even he couldn’t resist the water’s lure. Telané, a daughter of the desert, clad in jeans and a long-sleeved checked shirt despite the heat, just smiled and watched. But when a rare species of sun spider scuttled out in front of her, she leapt into action.

One of Telané’s friends is writing his doctoral thesis on them but there are very few specimens available for study. Sun spiders aren’t true spiders, but solifuges (from the Latin for ‘flee from the sun’) – an order of arachnid that lives in deserts all over the world. In southern Africa, they’re also known as baardskeerders, because of the mistaken belief that they chew hair off humans and animals to line their nests.

We left Valentin to help Telané persuade the nimble arachnid to climb into an empty water bottle and trudged sweating under the midday sun towards a distant tree. There, we sheltered and swam for a couple of blissful, lazy hours. By the time we set off again, we’d already covered most of the day’s distance, but there were still the river crossings lying in wait. The only danger was to our cameras – we had nothing more than a couple of garbage bags to wrap them in and a makeshift sounding-stick for Valentin to probe his way with. I couldn’t relax until the bag of captive moments lay safely beside me.

Only then did I look around. Echo Camp was set up on two broad ledges of ancient golden sandstone. On the upper shelf, a table was laid beside a softly smoking campfire. Desert sage threw long shadows across pink sand on the opposite bank. The mules, loosed from the hitch, ambled to the water’s edge to drink, then frisked back up a powdery dune and resumed munching. While Frederik stoked the coals around a lamb potjie and Simon fetched another round of beers, the rest of us sprawled on the warm, smooth rock in a kind of contented stupor. Yup, I thought, I may be too much of a cupcake for the full cowboy of the Fish River Canyon hike, but I sure could get used to this.

A most peculiar parasite

As you walk or drive through Gondwana Cañon Park’s euphorbia-dotted plains, you may notice a faint smell of rotting meat. It’s often the pong of Hydnora africana, a strange plant commonly known as jakkalskos (jackals’ food).

It’s hard to see, as it’s usually hidden deep within the poisonous milk bushes on which it feeds and consists only of a rather suggestive red flower and flesh-coloured roots. The smell is to lure insect pollinators.

A similar plant occurs in South America and botanists think they had a common ancestor 190 million years ago, when Africa and South America were part of a single continent called Gondwana.

Back to black

Gondwana Canon Park has successfully re-introduced several game species that originally lived in the area but were wiped out by hunting and farming. Among these are red hartebeest, Burchell’s zebra, and blue wildebeest. In April 2009, the black rhinoceros also returned.

In Namibia, all rhinos are state property and cannot be bought or sold, so Gondwana obtained the animals through a rhino custodianship programme. A mature male, Unongo, and two young females, Fiona and Apaloosa, were released without incident into a special fenced area. The second, immature male, Koshi, immediately lifted the fence and made his escape. Fortunately it was to another part of the park, where he’s frequently spotted by visitors on rhino-tracking excursions.

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