Sunday, January 15, 2012

we did not die in the desert

“after two days in the desert sun
my skin began to turn red.
after three days, in the desert fun,
i was looking at a river bed
and the story it told, of a river that flowed,
made me sad to think it was dead…”

-“Horse With No Name” by America

“So do you want to do the four hour hike or the eight hour hike?” Julia asked as we prepared to set off on our girls’ camping trip in the hot Namib Desert. We had planned a fun weekend of girly bonding, climbing the Naukluft Mountains, and burning things.

I was tempted to go for the eight hour hike, because like Julia, I love hiking and could do it all day. The ultimate hike in the Naukluft Mountains, of course, was the 120 km eight-day-long Naukluft Trail, famous for being one of the toughest hiking trails in Africa. Maybe we’d save that for another trip.

We packed the car full of more food and snacks than I eat in a week – this is what happens when you travel with girls – and hit the road. We left the city, passing the enormous Heroes Acres monument outside Windhoek, which one of the girls joked would be the only phallic symbol we’d see all weekend. The rest of the car ride was full of girly conversation about Lisa Loeb, yoga and the like.

when girls pack for a camping trip

The Naukluft Mountains are a mountain range located in the Namib Desert, not too far from Sossusvlei and Sesriem, a couple of hours southwest of Windhoek. We passed the mountains on our way to Sossusvlei last year and I remember being completely awestruck at how beautiful they were, like nothing I had ever seen before. The feeling returned as we pulled into the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Other than the two friendly park staff at the camp office and one quiet French family at the next campsite, we seemed to be the only people in the entire area. The park gets a lot busier around March and towards Namibia’s wintertime. Apparently not everyone wants to go hiking in the desert at the height of hot summer, like us.

We unpacked some of the massive storage of food we had brought along and made ourselves a nice little picnic lunch in the braai area of our campsite.

By the time we finished eating, the sun had climbed to the highest part of the sky and it was the hottest part of the day. We saw on our rudimentary map that there were some swimming holes along the Waterkloof trail, the eight hour 17 km trail that Julia had referred, so we set off on the trail in search for water.

Along the way we came across a gopher-like animal that looked awfully cute at first, but got angrier and angrier as we kept taking pictures.

angry gopher thing

Eventually we came across a nice little natural pool at the foot of a small waterfall that was perfect for swimming. Feeling unbearably sweaty, we immediately jumped in, trying not to feel too grossed out by the soft mushy moss-like surface beneath our toes. Besides the spongey things, the cool water was wonderfully refreshing.

When we continued along the trail, we found an even nice swimming hole that was deeper and gross-mushy-stuff-free.

imitating a Sports Illustrated cover photoshoot

After our swim, we headed back to camp to build a fire and cook our dinner. Allison and Julia are both vegetarians to some degree, so I cooked my own separate dinner of delicious boerewors sausages.

Yes, my sausages are dripping grease into the girls’ healthy vegetarian meal.

We had a lovely evening of watching the fire, drinking vodka, burning things after dousing them with vodka, and gossiping about celebrities and chick flicks. As the night set in, the stars came out shining more brilliantly than you could ever see in the city. We lay down on the ground by the fire and watched the night sky until clouds came in at midnight and I hit the sack.


burning things

things in the night watch our campsite

The next morning, I left my tent to find broken egg shells all around the campsite and the largest baboon I had ever seen strolling right past me. The baboons had eaten our feta cheese and eggs overnight.

After a quick breakfast of peanut butter banana sandwiches and fruit, Julia and I got ready to try the the Olive Trail, while Allison lounged around the campsite - she was not feeling up for the 10 kilometre hike. It was 38 degrees, and our four hour hike through the desert would take us through high noon, the hottest part of the day. Because neither Julia or I are early risers, we keep doing this, hiking through the heat. It’s like we are gluttons for punishment.

“on the first part of the journey
i was looking at all the life
there were plants and birds, and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
the first thing i met was a fly with a buzz
and the sky, with no clouds.
the heat was hot, and the ground was dry,
but the air was full of sound...”

The Olive Trail

“Where do you think the nearest person is?” Julia asked me after some time hiking. We had not seen a single soul for a while, not even an animal. The silent isolation of the Naukluft Mountains was something that we could never get used to. To step back and look all around you and see that you are surrounded by nothing but wilderness – it was an incredible feeling.

The Olive Trail was a curious route and despite being the shortest trail, was by no means an easy hike. Unlike most mountain hikes, this trail got progressively more and more difficult as we went on. The first hour involves a steep but fairly safe climb to the summit of one of the mountains (another hour on nature’s Stairmaster), and then the next three hours is spent descending carefully into a deep and long canyon with often treacherous footing. I felt like it should have been called the Ankle Breaker trail, because it was so easy to trip on a boulder and sprain your leg – and then what? Inevitably someone would have to go on without you to get help from the park staff, if they were even around, but medical rescue in the canyon seemed difficult, if possible at all. But it added to the excitement of the hike.

standing at the summit


gloria on the rocks

The trail was marked by the occasional posting of a white footprint. I kind of wish they had chosen a more obvious colour, because a lot of the rocks had white markings on it that was confusing. Furthermore, as the trail become more difficult, the footprint, or Mr. Foot as we called it, became less frequent and much more hidden. It soon became some sort of twisted game like Where’s Waldo, except this one was called Try To Find Mr. Foot Or Else You Will Get Lost and Die In The Desert. I have no idea why anyone would plan a trail this way.

Mr Foot

yeah that's quite the canyon.

At one point, we were climbing down a giant boulder with about a ten foot drop when Julia stopped.

“Gloria, there’s a dead body at the bottom.”


She meant a dead animal’s body. It was half-eaten, so we couldn’t quite tell what kind of animal it had been originally, something similar to a small deer. What was much more of a concern was that the thing had the insensitivity to die in the best spot to jump down from the boulder. How were we going to get down?

time to heat up the braai?

“Maybe the carcass will provide some soft cushioning for our fall?” I suggested.

Julia the vegetarian did not agree.

Eventually we found our way down the boulder around the carcass. But then we came across another obstacle.

It was kind of amusing to follow our gradual realization of what we had to do to move on.

“Ew, that is a disgusting pool of water….wait, how are we supposed to get past it?...Oh, there’s a chain.”

Let me explain. At one point of the trail, the canyon narrows to about ten metres wide, with the canyon walls still deep and totally vertical. Ahead of us is a steep drop from the boulder we stood on and at the bottom was, not a dead carcass this time, but a deeper gross-green pool of swampy still water. Of course Mr. Foot had disappeared at this point, leaving us to figure out how to get across. When I spotted the chain fastened to the side of the canyon wall, I realized that what we were meant to do was scale across the canyon wall using nothing but the chain. Essentially we were rock climbing without any safety harness gear.

oh that's right, i'm also afraid of heights.

I went across first, pretending to be totally okay with it. Thank God I’ve been going to the gym lately and have awesome upper body strength. At a few points there simply were no footholds so it was all about using my sweet biceps to carry me across, dragging myself along the chain, trying not to think about the fact that if I fell, I would

1) possibly hit my head on the boulders
2) touch the gross green water

At one point I slipped off the rock and found myself dangling with my hands, my feet kicking in the air. I tried not to picture that scene from Cliffhanger. This is nothing, I told myself, just pretend you’re doing pull-ups on Joseph’s chin up bar. I imagined that I was just doing one of the aerial courses at Camp Fortune, found a foothold, and made it across. As soon as my foot hit solid ground, my lawyer’s mind released its fury. This is such a tort liability. Tort! Tort! Tort!

“Yeah, that was a piece of cake,” I told Julia, who was making her way across now.


Luckily that was the toughest part of the trail and there was no more insane bouldering. Mr. Foot reappeared finally and led us to the end of the trail. We picked up Allison from the campsite and headed home, stopping off at the bottle store in the little town Rietoog to buy some ice cold mango pine juice. We played Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill album on the way home, singing along to every line – because that’s what you do when you travel with girls.

“you see i've been through the desert on a horse with no name,
it felt good to be out of the rain.
in the desert you can remember your name,
'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain”

-“Horse With No Name” by America