Thursday, 21 July 2011

Making My Way Home - Part 5 of Canyon Diary

 I must apologise to those who are following the Canyon trail and have had to wait almost a week for part 5, I have had some technical problems - but I am happy to be back: "Faster than a speeding bullet, More powerful  than a locomotive, Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Look, up in the sky!
So starting the fifth day, like each day is cold and slow going. But we have our morning rituals and each member moves around breaking camp, cleaning up, packing up and then moving out.
The fifth day is a long flat road, with the one short cut which we had decided to take. It's the short cut past "the German's Grave". But before we got there, the river had to be crossed, falling had to be done and everything in between. 
"My" Short-cut Hill
I did manage to make myself the most unpopular member of our 3 man team, by insisting on a 45 minute trip up a really steep hill, which I insisted was the short cut - but actually wasn't. The strange thing is, when I was standing and looking at the hill - I so badly wanted to climb it, nothing was going to stop me. I did feel a little bad about dragging Keith and Markwin up hill on my whim, but the views from there were truly worth every step.
The Views from "My Hill"
The Views from "My Hill"
We did find the short cut, you can't really miss it, while it's not marked, the path is very clear to see. We camped just after a big river crossing, with the 4 finger rock keeping a sharp eye over us and our campsite
Keith and I decided to try joining our sleeping bags together and see if sleeping closer would be warmer. Well that was not a good idea. If you think holding on to the duvet is an art in a bed -try putting 2 people in a bag. It ends up feeling like you are sleeping in a sack with 2 fighting dogs! Perhaps for those who can lie peacefully in their partner's arms all night it could work, certainly not us!
Advance, and never halt, for advancing is perfection. 
Advance and do not fear the thorns in the path,
for they draw only corrupt blood.
Khalil Gibran

Monday, 18 July 2011

Making My Way Home - Part 3 of Canyon Diary

I have spent the last two days complaining about the trials and tribulations of the Canyon, the cold water, the river that was deeper and faster than comfortable, the nights which were longer and colder than I expected. But before you start to think that all I do is complain, I will say that the Canyon after all the rain had a beauty for beyond that which you would expect in a desert.

The carpets of flowers were a highlight of my day.

I have many people comment to me about hiking and ask "Why do you do it for fun?". It's a little more complicated than just getting from one place to another, it's being in places that so few people see and experience. I feel like Neil Armstrong when he placed the first human footprint on the moon. All the training, all the pain, giving up your comfortable bed and sleeping on the cold ground - all fades when you look up and see a cliff face or a still pond with a mountain reflected in it.

Watching a sunset and then counting the stars come out. I have quoted this song so many times before, but I can't help feeling part of something that's Indescribable.
"From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation's revealing Your majesty
From the colours of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings
All exclaiming Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name."

But I think I should explain what a day is like during a long hike. 
Starting in the morning is cold and gathering everything up is a task which takes team work. Simple things like stuffing your sleeping bag back into it's bag takes time, deflating your pillow, folding your survival bag (without sand) it not quick work. All this while getting a cuppa java, something to eat and different morning ablutions. 

  Eventually everyone is ready, joints are creaking and we start, making sure that the camp site looks like we were never there. I can not say "disappointed" (I have another word, but Mom will wash my mouth with soap if I use it) I was this year by the number of people who left burnt trash and tin foil. After 1000 people have gone through the canyon, it's those who are so selfish that are going to ruin places of such perfect beauty. If you left your trash on the trail - SHAME ON YOU FOR WANTING TO RUIN THIS!
While you walk with a group, there are large parts of the day you spend alone. I map out plans for my life, blog posts, conversations relived (things I wish I had or had not said) and coming to terms with parts of my life that need work. I talk to myself, to God, sing songs about my surroundings and even nursery rhymes.

Each step takes you to a place on a road that gets you further from the start and actually back to the beginning. Your feet hurt, your bag sometimes feel like part of your body and then 5 minutes later it feels like you have 2 baboons copulating on your back! Sometimes I feel a little dried up, like this poor fellow!

The third day got us to Palm Springs, the site of the sulphur hot springs. The water pumping out the ground has an average temperature of about 70Cel. Many like to stop and spend some time swimming in the warm waters, treating aches and pains. I hate the smell, I only stop to take a photo and then stop further down the path for a lunch, a very important meal to ensure you have enough strength to make it through the afternoon.
Palm Springs - If you look carefully you can see the steam coming off the water
There are some essential things for a pleasurable hiking experience. Firstly, good footwear - spend as much money and time as you can afford to find the perfect pair. Your boots are not for looking at - keep the Jimmy Choos for that.

Secondly, a good medical aid kit. I am continually surprised by people who pack shampoo and conditioner - I even seen hair gel and aftershave lotion, and then a medical aid kit with nothing more and a crepe bandage and 4 plasters.

Thirdly, good food and snacks. I have made it a priority to ensure that the food we eat leaves us with warm hugs in out stomachs, and not just something we shove down our throats to add calories. I have a whole section dedicated to hiking recipes - click here for some good ideas to try.

We found a split level beach apartment for our third over night stop. We used the lower level as an open plan kitchen and living room and bedrooms on the first floor.

This is another important way when hiking on hikes were there are no huts or dedicated stops. Plan how many hours or kilometres you need to cover in a day, but if you find the perfect place a little early or later - be inspired, you'll be much happier spending the night in a comfortable spot, rather than staying to a very strict schedule.
  The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
   for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk
   through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
   they comfort me.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Making My Way Home - Part 4 of Canyon Diary

 The fourth morning started with the usual routine. By this time we are getting into the hang of waking, packing and getting on the road.

The fourth day of hiking is dry and dusty. While you are always surrounded by the natural beauty of the canyon, like the great big arms of God hugging you on both sides, with the life giving river that you follow, crossing it but leaving it behind.

It's a day that reminded me the it took the Israelites 40 years to walk about 390km from Egypt to the Israel. This day is not so much about the time or the distance (both are great), it's about the lesson.

I had hours of alone time walking on flat hard surfaces, time spent getting my mind around the vastness of creation and my importance in it. 

The never ending river crossings were taking a toll on my feet and my will. I think this was the a make or break day for our spirit's. Stepping in thick mud, being dragged down and then carrying on along a a hard and narrow path - this could be the lyrics to a hymn!
We did walk further than the rest of the groups that were hiking, as it's on this day that all the short cuts started, we had decided not to take them - but would keep going as long as we could.

The best part of the day was the end. We stopped in a spot with a good supply of firewood. We decided to sleep next to the fire, which is wonderful idea when you go to sleep, but sadly the fire only burns when it has a constant source of fuel and when the feeders are sleeping - the heat slowly dwindles away. "I will be there 'til the World stops turning, Baby I will keep this fire burning" - until I fall asleep!

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Making My Way Home - Part 2 of Canyon Diary

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man wealthy and healthy and wise" - These are not words penned in the Fish River Canyon. Early to bed, that's easy - you're exhausted, you lie in your sleeping bag looking at the stars and before long you are sucked through a wormhole into a sound sleep.

The problem is, as most adults under the age of 80 don't go to sleep between 7 & 8pm, once you've done your 7 or 8 hours of restless sleep - it's then only 4am. Now at home, if you were really keen you could jump out of bed, put the kettle on, bake a few loaves of bread, plait your hair or even darn your socks. Dawn in the canyon is at 7am - not before! Doing anything before it's light is impossible. So for 3 hours you just lie/toss in your sleeping bag, feeling your hip bone engraving the Ten Commandments into your liver.

Never the less, it's still wonderful to wakeup to the fresh cleanness of a beautiful morning.

We try to get going early, but it's really not a family thing. Somehow our clothes, food, sleeping bags, pots pans - actually everything grows a little more each night while be sleep (similar to how jeans shrink in winter). So getting everything to fit back is like those size 30" jeans which only close lying down with a coat hanger. We were further ruffled when another group passed us, all 21 of them - I must say it can be quite intimidating have 21 people stroll through your bedroom and toilet first thing in the morning!

We decided to turn on the throttle and pass them. Which wasn't that hard, as it would seem they left early only to stop 30 minutes later for breakfast and toileting (which be kindly interrupted too), it sure gives a new meaning to public toilets.
We passed the Vespa by lunch time, so we knew we were making good time. Pity the price of fuel is so high, a ride would have made a welcome break from the walking.
  We managed to stay on mostly on the same side of the river all day long, crossing only twice. It was at the first crossing that it became very evident that this year there would be no boulder hopping this year - it was going to be shoes off, wade across, shoes on. An extremely slow and uncomfortable experience. It wasn't just crossing the water, but the depth and the force of the current. "Wet became the new black"!

Keith lost his river crossing shoes at one of the falls and subsequently had to duct tape my size 4 Havaianas to  his size 10 skis.

But it certainly was better than the poor person whose shoes completely died on them during the hike!

The first day of hiking is slow going. Climbing over boulders or dragging your feet through sand as fine as talcum powder and as thick as melted marshmallows. The days were comfortably warm, unlike the freezing cold nights.
  We reached camp at about 3pm, which meant we had 3 hours of sun light to relax and enjoy and find some decent firewood.
The big group which had passed early that morning, walked past us and crossed over to the other side of the river to set up camp. We stayed on the south side, which turned out to be a good decision as it saved us one river crossing early in the morning.
Ain't nothing gonna break my stride
Nobody's gonna slow me down
Oh no, I've got to keep on moving
Ain't nothing gonna break my stride
I'm running and I won't touch ground
Oh no, I've got to keep on moving

Monday, 11 July 2011

Making My Way Home - Part 1 of Canyon Diary

In life you lose things like teaspoons, pens, one sock even marbles. Three months ago I lost some one very close to me, he left - the warning signs were there, but I was not prepared for his complete departure from my life.

I wondered around, going through the motions of doing life. People knew I was sad, but I felt that even though I looked normal from the outside, part of my insides had been ripped out and placed in the box together with my loved one - covered in sand.

Fourteen months ago I planned this trip to hike the Fish River Canyon. My late friend laughed at my crazy habit of roaming around nature, staying in tents and using a spade to lower the toilet seat. But never the less encouraged me with words like "life is for the living" and "getting drunk outta town don't count"!

I could never had imagined that 3 months before I would leave on another life affirming trip, I would have to say such a final goodbye to such a large part of what I thought made me who I was.

So, now you understand why I have not blogged for almost a month. I have been on a trip home and I took the long road home, the road less travelled, but it's brought me back to find that I can handle loss and grief without losing the essence of who I am.

The night before we started our hike, we arrived late at Ai Ais and as a result were politely shown a spot at the entrance to the utility boma ( where everyone goes to wash their dishes and laundry). It was far to late to set up camp, so we just removed our shoes and climbed straight into our sleeping bags. While sleeping outside, on a concrete floor might seem like a hardship, it would be the most peaceful sleep I would have for the next 6 nights.

Needless to say, we were awoken the next morning by kind souls asking if we could please move so they could get past. I can truly say I have a certain amount of empathy for the homeless who are woken by shop keepers after spending the night huddled in a doorway. The biggest difference is all the high-tech sleeping gear I have and I do it by choice.

So mad rush - as per our family tradition and the final dash to the shuttle leaving on the bumpiest road in the world. It is not the potholes (which are worse in Joburg),but they grade the surface to "a washboard", it's guaranteed to shake lose any inferior dental work. 

After arriving in Hobas, going through all the paperwork and park fees, finding no maps. We were back in the bus, on our way to the drop off zone. The strange thing about the Fish River Canyon is it is not scary at all while you driving next to it - you can even see it. BUT, go to the edge and all of a sudden you see a huge hole with a tiny river below open beneath you - it's the closest you can get to "having the earth open and swallow you up".

After lining up the family for the compulsory family photo, having to hold them down long enough to actually wait for the shutter to close, we start our trip. Walking, sliding, slipping and climbing our way down the abyss that would be home for the next 6 nights and 5 days!

Half an hour into the start Captain Keith took his first fall. It was a bad one. He managed to take 4 inches of meat and skin off his shin, leaving the bone exposed, with a chip missing. Not pretty, but lucky for our group of 3, Florence Nightingale was at hand and some anitbiotic cream, a bandage and enough duct tape to make MacGyver proud we could continue.

This is the wound 2 weeks later and after 10 days of antibiotics

We completed the descent after 2 long hours and walked a further 1km to set up camp. It was still early in the day and so we had plenty time to "lick" our wounds and recover from all the day's hard climb.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I shall die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Jeremiah 17: 7-8

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water."

It is not your business to succeed, but to do what is right : when you have done so, the rest lies with God.
C.S. Lewis

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