I really should be working now but I don’t actually feel like doing anything for this last 30 minutes so I’m going to tell you a story. The story of how I walked into a canyon for the second time. I wrote about the first time here but I’ll give you a quick couple of highlights.
In 2011 I went to hike the Fish River canyon with some friends. We had to get signed medical forms from a doctor who said we were physically fit enough to hike the canyon. Seeing as how the only ways out are on foot or by helicopter. Anyway. My damned doctor said I was fine. My girlfriend had broken up with me not long before this, I think? Or she wanted some space or something like that, so I walked into the canyon trying to forget about her. Or to say goodbye or something – since she was about a million miles away.
So, I’m on the way down, the soles of my boots separate from the leather & I end up walking a big portion barefoot & then on the 3rd day I take the emergency exit with a friend. It was horrible. At some point the guys have to leave me & I have to walk the last section by myself, with no water. I’m not 100% sure how long I walked but I literally took 10 steps & stopped for a bit & then walked another 10. I promised myself I would never, ever go out that emergency exit again. I would rather crawl out all the way than do it.
Right, so fast forward to 2014. A friend on Facebook says they’ve got some spots open to hike the canyon & does anyone want to go along. I call up my friends who hiked the previous time & 2 of them say yes. Some of us are a bit fatter and slower but who cares, we’re going to do it. Slowly.
The week before the hike I start getting excruciating toothache. The dentist tells me I need to see a dental surgeon and very quickly, R6000 and a LOT of drugs later I have one less tooth and possibly more pain. I go see my doctor – for this form she needs to complete – and she tells me that I’m ok and ‘my body will tell me if I’m ok to do it’. I’m not so good at listening to my body & my friends really want me to go, so I decide to do it. This is what now feels like about the 90th mistake in this plan.
Everything works out fine, we get to Ai-Ais, we’re all excited and we find this moerse* Namibian oom** who will take my car back to Ai-Ais and we’re off to the start. I’m still not 100% sure I should be doing this but people are saying we’ll do it slow & why wouldn’t I do it. My friend Phillip is driving & he parks my car at the top of the canyon, right behind a bus. Everyone is out of the car and the fucking bus starts reversing and I’m sitting in the backseat of my own car watching a bus come at me. Everyone screams & shouts, the driver stops and the first crisis is averted. I’m sure everything will be fine from now on…
As I take the first step I’m struck by a sudden fear of heights and I just want to turn around, but now I’m here and we’re doing this and we shouldn’t just quit. My hands are sweaty, my legs feel a bit wobbly and so I take off my glasses so I can see less far away and I take one step at a time. The loose shale moves under my feet but my steps are mostly sure and I relax into a rhythm. Kind of.
I take a step and in the moment my foot touches the ground I feel something go in my thigh. Not completely but it’s like one strand in a rope just snapped. It’s gone. It’s a little less stronger than it was. It doesn’t hurt, so I keep walking but I can feel my leg is weaker. I don’t feel like I can trust it. At this point I should have asked someone to help me back out. It was probably less than 30 minutes in. And this is the point that will make me remember that sometimes it’s ok to quit right at the start. I keep walking.
It gets progressively worse and I fall twice. I never fall. I might stumble but I very very rarely hit the ground. But I fall twice. It scares me. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t trust my legs at all. My knee locks at every step and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to walk downhill without bent knees but it’s the only way my leg will hold. I keep walking because there is no space to just stop.
The highest point of the canyon is 840m, the lowest 220m and the descent is 2km. It’s STEEP and I’ve got about 15kg on my back. I’m unfit and I’m completely overexerting my leg. And there are 2 ways out. Helicopter or by foot. I keep going. At some point there’s a little spot to rest & I decide to bandage my leg to try and make it feel like it’s going to stay together because it feels like all the muscles might just split and my leg will just collapse. My friend Phillip has a thigh strap & we manage to strap it around my considerable thigh. It makes it. It feels better and I keep going. After walking some more it becomes so difficult to walk that I ask Phillip to take my bag. He slings mine over his & he’s off. Trying to get to the bottom as quickly as possible.
I am alone & moving slowly. It’s an incredible place. It is desolate and beautiful and there are very few signs of people – except for the path I’m walking on & the little and huge cairns everywhere. I decide that I can’t keep going. That I need to find a way to climb back out because stepping down from something is near impossible. I can go up but coming down just doesn’t seem to work.
After walking for what feels like forever I reach the bottom where everyone else is refreshed and ready to go and I tell them I’m staying behind. They know how stubborn I am & that I have enough food & water to last me for 5 days so if I can’t go out I’ll be ok to wait for them there and before long they leave.
But it’s not. There’s the cry of a fish eagle echoing down the canyon and little birds fluttering about. I lie down and wait to feel better. It’s incredible to be here alone. Suddenly I hear a couple of rocks crashing down across the river. I try to find the movement and eventually I see it. It’s a troop of baboons coming down to the river.
They know I have food with me. They know I’m alone. I find my very very sharp pocked knife in my bag. I put my phone in my pocket. I take some matches and I sling my camelback over my shoulders. I can’t keep any food on my because if they want it they’ll take it. So I struggle to my feet with my hiking stick stretched out as far from my body as I can. Trying to look big. I am feeling very, very small.
To be continued…