There’s noth­ing like a 15 kg back­pack and a shade­less desert to keep you hum­ble, says An­nami Mailovich.

Go! Camp & Drive - - Contents -

Ihave a split sec­ond to make a de­ci­sion. Ei­ther I fall against a rock or I tum­ble down a cliff. Mo­ments later, there’s only blood… We’re not even 20 min­utes into our Fish River ad­ven­ture and al­ready I’m sur­rounded by peo­ple with Savlon and Band-Aids while oth­ers scurry around, di­vid­ing my lug­gage be­tween them. “Are you okay to go on?” they ask with con­cern. Stub­bornly, but with a healthy dose of trep­i­da­tion, I say: “Yes, let’s do it. We’re here, af­ter all.”

LET ME START with a con­fes­sion. I’m not sporty, I have a spare tyre or three around my mid­dle, I run out of breath quickly when I walk up­hill, I’m not known for my fan­tas­tic bal­ance, and at best I would de­scribe my feet and an­kles as fee­ble. But I love the out­doors, and I have the en­durance of both Kevin An­der­son and John Is­ner in the Wim­ble­dom semi-fi­nal. So when my friends asked me a year or so ago whether I wanted to hike the Fish River Canyon with them, I im­me­di­ately said yes and ap­plied for leave from work. There was no way this Bushveld Bar­bie was go­ing to miss Namibia’s big­gest desert trek. By the time I wormed my­self into Cape Town hik­ing cir­cles, I’d been dream­ing about the The Fish for more than a

decade. By the way, you may only re­fer to it as ‘The Fish’ once you’ve ac­tu­ally done the hike. And even then it’s said with re­spect. You have to tread care­fully; this is holy ground. Judg­ing by my pho­tos, my sheep­ish tone, at least four miss­ing toe nails, and all the sto­ries of falls and pain, you’d think The Fish was a to­tal fi­asco. If you asked me to de­scribe Hell, it would be easy: a clus­ter of rocks. But Heaven? Heaven is the icy wa­ter of The Fish. It’s ly­ing flat on your back in a down sleep­ing bag in the sand, with the stars as your ceil­ing. I re­alise now that fit­ness is not the is­sue when you tackle The Fish. You have to be strong, phys­i­cally and men­tally. Your body needs to be ready, and your head needs to guide you. If you’re dream­ing about The Fish, go for it. Go with ex­pe­ri­enced hik­ers you trust, and be well ac­quainted with how maps and com­passes work. I made mis­takes, but you learn from them. And re­lax… be­cause it’s a fright­en­ingly won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

I WAS PART of a group of peo­ple who left Ai-Ais at 9 am in a shut­tle to Hobas. The rest of our group had left with the 6 am shut­tle, so they could start slowly and get used to the heavy back­packs on the steep up­hill. Be­cause we ar­rived later, I felt at a dis­ad­van­tage, es­pe­cially since I was ner­vous, im­pa­tient and had a top-heavy back­pack that I’d bor­rowed, as well as some­one else’s walk­ing stick that just wasn’t com­fort­able in my hand. A fall was prob­a­bly in­evitable. I have to ad­mit, the ma­jes­tic canyon would have looked less fright­en­ing if I had prac­tised more. In my head I had planned a rig­or­ous ex­er­cise regime, but at the end of De­cem­ber an emer­gency ap­pen­dec­tomy shat­tered all those piein-the-sky ideas. I prob­a­bly did three or four easy hikes on the slopes of Ta­ble Moun­tain, and only one of them with a back­pack full of 5 ℓ wa­ter bot­tles I’d been col­lect­ing for Day Zero. “To hike is more a combo of lunges and squats,” a fel­low hiker claims while she waits for me to hoist my­self up be­tween two rocks. And she’s right: You give your legs and bum a proper work­out, and your limbs have no idea what hit them. It prob­a­bly would have been an en­tirely dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion if I’d been slightly bet­ter pre­pared. And you don’t need a moun­tain to pre­pare your­self. You can do it just as well by walk­ing along the beach or climb­ing over boul­ders. Or ditch­ing the lift at work and tak­ing the stairs. Or sim­ply do­ing a whole lot of squats and lunges, if there are no boul­ders or stairs close by. As the land­scape changed from soft sand to rocks to river to hard sand to boul­ders and hills and back to soft sand, I kept telling my­self how flat it was go­ing to be once we got to the down­hill part. And the down­hills are in­deed the most grue­some part of the trip, but things would have gone con­sid­er­ably more smoothly had I not packed my bag in­cor­rectly. If, for ex­am­ple, I had put my sleep­ing bag and mat­tress at the top in­stead of my food, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have top­pled over within the first 20 min­utes and cracked my head open on a rock.

THE LIGHTER YOUR bag, the bet­ter. Pack what you think you’ll eat and then take away half, es­pe­cially the snacks. It’s hot, and you don’t have much of an ap­petite. Try to make break­fast has­sle-free – be­cause by get­ting go­ing early, you get a head start on the heat. It’s dif­fi­cult to get a big group of peo­ple ready to go, es­pe­cially when they’re still mak­ing break­fast and scrub­bing pans in the river. Keep the big meal and cof­fee for the first break, once you’ve gained some ground and the sun is eat­ing away at you. There’s noth­ing like a 15 kg back­pack and a shade­less desert to keep you hum­ble. I took way too much food and not enough sun­screen. If peo­ple hadn’t felt sorry for me and shared their sun­screen, I would have died. But don’t let me scare you into packing only one pair of pants – like I did. Take at least two. I’ve never been afraid of get­ting dirty, but I com­pletely un­der­es­ti­mated how bad it gets when you’re scam­per­ing over rocks on your bum. The seam of my shorts split af­ter two days and ev­ery­one be­came well ac­quainted with my bright un­der­wear. Pack de­cent plas­ters (like the ones cross-coun­try run­ners use), an­ti­sep­tic and anti-in­flam­ma­tory oint­ment and pills. At one stage I had to use duct tape on my feet be­cause I only had these com­pletely use­less plas­ters that couldn’t keep my spirit in­tact, let alone my toes that were shat­tered from tack­ling ter­rain where you had to cross a river ev­ery 30 min­utes. Your shoes should be ex­actly like the baby bear’s por­ridge – just right. Mine were too old; and by Day 3, my feet couldn’t han­dle it any­more and I had to walk in flip-flops. Luck­ily one of my hik­ing part­ners had an ex­tra pair I could use to com­plete the jour­ney without any fur­ther dam­age. Slowly but surely you get used to where all your pos­ses­sions need to be, as well as con­stantly hav­ing rocks un­der­foot. Wa­ter, wa­ter-pu­ri­fy­ing drops, snacks and your towel need to be close at hand, oth­er­wise you’re go­ing to end up – like me – in your un­der­wear, dry­ing your feet with your shirt. Be­cause wet feet cause blood, anx­i­ety and pain.

AND KNOW THIS: Your fel­low hik­ers will get to know you bet­ter than you know your­self. The Fish will lay bare the se­crets of your soul. Are you ever re­ally ready for it? I am now, yes. And of course I’ll do it again. In a heart­beat.

I packed too much food and not enough sun­screen. If peo­ple hadn’t felt sorry for me and shared their sun­creen, I would have died.

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