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