Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rivers and quick sand and toe nails, oh my

FYI...this is a long one...sorry!

I’m not even sure where to begin this blog post! It has been so long and so many things have happened. First things first: the floods are finally receding and school is back in full swing. We are compensating our missed days by going to school on Saturdays and public holidays (which is no fun), but at least everyone is safe and dry. It has been harder than I thought to get back into the swing of things, but it does feel good to be productive again. There is much work to be done to finish up exams and marking and filling out the loads of paperwork that is necessary when you teach every learner in the school! Ok, now let me back track.

When I last wrote, I was getting ready to attend my mid-service conference for World Teach in Windhoek. I got there safely and it was nice to have the chance to catch up with everyone. We had a few sessions reflecting on how things were going so far and where we would like them to go during term 2. We got to share stories of successes and hardships and all the funny things Namibia has brought to our lives. We had a nice closing dinner at Joe’s Beerhouse, a pretty cool restaurant/bar that is definitely worth checking out if you are in Windhoek. We ate crocodile, kudu, ostrich, zebra, and drank some good brews. It felt good to be in a restaurant again! There really isn’t a culture of eating out here in Northern Namibia. Because of this, I definitely took advantage of every restaurant I met throughout my holiday! So mid-service wrapped up, but me and Bret and Karen (the people I was going on holiday with) stayed in Windhoek for another night in order to catch an overnight train the following day. We checked out some more of Windhoek (which is actually a pretty cool place) and prepared ourselves for a 12 hour train ride. We arrived at the train station about 45 minutes early and found our first class seats (definitely not the greatest, but at least it was a seat!). We departed about 30 minutes late, but were just happy to be on our way. Our first class cabin had an actual television in it with a DVD player. We were pretty stoked about the idea of watching movies on our overnight train. That is, until they started playing the movies… The first one was called The Buttercream Gang in The Adventure of Treasure Mountain (or something like that). Apparently this was an old made-for-TV American flick that has religious undertones and was meant to bring families together. Since this is Namibia, I ended up watching the movie twice. When they like something here, they really like it. There was no option to drown out the sound, so I found myself drawn into it the first and second time. After this family friendly flick, they played a pretty graphic and violent American action flick. I guess they were playing for a varied audience. Anyway, the train was moving slow, but at least it was moving…until around 11:30 pm. At this point, the train stops cold. Karen is sleeping, but Bret and I were awake and slightly confused. Finally, a man comes around saying the train “is broken and cannot go on anymore”. There was really no explanation other than it was broken and that they would be arranging buses to get us to our destination. The man added that this had happened in the past and that arranging buses would probably take until around 1:00p.m. the following day. So there we were: stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere for possibly 14 hours. Somehow, we managed to laugh about it and notice how pretty much no one on the train was complaining. We noticed what a stark contrast this was to how Americans would react if we were at home. Back home, people would have been questioning and shouting and insisting on talking to the highest power they could to chew them out. Here in Namibia, people quietly got on their cell phones and told their loved ones that they would be late and then hunkered down to get some sleep. It was truly appalling. Luckily I had some Haribo gummies to give us some comfort until we were finally able to get some sleep. Around 3:00a.m. I awoke to find we were moving again. No explanation. But we were moving so I was not going to question it! We finally got to Keetmanshoop around 12:00 p.m. and from there were escorted onto a bus to take us to our final destination of Grunau. The bus was much faster than the train so we got there around 3:30. We were trying to make it to the Gondwana Canyon Roadhouse where we were going to camp for four nights. It was still quite a few kilometers away on a beautiful dirt road. Lucky for us, we found a nice Afrikaner couple who had a farm not too far from there and took us all the way in the back of their bakkie. I think I have mentioned this before, but I have learned here that things have a way of working themselves out if you just let them. I am sure that happens back home in the states, but I think we are all so used to instant gratification that we often are too impatient to let things work themselves out. Here you can’t be impatient or you will drive yourself crazy! Therefore, I have seen that things always work out (and usually in a really fun or crazy way!) Anyway, we got to the Roadhouse and it is really awesome. It is Route 66 themed (but not in a cheesy way) and has a lovely bar and restaurant. Our campsite is great and is situated very close to a hiking trail that goes up into the rocky cliffs. We set things up and then head inside for a celebratory beer for making it to the south. The next few days consisted of hiking through the gorgeous terrain, eating lots of good meals, relaxing by the pool, and star gazing. On one gorgeous day, we hitch hiked to the nearby Gondwana Lodge which boasts a really awesome hiking trail as well. We hiked the trail (bushwacking the last kilometer or so since the trail kind of disappeared), ate some lunch, then tried to find a ride home. Again, we had to be patient and just let things work themselves out. And they did. We were picked up by the craziest bunch of South Africans I have ever met. It was three older men and one younger guy, rocking some tunes and pounding some liquor. They had multiple coolers and were more than happy to give us an ice cold Tafel lager upon entering the vehicle. I don’t think the driver was drinking (at the time), but the others were busy filling their cups with ice and whiskey and then engaging in violent cheers-ing where half their drinks would end up on their laps. It was a wild ride to say the least. We made it safely and were kind of sad to see our new friends go.

K, now I will fast forward to Hobas. Hobas was our next campground and is kind of a base camp for people intending to hike Fish River Canyon. We ended up staying two nights because our original date to descend into the canyon turned out to be cold and very very rainy. We had heard from an NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts) worker that it would be best to wait since the descent is slippery and steep as it is. When our nicer day finally came, we made our way to the main lookout point and saw the canyon for the first time. It was absolutely breathtaking. By this time, our third hiker, Karen, had decided she wasn’t up for the hike. That left just me and Bret. After a few photos, we made our way to the start of the hiking trail. It was hard to see how the hell we were going to get down such a steep rock face. Upon closer inspection, we saw the chains put into place to help hikers from plummeting to their death. Now, I have done hikes with chains and ropes before, but never with a pack as heavy as the one I had. I immediately regretted having more than two outfits (for a month mind you) and just about everything else that was in my pack. Bret and I stayed one chain length apart to ensure we did not pull or push each other into a compromising position. Those of you who know me well know that heights are not really my favorite thing. Or even my second favorite thing. I have gotten better over the years, but during this descent, I had to keep my eyes down and keep putting one foot in front of the other. The descent is about two kilometers and took us about two hours to complete. Bret finished first as I was struggling with my balance with each step. I finally made it to the bottom and found Bret hanging out on a beautiful sandy bank right on the river. I immediately tore off my things and got into the water. Water had never felt better. At this point, we had made friends with two people from another group that descended that day, Gail and Jared. We hung out with them for a bit while we rested our shaky legs and ate some biltong (jerky). Most people choose to complete the descent and then camp on the sandy bank before starting the actual trail the next day. We thought that sounded like a great idea. We cooked a nice meal and juse laid our sleeping bags out on the sand to rest for the night. As I gazed at the beautiful night sky, I thought to myself “the worst is over, now you can just walk and enjoy”. Silly me.

I am not going to get into the details of every single day we were in the canyon (if you want to know, just ask!), but I will tell you, the descent was not the end of the hard stuff. NWR uses the word “trail” loosely. You really just walk where you can when you can. The first two days of hiking were composed of 8 hours a day of bouldering and climbing (things I do enjoy, but wear on you when you have a huge pack on and shaky legs). Needless to say, the terrain slowed us down quite a bit. After 3 days in the canyon, we were feeling pretty good physically, but the immensity of the canyon was starting to feel a bit daunting. We had started our river crossings, and again for those of you who know me well, you know that slippery wet rocks are even lower on my love list than heights. I was being kind of a baby, but I was making it across and trying to keep my focus. Oh yeah, I did get stuck in quick sand that one time…yeah…they are right – it is both quick and sandy. Thanks to my obsession with Bear Grylls, I managed to get myself out. I felt like a cement statue of myself, but I got out. You’d think that would be the worst of it, right? Then came day 4. We had had a great morning where we covered lots of ground and were feeling really good. We get to the river and know we need to get to the other side. The crossing is pretty wide, but at this point there is really no other choice than to cross the damn thing. As we start to cross, I am feeling pretty confident. I am giving myself out loud pep talks and am starting to think I am getting pretty good at these things! Bret made it over before me (obviously) while I ha about ¼ to go. All of a sudden, I sense the current getting stronger and stronger. Pretty soon it is difficult for me to even pick my foot up and move it further. The water which was once up to my shins was now up past my waist. I start to freak. It is all kind of a blur, but the water ends up taking me down. I float a ways, trying to regain my stance. I manage to get up only to get knocked down again. With all of my strength, I get up one more time. During all of this, I can see another group of hikers watching me from the side we came from. I also see Bret drop his pack and come trudging out after me. He manages to get to me and somehow guide me back to land. All I know is my legs have never shaken as hard as they did then. Once on dry land (after I thanked Bret profusely), we had time to assess our current situation. It was clear that the dam had been opened and that the river would be rushing from here on out. We were meant to cross it about 8 more times, but clearly that was not going to be an option. While we are trying to figure out what the hell to do, we see a group of three hikers get stuck out on some rocks while their path to dry land is overtaken by the river. Their rock island was getting smaller and smaller while ahead of them were rapids. Obviously, we were freaked and not sure what to do. We composed ourselves and decided the best option was for us to try to go ahead and get help for these people who were stuck on the wrong side. As much as being in the river when the dam opened sucked, it was actually a better option than being stuck on the other side! So, we moved on. We studied the map and came up with our own route for going up and over mountains in order to avoid river crossings. We climbed mountains and watersheds and walked in places where people might have never been. Thankfully, Bret has wonderful map reading skills and was able to guide us to where we wanted to be. We dropped back down by the river just about a 45 minute hike from a shortcut that would lead us to the emergency exit. We weren’t out of the water yet though – there was still a river crossing between us and safety. We camped on the sandy bank where our off trailing dumped us and decided to conquer the last leg of our journey in the morning. It was a pretty quiet that night since both of us were pretty emotionally and physically drained. Oh, and freaked out. Morning came (after little sleep) and we trudged on to figure out how we were going to complete this one more crossing. The river was raging. I mean raging. As we are approaching the place where we need to cross, we both see something big and white on top of the cliff opposite us. Neither of us say anything until we see two tiny people walking down the cliff. Then we realize that the white object is a truck! A truck! We both start freaking out and waving and shouting. Pretty soon we hear people close to us say “we are here to help you!” We jog towards the voices and see about 5 guys in black Speedos on the opposite side of the river. They have ropes and gear and a canoe! They are incredibly nice and tell us where to go to wait for them to cross the raging river. The relief I felt at this moment is indescribable. I felt exhausted and exhilarated and like I was going to cry all at the same time. Long story short (or not so short), they get us across the river in a boat and back up the cliff to where a truck is waiting to take us to safety. It was surreal. Turns out the people that saved our lives were actually just tourists who had come to hike the trail and then found it to be closed. Instead of doing something lazier for their holiday, they spent it saving the lives of 14 people stuck in a canyon. Amazing. Anyway, they took us to the end of the trail, Ai-Ais, where there are hot springs and showers and beer and food. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. Whew, I know that is a lot. There is still a lot of my holiday left, but I think that is enough for now. Just know I am safe and miss all of you even more than I did before. K, more later.

Lots of love,



  1. I am so glad you are back home and safe!!!!!!!!!!

  2. That sounds awesome! A bit scary, true, but amazing!