For quite some time my dad and John have talked about walking Fish River Canyon in Namibia. At some stage they decided it would be very special to do so with one or both of our boys, making a three generational trek. The Fish River Canyon hike is largely unknown outside of southern Africa. It is a 90km unsupported walk in the bottom of a valley with a strict permit system – walkers must be over 12 years of age, must pass a medical and must pre-book up to a year in advance. The 40-plus degrees centigrade in the canyon bottom means it is only accessible from April to September each year and, even then, permits are only granted if there is enough water for everyone to survive. Numbers are limited to a maximum of 30 hikers per day. Once the 550m to the canyon bottom has been negotiated on day one there are very few opportunities for escape and everything you need has to be taken in with you.
We did consider waiting another 12 months until Angus was old enough too but felt it safer to have a ratio of two adults to one child given that anyone injured or ill would have to wait (and survive) until one of the three could trek the distance back to the beginning or end to fetch help and even then help would only come in by foot.
Dad, John and Finn did the walk at the beginning of August when the rest of us flew back to the UK (having finished our wonderful holiday with our last few nights at Erindi). At this time of year the daytime temperatures were lower and the number of trekkers reduced as it’s outside local holidays but there’s the corresponding disadvantages that water levels are at their lowest and it gets very cold indeed at night.
They spent the night beforehand at the far end of the walk and hitched an early morning jeep-ride to the trail-head. The initial descent took up the morning and didn’t count towards the distance shown on the map. The terrain at the bottom was sandy ground interspersed by boulder fields and rocky outcrops at the sides of the valley. Walking until late afternoon they had only covered around 7km towards the total when they set up camp. By then the canyon walls had already seen the last of the sunlight and it would only be an hour or so before they were engulfed in darkness for the next 12 hours – dad fried steaks (they adopted African-style first night back-packing with vacuum packed steak!), John spent the hour pumping water to filter it (followed with iodine to make is safely potable) and Finn worried about scorpions.
Evenings were clear and at this time of year there is zero possibility of rainfall so they had excellent opportunity for stargazing while huddled in all their clothes plus sleeping bags during the long winter nights. Early morning required more water pumping and the unseizing of my dad’s knee (12 months later he’s due a knee replacement, after many years of abuse from rugby, ski-ing and trekking……a less stubborn person wouldn’t have made the trek).
They did have a copy of the official ‘map’ – which John reported as little better than a colourful artist’s impression, so route-finding is tricky with some trails leading to nowhere as previous walkers have tried a route and then had to double-back. Much of the time walking was on sand which was heavy going especially for the two who were considerably heavier than Finn’s 34kg. But for a 12 1/2 year old it was a serious undertaking, and although he didn’t carry much compared to the two adults he took as much as he could and tackled the challenge in classic Finn-like attitude. His positivity was tested a couple of times though, once when he accidentally ingested some river water while cooling down and instantly worried that he was infested with parasites (which he could have been though the effects wouldn’t have been quite so immediate as he believed) and secondly when a baboon stole their favourite chutney-marinated trail mix………however this counted as a low-point for his more mature companions too.
Dad, like me, isn’t too enthused by endless rock and sand and, I think, by day four felt he’d had enough of canyon scenery (whereas John revels in as much barrenness as he can get). On the last day (day five) they realised their previous night’s camping spot had been very good judgement indeed as they passed no water at all on the last day – emphasising to them how much of a proper wilderness trek this is. They saw no other people during the whole five days – which combined with the wild scenery and complete self-reliance made for a very memorable trip for them all. Finn naturally, given the age limit, is one of the youngest completers – he may be a scrawny wee thing but he’s pretty tough.