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Prompt 6 : Coming Undone | Word Count : 1200 (exactly!) | Genre : Travel Memoir

I should have listened to that little voice.

I squint into the setting sun. They’re true; those movies depicting deserts as a golden blended haze of sun and sand. My reveling evaporates with the hollow sound of my water bottle. Empty.
“Have you guys got water?”

My croaky question sends a few lizards scrambling. I stare at my two silent friends, realizing the meaning of their non-commitment. Shit!
“We have to turn around,” I say as casually as I can, “we cannot spend the night with no water.”

The rising panic is palpable. But we know. There is only one way, and that is back to the river.

*****

A few hours before, we were reminiscing under a tamarisk tree. The river was close enough to crawl to, I noticed absently as I listened to the chatter. Our grateful limbs settled into the sparse shadows as we tried to remember how we ended up there.

“Humph,” said Rene, “they said we must make sure we have proper maps.”
“And we said ‘it’s a canyon, surely one just follows the river?’”  Both Rene and Dina nodded, remembering. The concerned ‘they’ wanted to know why we were not packing tents.
“You are so exposed out there!”  they said. And we were brazen in reply.
“Why? It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

Regardless of our arrogant responses to the well-intended advice, we decided to play it safe and prepared.
We researched.
We trained.
We anticipated difficulties.
We provided for survival.
We repacked.

Then we shut out fear. And we turned a deaf ear to the little voice.
We were ready and the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

The descent sported chains to hang on to, while adjusting our balance with loaded backpacks – as we were warned in the many blogs we read. Slow, step-by-step downwards to protect toes – as experience taught us. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs – as demanded by failing lungs and muscles. Every stop an excuse to inhale the arid river-scape, but also to swallow the angst. Hours on our feet downhill, trembling legs and the smallest distance covered before calling it a day.

Too tired to cook, we settled down with snacks and water and a shy moon, hiding behind clouds that quickly assembled into a noisy storm. Our first night out, under a sky filled with thunder and lightning and no tents. Surrounded by storm-echoes rollerblading off fearsome cliffs we huddled together. We shimmered, in the unabating show of lightning like Christmas lights, on-and-off. Hoping to stay dry, we sat on our hastily repacked backpacks and used flimsy space blankets as partial cover. And much later for warmth. As the groans of the canyon became distant we fell into exhausted sleep, not noticing the milky way gliding along its path.

The next morning all was washed clean. Even the trail. The faint proof of human activity was not there anymore. There was a sea of boulders and mile-high walls hugging the gurgling river.
We lost the trail.
We lost the canyon.
We lost spirit.
We lost track of distance and time.
We became profoundly tired – bordering on dangerous. A previously unknown sense of hopelessness stalked us.

THAT’s how we ended up under the Tamarisk tree.

For the umpteenth time we studied our maps. And finally we agreed. There was an emergency exit, close by. We were going out. We quit. We were leaving this canyon with blind corners and dead ends and no contact or signal and we were going to phone whoever to fetch us.

“My toes are like marshmallows, rolled in honey,” Dina said.
“That sweet?” Rene tried some light-heartedness, which we all felt with the certainty that came with the abandonment agreement.
“No! That fat and sticky!” Dina moaned. “And I can do with a shower and pampering.”

We found the dirt track snaking up, over a manageable cliff. We marched on and for the first time in days, felt the return of hope. Walking with new vigor and lighter packs we checked for phone signal.

Much later, guided by a thin two-track disappearing into a flat desert, we finally register. There was no connection to the outside world; no end to the road, no rescuers awaiting us with luxuries, and no water.

*****

There is only one way, and that is back to the river. All the chirpiness is gone. The way back is further. Harder. Heavier. It has no sound.

Darkness infiltrates everywhere. And gains weight. It fabricates an unfamiliar edge. It smothers the senses.  Once again the Milky Way shows its magic, but we are too busy listening to darkness and despair, to notice.

After lifetimes of stumbling, I stop. Suddenly. Dina walks straight into me and Rene into her.
“Dominoes!” I say, but not without affection. “I think I can see the Tamarisk. Am I hallucinating? Please tell me you see it?”
Dina tries to speak, she coughs and her hoarse reply coincides with Rene’s yelp which disturbs owls on-the-hunt.
“That’s where we rested this morning!”
“The river is close, some stupid thing I remember noticing when we looked at the maps.” My relief shrill in my ears.

With the splash of water in our bottles and our heads on our backpacks, we agree there is only one way out of this canyon. Walk to its end.
“Another three days?” Rene asks.
“Who knows.” I say.
“We take each day as it comes. Goodnight,” Dina says and a soft rumble soon plays in the back of her throat.

The next day we see the morning star for the first time. There is a lightness around. I know the canyon is conquered.

The mind-shift is astounding – it defines the rest of our hike.

We make peace with our smell.
We adapt a casualness towards sand in our ears, our beds and in the coffee.
We accept dirt and survival are companions.
We treasure the clean wash of whiskey through a sandy mouth and down a dusty throat. And we stop purifying our drinking water.
We settle at the end of each day under an expanse too majestic to grasp.
And we learn to turn our backs to the wind when it takes us by surprise in the middle of the night.
We dance (albeit with a limp) with joy when we encounter a flat hard piece of track.
We make good use of the puddles to splash salt-peter off our toning bodies.
We lick our fingers after we polish our bowls of rehydrated meals.
We sleep in shoes and clothes.

The granite walls start tapering down and the flow of the river becomes wider. Human presence is evident. We are reaching the end of this formidable natural phenomena. We walk into a subdued camp. We know where to go; exactly the same place where we were picked up a week (or more?) before.

“We did it!” Dina sobs. I turn to laugh away her silliness and then see Rene’s face. Contorted with a primal emotion, I see the deep borne force of survival powered by hope. Proud and tired I spread my arms around them.
“We did it!” I whisper into the group-hug.

And then I become undone …

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Fishriver Canyon – Revered

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In the end, there is nothing that can prepare you for this experience.

“Make sure you have proper maps…”

“Ah, don’t worry about maps, just follow the river.”

“Better take a tent, you are so exposed…”

“Never. I would never take a tent, just imagine, the whole expanse as your ceiling.”

“Nyaa, don’t worry. It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

“Don’t bother with thermals – 40 plus degrees, promise.”

Well meaning friends and experienced relatives echoed the advice from blogs, Google and Parks Board experts.

So, we decided to play it safe and prepare. Properly.

We anticipated the difficulties and we expected the survivals. We planned for the unforeseen and we shut out the fear.

We were ready, but the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

Descent

The descent lived up to its reputation. Chains to hang onto while adjusting balance with loaded backpacks.

Slow, step-by-step to protect toes. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs. Breathers to inhale scenery.

Three and a half hours and we conquered a mere 2 km. That’s fine, we told ourselves.

A good rest, a swim and only a few more kms before camping. Then bliss under the stars.

But it took another three very long hours to the night-stop which was only 2 km away.

From the exhaustion perspective it was perfect…

By a tamarisk tree and on a soft patch of beach – which we would soon learn to dread –we settled with snacks, water and a shy moon.

We were too tired to cook. Clouds that we had hardly noticed quickly combined into a noisy storm.

So we spent our first night easing into the routine under a sky consumed by thunder and lightning, flimsily covered with a shiny space blanket protecting our sleeping bags; now filled with aching limbs and throbbing feet.

The next morning we awoke to a world washed and clean.

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Elaborating on each day would fill a book with tales of disaster, and a hospital quota of aches and indescribable pains.

Suffice to say we lost the trail, we lost the canyon, we lost spirit, I lost my phone and my camera, we lost track of distances and we found tiredness beyond words. Saturated in a depressing sense of hopelessness.

By the fifth day, which was meant to be our last, we finally made peace with the way we smelt.

We developed a disinterest in the sand in our ears, our beds and our coffee. Dirt and survival were now our companions.

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We did, however, appreciate the crystal clear skies at night – with a view of stars and satellites untainted, which was humbly breathtaking.

We treasured the clean wash of a swig of whiskey through a sandy mouth and a dusty throat.

We slept in awe under a never ending expanse of sky too majestic to grasp.

And we learned to simply turn our backs to the wind when it took us by surprise in the middle of the night.

We danced (albeit with measured limping) with joy when we encountered a flat, hard piece of track.

And we eventually stopped moaning about the miles of sand interspersed with light-years of boulders and rocks.

We made good use of the puddles to splash saltpeter off our toning bodies and eventually stopped purifying the drinking water.

We licked our fingers after we polished the bowls of dehydrated meals. And we finally just slept with our shoes on.

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Then we arrived. A day later than planned.

The emotions of finally reaching the end wiped clean the memory bank of pain and suffering.

Pretty much like birth pains – you forget.

The uncertainty of the next step, the agonizing survival of pain, the desperation of a never-ending cycle all disappeared in the relief, the release and the reward of finishing.

Merely a week later and the suffering is already a distant memory. Awe is what remains.

“Unforgettable,” is what I say when asked…

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Petra

Petra

Route 90 runs south from Jerusalem. At 390m below sealevel, it is the world’s lowest road and the main arterial to popular resorts along the arid banks of the Dead Sea. If you take a right somewhere down south, it takes you to Gaza. It is also the gateway to two places I need to tick off my list of places to visit – Masada and Petra.

My careful research and planning – although anathema to my husband – didn’t put him off this time. Eschewing the comforts and familiarity of his conference he decided to join me. As I bent over the car-rental contract, his sense of humour waned almost immediately. “Must we DRIVE? How far is it?” My usual, ‘just over the hill’ would not work, so I assured him it was an easy drive on well-marked roads all along the Dead Sea with a stop at Masada and then onwards to Petra. “Why can’t we go straight to Eilat? THAT is where you want to be, isn’t it?” I decided to revert to Plan A.

I reached over for the pamphlets that had been staring at me for a while. I opened the Masada leaflet at the sitemap where it explained the steep hikes and the suggestion of doing it before dawn. The Petra one featured the famous sandstone passage, explaining the 6km walk into, around and then out of the ancient city. I kept the trump card for last – DAILY TRIPS from Eilat described in detail the border crossing and visa procedures to get to Petra. “We are crossing BORDERS?” My suppressed grin must have reflected in my eyes.

 

We were interrupted by the return of the goodnatured rental agent. He chattily warned about the roads littered with ‘ruddur’ before handing over the keys. “It’s the local traffic control, they have ruddur (radar)”, he explained when husband-dearest rolled his eyes and his expression morphed from boredom into disbelief as we followed our friend’s directional wave.

Parched landscape, surrounding the Jordan River, could be seen between overtaking trucks and watching out for ‘rudder’. Stretches of Dead Sea and industrial tunnel farming on the banks failed to entertain my passenger and fortunately before too long Masada appeared. My excitement cooled at the sight of the queues – of people and busses. The place was overflowing.

We pushed on. Masada and the other Dead Sea resorts were left behind as we rushed to get to Eilat before dark. The R90 shimmered in the Negev Desert. I saw the Red Sea before I realised we were near Eilat. My relieved shift in the sweat drenched seat awoke my passenger. “Are we there yet?” We were close, yes. I distracted him by making him the navigator. Pointing to a spot on the upside-down-rental map, I insisted on a central hotel.

After booking in there was enough daylight left to explore our surroundings. A slow walk along a coastline that bordered three old worlds was strangely humbling. Israel, Jordan and Egypt meet at this sea. Eilat was originally a port for trade with Asia and later as a military outpost. Detritus from a tourist boom in the 70s could be glimpsed in torn cushions and faded umbrellas. These were limited to the area closest to the port. Flea markets hemmed the hotels. The latter effected an unexpected upliftment in my husband’s mood. He happily returned to our two star hotel with a variety of souvenirs proudly hooked over his shoulders.

The following morning, crossing into Jordan was an easy affair. There was the normal protocol, permissions and stamps on both sides of the border. Our trust in the system was reinforced when we found our online, prepaid guide waiting on the other side of the customs buildings. I ignored my partner’s sighs that accompanied every “no problem” comment from our guide/driver, fearing a disintegration of my only intention – to make it to Petra and back in a single day.

Petra is an ancient city cut out of sandstone rock – poetically described as ‘the rose-red city half as old as time.’ The trip halfway up the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, took us to the middle of the day. This was against all advice. “Must we WALK? How far is it?” This time it was through the hill. No pacifying with ‘just over the hill’, no avoiding the sun and no turning around.

My husband looked longingly at the horses and carts dusting the pathway to and fro with overweight tourists. Our guide sensed my determination and strolled purposefully towards a dark narrow gorge – aptly named Al Siq (The Shaft). A barren sandstone channel with streaks of colour, it was only 4 meters wide.

The easy way in and out

The easy way in and out

Absorbed in the geological and archeological treasures, I forgot about heat, exhaustion and my suffering partner. The Al Khazne (The Treasury) facade that has captured the imaginations of so many explorers, poets and moviemakers appeared at the end of this symbolic birth canal. It trembled in the heat, but that did not diminish its magic. Its magnificence was palpable. Brave tourists with tripods at its foundations were dwarfed. I stood still. I let the trail move past me. It was worth it.

As part of the guided tour and as an essential midday escape, we were led into burial caves that occupied the opposite wall. Colourful hollows that housed the dead. The space filled up with hats, sweating tourists and cameras – very alive. My moment of meditation dissolved and, like herd animals we stayed close to our guide. “These were used as burial sites. People lived on the other side, but this was sacred.” Rolling eyes and a sigh from my husband confirmed his total boredom. From one of what was obviously a group of Americans, a hand shot up, “What kind of people did they bury here?”

Houses and Tombs alike

Houses and Tombs alike

 

Only Dead People were buried...

Only Dead People were buried…

 

It would have been one of those passing historically insignificant comments, never to be acknowledged or remembered, if it wasn’t for our guide’s reaction. His brows shot up, which made his eyes huge. He sucked his breath in sharply, shocked. “Only dead ones.”

As I retreated to bury my giggle, I bumped into my husband. Hugging him for support, I felt his body shook with inward laughter. His pinched face did the unleashing. We both burst out laughing.

Husband’s sense of humor was intact.

Petra was breathtaking.

And somewhere on the edge of the Judaea Desert was Masada on ice.

 

Petra Ticked

Petra Ticked

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It was long ago. Michele was blonde and I was mouse.

She still is blonde, but I am now silver. Her blondeness taught me then about social-cultural tolerance. Our South Africanness highlighted the worldwide ignorance regarding Africa and color, which I now appreciate in golden memories.

 

Umbria is a province in the middle of Italy, off the trodden track. But it was the unknown on the brochure that caught our attention and lured us into our first hike in Europe.

Footloose and carefree, it promised.

 

The train weaved down the peninsula from Florence towards the Appenine Mountains where Calvin, our English-speaking guide, met us at Foligno station. On the verandah of Beneditti he explained the unfamiliar term of slackpacking; apologized for the outdated war maps and exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost en route. No, there were no others on this excursion; we were too early for the European hiking season. Michele and I were the group.

 

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

 

Early the next morning a taxi waited to take us to Pettino. Calvin waved us a last “Read the instructions carefully”. We thanked the driver in the one-horse village, more a sheep-still-asleep one, shaded by oak forests. At the dusty crossroads, we consulted the copied notes: From Pettino find the way to Spina Vecchia. We took the only road in the opposite direction to the disappearing taxi. There was a reassuring rusted signpost with a barely visible cursive S.Vech.

 

The motionless air carried no sounds. The world slumbered. We breathed the musky truffle air from the oak forest till we met the sun where it peeped over open wheat fields. Speckles of red poppies in the gold and indigo patches on the cross-valley hills pulled our focus away from the maps. There was an indescribable sense of place. It was as if we were the only wanderers (which we seemed to be), ever to walk this piece of earth.

 

It took a while before the euphoria was replaced by a tinge of concern. We could not find the rusted wire gate or for that matter the old well with a hole in the bucket (dear Liza?). Instead there were fields with sheep, an old man herding them and a sleepy hollow to our left. Somewhere in our entranced state, I skipped a line on the instructions. We needed a phone to contact Calvin.

 

The herder followed us after his unsuccessful attempt to understand our map or us – instead he muttered something about ‘senoritas’ and ‘vino rosso or vino blanco’. At breakfast? I then realized the power of blonde; our illiterate countryside farmer had never seen a bunny like Michele, ever. The awe in his eyes was indescribable and his immediate infatuation overpowered all his logic. I giggled; Michele cringed.

 

A young mother was hanging nappies on a line as we approached her. She dried her hands on an apron and smiled at our expanded group. Mama Maria from Fonni came to our rescue. She understood sign language for telephone. ‘You want shortest route to Cerreto?’ The old Roman road was visible at the tip of her finger; at the bottom of the valley, a direct but challenging descent. This was fortunate, as it proved too difficult for our aged pursuer after he insisted on ‘showing us the way’.

Stone walls and rivers

Stone walls and rivers

 

 

Encouraged by Michele’s endless enthusiasm, I ignored the dull ache in my toes as we followed the off-the-map cobbled path. I let out a loud sigh when the village appeared further down the valley. Elated spirits soon succumbed to pain when we realized that the Panorama Hotel was exactly that. Panoramic. Our destined accommodation was perched on the top of the highest hill of the town. We were entering Cerreto at river level.

 

“You can take your boots off at the first pub we find, and we can have an ice cold beer. We deserve it,” said Michelle. After a day lost in the rural mountains I was too tired to argue, let alone debate the point that neither of us drank beer. The pub sign was visible even before we had a view of the street. Guessing by the blare from that direction, there was obviously a national soccer match on the go. The noise contradicted the emptiness of the main street winding up the hill.

 

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

 

Approaching the door for the promised resurrection, we both immediately understood the futility of the reward as all the men from the village were gathered around the TV. Our attempted casual, but quick stroll past the only pub didn’t go unnoticed. Judging by their exclamations, the few bystanders on the periphery of the soccer flock had just scored winning goals. The all-male crowd turned in unison towards the cause of the jubilations. My scowl was not noticed as the mass gawked at my fair friend, who suddenly had more haste in completing the final stretch.

 

The Hotel Panorama staff were relieved to welcome us; but were concerned about our late arrival and worried about the boots over my shoulder. The only way I could get up the last part of the hill was barefoot. After the abandoned beer stop, my blisters protested beyond reason. Yet strangely, the cobbles were kinder to my feet than the hard-toe hiking boots. And blonde ruled over blue – Michele’s bobbing ponytail accelerating the escape, but at the cost of my loosening toenails.

 

Slackpacking had benefits. Our real luggage was waiting in our rooms while our daypacks now soaked with the day’s fun (and sometimes run) lay in the sun. Then a hot healing shower, feet nursed, attired afresh and the best Italian cuisine – a trusted remedy for any traveler – followed by a soft sleep on crisp linen. The following day we were scheduled to enjoy a non-hiking day in Norcia, a neighboring small town. Blissful browsing and resting sore limbs and battle worn feet, this was the pattern of our trip for the next week. Early start and early arrival, browse around the town and a rest day before beginning again.

 

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

 

Crossing the Appenines of unknown Umbria in a group of two proved to be one of my most memorable travels. Often we walked through medieval town squares where we soon learned to cover our stringy topped shoulders and hiking-shorts knees during this passage; where elders (always men) judged us with watery glares.

 

We learned that siesta was a given along the Mediterranean so there were no open shops or shopkeepers to be seen during midday. That made us grateful for the ‘Mama’ at every overnight stop. She (all of them) packed a part-of-the-package picnic consisting of fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and a bottle of water and a touch of health (fruit) and the inevitable left over wine, (previous dinner’s unfinished extra large carafe of house wine). As we travelled we chose our lunch spots by view and proximity to destination. Where we would relax, secure in the knowledge that our next haven waited around the corner.

 

Idyllic, almost sacred days

Idyllic, almost sacred days

 

We crossed rivers (mostly Rio Nera), passed trout farms and bathed in drinking troughs. We sang, we danced and we explored. Chained and locked chapel doors did not stop us from taking pictures through broken windows so that we could see what it was they were hiding. The painted ceilings were intact, but the frescoes on the walls were disintegrating. Pictures of a harsh religion were recognizable, depicting punishment in paradoxical subtle colors.

 

Stone Arches

Stone Arches

 

Idyllic days followed nights of culinary wonder; consisting of herb and spice infusions with strange names, smells and tastes. Between towns we had the valleys and mountains to ourselves; infrequently a pair of cyclists would pass us. Unused railway tunnels became changing rooms and Roman aqueducts lined the horizon. Olive groves replaced fields of gold and we strolled through vineyards into rural villages with terracotta-lined balconies. The signposts and the maps started synchronizing and the days had their own rhythm. Our bodies followed.

 

 

It was during one of our peaceful lunches next to a district road that we discovered the general ignorance about South Africa. We heard the music before we saw the line of dust from the approaching truck packed with produce for the market. We watched the young farmers with amusement as they sped past and suddenly changed their minds. There was a whirlwind of confused dust particles as they reversed to stop at our picnic spot. Surprised at their forwardness we made ready to leave.

 

Their friendly open faces permitted for broken conversation loosely translated as: “Where are you from?” “We are from South Africa – Afrique du Sud? Mandela? Bafana Bafana?” Ah, the last reference hit the jackpot. They beamed with recognition. Then frowned with confusion. Impossible sounds the same in almost any language. Michele was the chosen. The older of the two prodded her arm with his earthy forefinger: “No noir? Blanco??” Well, those were the only words we could make out from the duet of objections. We were leaving; not prepared to have a political discussion and explain our heritage in two word sentences. Once safely surrounded by vines, we turned around to see we were being forgiven through a million kisses blown to heaven.

 

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

 

Our hiking trip ended and all too soon we were heading to Venice for a refined send off. Betwixt trains and platforms my occupation was watching people go by (sounds like a song?). Michele, in colorful contrast to most of the Mamas on the platform, unawares drew many admiring glances. The blondeness of our trip culminated in the blatant stare of a seemingly distinguished gentleman.

 

Obviously, I decided, he was on a boring business trip and he was looking for distraction – my mother superior alter ego echoed. But not with my friend – my protective loyalty gauge kicked in. Maybe all three emotions overlaid themselves across my expression or my stance, because the gentleman suddenly engaged in my glare. As he hastened towards me I prepared my reprimand – you cannot undress a woman in public, not even only with your eyes…

 

“Senora” – he bowed. I melted slightly. “I am obliged to apologize for my seemingly upsetting behavior.” I approved with a nod. “In my culture it is the finest compliment to savor the appearance of an elegant woman, especially in public. We are a passionate people and we love beauty.” How could I argue with a plea as fervent and honest as that? “I salute you and your friend. You have graced this dreary platform with your presence and….. ” I failed to register the rest of the sentence as he kissed my hand in farewell. I saw Michele gulp and giggle as she observed us from a bookstall.

 

Finally seated on the train to Venice, she would not believe me that I had been protecting her. I surrendered to the teasing. Soon she would forget about it when the Guggenheim and other museums filled her artistic senses.

 

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

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