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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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Part 1 – The Road Trip

So I happened upon an opportunity to fulfill a long treasured desire. This was to go on a 4 x 4 expedition into, and across, the dunes of Namibia. It entailed traveling in convoy, protected in the desert by an experienced tour company with enough ‘man-hands’ to fix all, change anything, fill whatever, help and advise on everything.  The group’s age ranged from pregnant to menopausal and fortunately I was to be one of the drivers.

The preparation for this trip deserves a post on its own, but suffice to say there was a lot of planning and discussing; packing and unpacking; attaching and removing to and from vehicles; checking and double-checking; calling and confirming and finally leaving in convoy; with the surrender to a philosophy of ‘ignorance is bliss’.

The map shows an almost straight line across the width of our country, past Kimberley and Upington to cross the border at Nakop and steadily heading west to the edge of the Fish River Canyon. It is a long and mainly straight road to our first camping spot (the second day driving), at Cañon Roadhouse.

The setting up of our sleeping quarters was to be our ‘vuurdoop’ – amused glances from the rest of the experienced campers encouraged us to make our tent stand proud and stable against nature’s forces. With a glow of achievement and slight huffing, we joined the applauding circle around the fire for our well-earned sundowners. This was the beginning of a process that became a smooth and efficient operation; we were the voluntary bar maids three days into the trip, grinning with deep satisfaction while awaiting most of the others with drinks ready.

1. Namibia

Our first attempt – setting up tent without help

Ice with our drinks and under cover sleeping/changing area were two of the many luxuries we experienced every night during our off-road vacation.  The others, briefly, were a tin cup with steaming coffee (ground and aromatic), two way radio contact (at all times) , a chemical loo (always with a view), a hot shower (connected to the closest vehicle battery), three meals a day (provided and catered for by the adventure organisers), barefoot company (all the time), two inch mattresses on warm sand and night time lullabies from adjacent tents (in different tones and intonations – depending on the depth of sleep).

Every morning the reverse ritual from the night before took place. What was put up, used or opened had to be pulled down, disposed of and closed – and all neatly packed, ready for the road. The goal was now to see and feel the parts of the Namib we would be passing through and to find Solitaire. The name of a place where the final group would assemble; as well as a word that at that point enhanced my sense of feeling lost in space and time. By then the day of the week already escaped me and place names became unpronounceable. All I could be certain of for the remainder of the trip was the moment – that mystical place where all life coaches and gurus want humanity to be.

We passed through breathtaking landscapes, moonscapes, skyscapes, and rock scapes. We breathed the fresh smell of sand and we simmered in the sun. We beheld the quivering trees and we caught glimpses of clicks in local conversations. Alien; warm; weird; wonderful; wastelands – awesome. We stopped at the Fish River Canyon – literally in our tracks as the flatness suddenly disappeared into a wrinkled chasm of eroded geological layers beyond description of depth and width. Cliché or not, “Breathtaking” was the only applicable word.

2. Namibia

The Fish River Canyon

With regular stops for coffee and lunch, the road and time disappeared along with sights of quiver trees and feral horses and before long we were at our next overnight stop, Luderitz. Sharks Island welcomed us with a sea breeze that challenged our newly acquired camping skills. There was no doubt about retiring to bed early as we all felt the weariness of the day’s excitement as well as the anticipation of the following day. There was no connection to the outside world, no Google Maps detail, no blue dot tracking – we were in an area called ‘Die Spergebiet’ – restricted area.

Kolmanskop is a ghost town just outside Luderitz. Diamonds created and destroyed it. The desert has been trying to bury it, but the authorities realised the tourist potential and exploited it. A heavily accented guide jovially informed us about the processes surrounding the settlement – fresh water to the town, the development and maintenance of the village, the demise of the short-lived heyday glittering community.

5. Namibia

Kolmanskop – Diamond Ghost Town

Enriched with touristy knowledge and new history, we left the tarred roads and continued on well-maintained dirt roads towards the elusive Solitaire, whisking past the feral horses,  (a sanctuary with a viewpoint was built in a desolate part about 50km from Luderitz, for the post-war wild horses that roam the area. A popular stop for photographers and horselovers) winding through colour-changing dunes, crossing greener than ever valleys and watching unexpected clouds gather on the horison.

10. Namibia

Feral Horses – roaming freely in a sanctuary

A quick detour took us to a mid-war castle at Duwisib built by Hansheinrich von Wolf –– who bred horses during his five years living there. Crackerjack and Benito were the stallions that made him famous. My crackerjack found me shortly after this visit – a slight wobble on an otherwise smooth road indicated its arrival. On inspection, the left rear tire was shredded and the ‘man-hands’ appeared on white horses as fast as the two-way radios could deliver the SOS ripple. And the exchange was even faster – safe and all set to get to Sesriem before the descending night swallowed us.

Comfortably safe around the campfire everything became easier, lighter and unimportant. The only pressing issue before the following day’s outing to Sossusvlei and the final stretch to Solitaire, was the bits of laundry to be done while ablutions were adequate.

3. Namibia

Laundry lines work anywhere

The pre-dawn exodus to the dunes was worth it. Sandy curves in changing colours as the day progressed in a beautiful ballet. Finding a virgin dune at the end of the path and filing up on the knife-edge to the top, silhouettes of the kids resembling a line of ants on the verge of a slippery sand precipice was stunning/amazing/fascinating. I sacrificed the summit for the self-appointed job to capture the conquerors’ descent on camera – it was a wild and noisy scramble straight down the ‘slip face’.

We left the slightly commercial enchantment of the Sossuvlei dunes after a leftover breakfast and just in time as tourists were starting to flood the area. My empty fuel tank inspired a slow and easy, but early return which was conducive to finding the much discussed ‘fairy circles’. Perfectly round shapes of all sizes where nothing grows in grassy areas around the desert. Theories and speculations abound about those sandy circles. The softer tires and sand driving sapped my fuel tank quicker than planned and the last ten kilometers must have been on fumes. After refilling, a quick stop at the Sesriem Canyon before the last stretch of mapped roads.

6. Namibia

Sossusvlei

It was a short distance to Solitaire, the last place where we could replenish the extra water and fuel tanks for the cross-desert expedition. It proved to be an epic exercise with seven cars in queue and a blasting midday sun. This was also the place where the renowned apple pie baker past away recently. Apparently this sparked a national tragedy – we wondered if the secret recipe was passed on? As a test to the latter, we bought several. And around the campfire that night, it was unanimously agreed that the recipe had indeed survived, honestly.

Solitaire guest farm was the meeting point with the tour guide and his assistants. It was the place where we upgraded to a room (us menopausals) for a taste of luxury before disappearing off the grid. Our tour leaders welcomed us with instructions and papers to sign. Rules and advice. Do’s and Don’ts. But most of all a dry enthusiasm and love for their country that was contagious.

The BIG rule (rule 1-5 and again rule 10) : STAY IN THE TRACKS!

 

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