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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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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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Nepal’s Selfless Souls –  The Sherpas

 

Instagram @ NatGeo

Instagram @ NatGeo

Mt Everest’s recent (April 2014) single worst accident due to a deadly avalanche brought back vivid memories of a trip I did to the Himalayas less than a decade ago.  Our group consisted of 6 hikers, 1 guide and 3 Sherpas. Although we  backpacked to base camp (not Everest, but Annapurna which is not as high, but technically more challenging), we hardly carried any real weight, thanks to the Sherpas.

Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna Base Camp

Krishna (our guide) was responsible for our safety and therefore carried only his own stuff to be able to help us struggling westerners. In a kind but firm manner, typical of his people, he managed us with strict instructions regarding safety and altitude. Unfortunately the 1.5kg bottle of scotch had to wait for the way back from base camp. Maybe that contributed to the speedy descent – 8 days up, 5 days down. “Alcohol and altitude too much of a dangerous combination”.

A down was always to be followed by an up

A down was always to be followed by an up

Each Sherpa carried two backpacks plus his own for the two weeks we spent on the trail. Each bag weighed ±15 kg, but still seemed not to cause them even the smallest of difficulty. I ascribed this to a tenacity visible in the faces of the children in the villages we passed on the way.

Children in the fields

Children in the fields

They completed every day’s grueling distance in record time and were always in good spirits to get to the next Teahouse before the constant stream of other tired hikers arrived. Without exception they would be waiting for us, keen for our approval of the secured places they had to wrestle for. ‘Places’ in the Himalayas meant a bed, a bucket of hot water (equivalent of R50 per bucket) and a cooked meal.

Teahouse before base camp Annapurna, Fishmountain

Teahouse before base camp Annapurna, Fishmountain

The highlight of the day was dinner. People from all walks of life gathered around a communal table, and shared experiences while the Teahouse family prepared a feast. The welcome smells from the kitchen mixed with bodily odours, smoke and wet clothes blended into an unusual smog quite unlike anything from home.  Soaked hiking boots and frozen toes sought resting spots on the fringes of the fire pit. This was under the table and was kept going for as long as our aching bodies and exhausted spirits could maintain conversation. I learned that this was also the sleeping area for the sherpas – warm and protected.

Chicken run

Chicken run

The Sherpa’s tasks were many. The most familiar and demanding of which was the preparation of the track for climbers to summit. The other tasks were easily overlooked as they were mostly supportive and not glamorous. Sometimes the only evacuation method was in the usual woven basket on their backs. In case of an emergency they would alternate the load between three of them, stopping only briefly for that exchange.

Live chickens, tins of cold drinks, bottled water - in the baskets

Live chickens, tins of cold drinks, bottled water – in the baskets

The constant influx of hikers and climbers needed sustenance and the only way water, cold drinks, snacks and dinner could get to the remote areas of the Teahouses, was in the way it’s been done through the ages , in a woven basket on the back of a Sherpa. The waste of tin and plastic containers of these supplies went down the mountain the same way.

 

Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna Base Camp

On our trek, even though we each carried a pack with only the essentials for the day, we still struggled against the altitude and the slow torture successive steps became. I swallowed the pain; climbed the ups and stumbled the downs. I inhaled the poverty with every gasp of oxygen through rural settlements. I tried to follow the rhythm of my heart drumming in my ears while I gazed at the icy stillness. I touched the ragged prayer flags and allowed their faded colour messages to stir my soul. There will be brighter and more flags now, but with an intense sense of loss and a sad awareness of mortality.

 

Dhan’yavãda.

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