How the Fish River Canyon Ran Over Me

Birding for Beginners
September 20, 2018
The Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape
September 21, 2018
Birding for Beginners
September 20, 2018
The Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape
September 21, 2018
Text: Christine Hugo
Photographs: Elmarie van Rensburg & Stefan Hugo

Like with most trouble in life, I went looking for it.

Hiking the Fish River Canyon was never on my bucket list. Sure, I love rocks. I wanted to see it. From the deck of a lodge on the edge of the canyon perhaps. Over a cold beer.

So when my friend invited us along for her birthday trip my immediate (and rational) reply was ‘of course not’. But then it got me thinking…

What would I find if I plunged into an experience so entirely out of my comfort zone? What might life on the edge make of me?

In the end, I signed up as kind of a personal social experiment. We would be disconnected from all technology for five days. No phone. No emails or Whatsapp. No ice, hot water, cappuccinos, makeup. Just two sets of clothes, a hat and sunscreen. Thin mattress, inflatable pillow, sleeping bag. A warm jacket. And a tiny towel. Instant meals (don’t read the list of ingredients). And a walking stick.

Simply the unadulterated earth-rock-river-stars-sun-and-moon. And I. Perhaps I would bump into myself along the way. Maybe we would be able to have a conversation that we haven’t had in years. It’s been so busy, real-life – children, routines, maintaining the white picket fence.

To be honest, I didn’t consider the physical element to this little project all that much. In hindsight, I suspect I subconsciously reasoned that I would only really reach an honest conclusion if I went absolutely unprepared into my little experiment. Because natural disasters never really give people time to prepare, do they? Apart from the few 3-hour weekend walks with a rucksack and the odd hike up a hill, I did not really train very hard. Walking was natural, wasn’t it? I trained much less than I did for my half-marathon…

But this was no half-marathon, my friend. This was a rocky, slippery shortcut into the abyss.

Two metres down the 100-metre descent I realised that I was screwed. The 12-kg rucksack altered my normal sense of balance, which is rather unsettling if you’re dangling on the edge of eternity with one hand on the rusty chain and the other on a walking stick, planted somewhere between loose rocks and what you hope to be a hard place. Eyes dart for the next foothold, that a) will not give way b) is close enough for your alarmed hamstring muscle to not buckle and c) can accommodate your step without demanding a sudden intervention that will send you, rucksack first, to sure death. Ten metres down and my legs were shaking. Concentration was streaming down my back and neck.

The rest of the Olympian deities in our group, however, did not look fazed at all. They seemed to be flying down the rocks with light steps and hearts. It was obvious. I had taken the plunge and this train was a runaway torture chamber. There was no turning back. And I was the weakest link

Every time I stopped to catch my breath and could safely lift my gaze, my heart buckled at the sight of walls of rock curling and sweeping and roaring in the afternoon sun. I was in no state to be seduced, but the canyon didn’t seem to care.

Having survived the descent I took a few large swigs of whiskey from the small plastic bottle everybody advised us to pack. Hadn’t realised it was intended for medicinal and not necessarily recreational purposes. I was a survivor. Alive and in love. I might not have made it without the help of my Olympian gods who climbed up and down several times to help carry my rucksack so that I could move faster than five metres an hour. But good for me for choosing the best people. I floated up from my al fresco bed to the galaxy above us, tipsy on whiskey and endorphins. What an incredible adventure. This was going to be wonderful…

Day two started innocently enough. I was stiff as a corpse, yes, but managed to stand all the way up. I could even get halfway down to the ground again to have a wee. This was going very well.

For about two minutes.

The Olympians took off like they’d missed the migration. We started walking at first light to cover the bulk of the distance before it got too hot. It was not even 7 a.m., I was soaking wet with sweat and the previous day’s assault hammered at my legs.

My poor husband had contracted a stomach bug and was white as a sheet. He would not be my rock today, that much was clear. It was every man for himself.

It was a disaster. Four days still lay ahead of us and I could not fathom how I was going to make my legs do what I needed them to do. Whose bad idea was this? How did I sign up for anything that I could not get out of – I hated roller coasters for that exact reason! Yet here I was. No way back. No way out.

The pack moved at a vigorous pace. Good thing I had come to find myself because everyone else was running away. For a minute I felt somewhat panicky and then I remembered that I was a bloody 40 years old and I could do anything I put my mind to if I did it on my own terms and at my own pace.

If I wanted to stop at every tiny plant, every rock, if I wanted to take a minute to gaze at the changing colour of the cliffs, to listen to the silence and feel the river, if that was what I needed to do to get through this, then that was exactly what I was going to do. Damn it.

The terrain was brutal. Large boulders obstructed rock formations that lined the river, demanding extreme physical navigation, up and down and under and through. Boulders gave way to thick sand that led to round slippery stepping stones across the river and continued in an endless dry swamp of rocks that gave way to thick sand, boulders, rock… And so it went on, relentlessly.

The day passed in a fever dream of colour and heat and textures. They moved under and through and over me. I didn’t allow myself to think or look too far ahead. One foot in front of the other. One rock at a time, one more and one more and one more.

My little toes were squashed down in my shoes (which fitted perfectly before, with ample room at the front) and I felt my nails being pressed out of the nail beds. It’s so funny how the mind works. I started telling myself that everything would be bearable if only my toes didn’t hurt so much. Not the heat. Not the aching muscles or the backpack pushing into my hips and pulling at my shoulders, not smelling like a zoo, dripping wet and utterly exhausted. No, the little toes were indeed the end of the world.

At some point during the morning, I bumped into myself. “This is it, silly. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? To be completely, utterly out of your depth? It is supposed to be sore and hard and uncomfortable. This is the process. So why are you not leaning in?”

So I did. I chanted myself into a meditative state, alternating She Bleeds Tangerine with Jesus Loves Me Yes I Know and floated along quietly, mindful of the graphic patterns of the rocks, the shifting shadows and the cool, soothing river water that tasted of earth and sunshine. Sometime in the late afternoon, after certain eventualities of orientation strangely caused me to be ahead of the Olympians and the subsequent confusion, we reached the hot springs.

Oh, what bliss, the boiling hot water on dirty, battered bodies. We walked the last hour to our overnight spot and set up camp. I was done. Everything ached. My bones, my skin, my head, my toes. My heart. I was utterly, thoroughly exhausted. My poor husband was dehydrated and in pain. I dug deep into myself to find the strength to make him a cup of soup and then sunk down next to the fire. The atmosphere was more reserved than the previous evening’s giddy hysteria. I noticed with some relief that the Olympians were also exhausted. Most of them anyway… The good people rubbed my legs and my back. We ate dinner with enormous gratitude to the individuals who could muster the strength to prepare it. I was afraid to go to bed. I wasn’t ready for morning to dawn yet again. I could not do another day. I was done.

Not in the best hotel, or on the most expensive therapeutic mattress, have I slept as well as I did on that bed of rock that night. The gas burner woke me up the next morning and miraculously kind, generous sleep had forgiven my sins.

I was literally broken in. I bound my feet with dressing, hoisted my backpack and took up my walking stick like a sceptre. Day three in the parallel universe started with more familiar rhythm and I felt confident in the groove. Shortcuts (very relatively speaking) steered us away from the river, up rocky hills and over gravel plains. Stark but beautiful in the harsh, uncompromising way that only the rock desert can be. I kept expecting a J.R.R. Tolkien character to peep out from behind a rock. We crossed fields of minute succulents and skimmed rock faces and with every hour that passed the landscape, the sun and the river replaced me.

This is the purpose of pilgrimage, but you have to wait it out, see it through, to realise where it has taken you.

I have a mental picture, or actually, it’s more of a mental space that I go back to from time to time, of our last morning. We camped out on a broad stretch of riverbed that created the impression of an island in the river. The final stretch of walking would not take long, so we could linger a bit in the morning. The first light settled on the landscape around us where the end of the canyon expanded into a wider space. It lit up the specs of dust and insects hovering over the river and the world was still and light. I found it so easy and natural to breathe.

It’s been two months since our walk. I can’t look at my walking shoes yet. They make me want to throw up. Did I find what I was looking for? Yes. Do I know what exactly that is? No.

You soon forget the physical assault of the Fish. What remains with you are the colours and the light. The laughter, the context that exists between people who journey together – moving in and out of one another’s spheres, talking, laughing and at times just moving together in silence, everyone busy with their own thoughts and private process.

And of course, nature remains. The space that it opens up in your soul, that space that fills with air and light and earth – that remains. And you can go into it whenever you need to breathe.

Will I do it again? If you asked me on that last day when we finally reached the end of the journey, ice cold beer in the hand, dirty and dusty and deeply relieved, I would have said no way. Why would I ever put myself through all of that again?

But I’ve been thinking…


1. Be physically prepared. A reasonable level of fitness is required to take on this challenge. Make sure you are in good health and that you do plenty of lunges beforehand.
2. Don’t take too much stuff. A lighter bag will make a world of difference to your hike.
3. Pack a quality inflatable mattress to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep.
4. Never lose sight of your group during the hike. Stick together!
5. The right shoes make the difference between fun and failure. Proper trail running shoes or hiking boots with sturdy well-gripped soles are a must! Don’t attempt it in normal running shoes or sneakers

This article was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of TNN.

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