Living Wild – A barbel in a desert canyon?

Living Wild in the land of sand and freedom -
A barbel in the canyon?

Text & Photographs Lee Tindall

From the Winter 2022 issue

It is our tradition, whenever the Sesriem Canyon fills with water, to go and swim there. In January the time had come again.

I spoke with a friend, based at the entrance to the park, the day we planned to go, and he mentioned that the wind was chilly and strong, and sand was filling the skies. I thanked him for his weather insights and he warned me to look out for snakes if we did go. I chuckled, thanked him again and took this news to the family. We spoke to the kids, explained that the weather was awful, that it could become super unpleasant and that we would need to assess the situation as we arrived – in short, we needed to be super flexible.

Of course we piled into the car, swimming costumes on, hats, sunscreen and that sense of excitement you get when you know you are about to do something you love! We had been to the canyon on two previous occasions. In both cases we had been privileged enough to have it all to ourselves. There is a spot where the years and years of occasional water flow have carved out a little island, up against one canyon wall.The water flows around the other side and further into the canyon. This is our spot for floating in the canyon and cloud gazing, or swimming laps and grinning from ear to ear. It is a miracle of nature to have this at our doorstep, and to have experienced it three times already is simply unreal.

When we arrived at the parking lot on this super windy day in January I opened my door at the same time as our ten-year-old opened his – I was nearly blown right out the car… the wind was so strong. Murray and I looked at each other and instinctively we knew that we were locked into this mission. Failure would not be tolerated and no one was super flexible. All of us were struggling with the practicalities of moving house  and the weird limbo stage we were in. The whole family needed some magic. After the short walk into the canyon, marvelling, as always, at the rock formations, trees and plants, we found the water. More than ever before. Happily, once we had descended into the canyon, the sunshine warmed us and the wind no longer reached us.

I dipped my toes into the chocolate-caramel swirl of water and flinched. Freezing. Remember that failure is not an option! I did the only thing I could and got in with the kids. We yelped, shrieked and compared the water depth at various locations. I called Murray to come and join us and told him the boldfaced lie that the water wasn’t too cold. After all the performance he knew full well that it was freezing, but despite hating cold water and swimming only if it was fifty plus degrees in the shade, he bravely joined us. By then the kids and I had made our way into a long, narrow section where the sun could warm our top halves.

It was at this stage that I spotted the frog. With unbridled enthusiasm I called the kids to come and see. We watched as it swam, perfectly shaped and perfectly miraculous in a normally dry canyon. Everything was glorious. The frog made its way to the rock wall, where I could only assume he would hop out had things gone well.

Needless to say, things were about to take a turn. As I pointed to the frog at the rocks, a huge grey, gaping mouth scaled the rock, out the water and practically inhaled the frog. The three of us were horrified. Stunned (and rare) silence.

Grace just about ran on the water to get out, I called for Murray who was halfway to us and Connor immediately went into science mode. Of course, now all I could feel was things brushing up against my legs, ready to inhale a small African country – or just me. I am sure there was nothing there, but I recalled my friends’ warning of snakes and did wonder whether we were living in a B-grade Anaconda-style movie. Now, in hindsight, I can confirm it was not a B-grade movie remake.

It turned out to be a catfish – or barbel as they are also known. Not as fierce as a snake, but much creepier. We can only assume that it got washed into the canyon, from dams along the way. But once you see one barbel, you see many and we might have landed in the barbel hotspot of the canyon. Murray, still a little away at this stage, having watched us and aware that we were in no danger, was having a great laugh. None of us will ever forget this moment and none of our stories are ever quite the same – my best version is the one our kids tell.

We did end up hanging out in the canyon some more, took our photos and then made our way to the petrol station, Sossus Oasis, for the best Magnums this side of Swakopmund. Never mind the snakes, it’s the fish you should be aware of!


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