Gondwana Mule Trails
by Ron Swilling
There is a Nama legend about the origin of the Fish River Canyon. It tells of a large snake that was devouring livestock and how the people tracked it down and set upon it with spears and knobkieries. The snake’s writhing death throes caused rocks to tumble down and the Earth to open and deepen, creating the Fish River Canyon. To this day the meandering canyon resembles the sinuous curves of the long legendary snake.
The canyon is a masterpiece of Earth history that places the flash of our human lives eloquently in perspective. The joy of water, the green of trees and tamarisk, the thundering hooves of a herd of Hartmann’s zebra on a rocky incline and the carefree flight of an eagle in a true blue sky, provide a balance and sublime accompaniment to the powerful presence of this rocky world.
Gondwana Mule Trails offers the privilege of walking the northern reaches of the second-largest canyon in the world, absorbing this splendour without seeing another soul or any sign of one. Two- or three-day (three- or four-night) hiking trails offer slack-packing trails with a difference. While the guests carry day packs with snacks, water and personal items, Gondwana’s mules carry luggage bags, water and food. Our relatively tender frames and lower fitness levels can’t keep up with the mules’ equine pace. They speed ahead and are already tethered at the camps when we arrive in the afternoons, the provisions they carried laid out on long tables and simmering invitingly on the fire.
We arrive at the Mule Station, our first night stop and beginning of the longer Fish Eagle Trail, to a welcoming blazing fire and a table on the veranda bedecked with shimmering lanterns. While braaiing the meat, Frederik Witbooi, mule handler and chef, describes the benefits of using mules for the trail. He explains that their sure-footedness, strong hooves and tendency to work with the horses in the team make them the perfect animals to traverse the rocky inclines that lead down into the canyon depths.
Later on in the hike, Telané Greyling, mule and horse expert and trail organiser, gives additional information, filling in the details. Two horses usually accompany a team of mules, the number of the team depending on the size of the hiking group. Each mule carries four bags of roughly 10–12 kg each. The mules bought in 2007 were draught and farm animals. A breeding station has now been established to breed and train mules specifically for the trails.
Ancient geological formations
After a night on the comfortable beds of the Mule Station with the soft whinnying from the mules in the enclosures below, we drive the rocky four-by-four route surrounded by red sandstone hills to the starting point of the trail and begin to descend a ravine into the Löwen River valley. Fossilised mud cracks, raindrops and river patterns are pointed out by geologist Nicole Grünert to be a mind-blowing 539 million years old. With a twinkle in her eye she asks the young guide who had been bemoaning his age, “Do you feel young or old walking amongst ancient sandstone rocks?” Looking around us at the ancient mountains towering above, the question is a rhetorical joke in the face of the friendly universe.
The Löwen section is a new addition to the Gondwana Fish Eagle Trail, the land having been recently acquired. It becomes the cherry on the top of the northern section of the trail. The original three-day/four-night route of the trail has been reversed to include this section and for the hiker to walk with the sun on his back and with the flow of the river.
The wow factor
A pattern emerges over the days, of arriving to a camp with tables laid out, food sizzling on the fire, yellow tents glowing invitingly in the afternoon light and a setting that stops you in your tracks. Horseshoe Camp is in a wow-class all of its own. If our guide Hans is correct in saying that each day must end in a wow factor, this one rates top of the charts. If you have lost your sense of awe, this magnificent destination will reignite your sense of wonder. Perched on the edge of a canyon wall, a breath away from freedom, the hut looks down and out into the enormity of the horseshoe bend of the Fish River as it is embraced by the massive canyon walls. A rock and slate ablution facility, also on the rocky cliff, has cubicles open to this view, and having God as a shower-buddy is a novel experience.
Once again, the fire sizzles. Bright yellow tents line the edge of the escarpment, appearing as if they may be tempted to fly off into the never land below. Long wooden tables inside the cosy hut are set for supper, lanterns are lit, and a feast of spicy butternut soup, potato gratin, lamb chops and salad provide a mouth-watering feast for weary and hungry hikers. The usual minimalist hikers’ fare of two-minute noodles is a meal of the past. The stars, not wanting to be excluded from this earthly show, add their celestial brilliance in an unobstructed dome of radiance, from the Southern Cross arching to the jewelled belt of Orion. On top of the world, all trivialities disappear into insignificance.
Days are spent swimming in river pools, negotiating the sandy or rocky riverbanks or walking down rocky ridges embossed with geological markings and memories. Long lunches under false-ebony trees and wallowing in the water make you forget that this wonderland is solely yours, and that the present moment is supreme, yours to play with or to revere, as you choose. The natural world has a chance to heal the fissures in our lives.
Echo Pools Camp utilises rocky ledges as natural platforms overlooking the river, and a deep pool encourages frolicking. Frederik has made a tasty lamb potjie, shooting stars dart through the sky and the mules mumble softly in the distance. The hikers are always given the option to sleep out and absorb the Namibian energy, recharging worn-out batteries. With all that is to be bought and lusted after in life, who would think that sleeping safely outdoors under a blanket of stars could be so utterly satisfying.
The mountains watch, as they have done for hundreds of millions of years, as our lives speed past in double time. And even if you’re not spiritually inclined, you may tend to reaffirm some belief in Earth’s goodness.
Kudu bulls clatter away on top of loose rock in a small ravine, bokmakieries call in their joyful tunes, and the legendary snake has long since found its peace in the land. We linger at Echo Pools Camp, enjoying the shadow and sunshine that transform the morning. The swallows swirl and swoop as we sample sweet-corn fritters and a selection of meats from the Gondwana Self-Sufficiency Centre and prepare to make our way along the river. The mules are saddled, bags weighed and fastened, and led out by the mule handlers.
The final night spent at Outpost Camp offers the serenity of an old farmhouse set in tree-filled surroundings. Late afternoon on a shady stoep with a cold beer, a barbecue supper enjoyed under a large tree and Ma Greyling’s peppermint fridge dessert ends off the trail with a taste of sweetness. The feast of land has been ours without the need to trudge with a heavy pack, and with the addition of delicious food, camps set up on arrival and the warm company of mules, handlers and guides. For those looking for an alternative to the 90-km Fish River Canyon hike, this trail is worth its weight in gold.
Ancient wisdom of a canyon shaped by time and the elements stills our pacing minds and allows Earth to saturate our lives with blessings.
This article appeared in the April/May ‘10 edition of Travel News Namibia.