In Namibia, there are three school holidays – four weeks in April/May, one week in August and 6 weeks in December/January. Most of the time, PCVs use these breaks as an opportunity to travel around Namibia and southern Africa; Swakopmund (on the coast), Cape Town, Victoria Falls, Malawi and Mozambique are all popular destinations. I’ve done my fair share of traveling, so this past April/May, I decided to keep it local and avoid the typical tourist traps. Instead, I answered the invitation to do two hiking trips – Naukluft and Fish River Canyon, both national parks. Quite a non-traditional holiday, but it sounded like an interesting adventure so I was game.
Our Fish River Canyon hiking group
Almost immediately, I realized the irony of my decision to go on two hiking trips. First, I’d never hiked before. Despite the abundance of (probably beautiful and well-groomed) hiking trails in Wisconsin, and America in general, I’d never hiked before. It’s a bit like deciding to do a marathon when one’s never run before. Second, I despised hiking-type activities in my previous life in America. In college, I was once dragged along on a walk through the woods in some of central Wisconsin’s public hunting land. At the time, I thought that was the most boring, most pointless two hours I’d ever spent in my life. Thinking back, the longest “hike” I’d ever been on was probably the time I’d begrudgingly followed my mom up some large hill to a lookout point somewhere out West.
But hiking it was…and I was not going to be caught with my pants down, either. In the months leading up to the holiday, I tried to jog several times a week so I’d be in peak physical condition. On a trip to Windhoek, I enlisted the help of the trip leader, an experienced hiker, to assist me in picking out some hiking boots. I knew I had to break the boots in, but I had difficulty finding the opportunity. Due to some small sliver of latent fashion sense, I couldn’t bring myself to wear the black monstrosities to school with my flowing hippie skirts. Nor did I like wearing them with jeans – or really at all. Subconsciously, they reminded me of high school and the aptly named “shitkickers” that kids used to wear. Finally, however, I managed to get in an 18 km walk that gave me two nice blisters on the balls of my feet. I felt satisfied. I was prepared.
It’s walking, not mountain climbing, I thought, how hard can it be? But I was wrong. Naukluft is 7 days and 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) of open plains, rolling hills, river beds, canyons, cliffs and mountains; quite different than the flat expanses of Owamboland where I’d done my pre-hike preparation. Following the advice of a friend, and experienced hiker, I packed as light as possible – minimal clothing, no books, no journals, no playing cards, no hairbrush, no perfume – nothing but the necessities. But those extra pounds, no matter how small, plus changing topography still add extra pressure to a hiker’s most valuable asset – her feet.
That trail blaze is not confusing...not at all!
Then came the first day – 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) spent winding around the sides of huge hills. By the time the day was over, I wondered if my lilt to the right, to avoid tumbling to my death off the side of the mountain, would be permanent. These hiking trails were rugged, just as I imagined African hiking trails would be: sometimes steep, sometimes winding; uneven, with obtruding rocks strewn about; poorly marked; simple dirt paths, probably unchanged from the time when early explorers first walked them. But I survived. Despite the two massive blisters that had formed on my feet, I felt good.
And then came day two. It’s one thing to walk with a blister while it’s forming, but it’s another ballgame to walk with two raw, quarter-sized wounds on your feet. Through a riverbed. For 12 kilometers (7.4 miles). And then to realize that, the next day, you have to walk right back up the canyon you just walked down. No, seriously. You go down the canyon, with its river rocks, boulders and chains (for near-vertical ascents and descents), and then go right back up it the next day. It was on day two that I started to feel panicked. I was 24 kilometers (14.9 mils) away from civilization and I now had FOUR huge blisters on my feet that stung with every single step. The next morning I was told that I’d been moaning in my sleep, probably because I could still feel the open wounds stinging, even without shoes to rub against them.
As the days went on, I got better at wrapping my blisters, but I soon came to realize that I was quickly running out of gauze and tape. As we walked, I’d often joke about how a helicopter was coming to rescue me. Or that I was going back to base camp with the park worker who’d come to the shelter to drop more food for us on day four. I was always at the back of the pack because I simply couldn’t go any faster. Every single step, on flat ground or steep hillside, was painful. As we moved along, I often came close to tears – out of pain, out of frustration, out of anxiety. I wanted to scream. I wanted to stop.
And then on day four, the stars aligned. At about 1:00, after 14 kilometers of trail (8.7 miles), we ran into a park worker just a few hundred meters from the shelter. If I wanted to go back, it had to be now.
Two of four blisters (3 months later)
A few hours later, I was back at the base camp. That night, I slept alone in the hiker’s house. Fourteen beds and just one occupant. I had no headlamp (dead batteries), no matches (left them with the others), no cell phone (no reception), no iPod (batteries died), and no book (I packed light, remember?). I managed to scrounge up a piece of paper with one blank side and wrote a letter in the tiniest handwriting imaginable. I worked on some friendship bracelets. And I waited. Until morning. When I waited again. Just after sunrise, I was already sitting patiently by the park entrance, hoping some tourist heading to Windhoek would have sympathy on me and give me a ride. And lady luck struck again. At noon, I got in the only vehicle going east that day; two German brothers dropped me in the tiny, dusty outpost of Reitoog, the site of another PCV, Caitlin, whose house keys I had.
The next 3 days was just me, some books, peanut butter and bread, chocolate pudding and my raw bloody feet. By the time of the rest of the group arrived on Sunday, I was tipping dangerously close to insanity. Even for an introvert like me, 72 hours is a long time to be alone with your thoughts – no TV, no radio, no cell phone, no iPod, no other humans (which is really my fault because I locked myself in the house, but I couldn’t go very far hobbling around like an arthritic centenarian anyways).
In the end, calling it quits was the best decision I could’ve made. As my friend Ben told me, making the decision to turn back when conditions get too difficult takes more courage than pushing forward (that’s why so many people die on Everest). And I never would’ve made it through the 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) on the last day. No way Jose! Obviously, I wanted to finish, but I wanted to enjoy my vacation, not just survive it. I didn’t let pride trump pragmatism. Admitting defeat and bowing out gracefully is not easy (just ask Brett Favre), but it’s a necessary part of life; it allows us to move on to bigger and better things. Which is just what I did…Fish River Canyon.
The extra few days of rest allowed my feet to heal to a tolerable level, and then it was off on another 4 day, 85 kilometer (52.8 mile) hike through the world’s second largest canyon. After Naukluft, Fish River seemed like a breeze! Minus the long, precarious descent into the canyon (which cost me seven toenails), it was fairly pain free. The most challenge moments were the river crossings (there’s nothing more demoralizing than getting ¾ of the way across a 15 meter-wide river only to slide off a slippery, underwater rock and feel your boots fill with river water), and the time we got lost (in an attempt to take a shortcut we ended up wandering through the arid hillside without water for 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) until we got to the edge of the park and turned around, following a dry riverbed that finally led us back to the river/trail. Needless to say, that “shortcut” did not save us any time).
As the doctor put best, "traumatic toenail loss"
Though it was neither glamorous nor relaxing, my April holiday was the most meaningful vacation I’ve ever taken. By golly, did I learn a lot – about hiking, of course, but also about pain, perseverance and failure. Will I hike again? You betcha! Yes, it’s challenging and exhausting, but a day on the beach can never compete with putting supplies on your back and heading out into the wilderness – rising with the sun and sleeping under the Milky Way, building fires and sharing stories with friends.