Sunday, May 14, 2006

Naukluft Trail

Imagine a landscape of large rounded hills as far as the eye can see, cut through by a series of jagged canyons carved by ageless action of tiny rivers.  Although the hills look green the mass of vegetation is in various weeds and thorn bushes that crowed the cacti and aloe trees.  On the high savannahs small oases give warm greetings with muddy waters and huge thorn trees.  On the cliffs baobab trees scrape out an existence where it would seem no other life form could.  The rainy season brings a trickle of water down the river banks, enough to allow thick moss to flourish along with innumerable frogs.  Natural springs hide in high ridges and secluded canyons feeding large populations of baboons.  Zebra, Kudos and Hoodoo rule this land of waterfalls, valleys and plains, but we were allowed to visit.  It is in this land that Pat S., Mike, Chris P., Janet and myself took a journey of a lifetime.


The Naukluft trail is an 8-day hike of 120 Kilometers (72 Miles) that takes you through the best parts of this huge park, the fourth largest game reserve in the world.  Considered to be the most difficult backpacking trail in southern Africa, it took us across endless plains, down huge mountains, through deep canyons, up waterfalls and past amazing views. 

We decided to take this trail in 7 days rather than 8 so that we could spend the first day at base camp doing the day hikes to swim in the spring-fed pools and explore the caves.  Little did we know that our playful race to the top of a nearby mountain that first night, bush-whacking our way through tall weeds and scaling small rock cliffs, mirrored all to well the difficulties we would be facing for the next 7 days. During these seven days we would loose the trail numerous times, pick copious amounts of weeds from our socks, pants, shoes and shirts, walk on terrain barely suitable for human feet, haul packs up endless hills and ridges, rock-top and boulder-crawl for hours up and down canyons, scale waterfalls, walk on 300 meter sheer cliffs, and nurse horrible foot wounds every night and morning. 

Day 1: Learning The Hard Way

We decided to try the Waterkluf trail, a 17k circular trail that covered a lot of interesting terrain that included pools to swim in and caves to explore. Within the first minutes of setting out we found a great cliff and shallow cave to play on, and were hopeful for the rest of the day's discoveries.  But no more than ten minutes later we learned our first big lesson about the Naukluft park trails.  As we found ourselves scaling a hillside in a desperate search for the trail markers, we wasted more than an hour lost, only to find the trail led up a river bed, not the hillside.  The lesson was simple: pay attention.  From then on, we paid careful attention to markers and noted when too much time had elapsed since the last one was spotted. 

With the delay we realized that hiking the whole 17k would be impossible (we got a late start; card games and extra sleep), so we continued the trail with the intention of just swimming and spelunking. Once on the trail again, we came across one of the most exciting pieces of trail we would see; a short river crossing completely enclosed by huge, 8-10 meter bamboo trees.  A cave was carved out that enabled travelers to walk down into this jungle-like oasis. Instinctively, we all started humming the theme to Indiana Jones as we descended and hopped a old broken stone dam to cross.  Only 20 minutes down the trail we found the springs and spent a good part of two hours swimming in the frigid but impeccably clear water.  For some reason, the moss in these pools was slimy, but hard and didn't stir up when agitated.  The affect was like having a nice pool liner that was soft on the skin and didn't muck the water up.  We did, however share the pools with a multitude of tadpoles and frogs, which didn't seem to mind our presence too much. 

After our swim we continued up the trail for nearly two hours in search of the caves.  After not finding anything of significance (except for the impressive canyon walls on either side of us), we turned back after a viewing of a few zebras in the distance.  On our way back we found a shallow cave and hoped that it was not the same caves advertised on our map. 

Once we arrived back at Hiker's Haven (base camp) we were joined by two French guys who just finished the Naukluft trail in 4 days- an incredible feat.  They gave us a few ambiguous pointers and suggested we take the first two days together rather than the last two, which we decided seemed like a good idea.  I remember looking at their massacred feet in wonderment of the torture they had to endure to walk on them, not thinking once that I may soon suffer the same predicament. 

We spent the evening prepping for Friday's early start on the Naukluft trail, which consisted of playing cards, drinking sodas, and making as many Family Guy references as possible.

Day 2: The Real Day One

We got up early, 5:00 am to get a fresh start and also because we needed as much daylight as possible to make the 30k journey (we decided to double-up the first two days).  After a quick group shot we were off, through a narrow canyon over a wide river bed.  As the canyon spilled out into a much larger one, then into a large valley with rolling hills on one side and rocky cliffs on the other, we were feeling quite happy and excited.  We lost the trail a few times going in and out of the tall brush in the foothills, but didn't loose much time.  After an hour and a half of walking we breaked near the top of our first ascension.  A marvelous view of distant hills, red dunes and expansive parries was visible at the end of the valley. 

From there it was nearly all up.  As the trail ascended baseball and football sized rocks blocked the dirt making each step difficult and deliberate.  From a game trail on a mountain side to a creek bed up a canyon, the trail kept getting steeper until we rounded one corner and noted a white marker some 30 meters up an adjoining cliff.  Up we went, each step taking us a half a meter up, our heavy packs pulling back with every ounce of strength they had (and at this point, they had quite a bit).  An hour later, at the top we caught our breath and continued our trek to the first shelter.

We reached the first shelter near 1:00, making the first leg of the trip in 7 hours.  The guide map said this 14k (8.4 Mile) section should take 6, so we were pretty happy with our progress.  After a short hour break, we left the shelter to make as much progress on the next leg as possible before dark.  We were hoping to make the day 2 shelter by the end of the day, but as the miles dragged by we soon realized it would not be possible.

Across rolling hills of weeds and thorn bushes, we traveled on with a windmill as our first goal.  But before 6 kilometers could be completed our feet started hurting badly.  We ultimately decided that since we were definatly close to the windmill, we should find a suitable camp site and rest.  In a sunken river bed with a few large trees growing in the middle, we found a good wind shelter and camp.  Out came the camp stoves to heat water for gourmet dinners of soup, ramen and cider.  The nights game of Spades would soon become a standard way to release tension and relax each night. 

With the tents up (Mike made his own using a tarp) we settled in for what would be a very cold night.

Day 3: Easy?

After awaking to a nearly unbearably frigid morning, Chris and Pat went right back to bed after exiting the tent to "take care of business".  It wasn't until nearly 6:30 that Mike and I finally dragged ourselves out of bed.  We got a fire going which coaxed the rest of the group out of bed.  By 8 we were on the trail again, looking for that darned windmill.

About 40 minutes later we finally came to the windmill.  From this point, the trail splits.  One fork leads down a narrow and steep canyon to the day 2 shelter, an abandoned resort house.  The other fork continues the Naukluft trail.  We decided to skip the day 2 shelter all together and head straight to the day 3 shelter, however since we had no water, a short detour had to be made 2k down the canyon to refill water jugs. 

It was decided that Mike, Pat and Chris needed to care for their feet the most, so Janet and I took all the water receptacles we had and started marching.  Before leaving the windmill we happened to meet up with another group that left the day before we did.  Mark (a Brit), Caroline (an American) and Herman (a Namibian) looked tired as we approached.  The informed us that someof the chains that were setup to assist hikers past difficult points in the rocky trail had broken, and they were unable to make it to the day 2 shelter the previous night. Instead they had to sleep on the rocky canyon floor.  We let them know our change of plans and told them we'd meet them at the next shelter. A short walk (30 mintues) lead us to some wonderful streams which we not only used to filter water, but bathed as well. 

Once back together and well watered, we left for the day 3 shelter.  It wasn't a horrible hike, but what was supposed to be a short 8k day had taken us until 3:00.  When we finally did arrive at the shelter, we had naps all around and rejoiced in the thought of a good nights sleep.

Getting to know the other three was a fun process.  We learned that Caroline was a fifty-something that loved to hike and taught English in Sweden.  Mark was from England and sold stuff (something about construction supplies).  Herman was an ex-paratrooper for the South African army and had an air of gruff, stoic toughness that impressed everyone.  Maybe it was the thin boots he wore without socks.  Maybe it was the sight of him in shorts and shirt while a 30-degree wind whipped by.  Whatever it was, Herman was bad-ass.

Spades, noodles, soup and chocolate for those who brought it.  Soon we were all asleep.

Day 4: Rock Climbing

We left as early as the balmy morning permitted.  It must have been late as this was the only morning that Mark, Caroline and Hermanas left before us.  After a few hours we finally left the boring weedy mountains and entered another canyon.  Both wide and tall, the trail was moderate and the cliffs were very appealing.  We stopped half-way though the canyon to spend some time dinking around on the 150 meter cliffs.

Before exiting the canyon Pat, Chris and I dropped packs and followed a sign that promised a waterfall not 300 meters down stream (if there was a stream).  We boulder-hopped until we came up on the breath-taking sight of the large canyon we had been walking in emptying into an even larger one. We could see quite a ways, and the views from the point were amazing.  Across from us were huge, cliff-faced mountains which, little did we know, we would be going over very soon.

Back on the trail, we started a grueling ascension that took us 300 meters up out of our canyon and onto a ridge.  Here, we met up with the other three who were breaking.  The views were absolutly amazing.  You across from our break point you could see where the canyon we had previously hiked in emptied into the one before us with a 100 meter vertical cliff which would probably make a wonderful waterfall with rain.  To our left higher mountains, to our right a massive canyon that contained our trail.

Before we could continue our canyon walking, we had to descend down nearly 200 meters of loose rock at dizzying heights.  By the time I made it to the bottom, I was glad to be alive, the pain in my legs not letting my forget it. 

We lost the trail several times in the following canyon.  The first time while looking for a marker we noted a large family of Baboons on the cliffs above us.  They yelled and growled at us.  A few of them looked pretty big, and I was glad they were up so high.  Then I watched as they effortlessly jump, crawled and scurried up and down sheer rock faces and thought that perhaps if they wanted to, getting to us wasn't such a feet after all. 

We met up with the other group and passed them as the trail took us out of the canyon and into a beautiful green valley.  We met up with a service road and followed it the remaining  6k to the shelter. 

All the shelters ended up being pretty much the same.  A round or rectangular stone building with 1.5 meter walls and a metal canopy.  As long as it wasn't too windy, they were great accommodations for sleeping.  All shelters provided water, and this one had a water tower that made showering possible. 

The following day's hike would be mostly up hill and difficult, so we resolved to get up early the next morning.

Day 5: Don't Trust The Map.

After an initial accent up a weedy, rocky hill, we ascended some more through cactus-strewn hills.  While the scenery was at times notable, most of the trip was repetitious.  At one point we passed a tree who's roots were nearly taller than the tree itself, growing up the side of a rock face.

After resting at a waterless pump where the map said we could top our water bottles off at, we decided that trusting the map was a bad idea.  We trudged on in a good pace that put us at camp at 2:15.  The last 8 k were across a wide canyon floor and were very long.

Day 6: Getting Tough

The mornings ascension up a weedy, rocky hill was becoming a standard start.  We plowed through the first 100 vertical meters like a well-trained eco-challenge team.  The hill climbs after that seamed like cake.

After leveling off and crossing a long flat plain called Zebra Kloof (yes, we saw many Zebras) we started descending.  The descent was down an old road built at the turn of the century by the Germans.  Despite being a road, the path was difficult, strewn with the typical rocks, gravel and boulders that made each step a math problem. 

I was exhausted by the time we reached camp and slept well in my hammok. Chris and Pat grew concerned about the other group after waiting an hour and decided to go back to help them.  Nearly three hours later and just minutes from sundown they returned with our three friends, carrying Caroline's pack.  They swore that without the water and help from Chris and Pat, they would have never made it by dark.

We rested, played spades, and were utterly impressed as Janet gulped up the entire Divinci Code in 6 hours (she's a speed-reading demon).

At this point we were all looking forward to finishing the hike.  With just two days of hiking ahead of us, we could almost taste the end. We started dreaming of our first night back at my flat in Windhoek.  We decided that pizza was a must.  The choice of movie was up to Janet, who we were at this point referring to as Chuck (as in Chuck Norris, the bad-ass actor who plays all the bad-ass characters).  She had given a verbal round-house kick to Mark on our first night together when he mistakenly asked her "will you ever stop eating?" as she ate dinner. Her reply was a cool, yet somehow threatening "you NEVER ask a woman that question."  Caroline backed her up by chasing him from the camp with a pan.

Day 7: Don't Die Please

We got another early start, only to waste over an hour looking for the trail not 2k from camp.  Once we found our way again, we began a quick climb up a narrow dry river canyon.  After a few challenging obsicles (3 meter boulders to work yourself over, hugging cliff faces to skirt small pools, you get the idea) we were shocked to come across what would be the most difficult part of the entire trail.  A 20 meter waterfall (that's 60 feet!!!) with actual water and a near 80 degree angle.  Off to the left side of the fall we could see the chain, and ominous sign that our trail was going straight up.  Now too far in to the hike to turn around, we had no choice.  Even though we were able to get up 5 meters using the rocks and wall on the side, the rest of the ascension had to be done the traditional way. 

Pat was first, practically running up the thing and stopping only a few times to make sure mossy patches were avoided.  Once at the top (and looking somewhat frightened) he recommended that no one else attempt it with their pack, just as Janet flung herself onto the chain.  A few breathless seconds later she was at the top, once again proving here Chuck Norris character.  The rest of us decided against hauling our heavy packs on our backs, and used rope to transport the packs ahead.  It took four people to maneuver and pull the packs all the way to the top.  At one point a nalgene on my pack came loose and flew down into the water below after glancing off several rocks and missing Chris' head by inches. 

After all the packs were up we saw the other group approach and helped them with their packs.  Caroline was first up the fall and gave everyone quite a scare as she stopped mid way for what seemed like hours.  She gave everyone yet another scare after loosing her grip on the next chain which aided a 5 meter ascension up another mossy waterfall.  Luckily she was able to hold on long enough for Janet, Pat and Chris to jump to action.  Five minutes later I gave everyone a scare as I pulled the chain clean from the rock after reaching to top.  If it weren't for the extra chain on a neighboring route the others would have been stranded. Nearly two hours after first approaching the waterfall the last person climbed up and we were ready to put the whole experience behind us. 

After the waterfall ordeal the rest of the trail seemed like cake.  We climbed up and out of the canyon river bed onto the "Never Ending Hills" range.  This ranged turned into a high savanah that was flat as far as the eye could see.  We passed several water holes with fresh tracks and viewed several packs of Zebras and Koodo.  The shelter itself was a small oasis in the middle of flat nowhere and made quite a characteristic stopping point.

With our final leg done and just a short trip back to the trail head ahead of us, we were nearly done and feeling great.

Day 8: Home Again

We left bright and early as the sun came up just before 6:00.  Spending the first three hours traversing the flat plain, we finally broke into those familiar weedy hills. By 10:00 we started our descent into the rocky canyon that would lead us home.  Five hours after leaving we arrived at a familiar sight, a swiming hole we had found on the first day's day hike.  Chris, Pat and I stayed to cool off while Mike and Janey headed for the cabin for a shower.  After deciding against swimming with open sores on my feet, we all left 20 minutes later for camp.

The very last obsticle on the trail was the Indiana Jones-like bamboo forest tunnel, and it was a most welcome sight.  We met up with Mike and Janet as they were returning from the camp store with cold drinks for everyone.  We rested, cooled off, and wrote our names on the wall of the cabin, a tradition for all hikers who complete the trail.

It was quite an experience.  While I have to admit that the neglected nature of the trail created many life-threatening situations, it also made the experience true to it's legacy: the most difficult hike in southern Africa.

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