There are not many places left in the world that have not been fully explored but the Kuiseb Canyon located deep within Namibia Namib-Naukluft is one such place. Its remoteness, inhospitality and lack of water have stopped easy travel though its hidden folds and preserved a landscape little influenced by outside influences.
However, recently an expedition to traverse its most inaccessible sections was mounted by former Namib Park Ranger Kobus Alberts from Namibia and veteran explorer and director of Expedition Medicine training company Expedition and Wilderness Medicine, Mark Hannaford. Starting at the Kuiseb Bridge and finishing at the Topnar settlement at Homeb its aim was to be the longest ever journey through the canyon and to record via video and photography the interior this remote area.
The main challenges to the expedition were expected to be very high temperatures within the canyon itself, expected to be in the region of 50 C, hyenas, a lack of water, the nigh time presence of marauding hyenas and the physical challenge of trekking 110 kilometres over difficult terrain. Preparation for the journey started the year before with special permission being kindly granted by the Namibia National Park Authority and the incumbent park manager Manie Le Roux and the preparation of the comprehensive route and safety plan. Given the lack of any sort of road in the area of the canyon – the impossibly of landing a helicopter within the narrow confines of the canyon itself the safety plan ended up being pretty simple – don’t get injured and if you do break a leg be prepared to wait four days before getting out.
The reality of the journey turned out to be somewhat different than expected, the 2008 wet season resulted in the much higher rainfall levels than normal with the plains surrounding the canyon erupting in a multi coloured carpet of otherwise dormant wild flowers and rather than a dry and water-scarce route the valley was flooded in some places wall-to-wall by a Kuiseb River in full flow. The flood water solved one problem of finding drinking water for the expedition but created a number of others. Quicksand and deep mud made movement in some areas virtually impossible without a massive effort or in some cases a long excursion up the side of the towering cliffs of canyon walls following meandering zebra trails. The manner in which these trails skirted obstacles and wended their way past seemingly impossible obstacles filled us with renewed admiration for the agility of the Mountain Zebras.
It was within ten paces of the start of the trek that we entered the river and seemingly we didn’t seem to exit it until four days later, we had expected the whole journey to take us about three and half days walking an average of about 30 kilometres a day – distances Kobus and I frequently walk together but this was based on a dry relatively flat canyon bottom with early morning starts resting during the hottest part of the day and then continuing on until the early evening before camping. The first evening saw us camping under a protective rock overhand a couple kilometres ahead of our schedule an in high spirits with our initial target reached and exceeded. The valley was still quite open and whilst the river was certainly flowing the banks on either side afforded us a good walking surface and the chance to spot the spoor of Gemsbok (Oryx), Hyena, Mountain Zebra and Springbok. Our main concern this evening was the presence of hyenas. The canyon has a well deserved reputation locally for large quite aggressive hyenas- campers recently at the tourist campsite near the dunes of Sesreim had been attacked during the night when camping without tents, so we were glad to have the rock wall at our backs and the rifle which Kobus had the pleasure of carrying for most of the expedition. Aside from the incessant drone of mosquitoes and a night time rain shower the night passed uneventfully.
The pattern of the next day set the template for the others – wake up just before first light at 05.30 and get the kit packed away whilst the stove boiled water for a single cup of coffee the kick start the day and to help wash down the three rusks – a type of hard baked biscuit which constituted breakfast, and then heading out as the sun rose and cast its welcome light in the gloomy corners of the canyon. This year wet season really was a bumper one and consequently the very high temperatures that we had been anticipating didn’t materialise and our days in the canyon followed a pattern of cloudy skies in the morning, burning off in the afternoon to give high temperatures for a couple of hours before giving way to an afternoon cloud build up and the first roll of thunder of surrounding storms in the late afternoon.
Camps where selected the criteria with the having our backs protected but also affording some sort of shelter from night-time storms. As we entered the canyon more deeply the walls close in on us and grew steadily higher and higher this had the effected of narrowing the river and we steadily lost the helpful banks being forced more and more often into the river itself – at one stage we did a two kilometre wade but we where soon presented with our biggest challenge of the expedition – quicksand. where the waters of the river where forced through narrower and narrower gaps the quicksand got deeper and deeper rising steadily up our legs, over our thighs until eventually we were stuck over our waists in a mixture of cloying sand and mud. It made movement extremely slow and tiring our hourly rate dropped to about 1.4 km an hour- at one stage seemingly completely stuck the only way to escape was to lie as flat as possible and crawl on hands and knees to the river back no mean task in a river with a heavy rucksack on our backs I can tell you!!
On the second day we only managed to cover 6 kilometres completely shattering any hopes of keeping up a 30 kilometre a day rate. Our original plan had been to scale the walls of the canyon to camp on its rim but the height of the walls – well over a kilometre tall in places just presented to much of a challenge at the end of hard days slogging through quicksand- the thought of filtering and then carrying five litres of water each on top of our already weighty packs up the steep cliffs also didn’t fill us with joy! That evening in camp Kobus and I discussed our options. The Google map (isn’t it great to able to get satellite imagery on the web) of the canyon showed the valley opening up further down its course- but we could not be sure how much would be flooded but hoped that there was a adequate river bank left to walk on- otherwise at midday on the next day we would be forced to climb out of the canyon – a challenge in itself, walk across the plains for 20 kilometres to road access at a park camping site at Zebra Pan. Whatever we decided our food would not last unless we started to ration it.The next day started with the usual narrow valley, steep cliffs and the now inevitable quicksand and Kobus and I had decided that 11 o’clock would our breakout point if we were not able to pick up hour speed but after an hour or so we got the break we needed as the valley opened up – the banks became visible and we were able to stretch our legs. The deadline passed with bearing a comment from the either of us as where now trundling our way rapidly down the valley – the canyon did narrow again and the quicksand did suck us back into its gritty folds but the joy of getting some distance under our belts has reassured us significantly and as the day went on the widening became more and more frequent. The day end total was 28 kilometres.
We left our overnight camp – if you can call two sleeping bags under a overhanging rock a camp, and continued down the canyon now painted by the red sands of the dune sea on its south bank and they grey of the rock desert on its north side – disturbing a large troop of baboons with some massive males feeding in the valley. As the valley broadened the wildlife, especially the birdlife increased significantly with large boisterous colonies of Cape Swifts’ enlivening the canyon with their raucous calls. Two snakes where spotted- both juveniles and both lying just of our track – a Western Banded Spitting Cobra which lifted itself and opened its hood in an irritable manner and more relaxed Horned Adder. The valley was now open and well vegetated along its banks with one of the issues now being able to find our way through the mass of fallen bands, flood debris and wild mustard stands but it allowed us to reach our end point at Homeb at 6 o’clock with tired backs, sore feet but with a massive sense of achievement.
Sometimes a plan works, sometimes it adapts, occasionally its perfection… We took out packs off and within 15 minutes Kobus’ co worker turned up with our transport, and a cooler full of cold beer… bliss!