We, a friend, my wife and me, embarked on our long-prepared journey through the world’s second biggest canyon with the firm plan to reach Ai-Ais after four nights and five days of hiking, which seemed feasible with the distances to be covered each day, even if the path leads through rocky terrain and involves several river crossings. Little did we know that at the time when we descended into the canyon, the Hardap Dam a few hundred kilometres upstream from our location had been opened to lower water levels in the reservoir. It was a year of record rainfall that saw even Sossusvlei transformed into a wetland. Accordingly, paths were mostly obscured by water and crossing the river became more like a swim than a walk – and certainly not a walk in the park. We had to steady each other against strong currents and time and again we reached the opposite river bank with new bruises inflicted to our feet and toes by invisible rocks. We would have never completed the hike had we not constantly motivated one another to keep going. We got up with the sun, lit our Trangia stove and prepared a breakfast of flavoured instant porridge. Oatmeal never again tasted as good as it did then. A reviving morning shower obviously wasn’t one of our worries with so much water around. To plunge into the soothing river was pure luxury. We hiked all day with only a brief luncheon of instant noodles, the rest of the time sustained by cereal bars, nuts and raisins. We didn’t talk much, everyone occupied with many minor pains and aches, lost in their own thoughts. At night around the fire, we learned that we had all been haunted by the same thoughts, though. We all felt incredibly small and lost and vulnerable and other than the wild horses and birds and Oryx we encountered along the way, we didn’t belong here in this vast and unforgiving wilderness. A basic tarp was all that kept the outside world at bay at night. For the most part we were one with nature.
Roughing it by the river
On the morning of day five and close to our destination we met a group of young South Africans who obviously didn’t know where they were. The river had carried away their only map in a moment of fatal neglect. They didn’t have any more food. Shortly afterwards we were all rescued by a ranger from the national parks service, who had apparently surveyed our movements from the edge of the canyon for days but was only able to get to us with his bakkie now. What surely felt like a rescue for them, I even today recall as an unnecessary, premature end to our journey just a few kilometres from Ai-Ais. We were so close to our destination and had already completed the tougher parts of the hike. We were so suddenly shaken out of our contemplation mode. We didn’t want to see people, let alone be escorted on a 4×4. It felt like expulsion from paradise.
Luxury on the brink
We returned to the Fish about a year later with our Country Road weekenders – no gear, no plastic spoons, no instant porridge. We had heard there is a lodge right at the edge of the canyon that is a must-visit for proponents of both contemporary design and inclusive business practices. From the main highway that connects Keetmanshoop to Luderitz, the road to the lodge extends for almost two hours. The way in alone is worth the trip, so gorgeous in fact that we even feel a little sorry for those guests who approach the lodge on a fly-in safari. Only by road does one get a proper feeling for how remote this place is. It also is the build-up to a grand finale: The moment we enter the main building with its lounge and bar, we feel like we have stepped into a Weylandts flagship store. The entire place oozes the cool and simplistic yet natural feel that has become synonymous with the home interior outlet originally founded in Namibia. No afro-kitsch here! The unimposing lodge is decidedly subtle and acts more as a frame for the dramatic landscape than a structure of its own.
We are greeted by a cheerful lodge manager who is elated by the arrival of some impromptu guests. The lodge does impress not only by the absence of thatch and leopard print cushions, but even more so with the presence of local management, still a rare feature of tourism establishments in Namibia. Apparently, the owner has invested well in training of local staff who return the trust and responsibility afforded to them with attention to detail and a professionalism that leaves nothing to be wanted. Nature conservation and the conscious use of resources also reign high here, so it comes as no surprise that the lodge has been awarded with four flowers in the latest Eco Awards Namibia assessment, the highest score possible.
It’s too late for any activities now. But then, who needs activities in such a superb location? We boil a cup of tea and from our bed observe the changing light that throws hues of red and orange onto the myriad rock formations and table mountains. From the edge of the veranda in front of the bungalow, cliffs plunge straight into the abyss and strong winds pull at the windows, but we feel comfortably sheltered against the powers that rage outside. Were we not so acutely aware of the scarcity of water in these parts, we would definitely enjoy the amazing view from our outdoor shower for more than a few minutes. So, we only briefly rinse off the day’s sweat and sand and head off for dinner. Carefully placed Solar Jars dot the short track to the main building. They seem to be floating in mid-air and guide us with an ethereal glow reminiscent of fireflies. The atmosphere they emit is pure fairy tale magic. Seldom do nature and modernity complement each other as well as they do here.
Words and pictures: Bernhard Rohkemper