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Once upon a time a giant snake dwelled in southern Namibia. Every so often it devoured the sheep and goats of the people and finally they decided to kill the snake. Armed with spears and accompanied by their dogs the men set out for the hunt. They encircled the snake, kept it at bay with torches, shot arrows at it and thrust spears into its body. Even though it was a giant snake it stood no chance against the superior numbers. In its death throes the snake tossed and turned, tearing deep furrows into the ground.

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

Nama legend about how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Source: mural in the Cañon Village

An old Nama legend explains in this vivid manner how the Fish River Canyon was formed. Geologists offer a more prosaic but no less fascinating explanation. It also involves an epic death struggle – though not of a snake but of a super-continent and it does not happen overnight but goes on for hundreds of millions of years…

Once upon a time in the area of today’s canyon there were deep fissures in the earth’s crust. Some 350 million years ago part of the surface caved in along those fissures and a rift valley, about 20 km wide, emerged. The Fish River chose the rift for its bed. Due to the low gradient the river meandered through the valley in wide loops – also called a meander belt.

The ancient southern super-continent of Gondwana disintegrated some 120 million years ago. South America and Africa drifted apart. The rims of the African fragment rose – Namibia’s interior is a high plateau even today – and with it the drop to the sea level. Starting from its mouth, the Gariep (Orange) River dug deeper into the earth and the Fish River, its tributary, followed suit on the high plateau in southern Namibia. Thus its shallow meander belt turned into the Fish River’s winding system of gorges.

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Fish River Canyon, (5 Cent), issued in 1981

Standing at one of the viewing points on the edge of the canyon you are able to visually relate to the geological explanation. You are on the shoulder of the rift, looking onto a plain below – the floor of the rift valley. The plain is also termed the ‘upper canyon’ and the meandering gorges that have been cut into it are the ‘lower canyon’.

In total the Fish River Canyon is about 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 500 m deep. It is seen as the second largest canyon on earth – after the Grand Canyon in the US. Hot springs are found in some places on the canyon floor: at Sulphur Springs, several kilometres south of the main viewing point, for example, or at the Ai Ais spa.

The canyon is situated in the Nama Karoo on the western fringe of the summer rain area. Rainfalls are unreliable and limited to small areas at a time. The annual average is around 80 to 100 mm. Thus the gorges of the Fish River and its tributaries have served local inhabitants as lifelines for hundreds of years. Rock engravings testify to the presence of people in ancient times. In the 19th century missionaries wrote about groups of Nama living there. From 1890 onwards the Nama were displaced first by German settlers and later by South Africans. Now they live in places like Warmbad, Keetmanshoop and Bethanien. Efforts to protect the canyon started relatively late, if compared to Etosha National Park in the north, for example. The canyon was proclaimed a national monument only in 1962 and a nature reserve in 1968.

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

'Hell’s Bend' in the Fish River Canyon at the main viewing point. Photo: Gondwana Collection

Looking at the canyon landscape it is hard to believe that is was – and still is – utilized for livestock farming. Many farmers, however, were forced to give up due to overgrazing and a prolonged drought. As a result a private nature reserve, Gondwana Cañon Park, was established on the north-eastern boundary of the national Ai Ais Richtersfeld Transfrontier Park.

The famous 80 km canyon hike from Hiker’s Point to Ai Ais (5 to 6 days) is part of the national park. In Gondwana Cañon Park hiking tours with or without mules are offered in the wilderness of the canyon landscape some 40 km north of Hiker’s Point.

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“It has totally taken us by surprise that temperatures can drop so low in Africa”, said Dr Hannah Welstead and Dr Reza Noori, two young doctors from Britain, while enjoying the warmth from the fireplace at Kalahari Anib Lodge. “Our coldest night was in the Kalahari where we slept in the tent at minus 12 degrees.”Originally they planned to pitch their tent on the farm across the road from the driveway to Kalahari Anib Lodge. Their budget was too tight for a night on a camping site, let alone a lodge. But the gate to the farm was locked. When Lodge Manager Jaco Visser came past and heard their story he invited them to spend the night, including dinner and breakfast, without further ado.

Hannah and Reza have been travelling with bicycles and tents since 22 August 2010. They set off from London, their destination is Cape Town. Both are doctors who have completed their state exam and a two-year medical internship. Before specialising and being tied down in regular employment they took a gap year for an extraordinary cycling tour with an extraordinary mission. “With this tour we are raising funds for OGRA, an organisation in Kenya which trains healthcare staff and builds clinics”, Hannah and Reza explained. “We maintain a blog about our journey and collect funds through another website.”

Hannah Welstead and Reza Noori on a fishing boat in Kenya.

The adventurous tour took the couple through France and Italy, by ferry to Egypt, on the Nile into Sudan, up the Blue Nile to Ethiopia and from there to Kenya. Hannah and Reza spent almost three weeks in western Kenya to get to know the OGRA projects. “Poverty is beyond words”, they summed up their impressions. “My mother, who came to see us in Kenya, refused to go with us on her second day there because she could not take the squalor and hardship.”

From Kenya they continued through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana to Namibia. France and Italy had been a highlight of their tour. They passed through in early autumn and felt as if in paradise when peasants permitted them to help themselves to nature’s bounty and pick apples, plums, figs, walnuts and other fruit. Other highlights were the grand landscapes and high peaks of Ethiopia, negotiating 300 km of desert in Kenya, crossing a lake in a fishing boat (full of fish) and the azure waters of sparkling, clear Lake Malawi.

Elephants always have right of way (Botswana)...

“Not to forget the massive elephants which we saw in Botswana from closest quarters”, Hannah and Reza continue their story. “It is quite daunting to encounter these giants when you are on a bicycle and there is no fence or the protective shell of a car.”The ride through Rungwa Game Reserve in Tanzania also turned into a life threatening experience. Because of the wildlife they had been urgently advised not to venture there. It was evening when they arrived at a place which on the map looked like a village. Instead it was a deserted ghost settlement and they had to retrace 20 km to the safety of the closest village as night was falling. However, a busy highway in broad daylight proved even worse than the wilds in the dark. The front wheel of Reza’s bicycle was squashed by a heavy truck which overtook the two cyclists – Reza escaped unharmed as if by a miracle. The truck driver did not even bother to stop.

Hannah Welstead in front of the Meidum pyramid in Egypt.

From Kalahari Anib Lodge the Africa cyclists continued to Keetmanshoop and on to the Fish River Canyon. There they were hosted by Cañon Roadhouse and Cañon Lodge before they set off on the last leg of their journey: through the northwest of South Africa to the West Coast and finally Cape Town. “Our flight back to London is booked for 23 August, exactly one year and one day after we started,” they said as they mounted their bikes. “It will be strange to return to everyday city life.”

Links
Hannah and Reza’s travelblog
Donations for OGRA

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