Fish River for softies
Trekking through Fish River Canyon has always been for people who can happily carry everything they need for five days on their back. Now a new tour, already dubbed ‘Fish River for Softies’, lets mules take the strain. It’s a great idea for tourists but, as Fabian von Poser found out, the mules have still to be convinced.


Image"Come on Kaiser, come on Bushman.” Neither mule budges an inch. Telané Greyling shrugs her shoulders. “Come on Kaiser, come on Bushman,” she repeats, gently trying to egg them on. It doesn’t help to tighten the reins, to whisper or to shout. Kaiser and Bushman have had enough. Not another step. This is it for today.

Mules, the offspring of horse (maternal) and donkey (paternal), are reputed to be easy to get along with, combining the physical strength and gentle character of a horse with the stamina and sure-footedness of a donkey. But Kaiser and Bushman are entitled to be a little bit grumpy, as they are carrying our 30 kg saddlebags down into the world’s second largest canyon.

 It’s a crisp morning in September when our group of 13 hikers sets off to explore the Fish River for four days, each of us leading our own mule. Nights will be spent under the starry sky, drinking from water holes and eating at the campfire. We start out from an old farmhouse at the northern end of the canyon. Across sandy plains and slopes littered with stones we make our way down. Then, suddenly, there is the canyon. Its towering rock faces rise up 500 metres. The wide loops through which the river meanders south cover a distance of almost 160 kilometres.

Mannfred Goldbeck picks up a stick and draws the twisting route into the sand. “The Fish River is one of the most beautiful hiking areas in southern Africa,” he says. Five-day walking tours, trekking 80 km through the canyon, have been available for years – but participants have to lug all their gear themselves. Now, as in The Grand Canyon in the US (the world’s biggest canyon), you can let mules carry your bags. “We’ve started to buy mules from various farms in Namibia. The eight best ones are right here with us,” says Mannfred. The mules are expertly cared for by Telané Greyling, a South African biologist who has spent years studying the Wild Horses of the Namib.

 A light blue morning sky is arched across the canyon. The scenery around us is bizarre. Massive rocks on both sides, with the dragon-shaped leaves of quiver trees peeping out from between them. Here we are greeted by the spiky arms of candelabra euphorbia; there a cluster of huge tamarisks stands guard. Herero violets line the path, tiny yellow flowers sprout from the sand everywhere. The flora in the Fish River Canyon is characterised by the Nama Karoo Desert as well as the Succulent Karoo, the most bio-diverse desert on earth. Mountain zebra, kudu, springbok and klipspringer are as much part of this desert’s portfolio as rock hyrax, who while away the day sunbathing on the rocks.

With mules you need patience to make headway in this harsh landscape. But Goldbeck believes there is no animal better suited to cope with conditions in the canyon. No doubt he is right, because hardly anyone knows the canyon as well as he does. He has climbed down to the river dozens of times: on his own, with friends, and with guests. In 1995 he and some friends started to buy farms in the Fish River Canyon and established Gondwana Cañon Park which combines nature conservation with tourism. It has been a success – in 1997 some 500 springbok were counted in the area, now there are almost 5000 and the number of mountain zebra has risen from 20 to just under 500. The nature reserve is financed with income generated through tourism.

Goldbeck tells us all this while we are trudging through the sandy bed of the canyon in the vicinity of the Gaap River. During four days of hiking you learn a lot about your companions. The evenings at the campfire have welded the group together. The only ones who still don’t want to be part of the bonhomie are the mules themselves. On our last night, just after midnight, two of the mules are spooked by something – maybe a rock hyrax, maybe even a leopard. It’s the last straw for them. They break loose and disappear into the darkness and the next morning they are nowhere to be seen.

Without a mule I have to carry my own pack out of the canyon on steep zebra paths. Doggedly I drag myself uphill and across stony plains. I’m cross with the animals and curse my own lack of fitness. Back at the lodge Telané announces that the animals have been found just a few metres away, grazing peacefully. Mules, I’ve decided, are neither obstinate nor stupid. They are just plain clever.


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