Sunday, July 12, 2009

Olifants backpacking trail, part 2

Day 2: Journey to drop off, and first days' walk.

The following morning, I woke up at an insane hour (it was still dark), as we had to be at Olifants camp (40 odd Km away) by 7.30 am. At this stage, I was feeling substantially anxious - about the people, the difficulty of the hike, and the weight of my pack... I had decided to take both my fleece and the windproof outer shell (I get cold easily), although the outer shell is heavy-ish. So I was wondering if this was a silly choice to make (cold vs heavy). The knot in my stomach got tighter, as I realised that I would be carrying the groups' coffee, and thus, I would be called upon to dig the stuff out of my pack at regular intervals throughout the day. And to make it worse, it wasn't the most amazing coffee either (a blend of chicory and coffee, but mostly chicory - so in actual fact, it wasn't real coffee at all....).

The drive to the next camp (Olifants) was, in short, EventFul. We saw lion (on two separate occasions, the second was a lioness with a cub(!)), two hyena (sauntering down the road, with a short pause while one decided whether to nibble on the tyres of the car in front of us or not), giraffe, elephants (I think), and well as some interesting raptors (we couldnt stop, or we would be late for our hike set off).

We put our (admittedly heavy) backpacks in the trailer, and set off into the sunrise... We saw some cool elephants (don't you just love the baby in the last one?)

After a brief stop for each of the groups of elephants, we drove on. The degree of urgency in the guides was such that we didn't even stop for an awesome sighting of a honey-badger... Admittedly, it did take us approximately 3 hours to get to our drop-off point (an hour and a half south of Phalaborwa gate), and we did want to get waking ASAP. The drive was so cold that all of us wound up huddled in the random blankets that I found randomly scattered at my feet. During the drive, my anxiety increased quietly. I had made a resolution the previous night, to surround myself in a happy bubble, where I could retreat if someone or something was bothering me, and during that journey, I could feel my resolve tightening, as my anxiety threatened to make me thoroughly miserable!

After a briefing from our guides (turned out that I was the only member of the party that had actually been walking in the KNP before), we set off in single file, in silence. Well, silence is a relative term. We were most certainly not talking, but at times I felt that we made as much noise as a large herd of noisy buffalo... After about 20 minutes walking, the lead guide (Dave*) stopped us and started explaining about the changes in vegetation that we would see as we walked. I'm interested in trees and things like that, and because of my training in ecology, I asked about the scientific names of the trees he was pointing out. From then on, when we stopped at a common, distinctive, or just plain interesting tree, he would briefly tell the others the english name, some cool facts, and then drill me on the latin... It sounds really strange, but I think that this learning really helped me keep my happy bubble intact!

After 2 hours, we stopped for lunch. The place where we stopped was our first real view of the river. During lunch, the back-up guide (Leah*) and I had a rather arbitrary conversation, where both of us thought we knew the other from somewhere... Neither of us managed to figure it out though, so maybe both of us were dilusional!

Some time after lunch, we stumbled across our first real danger: a lone buffalo bull. This one was resting in the shade and coolth (the day had really warmed up by then), in one of the small tributary beds that we were about to cross. At a signal from our guides, we sprinted as a group up the bank. Luckily for everyone concerned, the guides had noted this danger early enough that the buffalo could get up the opposite bank, and away from us... That same day, (we must have been walking quietly!), we walked up to a large fig tree, and as we did so, a monkey literally fell out of it. Onto its backside. All of us packed out laughing as the rather startled creature scuttled off into the bush. Apart from this, the most memorable sighting was a flock of brown-headed parrots (I hadn't seen any of these birds before).

Before we knew it, we had reached our stopping point for the day, on the banks of the Olifants, about 5 meters from the waters edge, and within 100m of a raft of Hippos (yes, a raft is the collective noun for hippos!), and with a small crocodile a little downstream from the hippos. We all had a swim (apart from Leah), which was rather.... bracing.... but a welcome refreshment, and almost a requirement after the days' walk.
We had supper as the sun set, then lit a fire by the waters' edge, and drank coffee laced with some OBS (Old Brown Sherry for those who don't know!). A rather curious hippo wandered up to take a look at our fire, and gave us a fright as it stood up, and turned out to be... large... After Dave shone a spotlight on it, the hippo decided that it would rather not be in the limelight, and slowly backed away and disappeared. Soon after this episode, we all went to bed. Rodger* and I were the only members of the group (apart from the guides) who were sleeping in single tents, and thus decided to buddy up when cleaning teeth (watching each other's backs), and in case the other needed the loo during the night (not that there was a loo, but, you know what I mean!), the one would watch out for the other.

That night was the coldest I have experienced in a long, long time. I had decided to take my (albeit heavy) down sleeping bag, so my body was warm, but my head froze. I seriously regretted leaving my beanie behind, and sometime during the night, I discovered that I could make a pretty good turban out of my fleece. Unfortunately for me, not soon enough, because I woke up with serious sinus blockages, which I managed to clear the following morning (luckily for me, someone had brought along some sinus medication!).

Here ends day 1. The real day 1, not the fake day one.

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