WWF Desert Challenge Day 3-4: Like a leopard
The leopard pauses in the sand next to a rock overhang, one front paw held aloft. It’s evening and finally becoming cooler. The leopard lifts its head and sniffs the air, then it carries on silently into the purple twilight.
We didn’t see the leopard, but the leopard would definitely have seen us. And we saw its tracks: neat paw prints in the dry bed of the Gannakouriep River.
It was about a 12km scramble up the river from the Hakkiesdoring hiking camp, each of us carrying a backpack with gear for a night away. Our destination was a dead-end amphitheatre of rock – an ancient waterfall gouged out by water and wind over millennia. The few people who visit this remote place hike all the way in, but we had other plans…
We dropped our excess water and food for the night at a designated spot, shouldered lighter packs and scrambled up and over a saddle in the Vandersterrberg, to the upper course of the Gannakouriep. Quartz stones shimmered in the sun, next to lava-black boulders that seemed hewn from the centre of the earth.
On the other side of the saddle, we turned downstream and soon found ourselves in a deep gorge – the top part of that ancient waterfall. And just where the water would have rushed over the edge, we found climbing guide Trystan Firman and his helpers Jodie Fenton and Alex Bester, attached to more than 120m of rope. There was only one way down…
The abseil was technical and challenging, even for the participants who had done some abseiling before: a blurry rush of vertical rock, wobbly knees, hammering heart, some scrambling and a satisfying thud when your feet finally touched the sand of the amphitheatre below.
It was the most incredible way to arrive in the most incredible place: a cathedral of rock that probably sees more feline visitors than it does human. We cooked couscous, drank sherry and shared abseiling war stories in the orange glow of the fire. Later, looking up from our sleeping mats, the stars shimmered in the gap beyond the rock walls.
It was like peeping through a window into the heart of the universe. Time in a geological sense was laid bare. This planet has endured a lot – much more than we can comprehend.
We hiked out on Wednesday morning and we’re back at Hakkiesdoring with its satellite dish. On Thursday we cycle again, up to another high point in the park and then down to the banks of the Orange River at Richtersberg.
Being in the amphitheatre was one of those experiences that will take a while to settle. It was a glimpse of pure wilderness in a world running out of such places. It was like we were inside a grand memorial to a time of water and abundance – a memorial designed by nature to remind us about how easily that abundance can be taken away.
Unfortunately, no picture can do the place justice. You’ll have to see it for yourself…
These daily blogs are by Jon Minster, a travel writer and freelance journalist who was invited to join the WWF Desert Challenge.