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Naukluft #4: Day One: Don't stand in our way!

The Man Behind The Counter at the Naukluft reception said with a deadpan voice, "You're not booked to start tomorrow." We acted deadpan right back.

Ja well, we're here, standing in front of you, having just driven 1 700km. So, yes, we ARE starting tomorrow.

To make a long story short, after much arguing and, as we say in South Africa, 'robust debate' we did  indeed start as planned. The Man Behind The Counter had his facts wrong. Very wrong. So, if you're doing Naukluft, remember to pack the paperwork, in case you have to check-mate any officials with foggy minds and dodgy admin systems.

We thought the so-called hiker's haven called Hiker's Haven, the base camp at the start of the hike would be, well, a hiker's haven. It should have been our last chance to have a bath, a proper bed, and stoves where one can fix a little more than just the simplest of meals. Sure, it looked like a decent farmhouse from the outside. But instead there was hardly any water in the pipes, the stove had no gas, and the beds were less than you'll find in a South American jail.

And no lights, even though there are light fittings on the ceilings. Please don't spoil hikers before they set off,  Naukluft management! So we had to make do with the usual mix of headlamps and candles.   To fix the last supper, as it were. And then it was off to bed.

I'll be lying if I said we set off the next morning at the crack of dawn on our first day's 14km walk. We'd finished a leisurely breakfast and the sun was already high above the surrounding hills when we started out along a dry riverbed, after taking the obligatory group selfie under the camel thorn trees beside our waterless abode.

After a few kilometers the route leaves the riverbed on a the first steep mountainside incline of many to be overcome during the next eight days of hiking. Soon the group of eight separated itself into the natural pecking order of hikers - the speed freaks way ahead, the talkers, the solo walkers, and the laggards. On most days of the walk I was bringing up the rear thus placing myself in the latter group, mostly because I stop often to photograph flowers, rocks, the other walkers. Essentially everything in sight, yes. Even backpacks.

By mid-morning we were progressing briskly along a scenic mountainside contour path, helped along by a cool breeze. Below us the morning sun lit magnificent vistas, rolling plains that stretched away from the Naukluft mountains to the edge of the horizon. The path led higher and higher until we found ourselves on the highest ledges of the mountain, a scenic spot to break for lunch. 

Then it was a long walk over a flattish plateau named the Zebra Highway, keeping our eyes peeled for the sight of our first overnight, the Putte Shelter. It was along this section that we spotted the first antelope, a lone kudu bull that almost instantly disappeared behind a ridge the moment he realised he was being watched from afar. On most days during the hike we saw wildlife - kudu, eland, small herds of zebra, and on one occasion a pair of sable antelope. Normally the front walker saw them and alerted those following some way behind, but by the time everyone else had caught up there was nothing to see. They're a shy lot, the fauna of Naukluft.

The Naukluft overnight camps can be classified as 'basic'. Or make that 'extremely basic', as hiking facilities go. Mostly they consist of round or square structures with a 1,5m high stone wall and a raised roof that sits over the structure, leaving half a meter gap between the wall and the roof for wind, rain and dust to plague those inside. The space is divided into two bare rooms, and a doorless entrance. Well, there normally was a delapidated panel of wood lying about that serves as a door of sorts. While the gap between the roof and the upper part of the wall is probably great for ventilation during the hot summer months, it also means that the ice cold breezes of winter nights swirl around the inside, testing the protective properties of every sleeping bag laid out on the gravel floor.

I don't think I'd ever in my life gone to bed at 7.30pm, but that  became the norm here for the next few days. Some of us were tired, others plainly bored, but mostly there simply wasn't enought torch and headlamp light around to do anything meaningful by.  And because fires are verboten on the route there weren't any happy campfires to keep the conversation going. So we brushed teeth with sips from our water bottles (the hand operated pump was about three hundred very dark meters way from the sleeping quarters, no-one took that option), said our good-nights and soon my compatriots were in dreamland, a few happily snoring away.

But not me.

It didn't take long to realise that the little blue label on my sleeping bag claiming that it can protect its occupant from sub-zero temperatures was at best a miscalculation, and at worst an unashamed lie. After about an hour of lying there, shivering and feeling rather 'unprotected', I got up and put on every single piece of clothing I'd brought along (which didn't amount to much more than two sets of everything), and wriggled back in as deeply as I could. By five o'clock the darkness started making way for a deep orange dawn and the first hikers, dressed like wrapped mummies started shuffling out of the shelter (now there's another hiking pecking order for you, the morning wake-up - the crack-of-dawn risers, the persistent bag rustlers, and the sleep-till-the-last-minute bunch). I'd had about three hours of restless sleep, the remainder of the night I spent worrying about how I was going to survive the remaining seven freezing nights, or seven long days of rocky one-in-three inclines and string of dodgy toilets that don't inspire a hearty morning constitutional. For a few moments I considered feigning a heart attack to get myself out of the quandary. But the only escape route on the Naukluft, apart from an out-of-the-question 25km detour hike, is through helicopter evacuation, and that option is not in my medical aid plan. So it's on we go.

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