I believe, as the cliché would have it, that half the fun of going places is the journey to get there. But when you're two and a half days' drive away from one of the toughest hikes in southern Africa, you're focused on the starting line and not intent on taking in to much of the social and physical scenery while getting there.
The road to Naukluft from my beloved metropolis and hometown, Johannesburg, is a long, long 1 700 kilometers of mostly straight-as-an-arrow tar. Perhaps not that straight up to Vryburg, but thereafter it's little more than mind-numbing stretches of savannah. We broke the long, red line on the map first in Upington, checking into a fairly non-descript, formula resort overlooking the Orange River. It was long after nightfall, and we had an early start the next morning - short, blurry stay. Of the few things I recall about it, one is the over-feathered, out-of-place-looking Emu wandering graciously in the garden and curiously poking its beak into my camera lens.
Not really knowing each other, we spent much of the journey to the next stopover in Maltahõhe surreptitiously reading each other, gently pushing emotional and physical boundaries. We didn't become boisterous buddies instantly, but neither were there warning signs of scrappy behaviour or disagreeability. Well, there were. But I was too focused to care. And I suspect so was everyone else. We just rode on.
At Grunau we took a long break, savouring Tafel Lagers and a game of pool in the lounge of the town's lone hotel.
Grunau looks much like a scene from a spaghetti western, a dead-still oasis with a few bored kids wandering along the railway track, and a cock some way off uttering a shrieking crow into the dry, hot air. There's one train a day, the kid I asked said, at one o'clock. That's how they mark time here. That's how they know another day is passing by.
And on we drove, long past sunset.
We were the only guests in the place we stayed over in Maltahõhe. It was a barely existing hotel with sparse, cheap rooms and a bar that was, as expected in barren towns like this, the most homely looking area in the establishment. We continued the introduction routine with a braai, lubricated by a few Windhoeks and a bottle or two of red wine in the company of two aging and overfriendly bull-terriers who clearly enjoyed equally the company and the left-over t-bones. It was way past midnight when we went to bed. The dogs had already retired earlier, unable to keep up with the energy of the city slickers.
By the time we left the next morning to tackle the 200km dirt road to Naukluft I'd summed up everyone, and unlike a few incident-ridden hikes I'd been on during my hiking life it was looking good. All seven my fellow Nauklufters clearly looked and sounded like well-seasoned veterans of the outdoors who'd earned their spurs, so to speak, on treks and hikes all over the world. In fact, me and Adeline were probably the most inexperienced and least fit of the lot - we'd only ever done a handful of five-day hikes between us. By the time the Landrover and the Mercedes with its stumpy orange trailer slowed down at Naukluft's dusty gate the pecking order was well-established and I felt reasonably confident that we could hold it together.
It felt good to be in the middle of pretty much nowhere and I was looking forward to starting out on the route, even though the steep Naukluft mountains were throwing ominous shadows as we drove on through the deeply carved valley that cuts up to the reception.