A tall story

The guide book said ‘a one-hour jaunt’, yet Sir Edmund’s advice would have been not to go at all

‘Are you South African?” an immensely tall woman inquired from high above us as she checked us in. We all agreed that we were.

“Then why do you speak English?” she asked. We tried to explain that it is quite popular in South Africa.

She seemed unsure.

“Why are you so tall? Are you maybe standing on a box?” I asked her in return. “You must be a Herero.”

She told me she wasn’t. She was an Ovambo. Touche.

We ordered, in Afrikaans, a South African wine called Tall Horse, in recognition of the extreme altitude at which the receptionist’s handsome Ovambo head was situated. And because it was the only wine on the wine list.

Namibia is not yet renowned for its wine – although it has two vineyards – or its tall horses, though there are many in Etosha. Tall horses, we surmised, a glass or two later, would be the only animals easily able to look inside the grassy, multi-chambered weavers’ nests that we’d seen hanging bulkily on every sizable tree and telegraph pole. They’re friendly little fellows – and inquisitive too. The weavers; not the tall horses.

But Namibia is also blessed with some far more fearsome fauna.

Rising at dawn the next morning from my tent on its banks, I valiantly forded the deep sand in the dry riverbed that is occasionally the Fish River, and set about climbing a cumbersome rocky outcrop on the far bank. The challenge was described in the guide book as a “quick one-hour jaunt affording magnificent views of the world’s second-largest canyon”. The cumber wasn’t mentioned at all.

Three hours later, my shorts ripped to shreds by the assault of giant boulders, ankles ablaze from staggering around on the loose scree, I found myself stuck on a rock face, held aloft by one foot in a narrow fissure and one hand on a slippery jut of rock. No way up. No way down.

The only certainties were the now-searing desert heat and a strong conviction that, had Sir Edmund Hillary or Tenzing Norgay been able to offer advice, it would have been that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place and certainly not without lanyards, slings, carabiners and all manner of sophisticated mountaineering equipment. And a helmet with a headlamp lest it became dark before I reached the base again. And non-shredding underpants.

I tried to pull myself up onto a shelf above me. As my head levelled with the ledge, a puff adder’s tongue flicked in and out of its mouth a short strike’s length away. I am not sure which of us was the more alarmed.

There was a way down after all, and I found it very promptly, abandoning any thoughts I might have had of summiting. I hurtled back down to the valley, wondering en route why I should have been destined to approach from below the only canyon creature over which I might have towered.

To my relief that evening, as we braaied back at Ai-Ais, a spitting cobra passed below me in pursuit of the fast-scattering elephant shrews in the camp. At last I was taller than something.

But I realised then that I felt much safer among birds and Ovambo women, although it meant being looked down upon. One of the latter would, after all, probably be bearing a bottle of Tall Horse to steady my hand’s snaky shakes, even if she might stand at about 20 hands herself.

Everything in Namibia is bigger and closer. And very sociable.

But don’t believe everything you read about mountains in your guidebook, even if it is in English.

And choose your underwear carefully when climbing.