SUN STROKE (Namibia)

I was standing in the shade looking out at the terrain in front of us and comparing it to the map.  The sun glistened off the sliver of water that that all that was left of the Fish river in the dry season.  I was on a small sand dune under the shade of tall rocky cliffs that towered above us.  The whole landscape was a sandy colour; the rocks and ground alike.  The water was a musty green colour, complimenting the beige landscape without too much of a contrast.  Close to the water shrubs and bushes grew, lush green in colour, but away from the water the ground was bare, a desert.  All life had sought shelter:  All life but us.

We were at the bottom of the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, the second largest canyon in the world, second only to the Grand Canyon in the USA.  We were three days into a short expedition to hike a section of the canyon, a length of 90km.  The route had taken us 500m down into the canyon, down it’s crumbling walls into its scorching bottom.  The Fish River, flowing at the bottom of the canyon had dried up to a series of stagnant pools and ponds with only a trickle of water connecting them together.  It was bordered by lush green bushes and plants, like an oasis compared to the bone dry landscape away from the river bank.    The walls were predominately weathered rock of grotesque shapes, the softly constructed rock unable to stop the wind from shaping it at her whim.  Sometimes the walls were punctuated by a section of hardened metamorphic rock, a sheer and smooth stain darker than the beige rock surrounding it.  Beneath our feet was dry and loose sand, energy sapping on the legs as we walked across it trying to cover up to 20km a day.  The wind funneled up and down the valley, trying to do with us what it has already done to the valley walls, blasting us with sand and at times, almost blowing us over.  The sun announced her presence too quite early on.  The frigidness of the night quickly dissipates due to the warming of the sun; a welcome guest to begin with but very quickly becoming too hot for comfort.  Managing the heat of the sun was the biggest challenge of this expedition.  We had to start early, just after dawn, when the valley floor was still in shade due to the steep sided valley walls.  By the time the sun fell on us it was already quite strong and we could feel her potential creeping higher by the minute. 

That morning, on the third day, we had had a lie in and started later than scheduled.  The sun was already on us and only when we kept close to the valley edge could we find some shade, but even that would soon disappear when the sun rose to the vertical.  I looked ahead from my slightly higher vantage point picking a route that we would follow and weighing up the conflicting objectives of covering the distance that we required to and staying out of the midday sun. 

I wiped the sweat from my forehead, scratching my skin with fine grains of sand that stuck to my skin and replaced my hat.  “We still have a lot of ground to cover to make today’s milestone.”  I said to Evelyn whilst studying the map.  She agreed but also mentioned that the temperature was already high.  Typically we took a long lunch break at midday when the sun is at its strongest.  Finding a shaded spot to sit and even having a cooked meal.  “I think we need to carry on today and make some progress before stopping.” I said.  “Plus, there isn’t any shade here.” I said looking out at the open ground in front of us.  “We need to continue to the other side of this opening, where the valley is narrower before we can find shade.”  Evelyn agreed with this analysis and we continued onwards. 

It was just the two of us out there, carrying everything we needed for a 4-5 days it would take to walk the 90km ‘trail’.  To be out there, alone, was perfect.  We were both in our element.

We descended off the little sand dune and out of the shade offered by the valley wall and continued into a large opening of the valley.  There was no shade and we trudged along on loose sand, our feet sinking inches into the ground with each step.  We had come to a junction in the valley and the fork in the river had led to an opening up of the valley system.  We had a few kilometres to cross before we would get to the other side of the valley and where we may find shade as well as ticking off a minor check point in the amount of distance we required to cover this morning.  The sun beat down on us as we descended into the wide and dry river bed.  All of this in the heat of the day was beginning to take its toll and we had slowed down as a result.  Evelyn complained of the heat, lagging some way behind me.  I was conscious of the fact that it was hot, that we needed to have a break, but also that there was no suitable spot until the spot we had pre selected still some way away.   I could see that she was struggling but I had many times been surprised by the strength and resolve of this slight woman in similar situations.  I urged her to continue.  Slowly we made progress and crossed by means of a series of large rocks the trickling of flow at a narrowing of the river that intersected two large and long pools.  The valley further on made a sudden change in direction and it was for this corner we were heading where the change in direction also meant that we would be able to find shade – it was only a couple of kilometres away.

“Vijay!  I’m very hot!”  It was said with the beseeching tone that sends shivers down your spine.  A tone reserved for only the most urgent of events that someone close to you would instantly recognise.  I instantly stopped, I was a few steps ahead of her as I had been the last few hours, and turned round.  We had pushed our luck too far, I reacted immediately.  I dropped my bag, unclipping the waist and chest belt and shrugged off the heavy expedition bag.  I ran back to Evelyn, “Okay we take a break now.”  I said, as calmly as I could, as I supported her equally large expedition bag as she unclipped herself and let her free of it.  Placing it down in a manner that allowed her to sit on it, I sat her down.  I could hear her rapid and shallow breaths.  Her face was strained and drained.  I felt her head which was dry, a sure sign of dehydration and her body’s inability to control her core temperature.  I took out her water bottle and told her to take a few sips slowly.  She was bordering on hyperthermia, sun stroke.

We were all alone on this valley floor, half a kilometre down and halfway between the entry and exit points, 45km each way without any potential exits anywhere between.  But at this very instant our level of isolation was irrelevant – her body temperature had to be reduced immediately!

I ran back to my bag and scanned the surrounding terrain for any shade and or flat ground for our impromptu stop.  The ground was sloping upwards from the pool in a steep angle, a small sandy back that separated the pool and the cliff wall and which we were traversing.  It was dotted in small boulders and rocks that we had to weave to and fro to get around.  I walked onwards a few paces past my bag searching in vain for a half decent place to stop.  There was nothing.  I settled on a boulder making possibly enough shade for a lying person to be under.  Sand had gathered in the acute angle between the boulder and the sloping ground and was about as flat a space I could find.  I pulled out my inflatable mattress, inflating it with a few puff of air and arranged it next to the boulder.  It lay almost entirely within the narrow sliver of shade and I nodded in satisfaction.  I threw my bag on top to stop it flying off and went back to Evelyn.

She looked a little better having started to rehydrate herself and having sat for a few minutes.  I pointed to the makeshift bed up ahead and helped her up.  Shifting my bag off the mattress I lay her down.  I was pleased to see that the boulder was offering enough shade to keep most of her out of the sun; I arranged my bag in the sand to complete the shadow over her.  But her breath was still shallow and quick and her skin still hot and dry.  I took off my t-shirt and hopped down to the water pool a few metres below us.  Soaking it in the cool water, still cold from the bitter night time temperatures, I carried it back Evelyn.  Wringing out most of the excess water I started to wipe her down, over all her exposed skin, her legs and arms and face.  The cool water would immediately draw heat from her body and the evaporation of which would draw out even more.  I took off her shoes and socks and arranged the wet t-shirt on my forehead.  Upon seeing me without my t-shirt on she exclaimed about my own safety – she was right, if she was on the border of hyperthermia, chances are that I was also bordering on the verge of sun stroke.  I looked within myself, feeling my emotions, my cognitive abilities, my mood, but luckily satisfied myself that I felt fine.  I went to retrieve her bag and took out some more t-shirts that I could use as wet towels too.  Over the next 30 minutes I was a continuous circuit to the water to renew the hot and damp towels for new cold and wet ones.  Wiping down her body and offering a cool towel for her head.  In time her breathing became calm, deep and regular and her skin temperature was beginning to reduce.  The immediate danger was over.

I stayed there on the small spot for a couple of hours.  I slowly made it more comfortable, creating myself a flat area to sit on and arranging the bag to offer me a small amount of shade.  Evelyn continued to improve, lying in the shade sipping on rehydration solutions and after a hot lunch of watery soup was feeling much stronger.  It was apparent that we had stopped and reacted to the danger at the nick of time.  It was also apparent that we had pushed ourselves too hard, that I, feeling well, failed to realise the strain Evelyn was placing on her body, encouraging her onwards despite her protestations.  Disasters rarely happen when a single thing goes wrong but due to multiple failures.  Had we failed to react correctly after the first failure the situation might’ve been different but as it was we did react swiftly, properly and averted a possible crisis. 

Within a couple of hours Evelyn was back to her normal self, with no signs of the exhaustion that had consumed her.  We had gained nothing from pushing ourselves so hard; instead we had lost a couple of hours from our day.

The strength of the sun was beginning to drop when we were finally ready to continue and we walked as far as we could until twilight approached before we found a suitable camp ground for that night, falling short of our intended distance for that day but fully healthy and as a result happy.