I glanced down at my cup of boiled river water. My coffee would be brown before I even put the grounds in.
That morning, I had awoken in a sandy sleeping bag, greeted by the sun rising over the chain of mountains before me. Not to mention the growing chatter of 30 or so other students who had also sniffed out breakfast.
Such was camping down Orange River. And after a long day of rowing, we would sleep on South African sand one night and on Namibian shores the next, with no tents — just an endless sprinkling of stars overhead. It was like being in one of those 360-degree planetarium exhibits, but without the stuffy room and nasal monotone of the docent.
On our last day in the water, we warmed up by paddling downriver to a trail that would lead us to the Halfmens trees — bizarre vegetation that resembled stunted palm, which made sense given they only grow about a centimeter per year.
After applying generous tablespoonfuls of sunblock, I hopped off our inflatable raft, Canon PowerShot in one hand, nifty Stanford Dining bottle in the other. Plus a granny smith apple, a Fiber 1 bar and some supplemental snacks. I was so prepared.
I quickly realized it was naive of me to believe our overly reassuring guides. A “challenging hike” was not fair warning for having to claw ourselves up a 60-degree crag.
Ten minutes into our ascent, all you could hear from me were sharp intakes of breath and the clang-clang-clang of my stainless steel canister. The paint of the EatWell Icons had quickly chipped away to leave what might as well have been a bite mark on the cow’s backside above what now read “Sus_ainable Meats.”
Despite the lack of encouragement from my comrades, I decided it would have been a shame to turn around at that point, so I hoisted myself up onto indistinguishable boulder No. 82 and proceeded upwards. Besides, I reckoned the ancient trees atop that slope would have openly mocked me otherwise.
By the time we made it to the top, my body was too drained to worry about the Halfmens. I located the nearest flat slab of stone and plopped myself down. I must have looked so good — hair plastered to my face, T-shirt soaked in sweat, eyes barely kept open against the glaring sun. I had to admit, there were some pretty spectacular views of the landscape, not to mention the great Orange River — peaceful, glistening and unmistakably brown.
I settled with a classic tree-hugging picture, taking care not to make contact with the spiky Halfmens’s trunk, slash keel over in my dazed, severely dehydrated state, uprooting a century’s worth of plant growth on my way down. Our guides graciously allotted us some time to recuperate, take in the view and snap some group shots before it was time to head back down to our rafts.
Logic would suggest that movement in the direction favored by gravity would take less effort. My prematurely arthritic knees would tell you a different story. Furthermore, I could only take so many near-death experiences slipping on loose rock before my sense of logic started wandering to thoughts like, “Even if I tumble down this jagged bed of shale, my clothes will probably snag on something, so I won’t have to worry about falling too far. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll at least hit a big boulder or roll into a crevice. In any case, sliding down this slope will put me that much closer to the bottom.”
Anyways, by some great blessing, I managed to crawl down that mountain with only a few scratched limbs.
As I sat by the riverbank that afternoon enjoying my tuna salad and chutney sandwich, I started thinking about how, despite the multiple threats to my existence just in the span of the last three hours, I had the luxury to explore this incredible wilderness in the safety of a guided program, complete with a lunch awaiting me at the end of the excursion.
I could not have dreamed of visiting places like this. Prior to the quarter, the only international flight I had ever been on was the one that relocated my family from the Philippines to the States, right before I started the first grade. Since then, our little family vacations have been limited to well-defined tourist hubs embedded with bits of history and teeming with souvenirs. We never stayed in a place long enough to really begin soaking in the local culture, to get a feel for the ebb and flow of the city or, in the case of this Orange River trip, to experience the unique human pleasure derived from living in the wilderness with little more than what we could carry on our rafts. There was an irony in the luxury of being able to do this.
As lovely as we must have looked after nearly four days of not showering, I could not have been more grateful for that chance to experience what it’s like to be in the middle of nowhere with only the river to guide you and to be constantly surrounded by the incomparable beauty of the landscape. And although it was but a small piece of what this continent had to offer, it was not a bad way to end week four of Stanford in Cape Town.