Thursday, April 28, 2011

“The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things”

Link to Photos on Facebook

I just had what may be the most unconventional Easter break I will ever have in my life.  Last Thursday at 5 am, a group of my housemates and I were climbing on to a huge bus with 20 (ish) other American students from Stanford and Northwestern Universities to drive north to the Orange River.  The river is the border between South Africa and Namibia and we spent the majority of our 5-day trip on the river- in two countries at once, or not in any country, if you think about it. 

We spent the whole first day driving through northern South Africa, which is pretty barren except for a few tiny towns scattered around, and finally crossed the border into Namibia later than afternoon.  
Border Crossing

We reached our base camp, Amanzi (meaning water) River Camp about 45 minutes later and set up camp for our first night sleeping outside, under the stars, with nothing but a sleeping bag, thin mat and a teeny fleece blanket.  I spent the night shivering because I definitely did not dress correctly for the night-time temperatures, but the night of poor sleep was overshadowed by the beautiful colors in the sky as I woke up with the sun the following morning.  

View from Base Camp

We then packed our lives for the next few days into dry bags, checked to make sure our rafts were inflated properly, had a tutorial on the rules of the river from our landlord/ river guide, David, and we were off.  After about 30 minutes on the river, David told us it was mandatory swim time and we all jumped out of our boats and floated down the river next to them at a pretty speedy pace, it was incredible.  
Alena and I in our "Croc" named Bertha

Floating Down the Orange River

We spent the day in and out of our boats, alternating between swimming and rafting and eventually made landfall at our temporary home for the night: a big stretch of sandy beach on the South Africa side of the river.  We had a huge dinner cooked over the fire and then laid down to look for shooting stars in the crystal clear sky, unaffected by light pollution. 

1st Campsite on the River

The next day was much of the same, rafting and swimming with spectacular views all around us.  We stopped on the Namibia side for a desert hike to an old fluorspar mine, which has since been decommissioned.  David told us to collect some of the crystals, and later that night, when the fire had died down he put some on the hot embers and they began to pop and spark with brilliant green and blue colors.  We spent another night under the stars, and at one point I woke up in the middle of the night and thought someone was looking at me with a headlamp because the moon was so bright.   

Fluorite Crystals

 On Sunday we woke up for our last full day on the river.  After an hour or so of being awake I realized that it was Easter and I was shocked that I had not realized it earlier, but that was probably because there were no Easter baskets or decorations hanging around our camp that morning.  We packed up our stuff and paddled for an hour or so before pulling over for a hike on the South Africa side.  David had told us that it was going to be strenuous, and he wasn’t lying.  We hiked/climbed up this mountain with loose gravel and slippery smooth rocks underfoot for the better part of two hours.  When we reached the top, we saw the halfmens plants that we had come for.  These plants are very slow growing desert plants, only growing at 1 cm every 100 years, which were now taller than me, showing that these guys had been around for quite some time.  We headed down, which required much more concentration than going up because both gravity and momentum wanted to send us flying down the steep rocky slopes, but we all made it down and got into our boats for our final paddle of the trip.  We got to our haul-out site and unloaded the boats, then got into a big bus than brought us back to base camp where we had our Easter dinner.  We each got our own steak and potatoes, grilled over the fire by our wonderful guides and we all sat together as one of our housemates said Grace, bringing some amount of Easter ritual back into the day.  Instead of sitting with my Montauk family around the dining room table looking over Fort Pond, I was sitting with my Kimberley House family around a picnic table, looking over the Orange River and I was perfectly okay with that. 

Sandy Sleeping Situations

Our K-house Family with an Old Tree

I learned so much on this short extended weekend trip.  The main thing was that I am perfectly happy with a small dry bag carrying everything I need, and that none of the things I need in life require electricity.  The guides were telling us that they often called the fire the “bushman’s television” because it is a major source of entertainment for people in the bush, but during the weekend I began to think of the sky and the stars as the television.  Every night after eating dinner we would all go lay down and look at the sky and I was just mesmerized by the clarity of the sky and the thousands of stars we could see.  Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the progress of the Southern Cross as it moved across the sky reminded me how far away I was from home, yet for some reason I felt as comfortable as if I were camping in my own backyard.  In a way I guess I just feel at home in nature, traveling through new areas surrounded by beautiful sights and even more beautiful people.  To quote from the book Into The Wild: The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” 

After this trip, I couldn’t agree more

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