WE ARE THE WOMEN WHO TRAVEL TO AFRICA (3) / by Mariam Harraz

Day two began with a 5am start. I begrudgingly unzipped my sleeping bag thinking to myself how I had spent months mentally preparing myself for dealing with nature: the various crawlies etc. (don’t judge I am a city girl), but not for the 5am starts. It was dark and bone-chilling cold outside. I forced myself to walk over to the showers still feeling weak in the stomach after a bout of food poisoning and heat sickness. The shower stalls were empty. I looked around disheartened, it seemed I was the only who had fought that little voice in my head telling me to get back into my sleeping bag. 

Today would be our first border crossing, driving over a 180 kilometre green stretch of land from our campsite to the golden sands of Noordoewer, Namibia. South Africa was only a meet up point and from there we would make our way across East of Africa. Despite the border control, the scenery itself marked a stark change in lands; from deep lush green to parched bushes and rocks. That wasn’t the only thing I noticed: the humid air clung to your skin. It felt incredibly hot. One more country added to my travel list, I cheekily added.

At the passport control we are given papers to fill out. As I hand back the papers to the immigration officer she sharply points out “what is your occupation?” I lean over and whisper “unemployed.” Her face distorts into further confusion and asks again louder, this time I turn red and attempt to raise my voice “I am unemployed.” The rest of my group queued behind me burst into laughter. It seemed it was a first for most of us to fill in the box as “unemployed”.

A 30-minute drive later we arrive at our second campsite and right in front of us is the Orange river. The 900 kilometre long river separates South Africa and Namibia but what is most stunning about it is its surroundings. 

Our campsite sat on a higher ground just a few metres above the river. We were all thrilled at the breath taking view encompassing our tents. The river seemed to snake endlessly, majestic mountains lining it. 

As I set up the tent, pulling and frustratingly attempting to hook the tent on to the poles, I silently list all the things I am looking forward to doing on this trip for encouragement. As I step back satisfyingly looking over my tent someone shouts “let’s be immigrants guys.” I look over at the river.  My immediate reaction was, no. I had bought an islamic swim suit for the trip from a Malaysian website, but since I was buying it last minute the size turned out to be three sizes smaller. I was nervous about wearing it and how I would look in it more so how I would be seen by others for wearing it. I tried to encourage myself it looked no different to a wet suit. Then my mind began to wander over my other fears - swimming into unclear water. I wasn’t ready to wear it just yet that was one of the main reasons for this trip; to face my fears. I determinedly put on my swim suit and ran across our campsite diving into the river hoping to avoid any attention. 

The water was murky but cool and refreshing. A sense of relief washed over me. I overcame my fear. Making my way to the centre of the river I could get closer to the mountains and South Africa was only a few metres away. I felt motivated now, we swam there and back. I made a mental note to return the next day and film it all with my GoPro.

An hour later a game of flunky ball, devised by the tour guides, broke the ice between us. Fabby, Jasmine and I headed out to discover more of the area and catch the sunset. As the sun slowly descends the shadows of the mountains flicker on the river and cloaks its surroundings. Every minute that passes I grow more in awe of the landscape. The colours mirroring and bouncing of the grass, the sand and the water. The hazy sunset makes me appreciate being here. And so it suddenly dawns on me the difficulties of waking up early, packing/unpacking a tent and dealing with all sorts of challenges is worth it when I get to see this.

After dinner I was sitting with a few Germans, from our group, who were discussing the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. They spoke about the implications that will follow in their country, from the influx of the refugees, but also how proud they are of their government agreeing on allowing the most refugees in compared to other European countries.

It’s what I enjoy about travelling not only seeing different places but also meeting people from different backgrounds possibly seeing the world in a different way. Travelling allows you to see more. 

It’s the third day now yet already my body clock is set for its regular 5am except today we end up leaving the campsite at noon. I decide to go for another swim this time I will be able to film it. Just before we go in we see a snake in the river right by our feet and flying fish rippling the water.  Andres jumps in with us and a few minutes later we both struggle to keep up and decide to head back. I have to pause here and explain to you who Andres is as to the group he was one of the most valuable people. He’s a big guy, with a distinctive Danish accent that makes me giggle, who’s been travelling for a few months with his girlfriend. A 25 year old sailor, he is used to strict timings and a disciplined schedule. At the start I didn’t know what to make of him, he turned out to be one of the kindest people I have met who not only enjoys socialising yet he also pushes us to face our challenges. He never hesitates to try new things and encourages himself to achieve the most he can while travelling. Throughout the trip Andres continues to push me to my limits. 

A couple of hours later, after a shower and brunch, we are on our way to Hobus campsite which is by the Fish River Canyon. We look miserably through our windows to the last bit of tarmac road before we hit the unpaved dirt road for the few weeks. It was the hardest goodbye yet. 

I may be stating the obvious here but setting up our tents on the sand was far harder than on the grass. Still we were near the Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa. 

It was our first hike on the trip and temperatures were soaring in October. It was over forty degrees celsius no one was allowed to hike in the canyon so instead we hiked around it. That day was one of the most difficult days for me. I was wearing my headscarf from 5am until midnight. I felt how much I had taken for granted living in a cold country. 

The scenery distracted me from the heat. At every few metres the canyon would look different. The photos does not do it justice. 

Then the heat would distract me from the scenery.

As the sunset draws in we sit around with cheese and drinks to enjoy our earned stunning panoramic view of the canyon. It was so serene watching the sun set in such a magnificent place, it left us all in such high spirits.

I couldn’t wait to take my scarf of the moment I got into my tent. It suddenly dawned on me that this would be another struggle - keeping my scarf on for long hours in this heat. Yet throughout the trip it only strengthened my faith. I felt I had to fight to keep it. I was the only person in the group who was covered. I was praying in my tent at parching temperature levels as well as running back and forth to the shower block at night, all along the way keeping an eye out for baboons hanging around our campsite.

That night was the first night we were warned about the baboons at the campsite and to be extra cautious if we were to use the bathroom at night. My heart raced at the thought of getting attacked by a baboon as I raced to make it to the toilets. 

Another night I zipped myself into my sleeping bag anxious of the extreme heat that faces us as we go deeper into the desert yet exhilarated to see the Namib desert that I have dreamed of seeing. 

By Mariam Harraz

For the Arabic version:

http://www.huffpostarabi.com/mariam-harraz/-3_10_b_9484196.html