The evening started off well. The tide running in quietly, susurrating against the sand banks, the cries of night birds hunting and day birds shifting nervously in the dark. It was so dark that the stars reflected and scintillated on the river water as it rippled on its slow leisurely way to the Indian Ocean.

We stood just on the edge of the estuary, rods in hand, fishing bags, coffee, sandwiches on the river bank behind us.

My father was a conservative when it came to fishing. Centre pin reels, no clutches, gears or fancy gadgetry. Gave the fish more of a chance, increased the chances of an exciting fight. The Penn reel I was using was "like using dynamite in a barrel of fish". The Penn was a good reel and in the hands of an expert may have been as lethal as my father indicated, but I wasn't a good fisherman, so the fish very often won. In any case it was just an excuse to stand in the warm east cape water, feel the warm wind blow through my hair and chat idly with my father. To give the fish more chances, I didn't bait up as regularly as I should have, it didn't matter if I didn't catch a fish, it was the experience that mattered.

Then things started to happen. Suddenly as fish runs do, the fish started biting. I missed the first few bites entirely, day dreaming, or possibly night dreaming, but whatever, I missed. My father didn't, on the first bite, he struck, hard and hooked. There was no fight, no sudden dashes, nothing. he reeled in a sea barbel. Ugly fish, rough shark like skin, square, flat heads with whiskers under the soft white chin. Grey on top with a lethal dorsal spine. They ate the bait, we pulled them ashore, de- hooked them and tossed them back and still they kept on coming. I got bored with the process and stopped using bait, the bites stopped and I continued admiring the evening. My fathers frustration grew as every barbel was dragged ashore, dehooked, the line and hook deslimed and new bait added. The bait levels decline rapidly and soon we were in trouble, almost no bait and no end to the barbel run. It was at this point that my father made a mistake and a particularly lively barbel, twisted as he dehooked the fish and the spike got him squarely in the thumb. That was the end of fishing, we packed up and went back to the shack, empty handed, my father grumbling about the existence of barbel in a world where clean fish were to be expected.

As was usual for him, my father did the minimum to treat the wound. A dab of antiseptic paste, a bandage that rapidly became dirty and tatty and was discarded by Tuesday morning. The next weekend we were due to walk the Valley of Desolation near Graaff Reinett. The Valley for anyone who hasn't experienced it first hand is an enormous cut in an otherwise pristine mountain and is about 100 m above the plains that surround the mountain. It looks almost as if a god had attempted to cut a chunk off the mountain using a hack saw with a loose blade and given up the attempt in disgust, leaving the saw dust in the form of boulders strewn all over the place. The walls of the valley are verticle and at most 500 m apart. You enter at Hells Kitchen and exit a the other end of the valley onto the lands of a friendly farmer. You need to know if the farmer is friendly in the Karoo. They tend to take a dim view of anyone on their lands due to the high levels of stock theft and the difficulty of policing the enormous farms whose road fronts stretch for up to 50 kms. We had been told about the hike by the local scout troop and had offered a place to stay on the evening before. When we got to Graaff Reinett my father went in search of first aid, the thumb that the barbel stabbed was now starting to swell and was in serious need of attention. He would not hear of cancelling the hike, he was "all right". I didn't argue.

The next morning the sun rose bright, early and hot as we set out for "Hell's Kitchen", the entry to the valley and by the time that we had got there, the temperature was in the low thirties and it was still early morning. To appreciate the issue of heat you must remember that the valley is slap bang inthe middle of the Camdaboo plains and right on the edge of the high Karoo. The temperature in December and January can easily reach 40 degrees and stay that way till midnight. One awful night in Cradock about 80 kms from Graaff Reinett the mercury stayed at 45 degrees till nearly dawn and reluctantly slumped to 40 degrees, only to climb upwards again as the sun rose. In the valley, we expected it to be high and to climb more, purely because the eternal Karoo winds cannot get in, the steep walls blocking all outside influences but the sun.

Our informants told us that the valley was about 5 km long and acting on that information we expected it to take us approximately 3 hours "at worst" and so we packed sufficient water for at least four hours giving us lots of lea way.

What our informants had not told us and which came as a complete surprise was the fact that the floor of the valley, if you could dignify what we found as a floor, was actually a rubble strewn hell of rocks that ranged from football sized rocks to house sized rocks, there was not a flat area to rest on and if you dropped a stone, it seemed to rattle until the sound faded out of hearing rather than the stone coming to rest.

There were, obviously, no paths, each metre forward needed to cheched out for safety and for the ability to keep going forward. Time and time again, we found what appeared to be an easy path only to come up against a dead end and we would have to retrace our steps and try again. Our speed dropped to less than 1 km an hour and the temperature was murderous which immediately affected our already meagre water supplies and soon it became a matter of survival.

Our problems were exacerbated by my father's deteriorating condition. His thumb was now hugely swollen and showing signs of blood poisoning, blackened skin and a red line heading wristwards. The poisons in his system made him weaker than I had ever seen him and he was stumbling along at the back rather than leading. The stumbling was the most dangerous part. There was nowhere to walk easily and comfortably and a simple stumble could lead to a broken leg. We protected my father as best we could, but being heavier than any of us, stopping him toppling into an endless hole would be almost impossible. Evacuation would be a nightmare and I found myself considering the unconscionable, splitting the team. Sending two of our strongest legs ahead to get help while the rest of us moved slowly forward. The worst part of it all would be standing up to my father, telling him he was incapable of completing the hike and endangering all of us. I delayed and delayed and then almost without any warning, an opening in the valley wall appeared as if from nowhere. We edged our way toward the gap which seemed to recede from us as we walked toward it a sort of nightmarish Alice in the Looking Glass scenario. Then we were out, the temperature dropped and the Karoo wind came to great us. We were not completely out of trouble, our water supplies were almost gone and, as we had dropped out of the valley early we were nowhere near the appointed camp site. The, as we stumbled slowly down the hill we saw a sheep watering trough just below us and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was then that the event I had dreaded for the last 5 hours happened, my father fell. What had happened was that the rope he was carrying in his pack caught on a tree and started to uncoil itself. He continued walking, not noticing until the rope tightened and so he lent against the pressure. Then the tree branch whipped back. He landed on his back and had to be helped to his feet. Before he could argue someone grabbed his pack, another grabbed the rope and we helped him down the slope and to the safety of the watering trough and the shade of the trees that opportunistically grew around it.

We slept the sleep of the totally exhausted and the next day set out for where our car was parked. As we hit the first public road the police were waiting. It was apparently illegal to do the trip without notifying the authorities so that they could have a rescue team and possibly even a helicopter available. We double talked the policeman with our terrible school boy Afrikaans and even persuaded the cops to take our kit to our car.