Fish River Canyon, situated along the lower reaches of the Fish River in southern Namibia, is one of Africa’s most impressive natural wonders. At 550m deep, 27km wide and 160km long it is Africa’s longest canyon and the second largest in the world, after the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
of the soaring desert temperatures, the intense 85km hiking trail along the floor of the
canyon is only accessible from May to mid-September, allowing for an unforgettable
hike through geological history.
Stage 1: The descent
legend has it that the snaking canyon was created by the whiplash of a dragon’s
tail. Standing at the trailhead, 12km south of the Hobas
campsite where you spend the night before the trek, you can see the logic
of the myth, as the canyon carves its tortuous path through the otherwise flat
and arid Koubis plateau. The half-mile descent to the canyon floor takes one to
two hours and is the toughest part of the trek, although the chains embedded in
the rock face help take some pressure off your knees. It is best done in the
late afternoon, when the rocks are livid red and the heat of the day has
exhausted itself. At the bottom, make camp on the large soft sandbank and get a
good night’s sleep for the long days ahead.
Stage 2: Palm Springs
13km trek through the upper canyon takes in startlingly dramatic scenery. The
vertical walls profile twisted rock formations -- layers of gneisses formed one
and a half billion years ago by enormous tectonic uplift when the
supercontinent of Gondwana tore South America, Africa and Antarctica apart. The
path is strewn with giant boulders, the detritus of glacial melt millions of
years ago, while shaded rock pools make for great after-lunch swimming. Stop at
the Palm Springs sulphur pools for a footbath before trekking onwards to make
camp away from the fumes. This section of the trek can be split into two days, as
navigating the boulder fields can be challenging.
Stage 3: Three Sisters
16km of the trail after Palm Springs is less challenging, criss-crossing the
gravel riverbed (for which trekking sandals are essential) and wading through
reed-fringed pools that attract small wildlife such as the tiny klipspringer
antelope, hyrax and even the rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra. En-route, more
strange rock sculptures present themselves, including a mini “Table Mountain”
and the Three Sisters rock towers, which turn a lurid orange in the setting sun
and act as a good spot for making camp.
Stage 4: Von Trotha’s grave
a closer look at some of the canyon’s strange geological formations, backtrack
slightly from the Three Sisters and take the well-worn track uphill on the
left-hand side of the river as you hike back up the canyon. After a short
ascent you will see the impressive Four Finger Rock, a weathered series of
pinnacles that sit oddly atop the canyon like a stunted crown. The next 20km
stretch allows you to take in more weird and wonderful flora and fauna, such as
the spiky desert-adapted Quiver Tree, Namibia’s national tree, which flowers
between May and July. And if you are lucky you may get a glimpse of Namibia’s wild
horses, thought be descendents from the herds of German colonists who abandoned
them in the desert after World War I. One such colonist was Second Lieutenant
Thilo von Trotha, who was killed in 1905 during a confrontation between German
soldiers and the local Nama people, and is buried along the route. Make camp
near a suitable water source in the evening.
Stage 5: The Causeway
last 30km of the trail can either be completed in a day or split into a more
leisurely two-day hike. The route, along the alluvial river plain of Fish River,
is flat and easy going all the way to Ai-Ais
springs. Ai-Ais means “burning water” in the local Nama dialect, and refers
to the natural hot springs that feed the swimming pool at the luxurious Ai-Ais
Hot Springs Spa. Transport is available at Ai-Ais back
to the start of the trail, where you can pick up your vehicle.
- To hike the Fish River Trail you need to reserve
a spot through Namibia Wildlife Resorts
(NWR), the Windhoek-based company that administer
access to the canyon. This costs 330 Namibian dollars per hiker. Park
entrance only is 80 Namibian dollars per person.
- The Hobas campsite and accommodation at Ai-Ais
Hot Springs Spa must also be booked in advance through Namibia Wildlife Resorts.
- Hikers must present a medical certificate of
fitness from their doctor, valid within 40 days, and complete NWR’s indemnity
form prior to commencing the trail.
- A good level of fitness is essential. Expect seven
to eight hours of walking per day.
- No facilities are available en-route and hikers
must carry all necessary equipment, medical kits, food and water.
- Water is normally available in the canyon, but
purification tablets are recommended.
- Less experienced hikers can book a seven-day
guided hike with the Cardboard Box travel shop in Windhoek.
- At the end of the trek, more luxurious
accommodation is available at Cañon Lodge, located 20km from Ai-Ais and part of the Gondwana Collection of camps and lodges. They also
offer mule trekking in the canyon.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Grand Canyon is in Colorado. This has been fixed.
The article 'Hiking Namibia’s Fish River Canyon' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.