A journey to Fish River Canyon- the largest canyon in Africa

A journey to Fish River Canyon- the largest canyon in Africa

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This is Namibia- a country, located in one of the most exotic places on the Earth, where the deserts meet the ocean. It is a dry land but with fantastic landscapes. Large plateaus rise in the interior of the country, cut by large canyons. One of them is the Fish River Canyon, formed by the river with the same name, curving deep into one of the plateaus. Let’s go and explore it, getting the best impression of it!

Basic facts about Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon is known as the largest canyon in Africa and one of the largest canyons in the world. It is not so deep, but what makes it number one is its length and width.

Fish River

This is the river that forms Fish River Canyon. It is a right tributary of the Orange River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The river starts its course in the middle parts of Namibia, from the mountain area of Nauklluft. It doesn’t have one distinctive source but is formed by many mountain streams (with many sources, between 1800 and 2000 m altitude) that gather into a larger stream, called Kam River.

Kam River flows in the southeastern direction and at about 1210 m altitude it merges with the Kalf River. From this point, near the town of Kalkrand, the river is officially called Fish River.
Fish River proceeds its course southward, lazily meandering on the plateau terrain. But its valley gets deeper after the merging of its left tributary Naiamas River at 690 m altitude.

And it is not recognized as a “canyon” here yet. The “real canyon” starts when the river enters the large Ai-Ais (/Ai-/Ais) Richtersveld Transfrontier Park at about 570 m altitude. In fact, the canyon doesn’t have a “clear” beginning, just the valley deepens gradually and turns into a gorge.

Fish River
Fish River

The Canyon

This gorge is Fish River Canyon. It is about 180 km long and is divided into “Upper” and “Lower” parts. The upper canyon is from the northernmost border of the national park to Chuadib, at 390 m altitude. And the lower canyon which is a bit deeper and more attractive is from Hobas to Ai-Ais at 220 m altitude.

However, these are the “official” boundaries of Fish River Canyon. Beyond Ai-Ais, further downwards, the canyon proceeds, but it gradually turns just into a wide and deep valley, with fewer “canyon” features, until it reaches the Orange River at 80 m altitude.

One of the most iconic views of Fish River Canyon
One of the most iconic views of Fish River Canyon

Natural facts

The whole area around Fish River Canyon is a desert or semi-desert. It is a dry place with some seasonal changes. Due to this climate, Fish River is not constantly flowing but is seasonal too. During the dry season, from May to September (winter), the river almost disappears, leaving only long and narrow ponds. And only at the end of summer, in February-March, it is full of water and even causes some flooding.

The canyon is meandering through the plateau, and although it is not too deep, it still creates spectacular landscapes with some “Martian”-looking features. It is said to be about 500 million years old. In the process of its formation, first, the upper canyon was created while the plateau gradually arose and the ancient river eroded it. Later, the lower canyon was formed with more twisting meanders.

History and local culture

This is a desert land, sparsely populated. Its population consists mainly of Nama people, as well as of people of mixed origin. Fish River Canyon is located in the southern part of Namibia and it shares the history of the whole country- from pre-colonial times to the German rule (1884-1918), then the South African mandate to 1990. After that, Namibia became an independent country, and it prospered.

In 2003, the Ai-Ais (/Ai-/Ais) Richtersveld Transfrontier Park was established with an agreement between Namibia and South Africa. This park occupies a territory shared between the two countries. Today, you still can see some Nama people with their herds. They are nomads and their lifestyle is well-adapted to the arid environment of the national park and Fish River Canyon.

A tree growing through a vintage car
A tree growing through a vintage car

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How to explore Fish River Canyon

In general, only its lower part (the Lower Canyon) is the tourist area for visiting the canyon. The rest of it- the Upper Canyon and beyond, as well as the river beyond Ai-Ais, are off-the-beaten areas. So, first, let’s focus on the Lower Fish River Canyon.

There are two ways to explore it. The first way is by visiting some viewpoints at certain locations, with the best views of the canyon. You can do it by vehicle. And the second, more attractive way is to hike the Fish River Canyon Trail.

Viewpoints visit

This is the fastest and easiest way to visit Fish River Canyon. In this option, you can visit several viewpoints of the canyon along its eastern rim. You can do it in your own private vehicle or by joining a tour.

If you choose the first option, you only have to pay the entrance fee for the park: NAD 160. Then, you can drive on the roads to the several points of the park and enjoy the spectacular views of the Fish River Canyon from above. And the best time to do it is at sunset because these points are at the eastern rim of the canyon. But you would be not allowed to descend to the bottom.

For this experience, you need a proper vehicle (preferably 4×4), because the roads are dirt/gravel. You can do it for one day and one night- in the afternoon travel to the viewpoints, enjoy the views at sunset, then go to spend the night in Hobas or Ai-Ais Hot Springs.

Fish River Canyon at sunset
Fish River Canyon at sunset

But if you want to descend to the bottom of Fish River Canyon and enjoy some adventures, go to Fish River Canyon Trek.

Fish River Canyon Trail

Fish River Canyon Trail is 86 km. It starts from Hobas and ends in Ai-Ais Hot Springs. The trail follows the Fish River and its curves. In other words, you walk almost entirely on the bottom of the canyon (there are only a few shortcuts).

The hike is challenging, mainly due to the harsh conditions- no trees, no shadows (except in the early morning and late afternoon), with a big temperature difference between day and night. The terrain is sandy, and rocky, with some river crossings on several points. Needless to say, you would need enough water. Fortunately, you can drink from the river pool, however, better first you have to boil it or at least use some cleansing pills.

Usually, you can complete the whole trail for 4 days on average. Of course, you can always do it more slowly, for a longer time. But you have to be well-trained and an athlete to do it for 3 days or less. Actually, since 1990, a tradition of running marathons was established, and some runners successfully completed the whole distance in less than 10 hours.

The start of the Fish River Canyon trail, at the edge of the canyon
The start of the Fish River Canyon trail, at the edge of the canyon

How to start the Fish River Canyon trail

Fish River Canyon trail is located within a national park. You can’t just freely go and start hiking.

This is an adventure, prepare your travel insurance:

Book the trail

First, you have to book it. You can do it by making a phone call to one of these numbers: (+264 61) 285 7333 (Windhoek, Namibia) or (+27 21) 422 3761 (Capetown, South Africa). After confirmation, you have to pay a 10% deposit and send an email to reservations@nwr.com.na (Namibia) or ct.bookings@nwr.com.na (South Africa). Finally, you have to pay the rest 1 month before the trekking. And you have to be at least three persons to do it.

Also, you must obtain a medical certificate, and it should be not older than 40 days before the trek. They provide a PDF form, you have to download it from here.

Then with this form, you have to go to a medical body check. Only the doctor can fill out the form. You have to present the certificate, otherwise, you may not be allowed to hike the trail.

Price of the trail

The total price you have to pay is NAD 960 or about USD 56 (as of May 2023). This price includes the following:
NAD 500 for the trek
NAD 160 for the park entrance fee
NAD 300 for the shuttle between Ai-Ais and Hobas (you don’t have other transportation options between the two points, unless you combine two cars with more friends together).

Getting to the trail

You have to choose one of the ending points- Ai-Ais or Hobas and drive a car to there. The distance from Windhoek to Hobas is 644 km and to Ai-Ais is 707 km. Or, if you come from Capetown, it is 800 km to Ai-Ais or 847 km to Hobas. Of course, in this case, you have to cross the border between South Africa and Namibia.

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Once you arrive at one of these points, you can park your car for free and stay one night. Both Ai-Ais and Hobas are campsites with bungalows.

If you choose Ai-Ais (the better option), the shuttle will take you to Hobas and the starting point of the trail. Then, you complete the whole trek and arrive at Ai-Ais and your car that will be awaiting you.

But if you choose Hobas, you park your car there, the shuttle takes you to the trail’s starting point (13 km from Hobas), and you start hiking. When you arrive at Ai-Ais, you take the shuttle again to return to Hobas and take your car. Now, let’s focus on the Lower Fish River Canyon and its trail.

A Fish River Canyon viewpoint at the edge of the canyon
A Fish River Canyon viewpoint at the edge of the canyon

Attractive points on the Lower Fish River Canyon

In general, the whole Fish River Canyon trail has an almost similar landscape. But there are some more special points that can draw your attention- places with interesting features or just places for relaxation and camping. But let’s start from the beginning.

Hobas

This is the northern “base camp” for starting the Fish River Canyon trek. It is a campsite, located “in the middle of nowhere” with some bungalows, on a vast plain. The place has a gate with a checkpoint, so it is safe. If you want to spend the night here, you have to pay NAD 400 per campsite for up to 8 people. But to start the trek, you have to move a bit further.

Fish River Canyon Viewpoint and the starting point of the trail

A well-maintained dirt road, 13 km long, leads you from Hobas to the starting point of the trek. You go there by the shuttle that you have paid for in advance. The road crosses the plain and suddenly reaches the eastern edge of the Fish River Canyon. Here is the Fish River Canyon Viewpoint, where you can get the first impression of the canyon from above.

Actually, there are three more viewpoints. About 1 km in the south, you can go to Sunset Viewpoint. Its name speaks enough- from here you look westward over the canyon and the best time to do it is during the sunset.

In the other direction, to the north, you can stop at Hangpoint Lookout, about 800 m further, with another spectacular view of the canyon. Finally, after another 800 m, you reach the last viewpoint from above- the Hiker’s Viewpoint, with the sign marking the beginning of the Fish River Canyon trail. Here is where your adventure begins.

At the bottom of the canyon
At the bottom of the canyon
First pools, Sandy Shelf, Reed Bush, Pulpit Rock, and Vespa Memorial

From the Hiker’s Viewpoint, the trail starts the steep descent from the edge of the canyon to the bottom, for less than an hour.

What can you see as your first impressions here? First, you can see the pools of the river during the dry season, in a fairy-tale canyon landscape. You need to have in mind that there is not a clear “trail”, but you just follow the river, sometimes crossing it from left to right and vice versa.

Some points that you can notice are the Sandy Shelf, the Reed Bush (a place with some bush and a spring), the Pulpit Rock (a rock with a shape of a pulpit), and the so-called Vespa Memorial- an abandoned “Vespa” motorcycle left here in the 60s of the 20th century.

Sulphur Springs

The trail proceeds for about 6 hours from the beginning, until you reach Sulphur Springs, called also Palm Sulphur Springs. This is a place with a side stream that comes from a hot spring nearby, and it is a good place to spend the first night.

Note: if you discover that this trail is not for you and want to cancel it, there is a point, called Emergency Exit a few km before the Sulphur Springs. There is a steep trail that ascends from here to the so-called Swaelbron Lookout at the edge of the canyon. From this point, they can come and “rescue” you back to Hobas.

Zebra Pools, Sentinel Rock, Sphinx Rock, and Memorial Plaques

The trail after the Sulphur Springs is a bit more difficult and rugged. Some interesting points you can notice are mainly pools and rock formations like Zebra Pools, Sentinel and Sphinx rocks (with specific shapes), and a place with plaques.

The trail of the Lower Fish River Canyon
The trail of the Lower Fish River Canyon
Sandy Slope and Vasbyt Bend

Further southward, the trail passes by two more natural features. The Sandy Slope (called also Sand Against Slope) is a landslide cover of a steep slope of the canyon. And the Vasbyt Bend is just one of the bends of the canyon, not too different than the other bends.

Bushy Corner and Three Sisters

The next point is Bushy Corner. As its name suggests, this is just a place with a bush on one of the river bends. Two bends further you reach a point with a side “sub-canyon”, where Kanebis River merges with Fish River.

This place is good for camping. There are three more featured rocks in this place, called Three Sisters. There is, however, a shortcut here, where you can skip the Three Sisters and the bend along them, straight to the next bend.

Four Fingers Rock, von Trotha’s Grave, and the Lost Bend

When you arrive at the next bend, there is another shortcut skipping a bend. If you choose it, you can see an interesting rock formation called Four Finger Rock. As its name suggests, it is a rock with four “horns” like “fingers”. If you choose this shortcut, you will miss the Lost Bend- a very sharp river bend on your right side.

When you reach the Fish River again after the “Four Fingers Rock” shortcut, you can see the grave of Thilo von Trotha (not the lawyer with the same name who lived a bit later)- a German lieutenant, a descendant of the infamous Lothar von Trotha who committed a genocide against the local Herero people in 1904. Thilo died in 1977.

A bit further after von Trotha’s Grave, you can find another emergency exit from the canyon. It leads to road C37 between Ai-Ais and Hobas.

Rock formations at the edge of the canyon
Rock formations at the edge of the canyon
Pink Palace, Fool’s Gold Corner, and the Bandage Pass

In this area, about 70 km from the start, the canyon gradually widens and turns into a “more normal” rocky valley. It is not as spectacular as in the beginning, and the trail gets easier.

Here you can see a small pink building, called “Pink Palace”. Of course, it is no “palace”, but just the name of a local ranger’s station. A bit further is Fool’s Gold Corner- just another rocky bend, probably related to a story of gold searching in the past.

There is another shortcut here, and if you choose it, you will cross the small Bandage Pass, skipping another bend.

Bikini Beach and Prehistoric Burial Ground

Finally, you reach the last section of the Fish River Canyon trail. This is the easiest part of the trek. Here you can see a nice sandy field beside the river called Bikini Beach, a good place for relaxation.

And in general, there is nothing so special until the end of the trail. There is only one recently discovered prehistoric burial ground (you can easily miss it if you don’t know where is it).

A beach in the bottom of the canyon
A beach in the bottom of the canyon
Ai-Ais Hot Springs

This is the end of the trail. Ai-Ais (/Ai-/Ais, as it sounds specifically with the clicking sounds of the local language) is a hot-spring resort, a well-deserved reward after the long trek. Here you can enjoy hot mineral water, spa procedures, cold beer (yes, there is even a sign made of stones pointing to the bar), and everything else that the soul of a tired trekker would desire.

The resort offers bungalows (chalets) and a campground. And the price for staying at night is NAD400 per site for up to 4 people. And if you have parked your car in Ai-Ais before the trip to Hobas and the trek, it will await you safely here.

This is what the Lower Fish River Canyon looks like. But what is further, beyond its boundaries?

The Upper Fish River Canyon

This part of Fish River Canyon is located within several private natural reserves: Gondwana Nature Park, Canyon Nature Park, and Vogelstsrausskluf Private Nature Reserve. Here the terrain of the canyon is more diverse, although not as spectacular as the Lower Canyon.

While most of the Lower Canyon is a ravine with a clear rim edge in the middle of a plain, the northern part is a mixture of “softer” valleys, hills, and mountains, without a clear edge, or just a shallow canyon with edges, but not inside a plain.

Visit the Upper Canyon independently

Here you can come just by your vehicle (but again, you have to drive a high-clearance vehicle (preferably a 4×4). And you can visit several viewpoints, most of them on the eastern side of the canyon.

The area with interesting points is in Gondwana Nature Park. Here your base can be Klipspringer Base Camp- a small base with three bungalows “in the middle of nowhere”. From here, you can drive to Horseshoe, Koelkrans, and Battlesnake viewpoints.

The area around the Upper Fish River Canyon
The area around the Upper Fish River Canyon

But if you want to try something more- there are trekking opportunities.

Trekking in the Upper Fish River Canyon

This is a very exciting experience. You can try it independently, or you can join an organized tour. There are three tours of the so-called “Gondwana Collection”:

  • Klipspringer Trail. It is 17 km long, for 3 nights. They will take you to Horseshoe Viewpoint. From there, you start your trek following the river. You pass Koelkrans and reach Battlesnake Viewpoint.
  • Zebra Trail. It is 35 km long, again for 3 nights. It includes the same viewpoints but extends further north, to the north drop-off point.
  • Fish Eagle Trail. It is again a 35 km long trail, actually, almost the same as Zebra Trail, with some differences in the route in some sections. The drop-on and drop-off points are the same, however, this route is for 4 nights.

During the treks, you spend the nights in self-catering campsites. They provide logistics and transfer at certain points.

You can do it independently, however, you have to be on your own. They will not provide any logistics in this case.

The Upper Fish River Canyon
The Upper Fish River Canyon

Useful tips

This is in general what you can do in Fish River Canyon. But let’s take a look at some useful tips- about how to get there and the best time to visit this amazing canyon.

Transportation

Fish River Canyon is a bit adventurous. It is not a too famous tourist destination and it isn’t too developed for tourism. So, it is not as easy to get there as many other popular tourist places. For example- there is no public bus or train to Fish River Canyon. Then, how to reach it?

There are three ways to get to Fish River Canyon (actually, there could be more but you have to be too adventurous to do it).

The first option is by car, and this is the most popular way to do it. You rent a car in Namibia or South Africa- the most common starting points are Capetown and Windhoek. Then you drive the car to Ai-Ais, Hobas, or Klipspringer Station.

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The second option is by plane- but only by private or chartered flights, again from Windhoek or Capetown. Needless to say, this option can be quite expensive. There is a small airstrip near Hobas where the planes land and you can start your Fish River Canyon adventures.

On a gravel road to a Fish River Canyon viewpoint
On a gravel road to a Fish River Canyon viewpoint
Joining a tour

The third option is to join a tour. However, this option is only for those who want to get a glimpse of Fish River Canyon for 1-2 days, without spending 4 or 5 days hiking, because usually, these tours follow a longer route that includes many more destinations. Take a look at this one:

  • 25-day Cape Town to Victoria Falls Kruger Camping. This is a long route that starts from Cape Town in South Africa, goes northward to Namibia, visits there several spots, including Fish River Canyon, and enters Botswana and Zimbabwe, where you can see the famous Victoria Falls. Finally, you back to South Africa, and explore the famous Kruger National Park. In general, by joining this tour you can see the most essential places in the southern part of Africa.

But if you find this tour too long and expensive, here is another one:

  • Cape to Namibia- 14 days. This route connects Cape Town with Windhoek. During the trip, you will visit many attractive destinations like the Namib Desert, Etosha National Park, and Fish River Canyon. You will also have an opportunity to enjoy some beaches of the Atlantic Ocean coast at Swakopmund.
Hiking prohibited
Hiking prohibited

Seasons

The best time to visit Fish River Canyon is from May to September. This is the winter season. It is dry and not too hot (although sometimes the temperature can reach 40°C). The area is located in the dry tropical zone, it is a desert area, so the temperature difference can be huge between day and night. During the night, it can be quite cold- not freezing, but still enough cold so you should prepare proper clothes while you go hiking.

The rest of the year is hot, very hot. 40°C is now regular, and it can be even hotter- 45, 48, even 50°C! It is too dangerous to hike in such heat, that’s why the treks are halted. So, in summer you can only visit the viewpoints at the canyon rim, but you should forget about hiking.

This is Fish River Canyon- a giant trench, one of the “scars” of Africa. The whole landscape of this part of the continent is full of vastness beyond the horizon. And this canyon makes the landscape a magnificent feature of our planet. The canyon’s views are magnificent, and the taste of the treks is full of adventures, but there is more- Fish River Canyon is a precious jewel of the geography of the Earth.

Take a look at this video for more impressions from Fish River Canyon

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This is an essential guide to Fish River Canyon in Namibia, including geographical information, details of the main trail and more. This is an essential guide to Fish River Canyon in Namibia, including geographical information, details of the main trail and more.

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