Hiking Namibia’s Fish River Canyon

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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.

Because 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.

Image by coda

Stage 1: The descent

Local 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

The 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

The 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

For 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 to Ai-Ais

The 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.

Practical information:

  • 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 130 Namibian dollars per hiker. Park entrance only is 30 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.