Lizzie Williams
South Africa ZA
Jan 28, 2014 January 28, 2014

Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Category: Highlight of the Month

Experience an overwhelming sense of solitude from the viewpoints at the top, or splash around in the bubbling hot springs at the bottom, of the gaping chasm that is Namibia’s splendid Fish River Canyon.

About
The south of Namibia is a sparsely-populated, arid, desolate area with blinding sunlight and hard rocky ground. But in defiance of the bareness, the highlight in this region is the huge gash in the earth that is the Fish River Canyon. Spanning 160 kilometres in length and 27 kilometres in width, the gaping ravine reaches almost 550 metres in depth, and it is Africa’s second largest canyon (after Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge).

The towering rock faces and deep ravines were formed by water erosion from the meandering Fish River, as well as the collapse of the valley due to tectonic movements in the earth's crust over 500 million years ago. Today, it forms part of the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park that straddles the border with Namibia and South Africa.

The park boasts an astonishing array of flora and fauna, which are remarkably adapted for life in the desert. Plants such as cacti, succulents and quiver trees flourish, while herds of gemsbok or kudu wandering across the stony plains and birds of prey circling high up in the cobalt sky catch the eye.

Points of interests
The best view point over the canyon is 10 kilometres beyond Hobas Campsite, where on a lucky day you’ll get the shaded picnic area to yourself. From here, there are stunning views of the vast gorge and the long, meandering Fish River at the bottom. Depending on the time of year, you could be looking out to a dry river bed or a rainy-season raging torrent. Other outstanding vantage points from the top are at Hell's Corner and Sulphur Springs.

Driving south from Grünau to the southern end of the canyon brings you to Ai-Ais. While the views of the canyon itself aren’t anywhere close to being as spectacular as from the top, a refreshing dip in the hot springs here and a sighting of klipspringers bouncing effortlessly up the sheer, canyon walls makes the drive worthwhile. Ai-Ais is a Nama name meaning ‘fire-water’, and knowledge of the springs dates back to 1850 when a Nama herder discovered the springs whilst searching for lost sheep.

Since 1971, Ai-Ais has been a popular resort for visitors to the canyon with pleasant accommodation, campsite and restaurant, and the springs themselves have been harnessed into a series of recreational pools. An alternative way to explore for the adventurous is the four-day, 85-kilometre Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail that follows the river along the base of the canyon.

As loose sand and large boulders make progress tiring, and there are no facilities whatsoever so hikers are required to take absolutely everything with them, it is one of the most challenging and toughest hikes in southern Africa. But for those who are fit and determined enough to complete the trail, the four days are a magical wilderness experience in this immense gash in Namibia’s arid landscape.

Best time to visit
The weather in the interior offers exactly what the majority of people expect of Namibia – sunshine – and there are only a few isolated rain showers in October—November and January—February. However, due to extreme temperatures in the summer months (in the mid 30's to low 40's), and the risk of flash flooding, the Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail is only open from 1st May to 15th September.