The Fish River Canyon in Namibia is one of those places that makes you feel like you’re on a different planet. Namibia itself is a very dry country, giving it a barren, almost other-worldly appearance. But pair that with a massive canyon vista, and you have the makings of a very special place.
Fish River Canyon is located in southern Namibia. It’s the largest canyon in Africa, and the second-largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon. Sedimentary layers consisting of shale, sandstone and igneous rock around the canyon may date as far back as two billion years ago!
The canyon itself was created over 500 million years ago from a combination of water erosion and the collapse of the valley bottom due to shifts in the earth’s crust. This activity created a huge ravine, which runs for approximately 161 km. The Fish River Canyon ends at Ai Ais, at which point the river then flows into the Orange River. The altitude ranges from less than 100 m at the lowest part of the Orange River to 1654 m at the Namuskluft peak.
The Fish River Canyon is as deep as 550 meters in some places, and the Fish River which cuts through it is the longest interior river in Namibia (800 km). During the dry season it becomes a mere trickle, forming a long string of pools. As for the terrain in and around the canyon, it’s primarily rocky, sandy and dry.
The fault zones that formed the canyon sides causes groundwater to rise to the surface, creating a number of natural hot springs.
Flora and Fauna
We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife during our visit to Fish River Canyon. But the plant life was all around us, even though it’s sparse. Fish River Canyon falls into the hyper-arid zone, and is one of 25 recognized biological “hotspots” in the world.
The Fish River area is home to over 100 endemic plant species and over 84 tree species. In particular, deciduous dwarf shrubs, grasses and succulents thrive here, despite the arid, hot climate.
The odd tree scattered here and there makes their presence even more striking against the backdrop because of their rarity. For example, this lone quiver tree:
Quiver trees are actually part of the aloe family. They got their name because the local bushmen tribes hollow out the branches to make their quivers.
Three species of quiver trees range from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Much of their decline is due to climate change. They also grow very slowly, and are prone to insect infestations.
Several species of aloe grow here as well:
The plant life here has adapted to its surroundings over time. Some plants are covered in sticky hairs to collect moisture, or to trap sand in order to protect themselves from drying out. Other plants have spines or release poisonous sap to deter animals from nibbling on them.
In terms of wildlife, the Fish River area is home to several types of reptiles and amphibians, including frogs, toads, tortoises, geckos, snakes and skinks. Common small mammals include shrews, bats, mice and rats. Large mammals cover pretty much the sort of animals you’d expect to see on a safari – giraffes, foxes, zebras, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, rabbits, etc. The area is also home to over 240 species of birds.
If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of wild horses. They’re thought to be descended from horses that the German colonists left behind after World War I.
Hiking the Canyon
The hiking trail through the canyon is one of the most popular trails in Southern Africa. It’s also very challenging. It runs a length of 85 kilometres across some rough terrain. But it’s easy to see why the area is so popular. The landscape is spectacular. But you really wouldn’t want to get lost here:
The full hike through the canyon can be completed in four or five days. You can book reservations through Namibia Wildlife Resorts. (You will also require a doctor’s note stating that you’re fit enough to attempt the hike!) There aren’t any facilities along the route, so you need to be fit enough to carry all the gear required for the trek.
Keep in mind that Namibia Wildlife Resorts only take reservations for groups of 3 to 30 hikers. Also, the hike is only available between April-September due to the extreme temperatures in summer. The temperature can vary anywhere from 5 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius during hiking season, but summer temperatures of up to 48 degrees Celsius are not unheard of in this region.
The river water is relatively safe to drink, but you should still bring water purification tablets.
Another great way to experience the canyon is by air – you can charter a scenic flight if that’s more your style!
Where to Stay
This isn’t an exhaustive list of accommodations, but these all have something unique to offer.
Lodges and Resorts
Ai Ais Hot Springs Resort – As noted earlier, there are natural thermal hot springs at the southern end of the canyon at Ai-Ais. That would be a relaxing and restorative way to end a five-day hike!
Bahnhof Hotel Aus – This hotel has 21 rooms, including a few self-catering cottages. They offer several day trips and tours, including sundowner drives, visiting the Prisoner of War camp, and viewing the feral horses in the area.
Fish River Lodge – This is the only accommodation on the rim of the canyon. Their 20 chalets overlook the canyon for gorgeous views.
Mesosaurus Fossil Camp – Do you like fossils? Then this camp might be the one for you! The Mesosaurus Fossil Camp offers their very own Mesosaurus Fossil Tour. They have 6 campsites and 4 chalets.
Amanzi River Camp – This camp is situated on the Orange River. They also offer river rafting tours which I would highly recommend. You can read about our own adventure canoeing on the Orange River on the South Africa side here (we also used a different tour company for our excursion).