The Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail


This is a short story of our trip to the Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail in Namibia, a five day hiking trail twisting through the second largest canyon in the world.  If you are planning on doing this hike you’ll get some idea of what it’s all about by reading this post and hopefully learn from our plentiful mistakes.  For any other details drop me a message and I’ll happily point you in the wrong direction.



Thinking back…Why could we not find a horizontal surface on an annoyingly box-shaped car to help with the camera angle?


OK, I’m going to skip the part where we drove on endlessly long, straight and narrow roads whilst keeping painstakingly to the speed limit.  To get from Gauteng to the Fish River Canyon takes forever and a day and you’ll be bored to death if I have to go on and on about the linear road between Olifantshoek and Upington, or the fact that we had to stop a million times as occupants’ bladders were not synchronized.  It was a fun road trip and the little piece of Dakar simulation on the final stretch towards the canyon didn’t disappoint.   Cap this of with a pre-hike meal at the Canyon Roadhouse, a lovely little gem close to the start of the five-day hiking trail, and you’ll be ready to roll.  We also camped here, which I would recommend.



Order a steak and a beer rather than coffee, the picture is worth a thousand words.



Lovely facilities at the Canyon Roadhouse if you arrive early




We dropped our bags and the majority of our group off right at the edge of the canyon, close to Hobas, before our little logistical game started.  You can opt to pay some dollars for a shuttle service or leave one vehicle at Hobas (the start) and one at Ai-ais (the end).  The shuttle would probably have saved us a bit of precious time but we opted for saving bucks instead.  It is also preferable to have some clean clothes at the end, so if you have to leave your vehicle somewhere, I would suggest choosing the end.  I must confess I was a little bit surprised that the shuttle vehicles didn’t have any windows, this whilst driving through dust storms that would suffocate the best part of a camel; The “African experience” I guess.


Like with any hiking trail, you will find the start at the start.  But, if for some reason you can’t find the start it’s always helpful to look at nature’s way of telling you where the start is.  You’ll be amazed what you can read from the natural elements if you point your head in the right direction.



To avoid confusion, this is the start


Two hours later, at 11:00 AM, we arrived back at the start of the hiking trail to find our group frying around in the African sun.  There was no time for hanging around any further as our self-proclaimed tour guide, Mr. D, was already on the edge, and I’m not referring to the edge of the canyon.



“And here we have the African municipal worker in it’s natural habitat”


I picked up my lightly packed race-lite backpack and flew down the mountain, no hassles.  Just kidding, it was horrible.  The bag was around twenty-six kilograms and way too heavy.  I stumbled backwards, tripped over a concrete chair, fell onto my back and couldn’t get back up.  I now have a little more respect for turtles in general.  With the help of provisional pro trail runner Jacques, the turtle was soon on his feet again and ready to roll down the mountain.


A bunch of tourists took a group photo while making some tongue in the cheek comments about my little failure before the start.  Their thoughts of us trying to get down this steep canyon edge must’ve been priceless and a little bit worrying.  This is Africa.



From the left: Tour guide Mr. D, Imported desert man and biologist “Die Louis Roodt”, Camille, Over protective sister Marissa, Provisional pro trail runner and fisherman Jacques, fisher-lady Jo, and overloaded me.


So, we started with Mr. D sprinting down the edge of the canyon like a mountain gazelle, trying to prove a point to the famous “tannie” that told a few of us that you could not do a hiking trail with trail running shoes; “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do, one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”.  Mr. D was a little bit ahead of 1966 though and wasn’t planning on doing any walking.  He only had two gears, running or hiking at running speed.  The hiking boot vs trail running shoe debate will in all likelihood carry on for a few more decades.  For this hike, wear what you like, wear what have and ignore the rest.



A not-so-smooth descent down to the Fish River


Back to the downhill.  My earlier turtle move made me realize that my borrowed backpack didn’t have an emergency release option and there was no way of me staying upright once it had toppled over.  I had to be a little bit more cautious than usual.  With my back against the wall, literally, I stayed on track as we headed down the steep descent to the Fish river curving its way through the bottom of the canyon.  Mr D, as expected, won the race and caught up with a group that started two hours ahead of us within the first three minutes of his hike, quite astonishing.  The rest of us moved at a reasonable pace and regrouped at the bottom where the eating and load shedding competition started.  The journey was quite interesting as everyone had become so generous by acting friendly and offering snacks and food, also referred to as weight.  It would be nice to have such generous friends all year round.



Tip number 1:  You don’t need 26 kilograms of bag on a descent like this


Day 1 was supposed to end one kilometer after seeing the famous Vespa scooters but after a lot of boulder hopping and leg presses our bodies were sending shock waves.  The majority vote went to not moving a foot beyond these motorbikes.  I got the feeling that by this point we probably had the same feeling as the guys that attempted to do the canyon on these bikes; “Up to this point and no further”.  Our tour guide was surprised though and his years of careful planning were shattered to pieces by these hiking rookies.  On a side note, people always speak of two scooters but I’ve only ever seen one, which is a bit weird as I would have expected them to bail their journey at the same time, at the exact same spot.  Nevertheless, something to perhaps ponder on.



Mr. D, pondering


It was indeed the end of the first day.  Out came the shoes, out came the tents, out came the snacks, out came the meat, out came the garlic bread, out came the stainless-steel braai grid, out came more food and too much of it.  A feast of note.



Our camping spot at the end of day one.  Note the handy little chair that Mr. D was using. Sitting on sand or rocks becomes annoying after a while.




“We can start at seven o’clock…No, let’s make it eight to be on the safe side as there is no rush…OK”.  These were the famous words spoken before we went to bed at the end of the first day.



When the sun shines that deep into the canyon, it means you are late.


The feast of note continued.  A breakfast with all planned essentials for the second morning combined with all the leftovers from the first day.  It was way too much food though and the fact that I had to seriously shed some weight meant that I couldn’t carry anything extra.  A local baboon was never far away, waiting in anticipation of the weight shedding exercise to start.  I got the feeling that I wasn’t the first to leave a perfect piece of biodegradable steak behind.  Now, before the greenies gets on my case, I didn’t feed the baboon, we played a game of Easter-egg hunting in August.


At 9h15 AM our guide was going nuts without saying a word and we were ready to go.  We missed our planned departure time, but only just.



Mr. D, still pondering


I honestly cannot remember much of the day apart from seeing my feet drag one after the other, from boulder to boulder.  Much like the first day, the second day again had lots of boulders to get over coupled with a lot of fabulous rock pools.  We saw another group swimming, but as we overstayed our bed and breakfast we had to catch up on a little bit of time so we could only visualize ourselves swimming in these lovely pools.



If you move early you get to swim in these lovely pools over lunch time.


We encountered a couple going the wrong way.  What?  Yes, because apparently on the other side of the river it looked more walk-able.  Mr. D kept them entertained while we passed by.  I am not much of an expert but going the wrong way never crossed my mind, even if it meant I had to climb up a cliff or wrestle a baboon for my piece of steak.  The grass didn’t look greener on the other side to be honest.  We were later informed by our self-proclaimed messenger that they were looking for the emergency exit as they were not planning on doing the entire route.  I suspect “Let’s go and hike the Fish River Canyon” might have been the guy’s idea and his wife didn’t opt to go the google route to see what it is all about.  He seriously needed that emergency exit sooner than later.



The first two days looked a lot like this


A considerable amount of time later we reached a sign that read, “Emergency Exit”, with an arrow basically pointing in the direction of a steep, rough and rocky, monster of a climb, to get out of the canyon.  I honestly would not want to go up there with a sprained ankle or broken leg or for any other sort of emergency.  In some cases, I would even argue the point of it being possible.  The question of what happens when you’ve reached the top also crossed our minds.  Do you need to walk for five days halfway across the desert to reach civilization or do you bargain on cell phone reception that is only scheduled to reach Namibia by 2087?  In hindsight, we should’ve check it out.  Nevertheless, I truly believed that the earlier couple’s relationship is now well and truly on the rocks.



Boulder hopping of note.


At the sulphur pools we had our lunch break in what felt like sitting inside a horse stable.  I don’t know why we chose that exact spot apart from there being a tree and some shade.  The sulphur smell outweighed the hot spring effect and miraculously not one of us chose to swim there, so we carried on.


After a long stretch of hiking we reached a beach-like setting close to the water, flat and even, perfect for camping.  But wait, the other side of the river looked greener, literally.  Ahead went the scouts, myself shoe-less through the river to the left and the provisional pro around the river to the right.  My mind got stuck in trying to avoid hitting my toes against the hidden rocks underneath the water and the provisional pro was already thinking of running up one of those mountains.  Nevertheless, we reached to other side and it was obvious that it was indeed greener on the other side.  The troops were informed as we returned back to base.  There were two options, either take the long way around or take short option, shoe-less.  The laziness overpowered the minds and into the river we went, one after the other.  As easy as this sounds, it wasn’t.  Our bags were still heavy and, in some cases, long.  Some people were shorter than others, meaning waist deep was not that far-fetched.  Couple that with heavy bags that couldn’t be lifted to head height and slippery rocks for uneven footing and we were set up for disaster.  As Camille started mimicking a rocking chair it was clear that disaster was about to strike, everyone was holding their breaths and it felt like an eternity before we realized she’d somehow managed to save it.  We could breathe again.  Reaching the greener side, we were informed by our self-proclaimed biologist that these green things were indeed thorns.  Who could’ve foreseen that.  As blow-up mattresses and thorns don’t really mingle the obvious decision was to track back to where we came from.  Oh, how lovely it was to see everyone’s optimism to cross the river for a second time.  This time it went better though and we were soon setting up camp.



Do not be fooled by how smooth you think it is


The provisional pro was tasked with finding wood.  Unfortunately, he got carried away and literally ran to the top of the canyon.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.  In his defense, when he came back, eventually, he did have some wood.  In the meantime, myself and the thorn identifying biologist were wood scouting as well and it was at this point where I came across a hiker of another group.  He left his friends behind to look for a camping spot and soon went back to fetch his wife’s backpack and the others.  They had a long day after probably spending too much time at the rock pools and his reaction after hearing that one of our guys went for a run up the canyon was priceless.



Jacques went for a jog, out of the canyon, to find some wood.


We settled in, started the fire and shared some stories of the day’s adventures while eating in style.




It got better, slightly, as we got off to an earlier start than the previous day.  Wait, hang on, a vanity case came out and Mr. D’s heart was barely holding.  Marissa decided to put her game face on before we started.  Two army men that raced us from day one were now ahead of us due to our slight river shuffle the previous day and she wasn’t planning on letting them win.  It wasn’t really a race, but with a few competitive spirits around at some point it became inevitable.



Marissa was pleased that Jacqiiiiieeee returned “home” following her mother-like, high pitched, calls


Off we went into different scenery altogether as the boulders shrank to rocks and sand became more of the norm.  What a beautiful place.



A nice day out of the office for Jo


Our lunch stop was one to remember, we found a large pool of ice cold water and went for a refreshing swim.  Jo turned into a snow angel in the water and relived her Midmar swimming days, contemplating her 2019 entry already.  The girls decided to show everyone that they had mastered the river crossing act and went to pose for a photo on the other side.  Baking in the sun we got our temperatures back up and enjoyed the off-time.



The water might not look that clean, but it’s drinkable, even without a purification device.  We used ours wrong the entire time.


All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Mr. D was throwing hand signals and we were back on track and shot right pass the point we intended on sleeping at the end of day 3, but we found quite a gem instead.





A river bank with lots of sand, clean water and lots of fish.  Yes, our provisional pro was hiding his real talent all along, the art of fly fishing.  Jacques was captured in this moment until after sunset and not even the motherlike, high-pitched calls from Marissa could draw his attention.  The biologist was reading his book, C took care of their washing, Jo was drawn into the fishing expedition and becoming an expert herself, Marissa was calling “Jaaaacqiiiieeee” while making some fancy coffee, I was still trying to figure out the water purification device I was forced to carry along, and Mr. D, well he was probably thinking of launching his book “How to hike, in perfection”.



Fisher-lady Jo caught a fish.


The standard supper routine became more simplified as time rolled on.  We were moving ever so closer to being experts, although we started light years away.




At this stage of the hike we were all very aware of what a zip sound meant early in the morning.  As our biologist mentioned, “no one wants to be that guy that everyone waits for”.  A suspicious zip sound triggered everyone, very early, and you could hear people getting jittery.  Sleeping bags being squeezed into their bags, mattresses being rolled up, clothes being changed, bags being packed.  With the first glimpse of the outside world I realized the zip culprit was Jacques trying to work in another fishing session before dawn.  Nevertheless, most things were already packed and we got ready for an early breakfast.



The culprit responsible for our early start on the fourth day


Day 4 was the day of the big shortcuts.  It was essential for us not to miss any of them as we would have been in for a very long day.  Our tour guide was ready to take the longer routes which meant the rookies had to be very vigilant.  In fact, we were so vigilant on day 4 that we came across a lonesome wild horse.  Not scared, not fussed, just relaxing in the beautiful scenery of the canyon.



It’s a wild horse.


Shortcuts it was, and again the scenery changed.  From the boulders to the pebbles, the shortcuts gets you in that feeling of walking through the desert.  A different kind of beauty, the Namibian kind of beauty.  We knew we were making good progress.  We reached the grave of the German soldier where Jo gave us a complete history lecture of what had transpired there.  Thinking back, the only piece of history I can remember from this was that the laminated write-up had a few spelling mistakes on it, as was heavily emphasized.



The scenery changes after a while but never disappoints


It was a case of survival of the fittest.


Always a highlight of this day is the little tuck shop visible on the horizon following a long day of shuffling through what feels like an endless desert.  I had flashbacks of our famous day four when I did the same hike as a university student.  At the time we somehow managed to go on the six-day plan without noticing, got lost a couple of times and had to make up a hell of a lot of ground in one day.  I was completely toasted and was craving a coke from this tuck shop when I first saw it in the distance.  It might have been a bit of hallucination but it was like an oasis in the middle of nowhere.  When we eventually reached it and were met by only a locked door and an empty little hut, I was devastated.  I would’ve paid a lot of money to have had an ice-cold drink at the time, and probably would still do today.



When you cross this bridge you’ll find that lovely little tuck shop just up the road, closed.


We carried on for a little while longer, found a windy spot at the side of the river and set up camp for the final night.



Stretched out in peaceful silence


The forth day never disappoints


Learning from the master




What we’ve realized at this point was that there had been a slight change in weather that came with the change in scenery.  The morning of the final day was pretty cold and overcast and as we woke up rain was imminent.  Oblivious to the reality and fixed in routine some coffee water was being heated up and breakfast was being prepared only to be interrupted by a sudden down pour.  Our guide, Mr. D, was all smiles as he was prepared for anything that nature had to offer.  Karma finally hit back on the few mortals that had everyone waiting every morning.  I was one of them.



Mr. D ordered some rain to get his revenge on the final morning while Marissa won something



One would think my backpack would have gotten lighter by the final day, it didn’t.


Speed was a matter of reality and within record time everyone was ready to roll.  After only a few hours we realized that the end was in sight as we started to see some forms of civilization that messed up the perfect scenery.  Water pipes and pumps were visible upstream of the Ai-ais resort providing rich tourists the luxury of hotel living and having an “African Experience” from behind their camera lenses, how ironic.



Now that sign triggered something in all of us


When you see that sign, you are not there just yet.


Waiting in the distance, with massive smiles on their faces, were the two army guys.  We have lost.




The Fish River Canyon is one of those hikes that you’ll never get bored of.  With the scenery changes and thousands of different spots to pitch a tent you’ll never have the same experience twice.  Couple that with a group of awesome friends and it’s an unforgettable experience.



That’s it, go live a little.




{Photo credits to the entire group}


Oh wait, don’t go just get.  There’s a little treasure stash at top of the “mountain” at Ai-ais. Go look for it, write your name in it, send me a photo of our names and I’ll organize you something cool for your next adventure trip.