The Fish River Canyon

Hiking the Fish River Canyon

2 September 2011:
The long drive north from Cape Town to Ai Ais, Namibia started in the heaviest downpour we’ve had all winter. We packed the bakkie in the freezing cold and dark, wind howling, storm drenching us – the ultimate antithesis to the experience we were about to have.

Neither of us had been north of Clanwilliam on the N7, so the drive was fascinating as the dry Northern Cape unfolded before us. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day, so most of the Namaqualand flowers were bashfully closed but colourful yellow, orange and purple bursts peppered the landscape as we went further north.

Springbok was slightly depressing with it’s Friday noon dronkies and layabouts but we were amused to see a parade of tromppoppies strut their stuff on a field and the sunny koppies with wild daisies and kokerbooms were beautiful.

The border crossing into Namibia at Noordoewer was tedious but smooth. Most remarkable was the instant change of landscape. Suddenly we were in the desert. I would soon learn that the apparently barren landscape was filled with life – an abundance of interesting fauna, flora and geology.

We arrived at Ai Ais around 5pm where we met our companions for the hike, our friends, Marisa and Rod and Chantelle and Richard… New friends. They had already set up camp and prepared a delicious potjie for dinner.

Saturday 3 Sept 2011 (day1)
we made an early start, repacking the backpacks and preparing to descend into the canyon for the next 6 days. My 80 litre borrowed backpack was enormous and heavy, I imagine about 18-20kg’s, and the thought of carrying it 90km was a tad daunting. Had I known just how heavy it would feel over the week, I think I would have chosen a smaller pack. I needed Ant to hoist it up for me in order to get it on. That said, we were all loaded to capacity and all experienced the same burden with remarkably good humour and few complaints.

We took a shuttle from Ai Ais to Hobas around 9am, stopping briefly to replace a flat tire and watch a couple of graceful but panicked gemsbok. Then we signed in and started the great descent into the Fish River Canyon as tourists gawked at us from the viewpoint at the top. It was slow and difficult as we adjusted to our packs and negotiated the steep, narrow path into the 500m deep canyon.

It took us about 2 hours to reach the riverbed where we breathed out a big sigh of relief and dived gratefully into the river for the first time. It was blazing hot in the midday heat, and remained scorching all the way through the hike, only frequent swims and cool evenings held any reprieve.

We walked on a few km’s and set up our first camp a little beyond another group who descended just after us, on a beautiful sandy beach on a dune above the river. We had
organized a cooking schedule where each couple would cook supper and wash up for everyone else for 2 nights. Richard and Chantelle had the first shift and served up delicious chilli beans and noodles before we lay down exhausted for our first night under the stars.

Sunday 4 September (day 2)
The canyon is high and narrow and impressive for the first 2 days with the riverbed filling most of it’s width. This makes walking tricky as you trudge through soft river sand and negotiate rocky riverbeds for vast stretches. We were exhausted by the time we reached Palm Springs, a natural sulphurous hot spring, only 15km’s into the walk. We’d passed an almost whole vespa and had a photo shoot. It’s origins sparked much debate until we reached the spring where we shared the hot pools with the other group and were told the story – a group of nutters had attempted to drive the canyon to prove it could be done on a vespa. They lowered the bikes into the canyon, unsurprisingly dropping and smashing one of them and quite remarkably getting one several km’s upriver before abandoning their absurd plan. We were finding it hard to walk and pick our route across soft river sand and long stretches of round rocks in the dry riverbed, let alone drive a vespa with almost no clearance.

We also came across 3 wild horses near the spring. We’d heard about the 30 odd horses that populate the canyon and were hoping to spot them. The beautiful dark brown beasts seemed quite tame as we watched. Their herd are the descendants of horses left behind at the end of the 1800s by German soldiers after the Nama war.

Night 2 was spent on a lovely stretch of beach near the spring. Once again Richard and Chantelle fed us, this time a delicious mussel green and red curry as we tried to find well known constellations in the brilliant night sky.

Monday 5 September (day 3)
a study of the map sparked some concern as we were only 15km’s into the 90km route – so we knew day 3 was going to be a big day. We were pleased to discover that we had almost doubled our total distance before lunch, the midday heat forcing us to retreat under the shade of a beautiful big tree on the aptly named Fig Tree Bend. After a meal and a swim, it was time to push on. We passed the towering Walls of Jericho as the floodplain opened up into a much wider valley, without the testing obstacles we were used to. Instead the path was hard gravel and although it was well over 30 degrees and we were completely exposed on the barren desert floor, we managed to cover a lot of ground. By the time we had come to the end of Vasbyt Bend (with it’s beautiful white vygies which covered the earth like fresh snow), it was almost 6pm and we couldn’t walk another step. We had come about 25km’s in a day!

We found a tiny patch of sand in the rocky riverbed near running water (required for drinking purposes) just big enough for the 6 of us to sleep on. Ant and i named it leopard’s Lair as we found loads of large cat prints and there were perfect cat sized caves in the rockface above. We even saw the smaller paw prints of a young leopard intertwined with the prints of its parent. While the others nursed their sore muscles and blistered feet, Ant and I made a delicious butternut and sweet potato massaman curry which went down well before we all sank into a deep, restorative sleep.

The next day, Tuesday 6 September, was another scorching hot push. We wanted a rest day, and we needed to cover about 12pm in the morning to get just past Three Sisters, and an afternoon off. The hiking was hard but by this stage we’d toughened up. Only when the heat reached it’s nadir did we start to lose our impetus (and tempers) as the bend of the river past the Three Sisters didn’t offer any decent camping spots.

We trudged on over the rocky riverbed and finally flopped down under an acacia for a well deserved lunch break- whereupon Rod, proclaiming himself ‘restless’ decided to venture a little further round the bend.

He returned, bearing great news! Just round the bend, two large pools with a big, shady tree and plenty of soft sand and firewood was less than 200m away! Fortified by this knowledge we braved the mid-day heat and arrived at Camp Paradise. A swim and water refreshed us, and we lay lazing in the shade relishing the comfort and that we were not still walking. Later, as it got cooler, we had cocktails on the rocks of the river, and then it was Rod & M’s turn to cook. And cook they did, an impressive selection of chouri├žo, sun dried tomatoes and pasta.

We slept a well deserved night on the sand, ready for the next, long section – from Three Sisters to the mis-named Fisheagle Pools.

We awoke earlier than our previous evening’s alcohol consumption would have suggested and quickly set off on the second last leg; another long one- about 20km. However, the walking was far easier now with less boulder hopping and more long gravel paths cutting the meanders of the river. We went through a beautiful (if dry, and hot) pass to arrive at the grave of a German soldier from the Nama war – a pile of stones on the rocky ground that a passer-by had seen fit to decorate with cuttings from a nearby bush.

We were now in midge country: each of us had a small swarm of flies surrounding them, making breathing tricky and seeing without sunglasses impossible. Even with improvised fly-whisks cut from shrubs the midges were a constant irritation.t

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