‘Fiffty Dolla’ the voice barked from behind the counter.
We looked at each other before Sue replied ‘The fees were paid in full’.
‘You want to hike, fiffty dolla!’
‘But there are only 4 of us and the original booking was for 12 hikers and was paid in full’.’
You want to hike?’ The official behind the counter repeated.
Heck, we had come all this way to hike the Fish River Canyon, so we paid the fiffty dolla. Thank goodness it was only Namibian Dollars.
It was 06h50 and we were at the Hobas Campsite to register to start our hike in the Fish River Canyon. As 4 hikers, we were one of three groups starting the Fish River Canyon hike on this crisp clear morning. Of the other two groups, one was a couple from Cape Town on their 6th hike of the canyon and the other, a group of 8 guys, some from the UK, hiking as part of a 50th birthday celebration.
Booking for the hike.
Our group had started as a reservation for 12 hikers, crystallized as eight confirmed and slowly whittled down to 4 starters in the preceding three weeks due to injuries, work commitments and changes in itineraries.
Amanda and I had travelled up to Ai Ais from the Garden Route via Loxton and Agrabies Falls to meet the two other hikers, Sue and Tatiana. The original plan had been to arrive about midday at Ai Ais, transfer by shuttle to Hobas and hike down the afternoon before our official starting date for the booking.
Africa has a way of taking the edge off of haste and encouraging you to relax and enjoy the journey.
Amanda and I had been distracted by the landscape full of quiver trees en route to Ai Ais and only arrived after 15h00.
Sue and Tatiata, departing from Cape Town at 05h00, had been delayed by an hour at the border post at Noordoewer.
Camping at Ai Ais meant that we had to catch the early shuttle at 05h30 to reach the registration office at Hobas when it opened at 06h30. The downside of this arrangement was that, in the dark pre dawn, we missed out on the desert landscape on the 60 minute drive.
Preparing for the hike
There are two types of people that book for a through hike of this nature, experienced hikers and accomplishment hikers.
In the lead up to the hike there had been a deluge of emails with equipment recommendations and proposals to share equipment to lighten packs.
As the only couple in the original planning stage, Amanda and I had opted to carry our own stove, carry a water filter and sleep in a tent. On a multi day self sufficient hike, sharing a stove is not advisable. Everyone has different food preparation requirements and preparation times. Relying on a shared stove, particularly in the morning, slows the whole process down resulting in staggered eating and often delays in packing up before setting off.
Amanda and I prefer to sleep in a tent. Valleys and canyons often develop localized wind patterns with resultant dust. Insect life, especially midges can be an unpleasant disturbance while sleeping. In the desert, scorpions and spiders can also be some interesting visitors.
Sue and Tatiana had opted to sleep without a tent to lighten their packs. At less than 800 grams, our tent wasn’t a load.
In the Fish River Canyon packing clothes is simple – comfortable hiking apparel for the day and warm light layers for the night. In the heat and low relative humidity in the canyon, hiking apparel can be rinsed each day at a midday stop and be dried before setting off again, requiring one outfit for the entire hike. Correctly selected, clothing shouldn’t weight more than 3.5kg.
With clothing, sleeping gear and cooking equipment weighing about 7kg, that leaves a comfortable 7 to 8kg for food, water and arbitrary gear.
Over the rim
There is no rush in Africa, and eventually our shuttle edged us closer to the start of the hike.
The trail starts at the Hobas view point which offers a panoramic view across and into the canyon. From here you can gaze 4.2km across the canyon to the western rim and 500m to the river bed below.
It is immense, and I was very glad that we were descending into the canyon in the morning instead of the afternoon. The lighting was superb, the textures in the crisp light offset by the geological tonal range in full sunlight.
In no rush, we setup for breakfast and coffee on the rim while the other two groups rushed ahead for the descent.
Savoring a fresh espresso and contemplating the geological range of over 680 million years that spanned before us was not something to rush.
The start of the hike is simple : walk to the edge of the plateau and step down past the large green painted rock onto the narrow track down the side of the cliff and keep going down for about 2 hours till you get to the river below.
You can go faster, but then you will miss out on all the remarkable flora wedged onto the slopes. Or the geological transitions that unfold beneath your feet and tower above you.
Reaching the river, we were introduced to our water supply for the next 5 days. In the grips of a long lasting drought, despite a flash flood that swept through the canyon in February, the river was a series of pools with emergent growth surrounding them.
At the base of the steep walls of the canyon, the water appeared blue, the reflection of the open sky above merging with yellow tones of sedimentary layers punctuated by yellow blossoms.
On closer inspection, the water had a khaki opaque tone with hints of olive. I was pleased we had our ceramic hiking water filter.
There was an advantage being the last group to reach the canyon floor, we could relax and snack without the intrusion of a group catching up to us.
Everyone has their reasons for embarkimg on a through hike of one of the deepest canyons in the world (Fish River Canyon is rated as the second deepest canyon in the world, however there is no real consensus of the ranking of the deepest canyons on the planet), but to be remote is one of the more frequent choices.
So we lingered in some shade as the temperature soared, readjusted our pack settings and reveled in the isolation that you get from being at the bottom of a 500m deep canyon in the middle of a vast desert.
Starting with the end in sight
A huge component of trekking through the canyon is planning your daily stages and targeting a potential overnight camp location. Obvious camp requirements are a level sandy area near water.
We had a Slingsby map and I had done a lot of desktop digital planning with tracks and waypoints loaded on both my Suunto watch and My Trails app on my smartphone.
Still, ground proofing of all planning can only be done when you know everyone’s hiking ability, the water levels and as we were soon to find out, heat tolerances.
For the first night we had targeted a river bend facing west just past the Vesper landmark which would give us approximately a 10km hike for the day.
The Vesper, painted in vivid shades of purples, has an interesting history well worth reading before doing the hike. In summary, in 1968, as part of a challenge, 6 members of the Vesper Club, embarked on a journey with three Vesper Scooters (Veni, Vidi and Vici), to travel the canyon to Ai Ais.
The first Vesper (Veni) was lost on the descent from the starting point and the second one lost when a raft punctured and it tumbled into the then flowing river.
The final Vesper, Vidi, was abandoned when the team, exhausted, decided to call it quits and take the emergency exit.
After five hours of hiking Sue was exhibiting signs of heat stress and we stopped on an outcrop of rocks overlooking a pool to rest. The section of canyon that we were in was now getting the full brunt of the desert sun and temperatures had risen to 33°C.
We rested for 2 hours, setting off as the shadows stretched across the canyon and chased the sunshine up the east wall.
Close to our resting spot I had found a spring trickling into the river and had filtered water refills for all of us before setting off.
With the extra delay, we made it to Vidi and decided, as there was a vast pools, we would camp there and make up the distance in the morning.
By this stage Sue was recovering from her heat stress and Amanda was now exhibiting symptoms of the same condition.
Despite both of them being rehydrated and having replenished their electrolytes, they still had to force feed themselves to recover fully.
From this experience, we had to change our game plan for the next day. The obvious strategy was to start hiking at dawn, rest over midday and drink frequently.
With the latter in mind I prepared to filter our water from the pool in front of us. It didn’t last long. The filter blocked within 500ml. I cleaned it. Another 500ml and it blocked again.
So for the rest of the hike we drank straight from the river, a progressively increasing brew of spirallena smoothie the further we went and the more dried up the pools became.
As the last rays of light crept over the rim of the canyon, night settled over us with an inky blackness of a new moon.
Beneath the Milky Way and the Southern Cross just visible above the velvet black rim, it was time to settle down for the night. A brisk breeze was drifting through the canyon and Tatiana was fast considering if sleeping under the stars was a good choice.
To start, she is Russian, petite and been living in South Africa for a decade. She has never slept under the stars and was rapidly discovering that, in the desert, creatures with more than 4 legs go out to forage in the coolness after dark.
We teased her, we comforted her and we reassured her that she would survive the night. Still she didn’t sleep a wink. She lay, embalmed in her mummy sleeping bag, on her back with her glasses on and torch at hand, alert and ready for whatever crawled out of the darkness.
Before dawn we rose, breakfasted, packed up, and in the lightening gloom, discovered from probing torch beams piercing the darkness down stream, that the couple, Herman and Trish, had been camping 300m further on from us and the larger group had camped where we had planned to camp.
Then, a troop of baboons barked from the canyon wall, and like shadows, slid around us, the dominant male approaching, vigilant for unattended food while the rest swung into a near by Namaqua Fig tree to feed on budding fruit and leaves.
With experience, Herman and Trish were the first to set off for the day and we soon followed, shadowed by the troop of baboons for the next 4km.
Our second day was 15.5km and began with 3.5km of boulder hopping. With Sue and Amanda both recovered, we went at a relaxed pace, exploring and photographing just about everything.
Amanda and I have a ritual of sharing a cup of coffee every day at mid morning and we definitely planned to uphold that in the Canyon.
The Fig Tree, after 4.5km was the perfect location. Growing slightly up the slope on the river right bank, it provided shade overlooking a series of long pools.
From there the terrain changed and the canyon hinted at widening, but only till the next bend.
With temperatures rising we started looking for a siesta spot and found shade from a large acacia near another pool.
Here we discovered two things. Firstly the pools were getting shallower with a deeper layer of silt at the bottom. Secondly, that some groups hiking the canyon have little or no respect for nature.
A group had obviously camped close to where we were resting and had made a fire. After eating they had simply thrown their food and snack packaging in the fire, scraped sand over it and left. We arrived to a scattering of partially burnt and intact plastic and foil trash strewn around where a troop of baboons had dug it up. From the items we found it was obvious that this had been left by an accomplishment group of hikers, people with little or no experience of through hikes.
What made it even more disturbing was the fact that the the canyon only opens officially on the 1st May – we started on the 4th May, indicating that this trash was from a group in the past three days. Sadly, for the rest of the main trail we would encounter similar disrespectful disposal of trash. We carried all our trash out which weighed less than 250g for two people.
As we settled for our siesta, Herman and Trish set off from their resting spot which had been 100m further on. Taking a different strategy, based on their hiking fitness, they were following a system of hiking for an hour and resting for 15 minutes. Both were thrilled to see us as they had been concerned about Sue on the first day and thought we had taken the emergency exit.
After a swim in the shallow pool we set off, passing the sulphur Palm Springs, a pungent hot spring of 56°C that flows strongly into the river. The next 1km of river, as a result of the spring, was the only flowing section of the Fish River that we encountered, and had lush vegetation and grasses flanking it.
Feeding on the lush grasses was a pair of plump wild horses, the fattest we were to see on the hike.
Towards late afternoon there is a bit of conflict between slowing down for photography and maintaining a brisk pace to reach a camping area as the canyon walls are saturated in rich sunlight. But you have to keep going to get the daily distance.
Pushing the time envelope we reached a site suitable for camping, a level sandy terrace tucked in a copse of vegetation, as dusk descended over the canyon.
By headlight we set up, replenished water and prepped dinner. Devoid of light pollution we lay back and took in the expansive Milky Way.
Then it began. At first there was just a tickle on my leg, a light caress up my calf. In the torch beam a fair sized spider scuttled into the dark.
For the next hour I must have been visited by every spider in a 100m radius of our camp. Strangely they weren’t visiting the others. The tent was definately going to be the best option for the night. As I drifted off to sleep I could hear Tatiana flicking a few spiders away.
The trail with many distances.
Every account that you read about the Fish River Canyon hike has a different distance. There is good reason for this and it is vital when planning your hike that you know your route and how far you will be walking. The Slingsby map has the official distance mapped at 68km. Others boast 80km and some even 100km. The shorter distance is the most direct route through the canyon which includes a few short cuts (which are now the primary trail) that cutout three main meandering loops of the canyon. There are also a few ‘shortcuts’ which take the shorter inner curve of some of the bends taking hikers on the shorter curve instead of along the edge of the river.
Mid morning of the third day, etched in the tumbled rocks of a wedge running up the slope opposite our coffee break spot was a disused shortcut. We couldn’t resist the urge to hike it. It was while having a coffee break that we decided to go off route, literally around the bend. The lighting was perfect, the air temperature cooler and the valley had opened up.
The trail had transformed from boulder hopping to clear paths which allowed for faster walking speeds and we were now ahead of our scheduled times.
Inspecting the map at a coffee break, Amanda mentioned that there was a disused shortcut that wasn’t recommended. As one, Sue and Tatiana agreed to take it and then head down to ‘lost bend’, a loop that would add 8km to our overall distance and mean a final hike of 23km on the last day.
We loved it for the adventure and for the fact that for the next 15km there wasn’t another set of human footprints in sight.
Again we had a troop of baboons ‘escort’ us for a part of the way. We even had to wait while a breeding pair of Ostriches crossed the river bed.
Most of all we enjoyed that when we got to our campsite we had a few hours of game viewing. On the far side of the pool, a water monitor climbed onto a rock and displaced an African Darter from sunning itself.
Then, arriving in a series of echoing barks and screeches, we had a family of baboons feeding and drinking along the waters edge for an hour.
In the late afternoon clouds began racing across the sky and a light breeze picked up. With the sun, racing towards the horizon and the clouds stacking up with the threat of rain, we set off to explore.
The ground was busy with spoor of the desert parched wildlife coming to drink at the two pools. A Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra hadn’t survived, its mummified skin holding it’s skeleton together in a crazy array of stripes.
Closer to the upstream pool Amanda picked up some fresh Leopard spoor leading to the waters edge where it drank before heading north along the river bank.
Deserts have the capacity to inspire, to nudge you to focus externally and concentrate internally. In the quiet beneath a sunset streaming through an exploding cloudscape, we sat in silence on a hillock of tumbled rocks. Then we did some yoga.
After dinner in the dark, we climbed into sleeping bags with the threat of rain above and a vivid thunderstorm raging far beyond the canyon rim to the east. None of us escaped the comfort of sleep that night.
The home straight.
At dawn we had packed and eaten and left with reluctance for the last leg of our hike. We would all have liked to take and extra day, to explore another canyon loop off the main trail, but commitments back in the real world demanded our planned return.
About 3km from our camp we saw another option for exploration, a contour valley that could be a shortcut. Both maps indicated that it was possible, but Slingsby was adamant that access was forbidden as it traversed private property.
With fresh vehicle tracks visible in the sand we decided not to risk prosecution for trespassing and followed the river course to meet up with the main trail just south of Four Fingers Rock.
We were glad we had kept to the route because we picked up another set of fresh Leopard spoor, so fresh it was probably watching us from close by.
With the valley wide open and the trail well trodden our hiking speed was rapid and we looked like we would reach the Ai Ais campsite at lunch time.
Presented with the option spending the afternoon in the campsite or the canyon, we chose the latter and stopped to rest up beneath an Acacia tree in the middle of the dry stream.
The plan was to have a siesta for and hour but nature had alternative plans for our entertainment. First up was a troop of baboons crossing the river bed, flipping rocks and foraging for invertebrates as they went. Then some raptors soared overhead, an African Fish Eagle and a Jackal Buzzard.
The main act began with the sound of rhythmic wind and sporadic honking. Then in formation, a flock of 100 White Backed Pelicans flew down the canyon and 1km beyond us began soaring. An immature Fish Eagle swooped in to challenge them, drifted up on a thermal and retreated as a second wave of pelicans flew in.
A third flock of 50 pelicans flew over us and joined the two soaring flocks above them. When they reached a height of about 800m, they turned and set off in a SSW direction.
With another 5km to the end we decided to follow them and set off at a brisk pace to the campsite at Ai Ais.
In all we had hiked 77.5km with 2km of exploring at Lost Bend.
Prefer a coastal trail to a desert hike?
The Garden Route Coastal Trail is a five day all inclusive guided slackpacking trail between Wilderness and Brenton on Sea in the Garden Route.
Plan a four day Fynbos hike in the Baviaans Kloof.
The Leopard Trail is an exquisite hike in mountainous fynbos that should be on every hikers bucket list in South Africa.