Fish River Canyon

A large-scale geological heritage

Address

/Ai-/Ais-Richtersvel Transfrontier Park, C13, Namibia

GPS: -28.011731699419, 17.160926481089

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The Fish River Canyon is in the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park which was created in 2003 following the merger of Ai-Ais National Park (Namibia) and Richtersveld National Park (South Africa). It is a meandering gorge through spectacular, vast landscapes in a remote and very arid part of southern Namibia, just a short distance from the Kalahari Desert. The Fish River Canyon was formed after a long natural process of water erosion and plate tectonic movement. According to geologists, recent evidence discovered in the region confirms the presence of a vast ocean (the Damara Ocean) at this location in a very ancient period. This could correspond to the separation of the continental masses of South America and Africa initiated several hundred million years ago within the supercontinent Pangea.

Up to 27 kilometres wide and 550 metres deep in places, the Fish River Canyon stretches for more than 160 kilometres between the areas of Seeheim in the north and the Ai-Ais hot springs in the south. Its cyclopean proportions make it one of the largest canyons in the world and the largest on the African continent, ahead of the Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. Only the natural site of the Grand Canyon in Arizona (United States) can boast to even greater dimensions.

Overlooking the deep ravines of the Fish River Canyon, high cliffs are home to several specimens of flora, including the country’s national tree, called kokerboom (or Aloidendron dichotomum). Below the site, the Fish River offers many opportunities for outdoor activities for hikers, photographers and adventure seekers. Several viewpoints connected by a network of trails allow you to enjoy the local sights of the Fish River Canyon in a peaceful environment away from mass tourism. Particularly dry during the dry season, the riverbed can become a raging torrent after the summer rains (January to April).

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  • The depth of the ravines and the gigantic cliffs of the Fish River Canyon; the mountainous and desert landscapes; the absolute silence while visiting the place
  • Ai-Ais Hot Springs (an oasis south of the canyon); Sulphur Springs (or Palm Springs); The view point Hell’s Bend
  • Multi-day hiking trails: Kodaspiek Trail, Vensterval Trail and Lelieshoek-Oemsberg Trail (trails open to the public only between April and September); adventure mule rides; the annual Windhoek Light Fish River Canyon Ultra (100-kilometer one-day race in June)
  • Gondwana Nature Park (east) and Canyon Nature Park (north); Orange River Valley in the south (the Orange River is South Africa’s longest river); Nama Karoo and Succulent Karoo desert plateaus between Namibia and South Africa (horseback riding)
  • The rock formations Hell’s Bend, Table Mountain, Four Finger Rock and Three Sisters rock towers; the horizontal dolomite strata
  • The diversity of the local flora: more than 1,500 varieties of plants including many endemic species (these plants adapted to arid environments are called “succulents” because of their large quantity of juice); the Aloidendron dichotomum (also called Quiver Tree or Kokerboom); the nests of weaver birds nestled in these thread-like and rubbery trees
  • The presence of wildlife despite the arid climate: reptiles, insects, fish, birds, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, Klipspringer (small antelopes), springboks, kudu, leopards, jackals, hyenas, baboons, wild horses…)
  • Rafting and canoeing (on the Orange River), fishing, rock climbing, mountain biking and stargazing; boat ride from the border town of Sendelingsdrif (south of the canyon); spectacular sunrise and sunsets; traditional Namas lifestyle and music (including Nama Stap songs and Nama Langarm dances)
  • Die Toon archaeological site on the South African side (traces of human habitation dating back to 2200 BC)
  • The Fish River Canyon is thought to have been formed about 350 million years ago (compared to 180 million years for the Blyde River Canyon and 6 to 70 million years for the Grand Canyon).
  • Its deep gorge was created by the collapse of the valley after the fracturing of the earth’s crust. Then, the canyon was sculpted over the millennia by the erosion of the water of the Fish River.
  • A Nama legend told by the Bushmen (San people) states that the canyon was shaped into its curves and turns by a giant snake called Kouteign Kooru trying to escape its captors.
  • Much of the canyon is dry due to the construction of the Hardap Dam near Mariental, where the headwaters of the Fish River have been blocked since 1963 (this dam represents the largest water reservoir in Namibia).
  • The ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park holds another treasure within the Huns Mountains. This is an archaeological site dubbed Apollo 11 Cave by German archaeologist Wolfgang Erich Wendt that includes tens of thousands of artifacts, the oldest ever discovered in southern Africa. They consist of tool remains, prehistoric drawings, art pieces, carved stones and cave paintings that attests to a human presence dating back about 100,000 years.
  • The Fish River Canyon area is still inhabited by several communities of Namas, a pastoralist people of southern Africa who are part of the Khoekhoe and who rebelled against German colonization.
  • Springboks have black spots around their eyes to avoid being dazzled by the sun and to help them spot predators.
  • Namibia is the first country in Africa to have included environmental protection in its constitution.
  • A permit is required to walk the canyon (this can be booked in advance with the Namibia Wildlife Resorts organization based in the Namibian capital Windhoek). You will also be asked for a medical certificate of fitness dated less than 40 days before the trip.
  • As a precautionary measure, be sure to book your accommodation as soon as possible (the capacity is relatively low in this geographical area).
  • A four-wheel drive vehicle is required to travel the sandy and rocky trails of the park (make sure you have enough water and all the necessary equipment before leaving on your excursion). A flashlight or headlamp can be useful after sunset.
  • Avoid visiting the Fish River Canyon between October and March as the extremely hot temperatures are uncomfortable. Also, most hiking trails are closed to visitors at this time of year.
  • A long hike along the canyon for almost 90 kilometers can be done in 5 days from the town of Hobas to Ai-Ais (a good level of physical condition and preparation is required).

Where to eat

  • Mohegan Spur
    (a sense of welcome)
  • Canyon Roadhouse
    (folkloric atmosphere)
  • Bahnhof Hotel Aus
    (neat establishment)

Where to go

  • Quiver Tree Forest
    (endemic trees)
  • Naute National Park
    (intimate nature reserve)
  • Gondwana Canyon Park
    (conservation area)

Where to stay

  • Noordoewer Guest House
    (spacious guest house)
  • Fish River Lodge
    (on the edge of the canyon)
  • Canyon Lodge
    (well-integrated into the landscape)