Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon

In the far south of Namibia, the Fish River rises in the centre of the country, before flowing south into the Orange River, on Namibia’s border with South Africa. In between, it has formed the great Fish River Canyon – the largest canyon in the southern hemisphere, and probably only second to Arizona’s Grand Canyon in terms of size. Approaching the Fish River Canyon from the north is like driving across Mars. The vast rocky landscape breaks up into a series of spectacular cliffs, formed by the Fish River as it meanders between boulders over half a kilometre below. Its size is impressive: 161km long, up to 27km wide and almost 550m at its deepest. Keep in mind that the river is seasonal and generally only flows in the rainy season from January to April.

Holidays to the Fish River Canyon area

Most of our visitors who come to the Fish River Canyon will come for a few days as part of a self-drive holiday around the country; flying here can be costly, and there are currently no scheduled planes flying this way. The main attractions of the area are:

Ai Ais National Park

The area around the southern part of Fish River Canyon was proclaimed a conservation area in 1969. The land was as poor in potential for agriculture as it is rich in potential for tourism, and this was a way of protecting the area from uncontrolled development. The 345,000ha national park now encompasses Ai-Ais and Hobas. A more recent initiative has seen the park linked with the environmentally similar Richtersveld in South Africa, to form Namibia’s first transfrontier or peace park: Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

Flora and Fauna

Driving around you will probably see few larger animals, though there are many if you look hard. These include herds of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, small groups of kudu and the smaller klipspringer antelope, which are usually seen in pairs. Baboon make no secret of their presence if around, and dassies (alias rock rabbits) are common, but leopard, though certainly present, are very rarely seen. It’s not unusual to drive for a few hours, and see no mammals at all.

Birds, too, are around but often not obvious. This isn’t a centre for birdwatching, as only about 60 species are thought to live here, but look out for the majestic black eagle, as well as the rock kestrel and rock pigeon, and especially for the localised yellow-rumped eremomela which occur near Ai-Ais. Karoo bustards and ostrich are the highlights of the open plains above the canyon itself. In the canyon itself, herons, cormorants and kingfishers take advantage of the river’s bounty, while both martins and mountain wheatear keep the hiker company from above.

Vegetation is sparse. Both on the top and on the canyon’s slopes, the larger species are mostly euphorbias, with the odd quivertree and occasional deep red aloe, Aloe gariepensis. However, parts of the canyon’s base where there is water are quite lush – like the Sulphur Springs with its palm trees and further south towards Ai-Ais. There you can expect camelthorn, wild tamarisk and ebony trees, amongst others.

Hiking in the Fish River Canyon

Keen hikers will know that the Fish River Canyon hike is one of Africa’s a toughest hikes. This five-day, self-guided hike is possible for groups of three or more people, but only when it’s cool (May – Sept). We can arrange for the permits and transport to get you to and from the hike – perhaps building it into a fly-drive itinerary. We can even arrange for a professional guide to accompany you, or a satellite phone to take. However, the responsibility for buying and carrying all your food and equipment remains strictly with you. Once you start the hike, there’s no easy way out!

For a slightly less demanding options, ask us about the shorter hikes, plus a full five day full supported hike, organised by Fish River Lodge in the Canyon Nature Park – slightly up-river from the national park, on the western side.

Geology of the Fish River Canyon

Surprisingly the canyon was not in fact carved out by water erosion of the Fish River. The beginnings of the canyon started about 500 million years ago when a fracture of the earth’s crust resulted in the collapse of the valley bottom forming a broad valley running north-south. Southward moving glaciers deepened it with more faults and erosion adding to the effect. It was only about 50 million years ago when the Fish River started to cut its way along the valley floor. The fault accounts for the gorge-like channel and the occurrence of the hot sulphurous springs found at Ai-Ais.

Africa’s Largest Canyon?

Pedants cite Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge as being Africa’s largest canyon. It is certainly deeper than the Fish River Canyon, at about 1,000m, but it is also narrower (about 20km wide at its widest), and probably shorter as well. Like many vague superlatives, ‘largest’ is difficult to define. In this case, we would have to measure the volume of the canyon – and even then there would be questions about exactly where it begins and ends. Suffice to say that both are too large to take in at one sight, and both are well worth visiting.

History of the Canyon

Situated in a very arid region of Namibia, the Fish River is the only river within the country that usually has pools of water in its middle reaches during the dry season. Because of this, it was known to the peoples of the area during the early, middle and late Stone Ages. Numerous early sites dating from as early as 50,000 years ago have been found within the canyon – mostly beside bends in the river.
Around the beginning of this century, the Ai-Ais area was used as a base by the Germans in their war against the Namas. It was finally declared a national monument in 1962. Ai-Ais Restcamp was opened in 1971.
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