Hiker's Viewpoint, Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon: Namibia’s no-man’s-land

Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. On a road trip through the country, it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing another person. Nothing but wide-open desert landscapes below the bluest skies you’ve ever seen. And nowhere is that more true than at Fish River Canyon.

 

 

Located along Namibia’s southern border, Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in the southern hemisphere and probably the second-largest in the world. (I say “probably” because it’s difficult to measure. It’s 160+ km long, 27 km wide at its widest point, and over 500 meters deep. The only one that is definitely bigger is the USA’s Grand Canyon.) It cuts through rose-red desert cliffs and provides a surprising source of water for its resident springbok and zebra.

 

Best of all — if you venture to the canyon, you could have the whole thing to yourself.

 

Interested yet? Read on for how to make it happen!

 

What to see and do at Fish River Canyon

 

Just dangling my feet over the world's second largest canyon
Just dangling my feet over the world’s second largest canyon

 

The main attraction of Fish River Canyon is the landscape. You can take in the scenery at whatever activity level suits you best.

 

If you’re not super excited about hiking in the blazing sun and extreme heat, no problem! You can drive straight up to the main viewpoint at the north end (near Hobas). It’s best to aim for an early-mid morning arrival — too early and the canyon is shrouded in shadow, but too late and the light is too harsh.

 

About 1 kilometer away is the Hikers’ Viewpoint. The view — out over the signature bend in the river — is arguably the best. You can drive to within a couple hundred meters and walk along a flat path the rest of the way, or walk along the canyon rim from the main viewpoint. I highly recommend the latter, since you’ll get to see the landscape from different angles.

 

Sunrise and sunset at the canyon are quite popular. If you go, consider visiting again at a different time for a more tranquil experience. When my group visited at 9 am, we were the only people there.

 

If you’re really keen on desert trekking, you can hike the entire length of the canyon (between May and September only). This is one of Africa’s most epic treks — do not underestimate its difficulty. Most people do it in four or five days. You must book through Namibian Wildlife Resorts in advance, and you’ll be asked for a fitness certification from a doctor. You’ll need to be 100% self-sufficient (including carrying a backup supply of water). Lonely Planet provides in-depth info on the trek here.

 

Day walks in the canyon are not allowed — it’s either the full trek or a short jaunt along the rim.

 

Stops along the route to the canyon

 

Cute little quiver tree along the road to Fish River Canyon
Cute little quiver tree along the road to Fish River Canyon

 

Since getting to Fish River Canyon takes the better part of a day, you may want to break up the journey. And the good news is, there are plenty of interesting places to do so!

 

Coming from Windhoek/northern Namibia

 

If you’re coming from the north, stop off at the Quiver Tree Forest, just north of Keetmanshoop. The Quiver Tree is an icon of Namibia. It’s related to aloe. You’ll see these cute little plants all over the country, but the area known as the Quiver Tree Forest is home to hundreds of them.

 

Nearby, you can visit a mesosaurus (dinosaur! well, kind of) fossil site run by one of Namibia’s most charming and enthusiastic guides. It’s more interesting than it sounds, and the property is quite beautiful.

 

Along the side road to the Quiver Tree Forest, you’ll pass the Giant’s Playground. It’s really just a fancy name for a bunch of cool rock formations, but it’s worth hopping out of your car for a quick photo stop.

 

 

Coming from Lüderitz/western Namibia

 

If you’re coming from the west, it’s worth breaking up your journey in Aus. This little village — blink and you’ll miss it — is home to a couple interesting attractions.

 

As you’re driving from Lüderitz, keep your eye out for the windswept sign saying you’re entering diamond territory. Diamonds are serious business here, and you’re not allowed to venture off the roads to explore, lest you steal a priceless gemstone.

 

Shortly after you pass the sign, you’ll see a turnoff to a man-made water hole. This is the best place to see Aus’s legendary desert-adapted wild horses. These fascinating creatures have eked out a living in some of the planet’s most inhospitable conditions. Their populations dwindle at dangerous levels. If you’re interested in learning more about conservation issues affecting Aus’s horses, I strongly encourage you to check out the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation.

 

Drive a little further to reach the Klein Aus Vista lodge and campsite. If you can squeeze a night here into your itinerary, you should — it’s one of Namibia’s most beautiful, off the beaten path, isolated spots to camp. But even if you can’t stop for the night, it’s worth dropping by to try out one of the short hiking or mountain biking trails. You’ll want to stretch your legs before putting in another four hours on the road!

 

Getting to Fish River Canyon

 

The railroad tracks along the road. This is all you can see for hours.
The railroad tracks along the road. This is all you can see for hours.

 

Fish River Canyon sees fewer visitors than other major Namibian attractions, like the Namib Desert and Etosha National Park. That’s not because it’s any less beautiful. It’s just because it’s really, really, really far away. Really.

 

If you’re coming from or heading to South Africa, you’re in luck — the canyon is only a couple hours’ diversion from the main road. A few overland companies do this route.

 

But from anywhere in Namibia, you’re looking at a long, hot day on the road. You’ll need to either be on a tour or have your own car. Due to driving distances, the fact that no one drives after dark, and the total remoteness of this region, I would not recommend hitching unless you’re prepared to wild-camp for the night.

 

 

The first step is to get to Keetmanshoop. This is Namibia’s southern-most main town. It’s got a collection of hotels, a few restaurants, (very useful!) auto repair shops, gas stations and supermarkets. Keetmans is your last chance to stock up on supplies before heading out to the canyon.

 

Once you’ve stocked up on supplies, head another 20 km south and you’ll see the turnoff for Fish River Canyon. It’s a small gravel road, but it’s clearly signposted. Be careful on this road if you’re self-driving — if you have a breakdown or get in an accident, you may be stranded without help for a long time.

 

Northern vs. Southern End

 

Next, you’ll need to decide whether to go to the northern or southern end of the canyon.

 

The accommodation options and campsites at the northern end are better, and it’s quicker to drive there. But the south has the Ai Ais Hot Springs, where you can relax after exploring the canyon.

 

Hobas is the gateway to the northern rim — follow the signs. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive on the gravel road. This is super-remote territory — on the way there, I didn’t encounter a single other vehicle. The only signs of civilization were a dam and small vineyard (yes, really), and a sign for “cold drinks” with no people or shop or cold drinks in sight. The road follows a set of eerie, abandoned train tracks through stunning desert scenery. Be sure to take some breaks for photos!

 

The turnoff to the southern rim is just a few kilometers away from Hobas. I didn’t do this drive, but it’s probably at least another hour.

 

Whichever way you go, don’t let the desert fool you. Plenty of wildlife live out here. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled — I saw my first zebra minutes before reaching my campsite, long after I’d given up hope of spotting anything.

 

Where to stay in the canyon area

 

Quiver trees growing out of trucks at the amazing Canyon Roadhouse
Quiver trees growing out of trucks at the amazing Canyon Roadhouse

 

One of the highlights of a trip to Fish River Canyon is the funky accommodation options nearby.

 

There is a campsite right at the canyon rim at Hobas. While this would be convenient, it didn’t look very appealing.

 

A better alternative is to stay about 20 km away from the rim. There are a handful of lodges and campgrounds in the area, but I highly recommend Canyon Roadhouse. It’s the most characterful campground/lodge in Namibia. Beat-up old trucks with quiver trees growing in them line the front yard. The restaurant is filled with Route 66-style paraphernalia. It has an on-site petrol station, a great, clean pool, the best bathrooms of any campground I found in Namibia, and charging stations at all the campsites. It even has free (slow) WiFi!

 

On the south side, your best bet is the lodge/campground at Ai Ais. It’s an okay option for hikers, but my guide said he stopped bringing groups there after people complained about the campsite.

 

Wherever you choose to stay, make the most out of your desert experience by climbing the cliffs for sunset. You’ll gain a real appreciation for just how remote this little corner of Africa is.

 

Have you been to Fish River Canyon? What did you think? Leave a comment!

 

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Plan your visit to Fish River Canyon in Namibia, Africa

 

Read more about Namibia here

 

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