Hiking in the Fish River Canyon

Made it: Jessica celebrates while crossing the finish line at Ai-Ais. Photo: Erwin Leuschner

Hiking in the Fish River Canyon

A true test of character

12 August 2019 | Tourism

Clang, clang, clang… I slowly open my eyes as unfamiliar and loud banging rings in my ears. “Get up“, our team leader yells while he continues hitting his small pot with a wooden stick. The clanging echoes from the rock face surrounding us. I leisurely stretch while peering into the pitch black around us. “Come on, wake up,” he insists - what a rude awakening!

Erwin Leuschner

Day 1 - Getting started

It is just after 5 am having spent our first night in the Fish River Canyon. We are due to spend four more nights like this. “Okay- okay, we are awake,” I mumble and to the satisfaction of our team leader, I start crawling out of my sleeping bag. “You can quickly prepare some coffee, but then we need to leave. We still have a long way ahead of us,” he continues. My upper legs are stiff from yesterday’s descent and the thin sleeping mat did not exactly help much. I feel much older than I am. Surprisingly, it is quite warm. “What’s the time?” Jessica mumbles from a distant corner. “Well, it’s time to get up”, I reply surly - I am not a morning person.

We are a group of five hikers taking on the second largest canyon in the world - but that becomes a relative concept. “The Fish” is regarded as one of the most popular hiking routes in Southern Africa, if not the most popular. The entire route - if you make use of all the shortcuts - is roughly 75 kilometres long and starts at the main viewpoint close to the campsite Hobas. In five days we are due to arrive at the hot springs of Ai-Ais.

Yesterday’s descent down into the canyon was anything but child’s play. It took us close to three hours before we reached the bottom of the canyon. The elevation at that point is close to 600 metres. “Be very careful and make sure your footing is secure,” our team leader had previously warned us, pointing out: “One wrong step and the entire hike is over”. It was a hot day and I still fondly remember the first pool we reached at the bottom, where we swam and cooled off. Hiking the fish river is only allowed between the months of May and September, as the hot summer months render such hike close to impossible.

During the first day we only managed to cover another five kilometres, before setting up camp for the night. Jessica is a bit squeamish as regards the multitude of small creatures, so she put up a small tent, while we made dinner. Pasta and tuna - it was a feast befitting a king.

Day 2 - From boulder to boulder

We were all ready to tackle the day long before sunrise and with our heavy backpacks buckled up tightly we anxiously waited for the next command. “All ready?” our team leader asked one final time and then we started walking, if one can call it that. The first stretch of the canyon is characterized huge rocks and boulders, making for slow progress. But fortunate for us the river currently does not flow which proved the hike substantially easier, as there was no need to continuously cross the water. The disadvantage was though, that you had to fill up your water bottles at every opportunity as you never knew, when you would find water again.

Having hiked a couple of kilometres on this day, we come across the remnants of a motorcycle perched on an outcrop - a most peculiar sight indeed. This Vespa has been an attraction for hikers since the late 1960’s. It is known as “Vidi” and is one of three Vespas originally brought down into the canyon. As we continue on foot, hopping and jumping from one boulder to the next, we are welcomed by a baboon. Sitting on a rock, he lazily observes us, but cannot quite hide his curiosity. “Hello Heinrich,” I greet him and he promptly raises his hand, greeting me in return. Clearly, we are not the only hikers taking to the scarce wildlife.

We now started developing a routine. During the early morning we walk as far as possible, before the midday heat kicks in. The hottest time of day is spent either resting under a tree or swimming in a nearby pool. Late afternoons are spent walking again. After passing the so-called Wild Fig Bend, where countless trees protrude from out of the steep rock face, we finally reach the Walls of Jericho - our camping spot for the second night. Completely enclosed by the high mountains, we now felt even more insignificant. There is no cell phone reception here - a welcome break in our technologically-driven, daily routine.

Day 3 - Wild horses

It seemed as if we started even earlier than the day before - our team leader at least seems more vigorous while clanging on his pots. Most of us seem reluctant to rise after a night, which had been rudely disturbed by what seemed to be baboons fighting at an ungodly hour. “I hope that these were in fact baboons,” I try to assure myself as I light the small gas stove to cook water for coffee. The water in the canyon is quite murky and all of us added purification drops when we filled up our bottles - you can override the unpleasant taste by adding powdered juice.

We start out before sunrise, boulder hopping the first part, until we reach the sign: “Emergency Exit.” This has been painted on a rock with an arrow pointing towards a mountain. “The exit is not really an option,” our team leader explains. The idea is that a member of the team can climb out to the top and notify the authorities, should a medical emergency arise. Fortunately, we have been spared such a scenario - touch wood.

We continue down the canyon, which takes on a new face. Gradually the endless boulders are replaced by a sandier trail. With our hiking boots strapped on tightly we continue to trudge through the soft sand until we reach the next attraction known as Sulphur Springs or Palm Springs. A couple of old, large palms are scattered next to a big lake. The smell of these springs seems unbearable. The water apparently reaches a temperature of close to 60° Celsius and protrudes from out of the mountain at a rate of 30 litres per second. The water contains sulphur as well as chloride and fluoride.

A short distance thereafter we notice a couple of grazing horses, which could not care less about our presence. The wild horses of the Fish River Canyon are not as much known as their counterparts of the Garub plains, but they too have been surviving in the canyon for about 40 years. They are the offspring of horses, which apparently once belonged to a farmer, Mr Pieters.

We leave the springs and the horses behind us and continue on our journey until we reach Table Mountain at the 30 kilometre mark - a mountain in the canyon, which eerily resembles the famous Table Mountain at the tip the African continent. “Almost halfway”, I think to myself as we set up camp on the sandy beach next to a biggish puddle. My comment of “I hope the baboons keep quiet tonight”, causes a laugh or two, but it does not sound very self-assured.

Day 4 - Unexpected mountaineering

The canyon changes its appearance completely once more, with strewn boulders and rocks disappearing as we move along stretches of hard sand seemingly stretching on forever. A real challenge is posed by the Vasbyt Bend. It is a seemingly endless stretch of desert, but as we pass the next bend, known as Baboon Mountain, we are once again introduced to a new side of the “Fish”. The first shortcut is marked on a rock in white paint, simply indicated by the simple, yet efficient word “CUT”. We however did not count on the fact that this shortcut comprises of a mountaineering section; with about 20 kilograms strapped to our backs, climbing a mountain is no easy feat. The shortcuts do shorten the hiking trail considerably though and we soon reached the 50-kilometre mark, where we set up camp again. Our adventure is slowly coming to an end.

Day 5 - Sand testing the spirit

The last day of our hike again starts out early. We have all agreed that we want to finish the hike today - there is still a long way to go. Fortunately there are a number of shortcuts along the way, with the first two making a considerable difference. After the first shortcut we reach the famous Four Finger Rock and the Barbel Pools - and another big shortcut. At the end of that shortcut you reach a particularly well-known grave. What is simply indicated on the map as a “German Soldier’s Grave”, is in fact the resting place of Leutnant Thilo von Trotha, who was killed in 1905 while apparently negotiating peace with the local Nama population.

This last day of the hike once again proves to be completely different to the experience of the previous days. The high and relatively narrow canyon walls are opening up and the path is now clearly visible, with us marching through thick sand throughout the day. We reach the first sign of civilization, when we approach the Causeway, which crosses the river. This time it is however bone-dry with no water flowing over it. We now embark on finishing the last stretch as we pass Bandage Pass, taking another shortcut up to Fool’s Gold Corner and continuing further south. Later in the day we reach the 80-kilometre mark. Our team leader assures us: “Almost there.”

Next to the narrow hiking path, stones have been laid out to make up names - they are too many to count. This last stretch becomes very intense as it seems to be endless. Conversation dies down and the rhythmic slogging of our boots in the river sand takes over your mind. We encounter the most promising sign yet: “Almost there.” And a little further it is followed by the sign, which beckons with the word: “Cold Beer”. A most welcome sight.

Shortly thereafter we reach Ai-Ais. Happy tourists welcome us at the restaurant with Paulina, the waitress, ringing a bell to announce the arrival of hikers. “Cold beer please”, is all I have to say and she responds by serving up promptly. Clearly, an ice-cold beer is what hikers desire most.

Five days we spent in the canyon - and what an adventure it was. There were ups and downs, literally and figuratively. It is a true test of character and we are tired, weary and in desperate need of a hot shower. Will we be back? Yes, without a doubt. There is a reason, why the “Fish” is so popular - most hikers eventually do return rather sooner than later.

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