"Glamping on the Edge of Eternity"
Photo: Chloe Durr
"Glamping on the Edge of Eternity"
05 November 2020 | Tourism
Few destinations in the world can compare with the raw beauty of the Namibian landscape.
I have always understood beauty to be layered, but I don't think I have ever seen a more perfect example of this than in the Fish River Canyon. It was formed over 500 million years ago, after a combination of magmatic and tectonic events caused fault lines in the once mountainous landscape. After many years of erosion and continental drift, the mighty Fish River began to follow the fault lines and carve meandering pathways through layers of the earth crust, incising the Namaqualand Metamorphic Complex (some of the most ancient rocks in Namibia) to create the Fish River Canyon, which is the second-largest canyon in the world, rivalled only by the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.
“Nothing ventured - nothing gained“
I have a passion for Namibia, particularly for “off-the-beaten-track“ experiences, and have learnt that the moment you surrender to the inevitable obstacles and take each wrong turn in your stride, you will have a thrilling adventure. This trip was no exception.
After initially miscalculating the distance and travel time from Aussenkehr, where our Orange River Rafting journey had ended, to The Fish River Lodge, we literally had to jump out of our canoe and into our van to beat the fading afternoon light and take to the C13 dust road towards Rosh Pinah.
The buttery smooth C13 - which initially follows the course of the meandering Orange River, passing riverside export-grape farmlands and the Ai-Ais Richtersveld National Park - is one of the most beautiful routes that I have driven to date. After a quick refuel in Rosh Pinah (100km from Aussenkehr), we branched eastward onto the D463 before losing touch with civilization altogether. We passed fields of yellow Namaqua daisies, interspersed with quiver trees and rocky outcrops, and were swallowed up by the golden sunset to continue in the dark for another 186km to The Fish River Lodge - nestled in the heart of the privately owned Canyon Nature Park.
Day 1: Restore your Soul
Having arrived after dark to what seemed like a gigantic black hole in a starlit landscape, and never having visited the Fish River Canyon before, it took a few moments to adjust our vision and acclimatize to the dizzying doorstep-drop of hundreds of meters into this 500 million-year-old geological wonder.
We awoke before sunrise to experience the amphitheatre in front of us. Slowly the sun's rays began to lift from the deep hues of purple, revealing details of flat-topped mountains, white rock striations, gorges and meandering tributaries, and crescendoing into a saturated blood-orange ball that seized the sky and painted the granite cliffs.
The Fish River Lodge is the only lodge positioned directly on the rim of the canyon with jaw-dropping panoramic views from sunrise to sunset - making it one of the most unique accommodation establishments in Namibia. The establishment has been awarded 5 Desert Flowers by Eco Awards Namibia, a distinction for their dedication to environmental care, sustainability and eco-tourism. Each of the 20 sustainably built private chalets dotted along the canyon's edge, offers a unique bedside view of the canyon with the added option of pulling your bed out and sleep under the stars when weather permits.
The main lodge is contemporary in design with a textured colour palette inspired by the canyon surroundings. Dry-packed granite and limestone walls camouflage the buildings to fit harmoniously into the landscape (a sustainable way to keep the interior cool without air conditioning). Varnished concrete floors, high ceilings and accents of ostrich-eggshell chandeliers that chime as the wind blows, are found behind large windows that frame the canyon view.
Exhausted after our four-day Orange River expedition (refer previous tn-edition), we spent the day recuperating at the lodge, languishing at the rim-flow pool, before going on a sundowner drive to raise a glass to our first sunset view off the magnificent canyon.
Day 2: “Terror Pass“
After an early start, we clambered into the back of an open 4x4-vehicle, bundled up with blankets and ponchos, eager to learn more about the history of the ancient landscape.
The Fish River Lodge is the only establishment with vehicle access to the canyon. The option for the time-crunched-traveller or the less-inclined-hiker is to take the scenic drive on offer for a condensed experience of the expansive geology. It's a worthwhile drive and extremely interesting as each layer of exposed sediment and rock in the canyon walls reads like a geological storybook. Willem, our guide, took us on a seven-hour expedition and educated his geologically illiterate passengers on the different rocks and sediments that make up the landscape. He expertly manoeuvred the vehicle over rocky terrain and into steep gorges whilst taking time to point out the endemic Karoo fauna and flora and teaching us about traditional medicines. After a full-body-massage-drive experience down the infamous “Terror Pass“, we sat down for a prepared lunch on the white-stone basin of the canyon. Thereafter began the slow, grinding journey up to Eternity, our first rest camp, in time for golden hour.
Camp Eternity blends so completely into the landscape that it is hardly noticeable from a distance. Built using balanced shards of black sandstone collected from the area and encased in a rusty iron frame that shields a two-man tent, the mounds that remind you of beehives, are built directly on the edge of the canyon. Trevor Nott, a Namibian artist, created these shelters and stone gabions after being inspired by old shepherd huts, “lammerhuisies”, cattle kraals and stone mounds dispersed around the 45 000 hectare farm. The fully serviced camps are entirely solar-powered and only borehole water is used - the bathrooms are an attractive, artistic force of nature!
Words cannot describe the experience of glamping on the rim of the canyon. The verandas hang over hundreds of meters of empty space, literally holding one in a hammock over the canyon. The privacy of the stone gabions, five in total and at the disposal of a single group only, is pure luxury!
We settled down to a three-course candlelit dinner prepared by chef Efraim under a canopy of stars, shielded behind a stone-windbreak as the tempestuous wind began to rise. The wind is part of the experience and is a reminder of the extreme privilege of being in this very remote hideout. I found it comforting to sleep protected in my beehive-tent to the sound of the wind howling outside. (The added luxury, earplugs, served to shut out my dad's snoring and made the wind's sound a lullaby to fall asleep to!)
Day 3: Rim to River Hike
We woke up to a crisp, cloudy morning as the dark clouds of a cold front rolled in from the south-west. After a delicious hot breakfast, we proceeded to hike down into the valley below - hiking is only possible during the months of April to September. Soon “elephant skin“ sandstone, mushroom rocks, honeycomb-weathered and conglomerate walls began to tower around and over us.
Willem led us from gorge to gorge telling us about the geology and history of the surrounding rocks until we reached the whitewashed river basin, where we were able to refresh ourselves in the permanent rock pools.
It is unsurprising that the Fish River Canyon is listed amongst the top hiking destinations in the world and is the second most visited tourist attraction in Namibia. Few places on earth boast a geological narrative as visible as this. Willem showed us exposed dolerite dykes that tell the tale of magmatic events and volcanic activity, marine sediments, mineral deposits, and much, much more. For the geologically impaired like I, you might consider purchasing Nicole Grünert's excellent Travel Handbook “Namibia - Fascination of Geology“ before embarking on this canyon hike.
As we followed the ox-bow loops along the riverbed, evidence of ancient San drawings appeared - Petroglyphs dating back 2000 years, revealed evidence of Shamanism. Depictions of unconscious and trans-like-states in the form of geometric patterns, as well as spirals, galaxy patterns and pictorial shapes are found etched into the black limestone. Some of the designs, which often look similar to “salt marks“ on the dry river rocks, reveal evidence of animal life. There isn't much literature on the topic, but the lodge is currently researching these important relics.
A troop of inquisitive baboons marvelled at our inept struggle at climbing the black elephant-skin sandstone cliff, as we began the steep “hand-and-foot“ climb back up. It did offer fantastic grip to our tired feet, the better alternative to ascending the desert-varnish-rocks, which gleamed around us in the afternoon light. The wind had died down, the cloud cover had evaporated and as we walked, the iron rocks began to clink together creating welcome music for our arrival at the Edge. Not even our heavy-breathing broke the atmosphere - the canyon lay before us again in dead silence and we could hear the blood rushing in our ears, reminiscent of the waves that once carved their way through this very landscape.
It isn't easy to be complacent when you have the luxury of spending an extended period of time at the canyon; the sunsets reveal a different story each passing day, as you lose your mind amid ancient history, whilst lost in the painterliness of the light. On this breathless evening, perched on the edge of eternity, I realised the impact of this adventure on me. The Edge was the highlight of our trip - the stone shelters here are built from granite rocks that illuminate the flamboyance of the sunset. Orange the colour of joy, energy and creativity! With a view overlooking the oxbow canyon-basin by day and the Southern Cross by night, I felt fulfilled in perfect harmony!
There is an overwhelming sense of achievement that greets one at the end of each long day. I found myself connecting with the landscape - as if it were a portrait of a person, whose life I was trying to understand. In the same way that Monet took time to observe and capture haystacks at different times of the day, I was able to experience and observe the western side of the Fish River Canyon, and I found it impossible to put my camera down.
We enjoyed a tasty braai overlooking the gorge with the sun setting over the valley, a perfect view of the Fish River basin after our 18 kilometer hike and the brightening rays of the stars overhead at night. While rough-camping is fun, glamping affords you the opportunity of not having to worry about food or setting up camp, and gives one the time to truly soak in every detail of the environment.
Expertly managed by Journeys Namibia, the lodge ensures the luxury of a comfortable bed, attentive service, dedicated managers, delicious cooked meals and an unforgettable experience in one of the most pristine and isolated places in the world.
Day 4: On the Rocks
There is nothing worse than the feeling one has when waking up on the final day in paradise. We sat down for breakfast with tired feet and heavy hearts to soak in the last canyon sunrise and we were greeted by the same troop of baboons, which had spent the night camped on the cliffs opposite us.
My thoughts turned to the magic of this trip: the eco-vision and the commitment to leaving only the most delicate footprint on the ancient landscape. None of the paths hiked are marked or man-made. We followed old mountain zebras’ pathways, the route being precarious in parts, particularly as we descended into the gorges or climbed the steep cliffs. One certainly needs some level of fitness, but one can choose the pace. I was the youngest and certainly the fittest of the three of us, and I found my place at the back of the pack, able to take photographs.
Our final hike was 10 kilometers long, following a series of beautiful granite gorges before climbing to the top and finally through a quiver tree forest. We arrived back at the main lodge at lunchtime and raised a glass of rock-shandy to celebrate the completion of our successful 28 kilometer hiking adventure. We even found the energy to cycle around the canyon’s rim at sunset - our last hurrah to a memorable trip!