The Complete Guide To The Fish River Canyon
The Complete Guide To The Fish River Canyon
Updating in Progress: We recently completed our third Fish River Canyon hike between 11 – 16 May 2022 and we are currently updating this blog post over the coming week. Stay tuned for more helpful hints!
For a long while now, we have been searching for a comprehensive, all-you-need-to-know article about hiking the Fish River Canyon. Most of those we have found provide a lot of information, but are still lacking in one area or another. Having done this hike twice now, we feel confident in sharing our knowledge and experience in a post that should give you all the vital information for this hike – from training, to equipment, to medivacs – in one post.
For those of you who don’t know, the Fish River Canyon is arguably the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the US. It is about 160 km long and is 27 km at its widest. It is around 500 m deep. The Fish River is the longest river in Namibia at about 650 km.
WARNING: This is a long post. It will take a while to read. We promise, however, that by the time you are done, you will be well prepared to take on this challenging hike. Just remember that this is also based on our own experience and opinion. There are many many different experiences and opinions on the Fish River Canyon hike. This is meant to give you another perspective on what to expect when you tackle the mighty Fish River Canyon.
The Current Water Situation in the Canyon (22 May 2022)
The current water situation in the Canyon is good, although the water level drops a little each day. If you are planning to do this hike soon, our advice would be to visit the I hiked the Fish River Canyon facebook group page to get the latest updates by hikers who have just completed the Fish. You can visit the page here.
Here is a list of the topics this post covers:
- Physical Preparedness – Training Hikes
- Equipment Needed (Including a Packing List)
- First Aid Kit Essentials
- A Slingsby Map – Do I Really Need a Map in the Canyon?
- A Satellite Phone – Do I Really Need One?
- How Heavy Should My Backpack Be?
- Travel Insurance (Medical Evacuation Cover)
- How to Book the Hike – What Does it Cost?
- How to Get To The Border
- Crossing the Border into Namibia
- Where to Stay Before & After the Hike [Ai Ais vs Hobas]
- Ai Ais Resort Day Hike
- To Shuttle or Not to Shuttle
- Booking Out at Hobas Resort (More Forms)
- When is the Best Time to do the Hike?
- What About The River Water Quality?
- What To Do If You Need To Do A Number 2?
- 5 Days or 6 Days?
- Group Dynamics on the Fish
- The Hiking Trifecta (Stay Hydrated, Stay Cool & Keep Your Feet Dry)
- The Descent
- The Actual Hike
- The Finish Line
- The Celebration
- Final Thoughts
1. Physical Preparedness – Training Hikes
If you asked 10 hikers about the level of physical fitness needed to complete the Fish River Canyon hike you would probably get 10 different answers. For Belinda and I, the Fish was the first multi-day hike we had done as adults (we did it for the first time in 2016), with relatively little training. We had no experience of multi-day hikes, let alone hiking in desert-like conditions and we were not in peak physical condition. Factors in our favour were that the hike leader was very experienced and had done to Fish River Canyon 8 times before and the pace that we hiked was manageable. The question is, if we had to have our lives over again, would we choose to do the Fish River Canyon as our first hike with little or no physical preparation, the answer would be no on both counts. The reason for this only really became clear to us when we did the Fish River Canyon for the second time in May 2018. It was as if we had never done the hike before. Large sections on the trail seemed completely unfamiliar to us and the overall enjoyment factor was so much greater the second time around. We have done some introspection and we are confident that we have identified some of the reasons for this change in the overall experience of the Fish River Canyon.
Our first experience of the Fish River Canyon was in May 2016 and was over 5 days and 4 nights. Our second hike through the Canyon was in May 2018 and took us 6 days and 5 nights. Our third hike took place in May 2022 and again took us 6 days and 5 nights. Between May 2016 and May 2018, Belinda and I have taken part in over 80 hikes, with about 20 of those being multi-day hikes. Our experience levels as well as our fitness levels the second time round were vastly different. As a result, we felt more confident doing the Fish again and we had fine tuned our packing skills and had accumulated fit-for-purpose equipment for a trail like the Fish. Our bodies were not only stronger, but were also conditioned to multi-day hiking and we were more easily able to handle the heavy backpack, especially on the descent into the canyon. Our preparations for our third hike were far from ideal, due in no small part to the suspension of official sporting activities during the Covid-19 pandemic. We booked the hike in 2019, but only got to do it in 2022. We are not shy to say that we took on the Canyon with a sense of trepidation.
Do you need to be experienced or in peak physical condition to hike the Fish River Canyon? Quite simply, no. But there seems to be, in our experience, a correlation between fitness levels and the overall enjoyment factor when doing this hike. Looking back at our first Fish, we were able to complete the hike without being physically exhausted. What it did require from us though was a concerted mental effort – putting our heads down, digging deep and putting one foot in front of the other until we reached the end. The inevitable consequence of that was that we hardly took in any of the scenery and our memory of the whole experience was significantly limited. That is not what you want for such an iconic hike that you will probably not do again in your lifetime.
Disclaimer: The training hikes listed below are only recommendations, based on our personal experience. Before attempting any of the training hikes, or any exercise preparation, we suggest you consult with a medical practitioner. It is important that you are properly checked out by a doctor before embarking on any exercise programme. We do not want any harm to come to you as a result of following our training hike recommendations in this blog. You will need a form signed by a doctor anyway to do the Fish River Canyon hike, so it makes sense just to check with your doctor before starting with your physical preparations.
First Things First
What we are suggesting is that you prepare properly for this hike so that you will be able to look around during your trip and take in the scenery, including all the little creatures that call the Fish River Canyon home. Being prepared also means you won’t be too exhausted by the end of each day, and you will wake up reasonably refreshed, with a body that is not (too) sore and won’t hate you when you put your boots and backpack back on for another long day in the Canyon.
Our first recommendation is that the Fish should not be your first multi-day hike. The Fish is largely unique in that there are no overnight huts along the way and whatever you may need for the 5/6 days in the Canyon, you will need to carry on your back. There are no designated overnight spots and you will not have access to a hot shower or any electricity. You will have access to enough water from the river, but the Canyon provides little else. You should have at least done a few overnight or multi-day hikes before the Fish so that you will have learned what essential equipment you will need to take with you. The mistake hikers often make when doing the Fish is that they take too much equipment and food and that can cost you in terms of the physical toll it takes on your body. It is also an unnecessary expense that you can comfortably avoid.
Our second recommendation is that you do a few training hikes in the run up to the Fish. If you have never done a multi-day hike before, we suggest that you start training at least 6 months before doing the Fish. That will get your body used to hiking at least 15 kilometers a day with a reasonably heavy backpack. If you are a regular hiker, but have not done the Fish before, we recommend starting your training programme at least 3 months before doing the Fish. You should be doing a reasonably long hike, in the region of 10 – 20 kilometers, at least once a week.
It is important to realise that your preparations are not only about being able to walk at least 15 kilometers a day. It is about conditioning your body, and particularly your legs and shoulders, to carrying a heavy backpack. Conditioning your legs to be able to negotiate the descent into the canyon and most importantly, it is about getting used to the hot and dry conditions in the Canyon. Many an experienced hiker has been undone by heat exhaustion only after a day or two in the Canyon. Simply keeping hydrated is not always enough to prevent heat exhaustion. Instead of planning your training hikes in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day, we suggest that you plan your hikes around midday to simulate the conditions in the canyon and to practice good habits like drinking lots of water at regular intervals, applying sunscreen and wearing a decent hat. Acclimatizing to the hot conditions is an important element of your preparations.
As we were originally based in Cape Town, the training hikes we have suggested that you do before tackling the Fish are all based there. That is not to say that you cannot find hikes in your corner of the world that closely resemble the conditions you will find in the Fish River Canyon. Each of these hikes have an element of the Fish in them and will prepare you for the day when you will enter the Fish River Canyon. We are now based in the beautiful Garden Route, so we will be adding local hikes from here as suggestions for training hikes for the Fish.
We recommend that you start your training with about 50% of your equipment in your backpack and work yourself up to the weight your will be carrying into the Canyon. To be comfortable, you shouldn’t carry more weight than about 20% of your body weight and no more than 20 kg. So for example, if you weigh 70 kg, your backpack should weigh in the region of 14 – 16 kg, at most.
The Dikkop Trail – Koeberg Nature Reserve
This trail has the most similar hiking conditions to the Fish. It includes a 20 kilometer route through the Koeberg Nature Reserve that consists of large sections of loose beach sand as well as sections of hard gravel jeep tracks. What this hike doesn’t have are small and large boulders which are another consistent terrain feature of the Fish. It will give you a chance to get used to hiking on loose river sand and it will also give you a chance to see if the gaiters you have will prevent sand from getting into your footwear. A significant contributor to blisters in the Fish River Canyon is the river sand getting into your boots and socks and rubbing against your feet. It takes between 5-6 hours to complete this hike so is comparable to a day’s hiking in the Canyon. Try and do this hike at least twice and preferably in the heat of the day to get your body used to hiking in hot and dry conditions.
Platteklip Gorge – Table Mountain
This is a very popular hike in Cape Town. It is basically a glorified stone staircase to the top of Table Mountain and down again. It will give your the opportunity to improve the strength in your legs and get your body used to the descent in the Fish. It is preferable that you do this training hike with your backpack. What Platteklip Gorge cannot prepare you for is the loose gravel and sandy conditions found on the Fish River Canyon descent. Those conditions add to the toll taken on your legs while descending into the Canyon as it forces you to pause before taking your next step, thereby putting additional strain on the large muscle groups in your legs.
We suggest using a trekking pole for the Fish, and doing your training hikes with the same pole, so you can get used to hiking with it. They work really well for stabilizing you on a steep descent, especially when the rocks and boulders are unsteady and your legs become tired.
Skeleton Gorge / Nursery Ravine – Table Mountain
This hiking route begins in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. It is most easily accessible through the top gate. Again, this route will get your legs used to a steep ascent and descent. The biggest and perhaps the most important difference between any descent you will find in Cape Town and the descent into the Fish River Canyon is the duration. The descents of the hikes in Cape Town do not really last more than about an hour, with Platteklip perhaps taking you just over an hour. The descent into the Fish River Canyon can take hikers, depending on their fitness levels, between 2-3 hours to negotiate. The added physical toll of an extra hour or two descent can be the difference between making it through okay and ‘killing’ your legs for the rest of the hike. It is also about the technique you use on the descent – this will be covered a little later in the blog in the chapter on the descent itself.
Arangieskop – Robertson
This hike manages to tick quite a few of the boxes in preparing you for the Fish River Canyon. It is firstly an overnight hike that will help you to sort out what equipment you will need to take with you to the Fish, although it does have a very comfortable overnight hut, which Fish does not. It will give you a good indication of your fitness levels and the second day provides a long and challenging descent that is quite similar in most respects to the descent into the Fish River Canyon. It is particularly slippery, especially after some rain and it will teach you a few lessons on how to make certain that your footing is secure before taking your next step. We have written a separate blog on the Arangieskop hike and we encourage you to read it before doing that hike.
Kasteelspoort Hike – Table Mountain
This is also a good hike to do to prepare your legs for the descent into the Fish River Canyon. There are many routes up Table Mountain so you can either use Kasteelspoort to ascend or descend Table Mountain. Our recommendation is that you descend through Kasteelspoort and also that you do it during the heat of the day to prepare yourself for the hot conditions in the Canyon. Even the hottest day in Cape Town will not ordinarily be as hot as hiking through the Fish River Canyon, but it will help you to prepare for it. Take your trekking pole with you for this one.
For other day hikes in Cape Town, please have a look at our blog page for ideas on where to hike.
Can Anyone Do the Fish River Canyon Hike?
You are not able to do the Fish if you are younger than 12 years old. Does that mean if you are 13 years and older that you will automatically be able to do the Fish River Canyon hike? The answer to that is absolutely not. A doctor’s recommendation is also not a guarantee that you will be able to successfully complete the Fish. If you are physically healthy, but not physically fit, you will struggle. Guaranteed!
Another benefit of these training hikes, is that you can invite your fellow Fish River Canyon hikers with you to get to know them a bit better and gauge whether they are physically ready for the challenge. It will also give you the opportunity to see the strengths and weaknesses of your hiking group and allow the group to take advantage of the strengths of each individual member and take steps to mitigate the weaknesses. This is important information for you if you will be leading the hike and it will help you to make the tough call later, if necessary, to replace a member of your party that clearly is not up to the challenge.
Remember your hiking party can only proceed through the Canyon at the pace of your slowest hiker and if someone becomes physically exhausted it will impact on every single person in the group. In our hiking group, we had someone pull out of the hike after the first training hike because she realised that she was not up to the physical demands that the Fish required of her. She ended up still travelling with us and became our one person support team based in Ai Ais. Without her presence and support, things would have turned out very differently for us after running into trouble in the Canyon (more on this later).
2. Equipment Needed (Including a Packing List)
When preparing your equipment and food for the Fish River Canyon, it really is a case of ‘less is more’. You do not want to carry any equipment with you that you will not need, or too much extra food that you will not eat. It has served us well to take everything out of our backpacks the night before the hike and then to think long and hard about every single item we have before putting it back in the backpack.
One thing that we have found is that you really do not eat much when hiking through the Canyon. That doesn’t mean that you can just toss 6 packets of 2 minute noodles into your backpack and think it will be enough food for the entire trip. When you put together your food list, you need to choose food that has sufficient nutritional value and that will replace carbohydrates and proteins that your body will consume during the hike. Think about dehydrating and vacuum sealing foods, and decanting food stuffs into smaller containers. Try and avoid carrying tinned food into the canyon. Tins are heavy and you will have to carry those empty tins out with you as there are no trash receptacles in the Canyon. You will only need 2 sets of shirts and pants as you will get an opportunity to wash your clothes in the river after each day’s hiking and those clothes will be dry by the next morning. We would suggest taking 3 to 4 pairs of hiking socks with you though, because it is very important that you keep your feet dry. Fortunately socks do not take up a lot of space in your bag so you can afford to take an extra pair or two with you. Hiking socks provide you with the additional cushioning you will need when hiking across long stretches of boulders and loose rocks.
Belinda likes to take along a small hiking pillow, but some of our hiking party used their clothing bag as a cushion to save some space.
What are the Essential Items to pack?
Each hiker will have those pieces of equipment that he or she likes to take along on a multi-day hike. We do not want to interfere with those items, but we do want to highlight a few that we believe are essential to have if you are intending to hike the Fish River Canyon.
The first item is a good backpack that is big enough to carry all the equipment, food and clothing that you will need on the hike. For males, we would suggest a minimum of a 75 liter backpack with pockets on the outside to store stuff you can get to quickly like your snacks and head lamp, etc. For the ladies, we suggest a backpack with a minimum size of 60 liters with the same features as a larger backpack. We do have some friends who have hiked the Fish with 50 liter backpacks, but this leaves little room for anything extra, and your bag will be packed to maximum capacity (often with camping mattresses/ sleeping bags hanging off the back)
The following items are also essential:
- A warm sleeping bag or an extra fleece blanket / thermal liner
- Strong, reliable foot wear (that you have hiked in before)
- A satellite phone (one for the group)
- A Slingsby Fish River Canyon Map
- A camping stove with two full gas canisters (410g each at least)
- A small blowtorch – for lighting your camping stove in the wind (MUCH easier than matches/lighter – believe us)
- A medium sized camping pot
- A trekking pole – for the descent and for river crossings
- A First Aid Kit – discussed later in this blog
- A warm jacket / fleece top
- Two water bottles (750 ml each, at a minimum) or a hydration bladder
- Water purification drops/tablets (not always necessary)
- A broad brimmed sun hat
- Quick-dry towel
- Small, compact ground sheet
- Headlamp with spare batteries (test it BEFORE you pack it)
- GPS hand held device / watch (for at least one member of the party)
- Digital camera / phone for photos
- Power Bank (for charging phones/watches)
Hiking Tip: Try and buddy up with someone in your group and share essential items like the camping stove, camping pot, food, blow torch, map, etc instead of each of you carrying stuff that you can just as easily share. It is much more enjoyable sharing a meal together than eating alone. One person can cook and the other one can clean up afterwards.
Sleeping under the Stars vs Sleeping in a Tent
The die hard Fish River Canyon hikers do not take tents with them into the Canyon. They just don’t. The appeal of the Fish is that at the end of the day, you put your groundsheet down on the river bank, roll out your sleeping bag and sleep under the stars and the light of the moon. These are all great reasons to leave the tent behind and you also get to save on the extra weight of a tent.
We, however, have taken a tent along on all three of our hikes through the Canyon. We were lucky to get a two person hiking tent that weighs just 1.5 kg so it is not too much of an extra burden. The advantage of taking a tent along is that you will be protected from the little ‘miggies’ and mosquitoes in the Canyon while sleeping. It also provides a private space for you to change your clothes without having to walk away from the group to find a large rock or a bush to hide behind. As we learned on a recent hike though the canyon in May 2022, a tent also protects you against the creepy crawlies that move unseen through your base camp at night, comprising of several cricket, spider and scorpion species that include some of the most dangerous in southern Africa, including the Rough Thicktail scorpion (Parabuthus granulatus) which we spotted on our second night in the Canyon.
It will also provide you with good protection from the wind in the Canyon. In our first two hikes through the Canyon, the wind picked up during most evenings. For our third hike, the weather was perfect. No evening breezes. Fortunately on all three hikes, we managed to avoid the rain. If we did get caught in the rain, the tent would provide some additional protection, although not if the rain was substantial.
We are not going to make a recommendation on this one. Look at the pros and cons and make up your own mind.
We have put together a suggested packing list which you can download here.
Here is an idea of the type of food we take along when we do multi-day hikes.
REMEMBER: There is also some essential documentation you need to take along:
- Valid Passport
- Medical Clearance Form (this must be completed by your GP no more than 40 days prior to your hike start-date)
- Vehicle and Trailer Certificate of Registration
- Digital vaccination certificate for Covid-19 (still a current requirement) The SA Border Post does not accept the vaccination card that is completed by hand. They require the digital certificate, which can be printed out, that contains the unique QR code.
Hiking Boots vs Trail Running Shoes
This is a debate that will continue to rage for as long as human beings engage in the recreational activity we call hiking. There are obvious benefits and shortcomings to both types of foot wear which is probably the reason why this aspect is the subject of much debate. All we want to do is tell you of our experiences and our preferences and leave you to make up your own mind.
The first time we did the First River Canyon, Belinda and I walked it in our trusted Salomon SpeedCross trail running shoes. Our shoes survived the experience, unlike some other well known hiking boot brands, and we did not suffer with any blisters at all. The down side of hiking the Fish in trail running shoes is that if you put a foot wrong, like we did, on a river crossing or misstepping when collecting water from the river at night, your socks will be soaked and you are probably going to look forward to walking a few hours in wet shoes. Also, the bottom of our feet started to take a bit of a beating having to negotiate our way though the boulder sections of the trail. We didn’t have gaiters the first time we did this hike, and as a result, had to keep stopping to get the sand out of our shoes.
We hiked the Fish on the second occasion in hiking boots. Again our footwear survived the hike and we were again able to avoid any blistering on our feet. The advantage of the hiking boots was that our ankles felt more supported over the boulders and our feet remained dry even after crossing a flooded causeway on Day 5. They were also lightweight boots.
Our experience of the two hikes, wearing trail running shoes vs hiking boots, was very different. It was our experience that our feet and ankles were better protected in hiking boots than in trail running shoes. Our feet remained dry even when our hiking boots were fully submerged in water (fyi – our boots are waterproof) and the bottoms of our feet did not bruise at all after clambering over thousands and thousands of small boulders and river stones. The hiking boots also provided good protection for our ankles. This was crucial when even a single misstep can end your hike in the Canyon.
If you had to ask us now if we recommend you wear trail running shoes or hiking boots when hiking the Fish River Canyon, our choice would be hiking boots. Again it is up to you to consider your options carefully and make up your own mind. Both times we have hiked, there have been a mix of trail shoes and hiking boots. Interestingly in our party of hikers doing the Fish for a second time, 8 of us had hiking boots and 4 hiked in trail running shoes.
No matter what footwear you eventually decide on using, make sure it is well worn-in by the time you embark on the Fish. You may choose to wear your ‘old faithful’s’, your 10 year old boots that still look to be in pristine condition – beware with those, as over time, the glue and materials become fatigued and there is a high chance the soles may delaminate from the boots themselves during the decent, leaving you in a very difficult situation. It happened to 2 of our hiking party the first time we hiked the Fish.
In case you were wondering, I am currently hiking in Swiss made Mammut hiking books while Belinda has a new pair of her faithful K-Way hiking boots.
Do I really Need a Trekking Pole?
This is another topic that enjoys much debate. Of the 12 people in our second hiking party, 11 had trekking poles. In our third installment of this hike, all 18 in our hiking party had trekking poles. Two people had two trekking poles each. A trekking pole can be useful for numerous things in the Fish River Canyon. It can help you to maintain a consistent forward momentum when trudging through soft river sand. It can sometimes feel like you are making little to no progress over sections with thick, soft river sand. The trekking pole allows you to bring your arm into the mix and provide more ‘go forward’ motion than with your legs alone.
A trekking pole can also help you to maintain a stable platform when crossing the river. The rocks in the river were particularly slippery and without a trekking pole you run the risk of suffering a nasty fall onto the rocks if you lose your balance. Another important occasion when a trekking pole comes in handy is when your are negotiating the descent at the very beginning of the hike. By putting the trekking pole down in front of you when your are descending, it allows you to control your step down and lessens the impact on your ankles and knees. Any help to reduce the impact on each step during the descent will stand you in good stead for the remainder of the hike. We consider a trekking pole an essential piece of equipment for the Fish.
Trekking poles are also useful as anchors for a clothes line at your overnight camping spots where the tree branches are too flimsy. They can also be used as make-shift splints in the unfortunate event of someone fracturing a limb.
What Are Gaiters And Why Do I Need Them?
Gaiters come in many forms and sizes. They are basically a barrier device that covers the top of your running shoe or hiking boot that prevents sand, small stones and leaves from getting inside your footwear while you are hiking. Some provide waterproof protection as well.
We have recently done a review on AR Mini Gaiters and we again wore these gaiters while doing the Fish River Canyon hike for the second and third time. You can read our review here. Although the AR Mini Gaiters came loose from their velcro strips on a few occasions, neither Belinda nor I had any sand come into our hiking boots. The later versions of these gaiters do not have velcro strips which has largely solved that issue. These gaiters, in our opinion, were largely the reason why neither of us had any significant blistering. I had no blisters and Belinda had one or two minor ones, which only appeared on the last day. These gaiters are far more comfortable and less cumbersome than the usual plastic or canvas gaiters traditionally used for hiking. We both consider gaiters an essential piece of equipment for the Fish River Canyon hike.
On a third hike in the Fish, one of our hiking party had brought along the normal canvas gaiters that protect the entire lower leg, below the knee. These offer excellent for protection against snake bites, but they are wholly unsuitable for a 5-6 day hike through the blazing hot canyon. I loaned a spare pair of AR Gaiters to this person and in his own words, “They were a game changer!”. They are light, breathable and do the job they are supposed to and that is keep out the sand from your shoes/boots.
We are in no way affiliated to AR Gaiters, (we probably should be!) but we find their product to be extremely durable and fit-for purpose. You can order them online here.
The other reason why we did not have a blister problem was that we kept our feet dry. This was not due to the AR Mini Gaiters as they are not waterproof, but because of our waterproof hiking boots. I have done a review of the Blaze Mid Size hiking boots made by KWay and you can read that review here. We will discuss blister prevention later on in this blog.
3. First Aid Kit Essentials
This is one of those items that can lie at the bottom of your hiking backpack and remain unopened for an entire 5/6 day hike. It needs to be said that the chances of you using your First Aid kit is far greater on the Fish than most other hikes. I have done a separate blog on Hiking First Aid Essentials for the Fish River Canyon and I would encourage you to read it here.
One thing that you don’t need to be worried about is malaria. The Fish River Canyon is not a malaria area.
What we did to prepare for our second hike in the First River Canyon was to make two people responsible for identifying and procuring the First Aid equipment that we would need on the hike and then split these items among the group on the night before the hike. Each person was still responsible for bringing along any personal/chronic medication as well as other general medication that may be needed on the hike (e.g painkillers, anti-inflammatories, anti-nausea/vomiting etc). The First Aid Kit list that we prepared for the hike is available here for download.
The purpose of this strategy was to prevent a general duplication of First Aid supplies among the group and that essential equipment was not left behind. Remember, you will only have access to the First Aid equipment that you bring with you and secondly, you will need to stay with the sick or injured person for between 10-20 hours, depending on when help arrives, so it is essential to have the right amount of First Aid equipment packed for if and when you need it.
It would also be preferable for one of your hiking party to have received First Aid training. If you group is going to be more than 10 people, we recommend that you have at least two First Aiders and greater than 20 you should have at least three. In our group, at least 9 of the 12 hikers have received First Aid training and 2 are registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa as Basic Life Support medics.
4. A Slingsby Map -Do I Need a Map in the Canyon?
What brought the need for a detailed and accurate map sharply into focus was that during our second hike through the Fish River Canyon, one of our hiking party became gravely ill and needed to be extracted from the Canyon by helicopter. With the aid of the Fish River Canyon Slingsby map, I was able to inform the Rangers in Hobas, via satellite phone, of our exact position in the canyon. I was also able to work out where the safest location was to us to perform a land based rescue. In the end, where we were was simply too dangerous to mount a land based rescue and I ended up contacting the Namibia Medical Rescue 24/7 for a helicopter medivac. Again I was able to explain to their control room exactly where we were in the Canyon, with the aid of this map, in order to expedite the rescue.
There are some other maps of the canyon which outline the basic geographical landmarks of the hike, but none are as comprehensive as the Slingby’s Fish River Canyon map.
Useful Features of this Map
- The map depicts the hiking distance of the entire route, indicating each kilometer. totaling 65 kilometers – not the popularly advertised 90 kilometers. (It however does not include the descend which is an additional 2.76km)
- It depicts the most popular ‘which river bank’ routes, based on GPS tracks over 4 years.
- It shows footpaths or beaconed routes, usually visible only on Canyon short cut routes.
- It indicates the river course distance, as measured down the centre line of the riverbed, which totals 87 kilometers.
- It shows the locations of notable places and historical features in the Canyon.
- It indicates the kilometer distance markers painted on the rocks along the hiking route, which are actually quite inaccurate.
- Crucially it tells you as the hiker where you can expect to find seasonal pools of water along the hiking route.
- The back of the map shows the geology of the Fish River Canyon which is fascinating.
- It is waterproof which is a useful feature to have when hiking along the canyon route that has around 28 river crossings.
- The map is well made and comes in a protective plastic pouch.
I have written a comprehensive blog on the need for a Slingsby map when doing the Fish River Canyon which you can read here.
The value of a detailed map in the Fish River Canyon is more about being able to accurately determine where you are and less about where you are going to.
5. A Satellite Phone – Do I Really Need One?
There is no cellular telephone signal in the Fish River Canyon, even if you purchase a local prepaid SIM card. They are only two emergency exits in the canyon that allow you to walk out and get help. They are situated at the 14 km and 49 km mark, respectively. Ask yourself, what would happen if you had a medical emergency at the 30 km mark? What then? I ran that scenario through my head and little did I know, but our group was going to be faced with a medical emergency at the 30 km mark on our second hike through the Canyon.
Everyone I have spoken to, without exception really, has answered the above question in the same way. They would identify the two strongest hikers and send them out the closest emergency exit and hike to the nearest person or place and summon help. Have you actually considered how long it would take someone to hike in the region of 20 kilometers, scale the canyon wall up and through the emergency exit and get to someone who can contact help? How long after they get hold of someone will help actually arrive at the person who desperately needs it? Do you know the answer to these questions?
If you drop your backpack and just take water and the bare essentials, you will be lucky to cover a distance of 4 km an hour. That means it would take you about 5 hours to reach the emergency exit with a minimum of a half hour’s rest along the way. Add another 1 hour or so to scale the canyon wall and you are already sitting on a 6 and a half hour’s delay. You still haven’t contacted anyone and help is not yet on the way. Remember it is going to take the Rangers the same amount of time to hike into the Canyon to reach the injured person. If you choose to arrange a helicopter medivac it will take the chopper between 5-6 hours to fly the 650 km from Windhoek to get to your injured or sick companion. We are then realistically talking about 12 hours to get your friend help from the time you decide to walk out the canyon. Do you think that is an acceptable delay? Will your companion be as patient as you in the situation? What if the injury is sufficiently serious that a 12 hour delay would mean the difference between life or death?
It is true that thousands of people hike through the Fish River Canyon without incident. For them, and maybe for you, a satellite phone would have been a waste of time, money and precious space in the backpack. The pertinent question to ask though, is what if something like this did happen to you or someone in your hiking party? What would you do and would it be enough to save yourself, your spouse, your family member or your companion when time was of the essence? Can you really afford to be without a satellite phone in a rugged and unforgiving place like the Fish River Canyon? Only you can answer that question for yourself.
I have written a comprehensive blog on the need for a satellite phone when doing the Fish River Canyon which you can read here.
Given the fact that our second hike through the Canyon resulted in a helivac, with no other possible way out of the Canyon due to the health status of the patient, I would not hike the Fish without a satellite phone ever again.
On our third hike through the Canyon, we again carried a satellite phone with us. Fortunately, we had no medical emergencies of any kind in our party of 18. We did however encounter two hikers in trouble on our first day in the Canyon and had to use the satellite phone to activate an assisted rescue of these hikers by the NWR Rangers, based in Hobas. Their hiking group had left them behind after they were struggling to keep up over the rough terrain. Admittedly, they had told their group to go on ahead without them, but without a communication device, they were left to their own devices for two days. After falling a number of times and sustaining several injuries, these two hikers made the decision on Day 3 to turn around and hike back to the start, where we met them on their fourth day in the Canyon and our first.
An important factor to always keep in mind when assessing your situation in the canyon, to decide if you need outside help. is that help is not going to come quickly. We have so many examples of emergency situations in the canyon where help only arrived (even via helicopter) 8 hours after declaring a medical emergency. On our third hike, I contacted the Hobas office (after contacting the standby Rangers and getting nowhere with them) to inform them of the two hikers in trouble at about 14:45. The Rangers only came down to check on these hikers at between 18:00 – 19:00. The hikers were then only assisted out of the canyon early the next morning. Again, you need to be comfortable with the reality that you and your hiking group are on your own in the canyon and you should always be prepared to manage an emergency situation for at least 8 hours before help can get to you. The other thing to keep in mind, is that if you do need help, do not hesitate or waste time in calling for help. You do not need to add unnecessary time by delaying the call for help.
Also remember that there are probably at least two or three other hiking groups in the canyon with you (either behind you or in front of you) and they may have the resources you need to deal with your emergency or at least to assist you until outside help arrives. Your fellow hikers could be the difference between life and death in the canyon. Our practice is to spend some of our time while at Ai Ais chatting to the hiking groups going in before you or just after you and let them know when resources you have and find out what they have that might be able to help you rather than just trying to resolve the situation on your own. It is going to be far better for two of your hiking group to drop their packs and run ahead or back a few hours to meet up with the other group and ask to them for help than just sitting put and waiting for NWR Rangers to get there. That’s just our two cents base on our experiences.
Emergency Contact Numbers for the Fish River Canyon
These are the telephone numbers that you will need to call in an emergency. Once you get to a phone that is.
Ai Ais Resort: +264 63 683 676
Hobas Resort: +264 63 683 445 or +264 63 683 446
Namibia Medical Rescue 24/7: +264 81 257 1810 or +264 81 872 2233 (Helicopter Medivac)
6. How Heavy Should My Backpack Be?
The general thinking amongst overnight or multi-day hikers is that your backpack should not weigh more than 20% of your bodyweight. However that is as close as you are going to get in terms of getting consensus on how much your backpack should actually weigh. There are those amongst us who believe that you backpack should weigh as little as possible and there is no place in your backpack for any luxuries. Some believe that your food, one set of clothes, a shared set of cooking equipment and a positive attitude is all that is needed to navigate through the canyon over 5-6 days. These ultralight packers are only happy if their backpack weighs less than 10 kg. There are also those that believe that the Fish is the opportunity to spoil yourself and there is really no limit on what you can take with you including a juicy vacuum packed steak for each night and a selection of alcoholic beverages and a variety of delicious snacks for an army. The thing about the Fish is that it is entirely up to you what you want to take with you. All you need to keep in mind is that you are going to have to carry it on your back the whole way, including all of the empty containers and packaging that goes with it. Fires are allowed in the canyon, but should not be used to burn your plastic and your rubbish. Leave nothing behind except your shoeprints.
We have an altogether pragmatic approach which falls nicely in between an ultralight backpack with zero luxuries and a fully stocked backpack that is going to cause additional strain on your legs when descending into the Canyon on Day 1.
On our third hike through the Canyon, we decided to do an impromptu survey on how much each hiker’s backpack weighed on Day 1 and then planned to weigh each hiker’s backpack on completing the hike to see how much weight was ‘lost’ over the 6 day experience. This was a purely voluntary exercise and not everyone was keen to participate, but I think we still managed to get an idea of what each person was carrying and how much their pack weight dropped over the course of the hike. These statistics were certainly not obtained using scientifically calibrated instruments (our bathroom scale actually), but I think we were still able to paint a useful picture to give fellow hikers an idea of what other hikers are doing. It is also important to mention again that those with the heavier backpacks were also those who were physically bigger and heavier than the rest. In our party of 18, 7 were males and 11 were females. For the first weigh in, 17 out of the group participated, while only 13 participated in the final weigh in. Here are the stats displayed in the table below.
|NO||SEX||PACK WEIGHT (BEFORE)||PACK WEIGHT (AFTER)||TOTAL WEIGHT DROP|
According to the above stats, the average starting weight of a backpack in our hiking group was 15.7 kg. If we were to separate the males from the females then the average starting backpack weight for the males was 19.9 kg and 13.3 kg for the females.
According to the above figures, the highest pack weight drop was 6.2 kg while the lowest was 1.0 kg. If we were to take these two statistical outliers out of the equation and determine the average pack weight drop over the group of 13 who participated in both weigh ins we calculated an average drop of 3.2 kg. When we worked out the average drop of pack weights for males and females we found that the male group dropped by an average of 3.0 kg, while the female group dropped by an average of 3.3 kg. This is something to consider when packing your backpack. Whatever weight you start with, your backpacked is only going to get lighter by an average of about 3.2 kg over the course of 5-6 days in the Canyon. That surprised us as we expecting an average drop of at least 5 kg, which was not the case. That being said, this is a small sample size and may not reflect the actual average of all the hiking groups that move through the Canyon each year. The two main areas where your backpack can only really drop over the course of the hike is with your food and the amount of water you carry. A litre of water in your bottle or bladder is 1 kg of weight.
While the above anecdotal evidence is interesting, it is entirely up to you what your pack weight should be and it is your decision if you want to even know what your pack weight is. All we would like to tell you is that in our experience, the weight of you pack (if more than 20% of your body weight) can make things more difficult for you in the Canyon, especially on the descent when your backpack is the heaviest.
For our third hike, we made a conscious decision to try and reduce the weight of our backpacks. This was because we were not happy with the our training preparation for the hike and we wanted to give our legs and knees the best chance to come through the experience unscathed. For our second Fish, my backpack weighed 22 kg (and was far too heavy for me) and Belinda’s weighed 17 kg. For our third hike, Belinda’s backpack weighed 15.5 kg and mine weighed 16.8 kg. We both agree that it was a good decision to go lighter and are body’s thanked us for it.
7. Travel Insurance (Medical Evacuation Cover)
This has been a concern for me every time we have hiked the Fish, more especially after the medivac that we had to arrange for one of our hiking party in 2018. Fortunately, the person had adequate travel insurance that included cover for medical evacuation which was a huge relief to him and the rest of the group. In 2018, a medivac from the Canyon to the nearest hospital in Namibia was quoted at R160 000. Who knows what it costs in 2022, particularly after the substantial increase in fuel cost over the last year?
What was of particular concern to Belinda and I was that our medical aid, although very good in SA, does not cover any medical expenses while we are outside of the Republic of South Africa. It is not the only medical aid that operates like that. Once we have returned to the country and we still require medical treatment, our medical aid benefits would kick in again. So, we highly recommend that you check with your medical aid before entering Namibia whether they will cover you for medical treatment in Namibia, including covering the cost of a medical evacuation (a helicopter rescue) as well as any treatment that you will receive in a Namibian medical facility.
For us, we will not leave SA or participate in the Fish River Canyon hike without adequate travel insurance. It is not worth the risk and any medical emergency could result in hundred of thousands of Rands in medical costs that could literally bankrupt us. Again this is not to say that there is a significant risk of something happening to you in Namibia or in the Canyon. Many many thousands of people have holidayed in Namibia or hiked the Fish River Canyon and had zero incidents. The risk of a medial incident happening is relatively low. Besides the descent, the hiking trail through the Canyon is fairly level and it is has been properly marked. However the financial impact on you or your family if something serious does happen can be devastating. Our recommendation to every single international hiker who wants to do the Fish River Canyon hike is to get proper travel insurance cover. If you are a Namibian citizen, make sure that you medical aid will cover you if you need a medivac from the Canyon.
We have no affiliation to any travel insurance companies and we do not get any financial advantage from making any suggestions. We can only share with you the details of the travel insurance company that we got to sell us a policy. We made use of Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC). Their policy makes provision for a medical evacuation from the Fish River Canyon and I have been assured that they have provided cover to many hikers who have done the Fish. Just to give you an idea (obviously risk dependent), we paid R545 per person for 8 days cover in Namibia which was well worth it because of the peace of mind that it gave us. TIC can be contacted on +27 (0) 11 521 4000 for a quote. They are based in Jhb, South Africa.
8. How To Book The Hike & What Does It Cost?
To book your spot through the Fish River Canyon, contact:
Namibia Wildlife Resorts
Cape Town Office
Telephone: +27 (0)21 422 3761
E-mail: [email protected]
The hike costs R535 per person and is secured via a deposit of 10% (May 2022 rate). A minimum of 3 persons in your group is required to make a booking. The rate is not due to change until November 2022. Once at Hobas, you will need to pay park entry fees of R60 (SADC citizens) and R80 (foreign visitors) and a Conservation fee of R40 per person.
It is recommended that you overnight at either Hobas or Ai-Ais before and after the hike. Camping at Ai Ais will set you back R315 per person per night. We found that rate far too high as you are not even guaranteed an electricity point in the camp site if you are sleeping in a tent. That is normally the rate you would expect to pay in South Africa for an entire camping site sleeping 8 people.
Access to the indoor hot springs at Ai-Ais Resort costs R15 per person, however use of the outdoor swimming pool, fed by the hot springs, is free of charge. On some days, the outdoor swimming pool is hotter than the indoor pool. It is the perfect way to celebrate the end of the hike.
All prices correct as of May 2022. Please make sure of these rates with Namibia Wildlife Resorts for the latest fees when making your booking.
9. How to Get to The Border
It’s fairly simple to get from Cape Town to the SA border post at Vioolsdrift. From wherever you leave, make your way onto the N7 highway and just keep driving. It is a long (approx 565km), straight road. There are a few towns you can stop at a long the way for a bite to eat and a toilet break. There are petrol stations along the N7 at Piketberg, Citrusdal, Clanwilliam and Springbok. If you need supplies for the hike, you can stop in Springbok town proper.
When we stopped in Springbok on 10 May 2022, we were pleasantly surprised to see that a new shopping mall (well it was new to us anyway) had been built which includes a Checkers, Mr Price Sport and a Clicks Pharmacy. You can really stock up on whatever you need at this shopping center. We had forgotten to buy a ‘ZA’ sticker for our car and managed to buy one at Midas which is located directly behind the new shopping mall. More about the ‘ZA’ sticker in the next section of this blog. It cost us only R20.
10. Crossing The Border Into Namibia
South African citizens travelling from South Africa do not need a visa to enter Namibia. The SA border crossing is located at Vioolsdrift. You will need to go to SA Immigration first then to the South African Police Service office to produce your South African passports. You need to go in a group according to the vehicle you are travelling in, but only the drivers need to complete the register. The facilities on the South African side are quite good. There is no charge for crossing through the South African border post for anyone including the drivers. If you have anything to declare before crossing, the driver will need to report to Customs. We ended up going there anyway and indicated that we had nothing to declare.
If you are a US citizen, you do need a visa to enter Namibia. The good news is that if you are entering Namibia for tourist purposes, for less than 90 days, you can get the visa at the port of entry, free of charge.
The Namibian border post is located at Noordoewer, barely a kilometre from the SA border post. The driver of the vehicle will have to pay a fee of R337 for their vehicle and an additional fee of R215 if he or she has a trailer, totalling R552. If you are on a motor cycle you pay the same as a trailer. These are the rates we paid on 10 May 2022.
Currently, on entering the Namibian border post, you will have to subject yourself to a Covid-19 screening process. The screening centre is located in the first white pre-fab building on your left. You must park there and enter the pre-fab building from the rear. If you can produce a vaccination certificate showing that you are fully vaccinated, you are not required to produce a negative Covid-19 test or undergo a Rapid Antigen test. If you do not have a vaccination certificate, you will have to undergo a Rapid Antigen test at this facility and wait for your results before you can proceed to the the Immigration office. After the screening center, you will need to get back in your car and drive to the Immigration section and fill in an arrival / departure form. This facility has been upgraded in the last few years and offers a much better experience than we had in 2018. To see what information you will be required to fill in, a copy of the form is accessible here. Do not print this scanned copy out and fill it in. You will need to get an original form at the border post. This is just to give you an idea of what it looks like. Just remember to make a note of the registration number of the vehicle you are travelling in and the VIN number and to bring a black pen. They do not have enough black pens at the border post.
Both the vehicle and the trailer must have a ZA sticker attached. In 2018, we were not challenged when we forgot to attach a ZA sticker to our vehicle. However in 2022, when I asked the official at the Cross Border Charges window if a ‘ZA’ was a requirement, he could not tell me. Fortunately, there was a SA truck driver standing in the queue behind me that told me that it was not a requirement to enter Namibia, but it was a legal requirement to be able to drive on Namibian roads. The SA truck driver was fined 1500 Namibian Dollars (R1500) a week before for not displaying a ‘ZA’ sticker on his truck.
You are also required to bring the registration papers of your vehicle and trailer to produce on the Namibian side, if requested. If the trailer is not yours, you are required to bring a letter from the registered owner of the trailer giving you permission to take it across the border and to specify the period that you will using it. Similarly if you vehicle is still being financed by a bank, you will need a letter from your bank before you can take it out of SA.
After you have completed your form at Immigration (bring your own black pen) and have been processed, you will need to go get back in your car and drive to the Customs hanger across from the Immigration Office and inform the Customs official if you have anything to declare. The Customs official will then make a decision if he wants to search your vehicle, or not. We did not have anything to declare and we were not searched so we proceeded out he border post and straight to the Engen garage to fill up our little car. We had decided to take our Honda Brio this time and with a 30 liter petrol tank it needed filling up more regularly than the other vehicles in our group. The facilities on the Namibian side of the border are not wonderful so tend to your ablutions while on the South African side rather.
The staff at the Namibian border post were very friendly here, but it would be wise not to make jokes about what you are carrying in your vehicle. Generally border officials do not have a sense of humour and could make your pay for your lame joke by making you unpack your trailer and your vehicle before allowing you through. Keep the lame jokes for the trail, you are going to need them.
Just for the sake of clarity, the no meat ban includes droëwors and biltong. There are a lot of hikers who try and hide their biltong in their bags, but if the border officials find it, they will confiscate it. Our position is that biltong is available in Namibia, so we are happy to support the Namibian economy rather than trying sneak in a few slices of our local biltong.
Remember, they don’t normally allow vehicles to cross the border after dark, so pay attention to sunset times to ensure that they will let you through.
There are two fuel stations just across the border in Namibia where you can fill up your car for around R2 per litre less than it is sold in South Africa! This is a gem of information, especially considering the recent and pending fuel price hike. Another chance to save a bit of cash on this trip should be taken fully advantage of.
In so far as cellular telephone reception is concerned, you will still have full signal for your South African SIM card for up to 6 km into Namibia. Once you go beyond 6 km, the signal will come and go until the 30 km mark where it will disappear completely. If your group is travelling in separate vehicles, just remember to touch base with everyone before you cross the border or directly afterwards so that you are guaranteed that your calls/messages will go through and that the person you are communicating with has a chance to reply in time, before you are out of range.
The Ai Ais Resort does now have Wi-Fi, but it is not strong or reliable so don’t count on it to be able to contact anyone in your party who may have arrived in Namibia ahead of you.
Is There A Time Difference Between SA & Namibia?
There used to be a time difference between South Africa and Namibia. Namibia made use of daylight savings time of one hour during the summer months, but they no longer do it. We were informed on our last visit in May 2018 that SA time is the same as Namibian time all year round now.
What is the Difference in The Currency Between SA & Namibia?
There is currently (as of May 2018) no difference between the Namibian Dollar and the South African Rand. They are worth the same in Namibia and you can use South African Rand to pay for goods and services in Namibia. The only difference is that you usually get your change back in Namibian Dollars so try and spend the Namibian Dollars you get before you leave the country.
Contacts Details at Noordoewer Border Post, Namibia
Border Post Switchboard: +264 61 292 2111
Border Control: +264 61 292 2095
Email: [email protected]
11. Where To Stay Before and After The Hike (Ai Ais vs Hobas)
This used to be quite an easy question to answer. Ai Ais was always far superior in terms of facilities to Hobas. That is no longer the case since the resort in Hobas has been upgraded. Ai Ais has, on both occasions we have stayed there, provided very basic facilities and meals, often running out of food and drinks at the restaurant there. It is also becoming increasingly more expensive which has resulted in us rethinking our decision to stay at Ai Ais the next time we do the Fish. We have not personally stayed at Hobas since it was upgraded, but it might be worth your while to speak to someone who has before making your decision on accommodation.
Our third stay in the Ai Ais Resort has confirmed the concerns we had in 2018. The resort itself is not well maintained at all and seeing it again after 5 years actually shocked us a bit. It is really not looking good and the food and staff shortages are very much still a thing there. The costs have also increased dramatically:
Directions to Ai Ais Resort
It is fairly simple to get there. After we had crossed over the border and filled up with fuel, we turned back on to the B1 highway, which is a tarred road heading directly away from the border post. After travelling about 37 kilometers, you turn left on to the D316 which is a gravel road that is in fairly good condition. The distance to Ai Ais on this road is indicated as 82 km. We had to slow down to avoid huge pools of water on the road surface due to heavy rains the night before. You will also drive through a number of cattle crossings on this road.
You will eventually arrive at a t-junction where you will need to turn left on to the C10 to Ai Ais or right to Hobas and the start of the Fish River Canyon Trail. This leaves you a 10 kilometer stretch of gravel road which has improved slightly since we were last there in 2018. We recommend you reduce your speed along this road to prevent you losing control of your vehicle. It also helps if you drop the pressure in your tyres to about 1.7 bar. The total road distance from the Noordoewer Border Post to the Ai Ais Resort is approximately 117 km. We arrived at Ai Ais at about 15:50 after departing from Cape Town at about 06:15 that same morning. That made it about a 9 and a half hour journey from Cape Town to Ai Ais, totaling about 805 km.
In 2022, we travelled from Wilderness. It is a far longer road journey just short of 1200 km so we decided to do it over two days and overnighted in Springbok.
The Rack Rates At The Ai Ais Resort:
Camping: N$315 per person per night (pp/pn) for a max of 8 persons.
*November 2021 – June 2022.
Room in Resort: N$1125 pp/pn [Mountain View] N$1350 pp/pn [River View] (single and double rates are the same)
*From 01 July 2022, the Mountain View Room rate will increase to N$1350 pp/pn [Single rate N$1575] and the River View Room Rate will increase to N$1650 pp/pn [Single Rate N$1875]
Self Catering Bush Family Chalet: N$1500 pp/pn including breakfast.
*From 01 July 2022, the Self Catering Bush Family Chalet rate will increase to N$1800 pp/pn. There is no single rate available.
Ai Ais Resort Reception: +264 63 683676
The Rack Rates at The Hobas Lodge
Camping: N$401 per person per night (pp/pn) for a max of 8 persons
Bush Chalet: R1557 pp/pn [R1766 single rate] including breakfast.
Hobas Resort Reception: +264 63 683445 / 3446
There are no pets allowed at the Ai Ais or the Hobas Resorts.
12. Ai Ais Resort Day Hike
In 2018, we decided to stay at the Ai Ais Resort again before and after the hike. We actually arrived two days before our hike was due to start which left us with more than enough time to explore Ai Ais. The first time we stayed at Ai Ais, we had heard of a day hike up one of the mountains surrounding the resort. On that occasion, we did not have enough time to explore so we didn’t even attempt it. In 2018, we had plenty of time and had someone in our hiking party that could show us more or less were the hike started.
In the end, we managed to get to the top of the mountain by following a dry ravine. That was not the actual path to the top. Once at the top, right next to the flag pole, it was easy enough to follow the correct path back down the mountain and to the start. The day hike starts in the area where the Fish River Canyon multi-day hike ends. An easy way to explain how to get to the start of the day hike is that you walk down the stone staircase and straight across the stretch of sand to the base of the mountains. The start is located between two large green trees located very nearly against the canyon wall. There is a gorge that takes you round the back of the mountain to the top. There are several cairns in this gorge to show you the correct path to the top.
Unfortunately in 2022, we arrived at Ai Ais Resort too late to do this day hike. We spent the time available to repack our bags and deliberated over each item before putting in back in our backpacks.
The GPS co-ordinates for the start of the day hike (Elevation 216 m) are:
S 27° 54.759′ E 017° 29.338′
The ascent should take you between an hour and a half and 2 hours, while the return journey should only take you just over an hour. The total hiking distance is about 3.8 km.
The flag summit (Elevation 549 m) is located at the following GPS co-ordinates:
S 27° 54.894′ E 017° 28.974
The elevation gain on this day hike is a respectable 333 m. There is a summit journal in a metal box that you can write in to commemorate your successful climb to the top. We did. It was actually quite nice to leave a note about our personal experience of the hike.
13. To Shuttle Or Not To Shuttle
There is a shuttle running from Ai-Ais to Hobas which now costs a whopping R350 per person. The first time we hiked the Fish River Canyon in 2016, we chose to make use of the shuttle. We all dressed in our hiking gear and climbed aboard the open game viewing vehicle, eager to get going. We left Ai Ais at around 09h00, but only descended into the Canyon at around 13h00. It was the coldest road trip we had ever experienced in our entire lives (really really!). Little did we know that there were blankets available for the journey – no one told us. The advantage of the shuttle is that you can leave your vehicles at Ai Ais which is the end point of the hike and secondly the shuttle takes you to the actual start of the hike which is about 11 kms from Hobas. The down side of the shuttle is that each and every one of us had to pay R260 for the privilege (2016). Plus it is freezing (even with a blanket – you would need polar insulation to make this drive even remotely warm), and noisy and quite dusty – the drive from Ai Ais to Hobas is all on gravel road.
On the second time around, we had a one person support team member who was going to camp at Ai Ais while we would be hiking. This left us with options. We chose to use our own vehicles, drop everyone off at the start of the hike and then to drive the vehicles back to Hobas and park them there. Our support team member was then able to drop the drivers back at the start of the hike and return to Ai Ais, in one of the vehicles, after we began with the hike. This saved us all R3 240 in shuttle fees and we only incurred a relatively small additional petrol fee for the three vehicles that had to drive an extra 200 kilometers to the start in Hobas and back to Ai Ais after the hike. The drive through to Hobas from Ai Ais was so much more pleasant than the open game viewing vehicle and I even got in a short nap along the way.
In our third installment of the Fish, we again chose not to make use of the shuttle. For our group of 18 hikers, this saved us R6 300 in shuttle fees. We left one of our vehicles at Ai Ais and drove in four vehicles to Hobas. On completion of the hike, the four drivers were transported in the single vehicle that was parked at Ai Ais all the way back to Hobas to fetch their vehicles. The trip takes between an hour and an hour and a half (each way) depending on how confident you are with driving at speed on gravel roads.
14. Booking Out At Hobas Resort (More Forms)
The Hobas Resort is the administrative hub for the Fish River Canyon hike. The Rangers are based there and that is where you will hand in you medical clearance form and the Conservation Undertaking. There are two buildings that you will need to report to. The first is on the right as you enter and the second is directly opposite it on the left. When you enter the first building, you will need to hand in your medical clearance form, signed by a medical doctor, and your Conservation form, and pay a fee of R60 each. Each member of the hiking party will also need to complete the register and provide their medical aid details or travel insurance details if your medical aid does not cover you in Namibia. That page will then be taken through to Ai Ais to make sure that all of you sign back in after the hike.
Once you have all completed the paperwork, you are ushered over to the other side of the road to what looks like a shop. Here you are made to initial and sign a two page legal indemnity document. We always seem to be in a hurry at this point and no one bothers to read the fine print. In 2018, I took a photo of both pages, signed and ran off to catch up with the fellow hikers. I was shocked when I read the two pages one evening in the Canyon. We all basically signed our lives away without even knowing it. It includes giving up the right to sue in case of negligence on the part of the Namibia Wildlife Resorts. I have sent this 2 page document on to a lawyer in South Africa because it just doesn’t look right. Who knows if they will allow you to do the hike if you don’t sign this form, but in my humble opinion the document is probably not enforceable anyway. What this document did say to me, despite it being unenforceable, is that you are very much on your own in the Canyon. No one is coming to your aid in a hurry.
After a very brief stop for photos at the viewing site, we were dropped off at the start of the hike. There is a long-drop toilet there in a small ‘rondavel’ for any last minute ablutions that may be required (take your own loo paper).
15. When Is The Best Time To Do The Hike?
What Time Of Year?
Due to extreme weather conditions and the real possibility of flash flooding in the Canyon, it is only possible to do the hike from 1 May until 15 September, each year.
Siyabona Africa has summarised the annual climate for the Fish River Canyon as follows:
Daytime temperatures from May to August range between 20-25°C (68-77°F). The agreeable temperature and dry atmosphere create ideal walking conditions and this is the best time to do the Fish River Canyon hike. However, be warned it can get hot and reach 40°C (104°F) at midday. Evenings are usually mild, although nights can go below 5°C (40°F).
This is an area of summer rainfall with 60-70% of rain occurring as thunderstorms between October and March. It is extremely hot and humid during the rains and is too hot for the 5-day hike, which is closed for safety reasons. Rain is very unpredictable and varies between 50-100 mm per year. Daytime temperatures are in the high 30°C to over 40°C (104°F).”
For more information related to the environmental conditions in the Fish River Canyon visit their website.
We have done the Fish twice now in the last 10 days of May. The reasons why we choose to do it then is that the river levels have dropped sufficiently to allow for ‘dry’ river crossings, but not too low that flowing water is hard to find. The day time temperatures are still relatively hot, but the nights are cooler, but not too cold that it makes sleeping in the open uncomfortable.
On our third hike, we completed the hike more or less in the middle of May 2022, between the 11th and the 16th. The river was flowing more, but we still got to do 29 of the 30 river crossings without taking our shoes/boots off.
What Time Of Day Should I Start?
When we did the Fish for the first time in 2016, we started the hike at 13h00. We were down in the Canyon by around 15h00 and we were only able to walk about 5 kilometers before we had to stop and make camp. The descent measures approximately 1.76 km, according to the Slingsby map, and should take between 2 – 3 hours to negotiate. The super fit hikers have been known to do the descent in between 45 minutes and 1 hour. We tracked the descent at 2.76km.
The second time around, we started considerably earlier at just after 09h00. We took a little longer to get to the bottom as one of own hiking party really struggled with the descent. Her legs were dealt a significant blow and she could only shuffle along very slowly for the rest of the day, after we took a short break at the first pool in the river. This meant that even though we starting hiking at least 4 hours earlier than the last time, we actually walked 3 kilometers less on Day 1 during the second hike, than the first time around.
On our third installment of the hike, we started at 11:00. There were no problems with leg fatigue in our group and we were able to spend the extra time enjoying the first swimming spot on the hike.
A lot of hiking groups don’t hike very far on the first day. If you plan on doing the hike in 5 days then you should probably aim to hike at least 5km on the first day (excluding the descent). If, like us, you were planning on doing it in 6 days, then it really doesn’t matter what time you start on the first day, as long as you can complete the descent with enough time to make camp before the sun goes down. The sun usually sets around 18h15 during the month of May.
After having started the hike once in the late afternoon and twice in the early morning, it is our suggestion that you try and start by mid morning to give yourselves enough time to descend into the canyon, have a good rest at the first pools and get in a few kilometers before making camp. It can only stand you in good stead for the rest of the hike. And besides, we would prefer to spend more time in the Canyon as opposed to at the camp site.
Does the Moon Really Play A Role When It Comes To Booking The Hike?
This really does sound like a crazy proposition, but the moon can have an impact on whether you enjoy the hike or not. It is very important that you get a good night’s rest each and every night in the Canyon. The night sky from inside the Canyon is really something special. There just seems to be so many more stars in the sky than what we were used to seeing from our balcony or backyard in the City. The Moon becomes a massive torch light that shines directly into the Canyon. If you struggle to sleep when there is a bright light shining in your eyes, then we would advise that you check the moon phases for your hike and pick a date where you start as close as possible after a New Moon.
If you would prefer, like us, to do a bit of hiking in the evening when it is cooler, then rather book your hike with a waxing Moon where it will be a full moon around the last day of your hike. If you want to find out a bit more about Lunar phases click here to watch a very informative video.
16. What About The River Water Quality?
The first time we hiked the Fish River Canyon, we were very weary of the quality of the water. Whenever we filled up our water bottles, we religiously added water purification droplets to the water and allowed a few minutes for it to work. We used the One Drop water purifier product that is sold at most camping outlets in South Africa. It is available in a 30 ml bottle and costs around R60. You can read up about it here. As the hike progressed and the water quality seemed to improve, we worried less and less about adding purification droplets. We also carried a liquid flavourant around with us to improve the overall flavour of the water.
The second and third time around, we were less concerned about treating the water before drinking it. As long as you can collect your water from a section where the river is flowing, you shouldn’t have a problem. Try and avoid filling your water bottle in parts of the river where the water is stagnant or green in colour. Again, we added powdered drinks like Game and Rehidrat to the water to improve the taste, but overall the quality of water during the month of May is generally quite good.
If you want to go the water filtration route, there are several products on the market that can produce delicious tasting water from the Fish River. They can do wonders for the taste of the water, but they can take quite some time to accomplish. Some members of our hiking party drank the water straight from the river and others went the extra mile and used filtration systems to produce high quality water. None of us developed any stomach issues because of the water. It is really a matter of personal preference. It might be wise just to have purification drops with you in case you run out of water and the river water quality at that point is not great, but otherwise we do not believe that the water quality should trouble you too much while hiking through the Canyon in May or early June.
17. What To Do If You Need To Do A Number 2?
This is one of those subjects that everyone thinks about when planning for the Fish, but not everyone plucks up the courage to ask someone about. How do you go to the toilet when there are no toilets? Good question. Glad you asked! Let us try and answer that question as plainly and simply as possible.
Firstly, make sure that on the morning that you are going to start the hike that you have gone to the toilet and taken care of number 1 and number 2. The last thing you want to do is answer the call of nature while you are descending into the canyon. Don’t worry, your body will realise quite quickly that you do not have easy access to ablutions and it will assist you delay the need to do a number 2 as regularly as if you were at home. My body helped me to delay my bowel movement to the end of day 3 and only again after we arrived at Ai Ais. I only needed to do a number 2 once in the Canyon. Your body may be different, which is fine. Try and time your number twos for when you are in camp. It’s just easier. When you need to do a number 2, rather dig a hole first then do the business than the other way round. You will thank me later!
Secondly, part of staying adequately hydrated will mean that you will probably need to pee at least two to three times a day. All you need to do if you need to pee is slowly move to the back of the group and find a large rock or bush that you can hide behind and do the necessary. Just remember that you need to keep an eye out for another hiking group approaching from the rear, so to speak. You do not want to be caught with your pants down and mid-stream when another group comes around the bend.
And what are you supposed to do with the toilet paper, I hear you ask? The simplest answer to that is please do not just leave it lying on the ground. That is a no no. It is recommended that you bury it. Make sure that your little spade (or you can use your hand) is handy because you need to bury it properly and not just throw sand over it. The ground can be quite hard in places and will require more than just your hand to be able to dig a hole. A depth of at least 10 cm is recommended.
A handy tip at the overnight campsites is to say to the guys that their toilet and washing facilities are located upstream and the ladies’ toilets and washing facilities are located downstream. So if you were to accidentally happen upon a fellow hiker soaping their unmentionables, they will at least be the same sex.
Note: Please be considerate and do not dig a hole and poop near to where hiking groups could stop and have lunch or where they could make camp for the night. There is plenty of space in the Canyon so you shouldn’t have a problem to find a suitable ‘out of the way’ spot.
18. 5 Days Or 6 Days?
What has made this decision a little easier is that the Fish River Canyon hiking route has been measured and mapped by Peter Slingsby and his team. He looked at GPS track logs over a period of 4 years and determined the routes most often used through the Canyon. What he found was that the total hiking distance was not the popularly advertised 90 kilometers, but rather a far more modest 65 kilometers (excluding the descent). With a far more manageable total distance, making plans to hike the Fish in 5 or 6 days really doesn’t make much of a difference at the end of the day. It is having to hike an average of 15 kilometers a day over 4 days or 12 kilometers a day over 5 days. That is assuming that you complete the descent and hike a minimum distance of 5 km on the first day. The descent calculated at a distance of 1.76 km is not included in the Slingsby map total hiking distance of 65 km. We actually measured it at 2.76km. Obviously the more distance you do on the first day, the less you will have to do on the remaining days.
Again, Belinda and I are in the fortunate position of having done the Fish in 5 days and 6 days. Unfortunately, on the first and second occasions we had members of our hiking party struggle with the conditions and we were not able to cover much distance over the first three days. This adds kilometers and time pressure on to the remaining days. On our first Fish, as a result of only covering a distance of about 25 kilometers after 3 days, we were compelled to push hard on the 4th day covering a distance of 25 kilometers. This actually spoiled the hike for a lot of people, especially as we still had two of our hiking party struggling with heat exhaustion and fatigue. It changes the goal of the hike from maximum enjoyment to just finishing the hike as soon as possible. That ultimately left us with 15 kilometers to hike on Day 5.
The second time around, we had all committed to taking it easy and smelling the flowers, as it were. However, again we had two people who really struggled with fatigue and heat exhaustion and we again only managed to hike around 30 kilometers by the morning of Day 4. We lost a further day on Day 4 waiting on the helicopter to extract one of our hiking party, which didn’t help matters.
Some of our hiking party, including Belinda and I, had thought about including the Lost Bend in our hiking route. It is a section of the Fish River Canyon that is not part of the regular route and therefore was reported to be relatively untouched by humans. It was said to have pristine beaches where you could relax and enjoy a part of the Fish River Canyon that hardly anyone gets to experience. It did, however, mean an extra 7 kilometers to the overall trail distance of 65 kilometers. Despite the slow progress we had made and having lost a day to the helicopter rescue, a small group of us hiked through two evenings and managed to hike through the Lost Bend, enjoy some time on the beach and complete the hike in 6 days. If you have hiked the Fish before and you are intending to do it again, think seriously about including the Lost Bend in your route. Consult the Slingsby Fish River Canyon map to see where it is located and on which day you are likely to reach it.
To answer the question of whether you should plan for a 5 or 6 day hike, it really does not make a difference if you can cover at least 19 kilometers by the end of Day 2, including the descent (2.76 km). This would put you about 3 km beyond Palm Sulphur Springs. You could just as easily camp at the Sulphur Springs and make up the 3 kilometers shortfall over the next 3/4 days. But that is what makes the Fish unique and special. You can stop and camp wherever and whenever you want to.
If you are planning to include more sections of the river than the usual hiking route, like for example the Lost Bend, we would encourage you to do the hike over 6 days. The extra day just allows you some breathing room to relax a little longer or more often along the way and gives to the extra time you need to hike the additional kilometers.
19. Group Dynamics On The Fish
Hiking with a group of friends or as part of a hiking club always has its challenges. People tend to have different expectations of the hike and also varying degrees of fitness and mental toughness. On multi-day hikes, it is not uncommon for the group to split up. There will be those that will walk on ahead and aim to reach the overnight hut before lunch time, while there will be others that will walk at their own pace, but won’t spend much time on rest breaks along the way. We normally find ourselves in this second group and usually reach the overnight hut about an hour after the speedsters, but way ahead the final group. The last group of hikers are those that tend to stop a lot and smell the flowers, take lots of photos and will usually not walk past a rock pool without having a dip.
There is usually nothing wrong with a hiking group splitting up into smaller groups, as long as those smaller groups stick together and do not break up even further. These smaller groups should also include at least one person that has done the hike before and knows the way. And lastly, there must be a designated end point for the day, like an overnight hut, where everyone will regroup again to make sure that everyone is okay and no one has become lost. With modern technological devices like hand held GPS devices and hiking Apps, it has become easier to stay on the right path and set waypoints.
Usually the hiking routes in South Africa will have cellular telephone signal on the trail, but there will be sections of the trails where there will be limited or no signal at all.
With the run-of-the-mill overnight hikes, the hike leader will play a more passive role and allow each hiker to proceed at his or her pace, while allowing the slower hikers to catch up or remain in view of the main group.
Quite simply put, the Fish River Canyon is not like any other hike that you are likely to do in your life time. There are very few established paths, there is very little signage along the route, there are no overnight huts and there is zero cellular telephone signal in the Canyon. These present significant challenges for the hike leader who has to manage a group of hikers with different objectives, cultures, languages, experience levels and degrees of fitness. Every member of the group needs to buy in to what the group wants as a whole and it will be up to the hike leader to make sure that everyone sticks to those collective decisions.
We would recommend that the group meets at least once before the hike to discuss the conditions of the Canyon, the duration of the hike, and reaffirm the principle that the group can only proceed at the pace of the slowest hiker. It is preferable to have this discussion before departing for Namibia so that each member of the group has had enough time to think about whether he or she wants to do the hike with that group. If you want to do the hike in 5 days and the group want to do it in 6, then it would be better to find yourself another group to hike with or you may not enjoy it.
I think what some people do not fully comprehend is that the hike leader, especially in the Fish River Canyon, is responsible for each and every member of his or her group. They have undertaken to put a group together and lead them safely through the Canyon. They would have done the hike a few times before and accumulated the knowledge and experience to make decisions on behalf of the group that you as a ‘first timer’ may not have.
What is crucial to any successful hike through the Canyon is that you hike and make decisions as a group and no one is allowed to go his or her own way once you enter the Canyon. By joining a group, you have agreed to be led by the hike leader and to abide by their decisions made in the Canyon. It is almost like getting on to a ship and once at sea, the ship’s Captain is in charge. No one is allowed to jump ship or cause some sort of mutiny – and so should it be on the Fish.
It also true that any plan made by the hike leader should be flexible, especially when you are hiking through the rugged and desolate terrain that you will find in the Fish River Canyon. The plan should be adaptable to the conditions and the progress made, or lack thereof, of the individual members of the group. You cannot stick rigidly to a particular overnight spot or daily distance, if one or more of your group is struggling. If the plan has to change, the hike leader must be willing to make those changes and, just as importantly, the rest of the group needs to recognize the need for those changes and abide by them.
It is our recommendation that if there are to be any significant changes made to the original hiking plan, that the whole group is together to discuss the need for the change and to be able to give their input. A decision that includes consultation and input from the whole group is more easily enforced than a decision made arbitrarily by the hike leader.
I just want to mention two examples of how group dynamics have played out in both of our Fish River Canyon hikes. On our first hike, we had decided, as a group, that we would do the Fish in 5 days. By the second day, two of our hiking companions were really struggling with fatigue and heat exhaustion, to the point that we discussed the possibility of completing the hike in 6 days. Our hike leader informed us half way through the hike that he had a plane to catch directly after the hike was completed and had no choice but to complete the hike in 5 days. The decision had to be made as to whether the group would split and the hike leader and some others completing the hike in 5 days, leaving the remainder to complete the hike in 6 days, or whether we should stay together and finish in 5 days regardless of the struggling companions.
The hike leader was in his own vehicle and could have allowed the group to split up giving those that were struggling an extra day to compete the hike. His decision was to keep the group together and to push hard for the finish. It must be mentioned that this group had never met before the hike and we did not know each other that well. In my opinion, as a result of the hike leader’s decision to continue as a single group, he placed the health of the two struggling hikers at risk. It was not a popular decision as the majority thought that splitting the group was the more sensible option. As a consequence of that decision, many people in the group have vowed never to hike with him again. Where the health of an individual is at risk, a hike leader must be willing to make another plan, as long as the whole group is present and there is consensus on the way forward. No one said it was easy to lead a group through the Fish River Canyon!
On our second hike through the Fish River Canyon, with a different hike leader, we again we had to deal with 2 hikers that were struggling right from the beginning. This meant that we had made little progress over the first two days. By the end of Day 2, there were already rumblings in the group about splitting in two. I was not the hike leader, but requested a meeting round the camp fire to discuss the developments and to get an idea of how the others were feeling. It was decided that, we would see how it went the next day and if things did not improve then the group would come together and decide on the split. Unfortunately things actually got worse and we had to have a quick get together. One person indicated that he was going to split from the group regardless of the group’s decision and complete the hike in 5 days. In fact, he was a late replacement to the group and had already mentioned that he wanted to do the hike in 5 days before we left Ai Ais. Already there were early indications of a possible conflict down the line. He had done the Fish several times before and was a very experienced hiker. Four other hikers decided to join him and effectively split the group roughly down the middle, excluding the person who was to be airlifted out of the Canyon. Was that the right decision when as a group we had all decided to complete the hike in 6 days? It’s difficult to say, but what it did mean was that 6 hikers were left behind to tend to one of their companions until the chopper arrived, while 5 of our group could continue on as if nothing had happened, assuming that help for our companion was around the corner (it actually took 10 hours… more on this later).
What was clear though is that the end goal of these 5 hikers had changed and was no longer aligned with the rest of the group. The question is would we have had an enjoyable hike together as a group with at least half of them frustrated at the slow pace of the hike, while the rest of us tried to make the most of our time in the Canyon and enjoy the view. In this particular example, I believe that splitting the group was the right decision allowing both groups to enjoy the remainder of the hike in their own way.
It is almost inevitable that group dynamics will be at play in your group as your negotiate your way through the Fish River Canyon. It is important to be attentive to these changes and try and include the whole group in any decisions that will affect the group. Rather try and support your hike leader to make informed decisions than thinking only of yourself and ending up causing conflict. Make the most of your group collective abilities and recognise the skills that your companions bring to the table. There is no room in the Canyon for pride and selfish thinking. Why spoil the experience of a life time on unnecessary conflict where adversity can rather be used to build strength of character and a sense of camaraderie within the group.
20. The Hiking Trifecta (Stay Hydrated, Stay Cool & Keep Your Feet Dry)
Dehydration and heat exhaustion can end your hike just as quickly as a sudden fall from a height. Your body is able to compensate for a lack of liquids and electrolytes for a time, until it decides it cannot anymore. Whilst severe blistering does not usually stop a hiker in his or her tracks, it can suck all the joy out of your hike if it happens to you.
It is important that, as a group, you remind each other to drink plenty of water regularly throughout the day. It is not advisable to wait until you feel thirsty before having a drink of water. Once you have completed each day’s hiking, you need to put back the electrolytes you have lost during the course of the day. It is recommended that use something like Rehidrat Sport to restore your electrolyte levels before setting out the next day. USN also have some very good products that you can look at getting. Replacing salt lost during the day’s exercise will also help to revive the body. We used to use the small salt sachets that you get with your take away meals, but now we are taking salt tablets made by SALTABS. They are usually available in most pharmacies and are sold in containers of 30 tablets.
It is not enough just to drink lots of water. The conditions in the Canyon can be extreme as far as the temperature is concerned. Your body is an amazing machine that is able to regulate its temperature depending on both internal and external factors. However incredible the body may be, it too can be overwhelmed by the elements and lose its ability to regulate its own temperature. Along with drinking lots of water, keep your head and body cool by taking breaks in available shade, pour water over your head and have a swim to bring down your core temperature, especially if you are struggling with the heat. Be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and treat them aggressively when they are present.
Some signs and symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
- Cool, moist skin
- Heavy sweating
- Low blood pressure
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Feeling faint
- Muscle or abdominal cramps
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea
(We got this from here)
Some signs and symptoms of Heat Stroke
- High body temperature (>40°C)
- Hot, flushed and dry skin
- Lack of sweating despite the heat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak
- Rapid, shallow breathing
(We got this from here)
Keeping you feet dry includes keeping them free of loose sand that can lead to the formation of blisters. If you accidentally misstep during a river crossings and your socks get soaked, it is recommended that you stop immediately and change your socks. Some of the modern hiking boots have material that makes them waterproof. If water gets in through the ankle area, these materials will actually prevent the water from escaping again. You would actually need to tip your boots over to let the water run out, depending on how much gets in.
Blister prevention and management is actually an interesting topic that will be covered in a separate chapter.
Remember to drink enough water regularly, keep your head and body cool and keep those feet dry and free of sand you should have an enjoyable hike.
21. The Descent
The descent is often the main discussion point when you ask someone about their experiences of the Fish River Canyon. Words generally used to describe the descent are ‘extremely steep’, ‘dangerous’, ‘long and tough’ and a ‘nightmare’. Hikers have apparently reported losing toe nails and for the most part describe the descent as the toughest part of the entire trail. That was not our experience at all. One of our hiking companions did struggle on the descent, but that was more because of a fear of heights, a fear generated by the hype surrounding the descent combined with an unsustainable hiking technique.
Generally, we found the descent manageable. It was technical, but not difficult. We would like to point out a few areas that you need to be aware of to make it safely down into the Canyon. Firstly, the start is the steepest part of the descent and you are advised to make use of the chains. In 2018, we noticed that two of the steel poles on which the chains are attached, were not fixed to the ground. Thankfully, this has been rectified.
The trail surface is covered in a layer of sand and small stones which does make it relatively easy to slip or slide with each new step. In terms of the technique you should use when descending, we recommend that you bend your knees with each step and absorb the impact in your quads, hamstrings and glutes rather than landing with a straight leg where the impact is taken mainly by the knee and ankle joints (practicing your squats and lunges as part of your pre-hike training will really help). You do not want to ‘ruin’ your legs in the first two hours of the hike. Experiencing a bit of ‘leg wobble’ towards the end of the descent is normal and should pass quite quickly after a short break and swim in the river at the bottom. It is not a bad idea to take some anti-inflammatories on the first night to help your body, especially your legs, to be a little less stiff and sore for the boulder hopping on Day 2.
Another important aspect that you should keep in mind when descending is the duration of the descent. Most hikes, especially in the Cape Town area, have a descent that ranges between a hour and a hour and a half. The descent into the Fish River Canyon can take up to 3 hours depending on the speed of your group. That can have a devastating impact on your legs if done too quickly or by utilising the wrong technique, as described above.
In our opinion, the descent is not as bad as everyone says it is. It is also not the most difficult part of the trail. You will have many more challenges later in the trail that rival or trump the descent so get your head right. The Fish is just as much about mental toughness as it is about physical toughness, maybe even more so.
22. The Actual Hike
As mentioned previously in this blog post, Belinda and I have done the Fish three times now. The first time was over 5 days and the second and third were over 6 days. This chapter deals with our second Fish River Canyon Hike. I did not really make too many notes when we did it the first time. This is certainly not meant to be the best way to do the Fish as we had our problems along the way and didn’t reach the overnight spots that we had in mind when we started the hike. This is just a brief account of our journey through the canyon, what we saw, what we did and what we would like to do when we do the hike again in a couple of years time. Hopefully there will be things in this chapter that you might find interesting or useful when you decide to do the hike.
We arrived at Hobas Resort at about 07:50. We had opted to drive through from Ai Ais in our own vehicles. The 67 km journey took us just over an hour. On arrival, we completed all the usual forms as mentioned earlier in this blog. For a group of 12 people it took us about 30 minutes to complete. Most of us used the opportunity to pay a last visit to the ablution facilities. It was an emotional parting for some. I stopped short of hugging the toilet bowl and shedding a tear. I could have sworn that I heard sobbing come from the ladies side, but I couldn’t be certain. I also took down all the emergency numbers that where pasted on the walls in the two offices and managed to get the mobile number of the Ranger on duty and introduce myself to him (this becomes important later).
We all bundled back into our vehicles and drove the remaining 11 km to the start of the hike, with a brief stop at the viewing point. After being dropped at the start, the drivers took their vehicles back to Hobas and were later returned to the start by our one-person support team. There were some early morning jitters in the group, especially after our brief stop at the viewing point. That is the first time that you really get to see what the Canyon looks like and what the next 6 days are going to be like. In case you missed the chance to go to the toilet at Hobas, there is a rondavel (stone hut) that is equipped with a long drop toilet. Whilst waiting for the drivers to return, many of the group had some breakfast, so they were well fueled before starting the descent.
Start: S 27° 34.672′ E 017° 36.361′
We started hiking at 09:15 and it took us around 02h20m to descend to the the bottom. We had a group of medical doctors hiking ahead of us so I felt relaxed about our descent, knowing that if we got into any serious trouble, we could just run ahead and get professional help. One of our group struggled a bit on the descent, but we made it downe into the Canyon in one piece.
We enjoyed a snack break at the big pool at the bottom of the Canyon [S 27° 35.249′ E 017° 35.890′] and we had three swimmers that were brave enough to take a dip. A swim really does cool you down and also re-energizes your aching muscles, but you first have to get over the lazy voice in your head saying, “Agh no man that means I have to take off my boots and socks and then put them on again. Just leave it”.
After the break, we headed off again, but didn’t make much progress. Besides the person that was suffering with leg fatigue from the descent, we had another person – our hike leader – showing early signs of physical exhaustion. After about 2 km, we called it a day and set up camp. It was early enough for us to pitch our tent, wash ourselves and our clothes, hang them out to dry and make a fire.
Some people say that it is not permissible to make a fire in the Canyon. That’s not true. You are however warned “not to pollute the environment in any way, which could include discarding tins, paper, bottles or tinfoil linings in burnt out fires“. Making a fire every night is an excellent way to get rid of all your rubbish and helps in some way to keep the Canyon litter free. I put the satellite phone on at 17h00 and kept it on until 20h00, just in case there was news from home. I repeated this process throughout the hike. After having supper, washing dishes and chatting with the ‘first timers’ on their impressions of the Canyon, we fell asleep at about 20h30.
DAY 1 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 09h15
End Time: 14h45
Distance Covered: 4 km [Including the 1.76 km descent]
Total Time Taken: 05h30m
Overnight Spot: S 27° 35.919′ E 017° 35.048′
We were woken by the sound of a pot being banged by a metal spoon at exactly 05h00. It has become a tradition that our hike leader bangs on a pot at 05h00 to make sure that we all get up at the same time. It is the worst sound in the world at that time of the morning, but it is effective. It reduces the chance of one of us oversleeping and holding the whole group up when we are all ready to walk at 07h00 and they are not ready.
After a quick breakfast, we gathered up our dry clothes that had been scattered by the wind during the night, repacked our bags and took down the tent. One of the poles had snapped on our first night in Ai Ais, so it looked more like a church steeple than a tent. Belinda tested out her hiking coffee filters that she got from BushBaby Coffee and was thoroughly impressed with the result. She has done a review of them which you can read here – she highly recommends them for anyone wanting to have proper filter coffee whilst on a multi-day hike.
It was more of a relaxed day than the first day and we got to see lots of interesting animal tracks next to the river. It was a day of boulder crossing and hopping. That’s pretty much the central theme throughout the hike really. That and the sand. One of the highlights of the day was a visit to the last remaining, famous Vespa scooter in the Canyon [S 27° 36.834′ E 017° 35.926′]. It was now completely blue as opposed to zebra striped this last time we did the hike in 2016. It terms of the terrain, the Canyon started to become more and more green towards the end of Day 2. About a kilometer on from the Vespa, we came across the scattered carcass of a zebra [S 27° 37.574′ E 017°36.281′].
The river crossings for the day were quite challenging. A mixture of slippery and unstable rocks could send your boots into knee deep water, but with the correct use of a trekking pole you can make it across unscathed.
We hiked just past the Walls of Jericho and made camp about 500 m before the first emergency exit.
We had an awkward chat around the fire about the possibilities of splitting the group (discussed earlier in the blog post), but decided to see how it went the following day before making any decisions.
DAY 2 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 07h00
End Time: 16h05
Distance Covered: 12 km
Total Time Taken: 09h05m
Overnight Spot: S 27° 38.990′ E 017° 36.278′
We started the day at our usual time and doubled back a short distance to be able to cross over to the right bank of the river. We walked past the first emergency exit, located on the left bank. We would not see the second emergency exit for another 35 km.
Day 3 was the most enjoyable of the hike. After hiking for only 2 km, we were lucky to see two of the remaining Canyon horses. They were in really good condition and were not too worried when we came close to them on the river crossing.
Palm Sulphur Springs was where we decided to have breakfast. One of the group took the opportunity to enjoy a foot spa treatment in the little scalding hot stream emptying into the river. The water is extremely warm here, but as the name suggests, it also has a rather unpleasant odour.
We reached the 20 km painted marker on a rock after hiking for about 7 km. Propped up against a rock opposite the painted distance marker were the desiccated remains of a kudu. It is just behind the rock so it is possible to miss it if you are not specifically looking in that direction.
Unfortunately the condition of our hike leader continued to deteriorate throughout the day and he was really struggling to walk even a short distance before needing to stop and rest. I really became concerned when he started showing symptoms of possible heat stroke. We eventually decided to call it a day at 15h10 and made camp at Zebra Pools. Co-incidentally we had camped at Zebra Pools during the first Fish River Canyon hike on Day 3 as well.
DAY 3 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 07h00
End Time: 15h10
Distance Covered: 12 km
Total Time Taken: 08h10m
Overnight Spot: S 27° 41.953′ E 017° 35.519′
On the morning of Day 4, the medical condition of our hike leader who had been struggling with fatigue and possible heat stroke had worsened and the decision was made to alert the Ranger at Hobas and request assistance to get him out of the Canyon (the same one we spoke to at Hobas before setting off on the hike). My first call on the satellite phone to the Ranger was at 07h15. I called again a bit later and it was agreed that we would meet the Rangers at Boulder Crossing in one hour. The Rangers were going to walk him out of the Canyon. It was not going to be easy, but definitely more likely than continuing on with the hike and covering the remaining distance of 36 km from Boulder Crossing with someone that was battling.
I made contact with our one person support team in Ai Ais and asked her to drive through to Hobas and wait for further instructions. We arrived at Boulder Crossing at 08h30 after hiking about 4 km. There was a 30 km painted distance marker on a large rock on the right side of the river. I made contact with the Ranger again and let him know that we had made it to Boulder Crossing. The Ranger said that they hadn’t left yet as they were still waiting for their vehicle.
Nearly half of our group decided at that point that they were going to complete the hike in 5 days and were not going to wait on the arrival of the Rangers. They left us at Boulder Crossing and we only saw them again back at Ai Ais.
To cut a long and very frustrating story short, by 12h00 the Rangers had still not arrived (we later found out their car was being serviced, an important point which they failed to mention during any of the telephone calls) and had now decided that a land based rescue was too dangerous. I decided to cut my losses with the Rangers and contacted the Namibia Medical Rescue 24/7 chopper directly and requested a medivac for our hike leader. They informed me to sit tight and not to move. The chopper would only be able to reach us at about 16h00. This meant that we would have to wait 8 hours before help arrived. This fact was a real shock to our systems as we were in a position to call for help immediately yet help was still going to take a whole hiking day to get to us.
While we waited for the helicopter to arrive, the 6 of us developed a new game. We called it Boulder Dash. It involved placing a stick inside a circle and standing 5 meters away behind a line. The object of the game was for each player to throw 2 rocks as close as possible to the encircled stick. Points are awarded for each rock inside the circle with the closest scoring 4 points and the furthest scoring 1 point. Not only was it lots of fun, but it helped to pass the time. Something to note is that you tend to eat more food and snacks while sitting around and doing nothing.
After a long days’s wait, the chopper eventually landed at 17h25 and our hike leader was handed over to the Emergency Care Technician (ECT) medic on board the chopper, 10 hours after calling for help!
It was a Namibian Police helicopter that had flown all the way from Windhoek, 650 km away. He was then flown out to Hobas where our one person support team was waiting to take him back to Ai Ais.
We had developed several plans during the day on how far we were going to hike after the chopper had left. We were on Plan E by the time the chopper landed which meant covering a large distance after dark.
With some hard work and determination we managed to cover a distance of 11 km before we made camp at 21h20. Just before calling it a day, we ran into a group of hikers that had made camp in a hollow under a clump of trees. This is the Fish and you can literally make camp wherever you want to, even in a hollow like a tin of sardines. They were curious why we were still hiking at that time of night. My reply was that it was a long story, which it was. We continued on for another 5 minutes before agreeing that we had gone as far as we could for the day.
We had walked for an additional 03h40m after the chopper took off. We were tired and hungry and made a quick supper before going to sleep.
There wasn’t an opportunity to wash ourselves or our clothing before going to bed so we were going to have to find an opportunity early the next day to tend to our personal hygiene pronto.
DAY 4 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 07h25
End Time: 21h20
Distance Covered: 15 km
Total Time Taken: 04h45m
Overnight Spot: S 27° 45.389′ E 017° 35.037′
We were woken in the morning at about 05h00 by what sounded like a pot being banged with a rubber snake. Belinda had taken over the pot banging duties from our hike leader who had left us in a noisy cloud of dust the previous evening. It was probably the most difficult day to get out of bed as a result of the late night we had had and the bitterly cold morning air. That may have played into the lack of enthusiasm shown by Belinda in her new found responsibilities as the designated pot banger.
We did the usual morning rituals and managed to get on the trail 20 minutes earlier than usual. The first part of the morning involved several river crossings. We were all still determined to visit the Lost Bend, but it would require us to dig deep into our stamina reserves to do it. At that stage, we had no idea if we would have to ‘bundu’ (wild uninhabited region) bash our way through thick bush or have to negotiate our way around large boulders. The ‘not knowing’ if we would have the makings of a path to follow, did make me feel uncomfortable as the newly appointed hike leader of half the hiking group. It was also exciting at the same time. We were going to explore a part of the Fish River Canyon that only a small percentage of hikers actually get to see.
At about 10h20, we reached the river at Barbel Pools where we could continue straight across and over Vasvatnek – on the regular trail – or turn right and head toward the Lost Bend. After a 10 minute break, we backtracked a short distance along the path we had just walked on and cut left across the open veld and headed straight for the first bend in the river. We were going to try for the Lost Bend. We crossed over the river on to the left bank and hugged the left Canyon wall around the first bend. We were actually following a discernible footpath at this point. At about 11h15, we crossed over to the right bank and continued on the right bank until we reached a long stretch of beach at about 11h45. We had walked about 3.5 km off the regular path to get to this point [S 27° 47.434′ E 017°33.777′].
After a short debate about whether we should stop or look for a better spot, we agreed to stop and make the most of the heat of the day to wash ourselves and our clothes and to give the clothes a good long chance to dry. Belinda and I set up a decent washing line between two trees and managed to fit 4 people’s washing on it. We were all looking a little worse for wear and were hoping for an afternoon nap. We all curled up on our individual ground sheets, Belinda and I were sharing a double one, and put our heads down. Minutes later the Canyon was turned into the starting grid for a Formula 1 race with 6 powerful engines revving intermittently. There is nothing like waking yourself up with a loud snork after a power nap with a little puddle of drool on your cheek.
After packing up, we headed off at about 15h50. At 16h05, we crossed to the left bank and turned the corner to the left. There we came across a few beautiful beaches on our left and over on the right bank that would be ideal overnight spots in the future.
Our next historical waypoint on the trail was the grave of the German soldier, Lieutenant Thilo von Trotha who was killed and buried in 1905 at the age of 27. After spending a few minutes at the grave we rejoined the regular trail that runs past the grave and crossed over the river. I stopped on the other side and made a pre-arranged call to Ai Ais at 18h00 to tell one of the 5 day group that we were okay and to confirm from them that they made it safely out of the Canyon. While I was on the phone, we all looked back at Four Finger Rock poking its uneven digits above the Canyon Wall.
At about 18h50, we reached the causeway which holds some powerful memories from our first hike. Not all good. The causeway on this occasion was flooded and we had to move slowly across to keep the water out of our boots. After a short stop at the Pink Palace to look at some new renovations, we continued on until about 20h00 when we decided to make camp for the night. It wasn’t one of the best campsites we had found, but it was close to the river and the sand wasn’t rock hard.
DAY 5 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 06h40
End Time: 20h05
Distance Covered: 23 km
Total Time Taken: 13h25m
Overnight Spot: S 27° 50.068′ E 017° 33.095′
The last day of the hike started very differently than the previous 5. We had no plan for the day and were going to take it easy on the trail. It was my own feeling that it would be so much more enjoyable to spend a few more hours in the Canyon than rush back and spend that time at the resort.
We began walking at about 07h35, and crossed over the river quite soon thereafter. One of the group suffered an early ankle injury and a second person started to experience leg cramps. The ankle had already been strapped the previous day, but after another fall on Day 6, it was causing an increasing amount of discomfort. Some Arnica Ice gave some relieve for the leg cramps, and a Nexcare ‘moleskin’ equivalent helped to ease some painful blistering.
Without a plan we actually made two directional errors on the day. The first meant that we had to backtrack some distance along the river’s edge and cross just before Fool’s Gold Corner. After rounding Fool’s Gold Corner, we had a short break before tackling Skaapkraal. Instead of ending up back at the river at Bikini Beach, we managed to somehow veer off to the right and away from the river. We actually hiked additional kilometers before the jeep track we were on eventually brought us back to the river.
We rejoined the trail and turned right and soon reached the 80 km distance marker [S 27° 52.200′ E 017° 31.137′] painted on a large boulder. This was about 10h45. This distance marker could not be accurate as the entire regular walking distance of the Canyon has been measured at 65 km. We decided to have breakfast just past this distance marker. It wasn’t the ideal spot to stop, but we had been walking for ages along the jeep track and we were all starving. There was a little bit of shade and we were able to walk a short distance to the river to fetch water for cooking purposes.
In very similar circumstances to the first hike, we all found the last few kilometers of the hike to be the longest. The day was very hot and we were walking in the heat of the day. We passed a rock script sign that advertised beer in 4 km. There was a collective groan when we saw the sign. It was more about the fact that we still had 4 km to go than the prospects of a cold beer, I suspect.
The last kilometer was almost too much to handle for some of our group, but we decided that we were all going to make it and we were going to finish together. The last 3 days had been a real challenge for us and it had brought us closer together. We ended the hike at Ai Ais around 14h05 after completing a distance of 16 km on the day, instead of 11 km.
DAY 6 – Hike Stats
Start Time: 07h35
End Time: 14h05
Distance Covered: 16 km
Total Time Taken: 06h30m
End of Hike: Ai Ais Resort
Total Hiking Distance: 82 km
23. The Finish Line
Once you have passed the dam wall and climbed the set of stone stairs, you are pretty much done. All that is left is to climb over a low stone wall and to walk down the gravel track to the restaurant and more importantly the bar. What makes the Fish so special is that there is genuine fanfare each time a group, or even a single hiker, finishes the hike. The campers stop what they are doing and look up at you and will wave and shouts words like “Well done!” or “Congratulations”. People who have booked into the River View rooms will come out on to their balconies and welcome you home and even ask you how it went. Hikers that are chilling at the restaurant will stand up and cheer you in. And, last but not least the staff at Ai Ais, or anyone closer at the time, will ring the bell mounted on the wall outside the bar to signal that you have made it and that everything you have experienced in the Canyon up until that point is finally over. The good and the bad. There is even a rack where you can hang up your backpack so that you don’t have to carry it up the stairs into the restaurant section.
For us, we had the other half of our group waiting to welcome us back. It was actually an emotional moment for us to see the group again and, more importantly, to see that our hike leader had made it back safety to Ai Ais. I don’t normally demonstrate too much affection with people I hardly know, but I felt compelled to hug each one of the 4 people who had spent the last 6 days with Belinda and I in the Fish River Canyon . It felt like we could accomplish anything together. I am hoping that the friendships we made in the Canyon on this occasion will stand the test of time and will continue long after our memories of this experience have started to fade.
24. The Celebration
It is quite normal to spend the last day or two of a long distance hike dreaming about what you are going to eat and drink when it is all finally over. It was even more so with the Fish. For me it was not so much about what I was going to eat when I got to Ai Ais, but more about what I was going to drink. The first time we did the Fish, I sat myself down at a table near the bar and drank 4 cans of Coke one after the other until I didn’t have anymore room in my stomach. Probably not the healthiest thing to do, but it tasted so good. Oh and buy them from the shop, they are way cheaper than the bar!
On the second occasion, we had toasted chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, ordered and paid for by our hike leader. The experience of sitting on a comfortable chair retelling some of the highlights of the 6 days you have spent in the Canyon is something really special. Our split group that finished ahead of us kindly bought each of us a Fish River Canyon certificate. They cost R35 and will serve as a visual reminder on your office wall that you conquered the Fish River Canyon.
You will be surprised though at how quickly the celebrations are over and that you will begin to feel a sense of loss when you realise that you have finished the adventure and you will be heading home soon.
Something , we did this time round that we didn’t the last time was to spend some time in the outdoor heated pool. It was just what we needed after a hot and dusty day in the Canyon. The water is surprisingly hot in parts.
25. Final Thoughts
We hope that you enjoyed reading this blog. Although it is crammed full of information, you will only truly be able to experience what the Fish River Canyon is like when you actually hike down into it. We hope that this post will assist you to prepare yourself and your group for a safe and enjoyable hike. Please feel free to share this post with your hiking club, friends and your family who are going to miss you while you are away enjoying the hike. Good luck and enjoy every minute of it, the good and the challenging!