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Hiking the Fish River Canyon — baptism by sand and a balm for the soul

Hiking the Fish River Canyon — baptism by sand and a balm for the soul
The expedition leader wore a red hat so that he could be spotted from a distance. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Far from the bad idea it seems to be, trudging 85km with a heavy pack and sleeping in the open in Namibia’s desert wilds turns out to be a life-affirming journey through strange, beautiful landscapes.

In Namibia’s far south, the scraggly Richtersveld is a bumpy, boulder-strewn wasteland, a place straight out of Mad Max. The terrain, in fact, looks a lot like the locations used for that post-apocalyptic movie franchise’s most recent iteration, much of which was filmed near Swakopmund, in dry, barren places surrounded by a spaciousness that devours you.

And although the stark expanses can seem daunting and inhospitable, there’s a thrilling magnificence, too. It’s something you can get to grips with on a hike through the Fish River Canyon, a place where the monumentality of the terrain consumes you completely – and quite literally – as you traverse a sunken world carved over hundreds of millions of years by seismic eruptions and glacial upheaval.

First, a huge range of mountains was eroded by the ocean and then, along old tectonic plates, a graben – a section of the planet’s crust between two ancient tectonic faults – was steadily displaced downwards, creating a gigantic rift.

In this gap, the ancient Fish River flowed and, over millions of years, ice from glaciers caused the fissure to expand and deepen, a process intensified by the separation of Gondwana, causing the formation of a 160km expanse of plunging cliffs and folded mountains.

The ravine – ostensibly the world’s second-grandest canyon – abounds with immense gorges and swooping channels, mottled dolerites and quartz-veined cliffs, towering coffee-coloured rock fingers, chunky boulders, stones, pebbles and flat sandy beaches. At its deepest point, it’s 549m below the rim’s lip. It’s so huge and mysterious that the Nama people attribute its creation to a ground-cracking thump of their serpent-god’s tail.

It’s hard to hold back emotionally when you see it. And that giddy feeling is amplified when you stare into it knowing you’re about to hike through it.

If you’re fortunate there will be water, delicious to drink and plentiful enough to swim in. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Fish River Canyon

Dusk brings psychedelic skies. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Into the deep

The steep descent from the Hobas lookout point to the canyon floor was the toughest part of our entire five-day, 85km-or-so hike. Burdened with overstuffed backpacks and still finding our stride, the chain-assisted downhill caused knees to quiver and demanded tedious concentration to prevent sliding or stumbling.

There’s an ongoing battle of wits, too, as you wonder why people ahead of you are taking such slow, deliberate steps, and whether the person behind you is attempting to overtake – or worse, might at any time trip and start a human avalanche.

Every so often, I’d hear the sound of a boot shlushing over gravel and turn to see someone land on their backside.

Hiking in a large group has its ups and downs. As I worked out effective ways of countering gravity and dealing with loose grit, I was also learning to steer clear of the pop-song whistlers, the know-it-alls, the incessant chatterers, the hiking gear specialists, the sudden-stoppers, and the pole-wielders who would every so often nearly jab someone in the eye.

By the time we reached the bottom of the canyon, though, our motley band of strangers had knitted itself into a tight group. That’s the power of shared suffering.

After an hour or so of downhill, the gradient began to shallow out and soon we’d arrived in a netherworld disconnected from any semblance of civilisation.

The author feeling the hardship. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Our expedition leader. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Already exhausted and sweat-soaked, we peeled off our clothes and plunged into the caramel-coloured river. First in was our expedition leader, a strapping Namibian-born retiree who knows the canyon intimately. He ran his expedition with military precision, wore a red hat so we could easily spot him in the distance and at dawn blew a whistle precisely 10 minutes before it was time to set off. Anyone not packed and laced up by then would be left behind.

Okay, maybe not. But no one dared test him.

Initially, the canyon seems quite narrow, hemmed in by steep walls so there’s little choice but to follow the river’s meandering path. Later, the rift broadens – up to 27km wide in places – revealing a vast world where the river performs horseshoe twists and the canyon walls resemble mountains with huge plateaus.

The great thrill of being down there is the sensation of being completely unencumbered. Sure, there’s your backpack’s weight, some clothing, a hat, sunscreen and hiking shoes, but there’s something about the act of putting one foot in front of the other and repeating, ad infinitum, that serves as a kind of liberation. You’re entirely unburdened.

Walking becomes active meditation, a studious balancing between the awkwardness of the tricky, uneven surfaces, and taking time to look around and appreciate the strange beauty.

Plus there’s the slight sense of being slowly grilled by the heat radiating off the canyon walls. It was the start of winter, yet temperatures reached into the high 30s, the searing sun bleaching out the ochre colours of the surrounding rock, baking patches of mud into hard reptilian skin.

But it was bearable, and when the urge took us, we could cool off in the river, slaking our thirst with its mineral-rich water. That is the theory at least.

The reality can be a bit of a gamble because water flow can be hampered by changing weather patterns. There are years when there’s plenty of water in the canyon, enough to make river crossings swimming adventures. Some years, hiking season gets cancelled because there’s too much water.

And then there are years like 2023, when authorities dispatched marshals to ensure that hikers had access to sufficient water – evidence of the impact of Namibia’s ongoing drought, perhaps yet another consequence of climate change.

If you’re fortunate, though, there will be water, delicious to drink, plentiful enough to swim in when you need to, and sufficiently fast-moving that you have to make river crossings arm-over-shoulder with another hiker – because two pairs of legs are sturdier than one.

Arm over shoulder is the best way to ford the river. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Fish River Canyon

Photo: Keith Bain

At nature’s mercy

Our first night was a lesson in another of the canyon’s mercurial moods. We’d found a perfect riverside camping spot, with plenty of flat beach to sleep on and rock-cradled nooks for a sense of sanctuary. The instant we put down our backpacks, though, a maniacal wind whipped in from around the bend and began an all-night baptism-by-sand. The only defence against the blitzkrieg was to climb deep into our sleeping bags.

Fish River Canyon

The stark, barren emptiness of the Richtersveld. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Weathering a windy night. (Photo: Keith Bain)

By morning it was absolutely calm and we set off as the first rays deposited a sliver of glowing crimson across the tops of the canyon walls. Dawn down there is a time of disappearing shadows and fast-changing colours, sunlight bouncing off the buttes and mesas, transforming darkness into glowing gold.

Read more in Daily Maverick: My Big Fat African Road Trip, Part 2: Namibia, where everything works

That second day seemed the longest. People like to think back on hiking and edit out the hardship, recalling only the wonder of their achievement, the magnificence of the scenery. But inevitably there’s some suffering. It’s like doing penance, executing the mechanics of basic bipedal movement with a gigantic weight crunching into your shoulders, backpack straps biting around your waist.

It felt good, though, to finally find our stride and there was that moment, shortly after our first river crossing, when, like pilgrims discovering a shrine, we arrived at Palm Springs, an oasis of sulphurous hot water gurgling up from the pits of the Earth. There, in an unexpected patch of green and garden of date palms, boiling water flowed into the river, creating a natural spa where we soothed aching muscles.

It’s not only these simple joys that you remember, though.

There were also the knowing smiles as we discovered the logistics of river bathing (“get naked, nobody cares”) and mastered the art of casually disappearing behind distant bushes with toilet paper and a shovel and a lighter with which to burn and bury the evidence. And when the time came to salve blisters and bandage wounds, everyone had a touch of field nurse.

Days whizzed by. Time disappeared as we were gobbled up by the wilderness.

Everywhere the hard rock, dry dust and cracked, fissured surfaces were like sculptures, the sun forever altering the patterns, shifting shadows around, deepening lines.

Sometimes the terrain is Africa’s take on Hollywood’s Wild West, a stark wilderness weathered and sun-baked and dotted with wild mustard bush, time-smoothed boulders and slabs of pink feldspar. We spotted dainty klipspringer leaping up red rocks, and paused to watch wild horses that, in turn, watched us from across the river.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Grand Silence – hiking in the second-largest canyon in the world

In other moments, the landscape’s as alien as some distant planet, a surreal desertscape of gravel and strewn rock, grey and chalky brown, scattered with hard-wearing weeds and sun-scorched trees.

Along the way, there were man-made landmarks, too: German gravestones, a concrete causeway, distance markers signposting each 20km completed and the abandoned wreckage of a Vespa left behind by a crazy travel experiment.

An abandoned Vespa is one of the weirder landmarks along the road. (Photo: Keith Bain)

In places, the Canoy resembles something out of the Wild West. (Photo: Keith Bain)

Star show

Memorable as the days were, it was the nights that seared themselves into my soul. Enfolded by the black silhouette of the canyon walls, staring up at billions of stars, I spent hours watching countless meteorites zipping through the atmosphere. Some were as big as rocket ships, some mere fizzles of silent incandescence. From my sleeping bag, I watched this galactic laser show while the canyon resounded with a primordial soundtrack of animal grunts and hysterical insects. It was balm for the soul, the sort of sensation you want to bask in forever.

But, of course, nothing lasts an eternity. Eventually, the trail brought us to the dam wall, and with it the knowledge that it would all soon be over.

Reaching the Ai-Ais resort, with its dank spa, campsites and hotel rooms, TVs and awful restaurant, I felt more pangs of regret than any sense of accomplishment. Regret that I hadn’t spent more time appreciating the little details. Regret that I’d sometimes slept when I could have been stargazing. And regret that I hadn’t taken just a few more moments each day to recognise the discomfort for what it is: A reminder of what it means to be alive.

What you need to know before hiking the world’s second-biggest canyon

You need to book in advance and take very seriously your preparations for this hike. Preferably, join a group with an experienced leader – someone who knows the way and understands the terrain.

The trail is usually open from April or May through September – if there’s water. Starting 12km from Hobas camping site, this 85km hike starts with a steep descent from a scintillating viewpoint. An hour or two later, you’re 550m down and on your own for however many days you’ve provisioned for (four nights is standard, but you can take it slower). You must be entirely self-sufficient, since only water (from the river) and firewood (collect your own) are available down below.

Provided there’s been sufficient rain, there should be enough water to swim in places and make almost 20 river crossings, for which water shoes are essential. If the river’s especially high, some crossings may require swimming, too – and safety bags for backpacks.

With any luck, you won’t really need a tent, but a very warm sleeping bag will be a huge help in mid-winter, when after-dark temperatures can hit zero – note that the sun sinks early in the canyon.

You camp where you like, fend for yourself, and follow the river (using the various prescribed shortcuts) until you reach Ai-Ais camping resort, where there’s a shuttle service back to the start, or you can linger in comparative comfort, celebrating your achievement at the bar, or lolling around in the thermally heated spa baths.

Prepare yourself with a copy of Henk Blanckenberg and Lizet Meyer’s Hiking the Fish, a guide to every detail of the hike, being published by Penguin Random House in April. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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