Fish River Canyon
At 161km long, up to 27km wide, and almost 550m at its deepest, the Fish River Canyon is probably second in size only to Arizona's Grand Canyon – and is certainly one of Africa's least-visited wonders.
This means that as you sit dangling your legs over the edge, drinking in the spectacle, you're unlikely to have your visit spoiled by a coach-load of tourists, or to leave feeling that the place is at all commercialised. In fact, away from the busier seasons, you may not see anyone around here at all!
Africa's Largest Canyon?
Pedants cite Ethiopia's Blue Nile Gorge as being Africa's largest canyon. It is certainly deeper than the Fish River Canyon, at about 1,000m, but it is also narrower (about 20km wide at its widest), and probably shorter as well. Like many vague superlatives, 'largest' is difficult to define. In this case, we would have to measure the volume of the canyon – and even then there would be questions about exactly where it begins and ends. Suffice to say that both are too large to take in at one sight, and both are well worth visiting.
The base rocks of the Fish River Canyon, now at the bottom nearest the river, are shales, sandstones and lavas which were deposited about 1,800 million years ago. Later, from 1,300 to 1,000 million years ago, these were heated and strongly compressed, forming a metamorphic rock complex, which includes intrusive granites and, later, the dolorite dykes which appear as clear, dark streaks on the canyon.
A period of erosion then followed, removing the overlying rocks and levelling this complex to be the floor of a vast shallow sea, covering most of what is now southern Namibia. From about 650 to 500 million years ago various sediments, limestones and conglomerates were deposited by the sea on to this floor, building up into what is now referred to as the Nama Group of rocks.
About 500 million years ago, the beginnings of the canyon started when a fracture in this crust formed a broad valley, running north–south. Southward moving glaciers deepened this during the Dwyka Ice Age, around 300 million years ago. Later faults and more erosion added to the effect, creating canyons within each other, until a mere 50 million years ago, when the Fish River started to cut its meandering way along the floor of the most recent valley.
Situated in a very arid region of Namibia, the Fish River is the only river within the country that usually has pools of water in its middle reaches during the dry season. Because of this, it was known to the peoples of the area during the early, middle and late Stone Ages. Numerous early sites dating from as early as 50,000 years ago have been found within the canyon – mostly beside bends in the river.
Around the beginning of this century, the Ai-Ais area was used as a base by the Germans in their war against the Namas. It was finally declared a national monument in 1962. Ai-Ais Restcamp was opened in 1971, though it has been refurbished since then.
Detailed routes to the various lodges and camps are given below. Note that you can't drive between the west and the east sides of the canyon quickly. If you are approaching the east side from the north during the rainy season, and the C12 is blocked by flooding, then try taking a shortcut from the B4, on to the D545 and then the C12. If the water pouring over the retaining wall is too fast to cross, then a detour to your left will bring you to a crossing on top of a dam wall – avoiding the need to ford the torrent. Alternatively, take the longer tar route on the B1 and C10.
The only option for those without their own vehicle, aside from hitchhiking, is to take one of the package trips offered by Canyon Adventures Guest Farm.