The conservation area
Entry: N$20 per adult (N$1 per child) per day, plus N$20 per vehicle. Fees are payable by all visitors on entry to Ai-Ais and at Hobas campsite, and are in addition to any fees charged for accommodation.
In 1969 the area around the Fish River Canyon was proclaimed a conservation area, which made sense. The land was as poor in potential for agriculture as it is rich in potential for tourism, and this was a way of protecting the area from uncontrolled development. The 345,000-hectare conservation area now encompasses Ai-Ais and Hobas, whilst all the private lodges are outside.
Flora and fauna
Driving around you will probably see few larger animals, though there are many if you look hard. These include herds of Hartmann's mountain zebra, small groups of kudu and the smaller klipspringer antelope, which are usually seen in pairs. Baboon make no secret of their presence if around, whilst dassies (alias rock rabbits) are common but leopard, though certainly present, are very rarely seen. It's not unusual to drive for a few hours, and see no mammals at all.
Birds, too, are around but often not obvious. This isn't a centre for birdwatching, as only about 60 species are thought to live here, but look out for the majestic black eagle, as well as the rock kestrel and rock pigeon, and especially for the localised yellow-rumped eremomela which occur near Ai-Ais. Karoo bustards and ostrich are the highlights of the open plains above the canyon itself. Vegetation is sparse. Both on the top and on the canyon's slopes, the larger species are mostly Euphorbias, with the odd quivertree. However, parts of the canyon's base where there is water are quite lush – like the Sulphur Springs and Ai-Ais areas. There you can expect camel-thorn, wild tamarisk and ebony trees, amongst others.
What to see and do
Once in the area, a day is enough to see the canyon properly, unless you've arranged (in advance) to do the hike. Do note that, with the exception of those booked on the five-day hike (see below), no visitors are allowed to descend into the canyon from the lip at any time of year.
Start the morning by driving past Hobas to the Main Viewpoint
. This is the classic view of Hell's Bend, featured in most of the photographs – and probably the only view that you'll see if you're on a bus tour. A 3km track leads off to the right, to the Hiker's Viewpoint
, which lends a different perspective and is worth the wander if it is cool.
Then take the road that leads to the left of the Main Viewpoint. This is a continuation of the D324 which doubles back, to run roughly parallel to the canyon, generally keeping within a few hundred yards. There are several stops for viewpoints along its length, perhaps the best being the Sulphur Springs Viewpoint
(Palm Springs), which has a picnic table and a stunning view of another tight switchback in the river's course.
This road is little used and graded less, so it's bumpy in parts but suitable for a 2WD car driven slowly and carefully. The scenery is so spectacular that you won't want to rush. If you have a 4WD, you can continue past the Sulphur Springs Viewpoint to the southernmost viewpoint at Eagle's Rock – a further 12km of very rough, stony road, but offering a good view of the canyon further south. Either way, you'll eventually have to retrace your tracks to return on the D324, back past the Hobas gate and south. Ai-Ais
makes a great afternoon stop during the winter (see its opening dates, above), giving you time to relax in a mineral pool, or to take a gentle walk up the canyon, for a taste of what the hikers will experience. Note that permits to visit the conservation area for a day are valid at both the Ai-Ais and Hobas gates.