Hiking the Fish River Canyon
For very fit, experienced and self-sufficient backpackers, the Fish River Canyon is the venue for one of southern Africa's greatest hikes: a chance to follow the river where vehicles never venture, about 90km from Hiker's Point to Ai-Ais. However, numbers are limited to one group per day, which must be pre-arranged with the NWR in Windhoek months in advance, so you need to work out your logistics carefully long before you get here.
Hiking trips are allowed from April 15 to September 15, and the NWR insists on the group being 3–40 people for safety, with no children under the age of 12. Hikers need to bring a medical certificate, which has been issued within 40 days of the hike and is signed by their doctor, stating that they are fit to do the hike.
The hike costs N$100 per person, paid for in advance at the NWR in Windhoek, and hikers are responsible for all of their own food, equipment, safety and transport to/from the canyon. Hikers must stay at least one night in the national park, either at Hobas Campsite or at Ai-Ais Restcamp.
This is a four- or five-day hike covering 80–90km in what can be some of the subcontinent's most extreme temperatures. There's no easy way out once you start; no chance to stop. So this isn't for the faint-hearted, or those without experience of hiking in Africa.
For those who come prepared, it's excellent. Your own large, comfortable backpack with your normal hiking equipment should include: at least a two-litre water bottle, with some method of purifying water; a sleeping roll and bag, though a tent is not needed; food and cooking utensils for at least six days (wood for fires is generally available on the second half of the hike). Also, each group should have at least one comprehensive medical kit, as help may be days away if there is an accident. A light rainproof jacket is also a good idea, in the unlikely event of a shower.
Finally, make sure that you've a good map. One rough route-plan with pretty colour pictures and lots of advice is usually available at Hobas, though it is best when used in conjunction with a more 'serious' version from the Surveyor General's office in Windhoek.
If you're driving yourself in, leave your vehicle near the start of the hike at Hobas, since there is transport available from Ai-Ais back to the start point of the hike. If you are hitchhiking, remember that your arrival date will be unpredictable, and you might miss your start date.
The descent into the canyon is steep in parts, taking 45–90 minutes. Chains are provided on the more difficult sections. The first day is taxing, with stretches of loose river-sand between areas of large boulders. It can be slow going, and the trail stays mostly on the eastern side of the river. After 14km there is an 'emergency exit' up to the Sulphur (Palm)Springs Viewpoint, but most people eventually reach the area around Sulphur Springs and overnight there, 16km into the walk. The springs themselves are fast-flowing, hot (57ºC), and apparently rich in fluorides, chlorides and sulphates.
It gradually gets easier after Sulphur Springs, traversing fewer stretches of boulders, and more sand and rounded river-stones. The river zigzags sharply, so most hikers cut the corners and get their feet wet. There are several more significant shortcuts, and an 'emergency exit' at 70km. Finally, 90km from the start (80km if you cut corners) you arrive at Ai-Ais.
The correct trail etiquette here is the same as sensible rules for responsible hiking anywhere in the bush. However, as groups cover the same trail regularly here, these guidelines are all the more vital. In particular:
• There are no 'official' fireplaces; use existing ones if possible. Use only dead wood for fires, and bring a stove as there's little wood at the start of the trail.
• Leave no litter in the canyon – even fruit peel will look unsightly.
• Use only biodegradable soap, and wash away from the main river from which people will be drinking.
• Never feed animals; baboons would be a problem here if fed.
• There are no toilets, so burn all toilet paper and bury it with the excrement, in a shallow hole far from the water.