The 85km hike from Hobas to Ai-Ais is not for the faint-hearted. Thankfully, there's now a 'softies' route – but it doesn't skimp on the views
The fine gravel skidded away from my boots and towards the precipice. Several grains tumbled over the edge towards the emerald river far below, on to a sandy shore criss-crossed with hoof prints.
Against my better judgment, I peered over my shoulder and clutched the rock even tighter. Camp was not far off, somewhere in the gorge. My heart pounding, I released my grip, and in a frenzied moment took the few final steps to wider ground. On safer soil, I turned to look back at the narrow passage, no more than a metre from the perilous edge, and relief and dizziness rushed through me.
Hiking in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon – all 161km by up to 27km of it – is no walk in the park. Until recently the only way to experience this natural wonder was to embark on one of Africa’s most gruelling treks.
The 85km route starts in Hobas, at the northern end of Fish River Canyon National Park, and finishes five days later in Ai-Ais, famed for its 60°C natural springs. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Or the weak-ankled. Hikers must provide a doctor’s certificate of fitness to obtain a permit and be prepared to carry all food and equipment themselves. Injuries are common and the trail is littered with ‘emergency exits’ – special evacuation paths designed for those who can’t handle the tough terrain.
“Lots of people leave early. I did the hike once, many years ago, and I had no idea how difficult it was,” said our guide, Chris, a burly man whose stamina knows no bounds. In 2001, the death of one hiker who naively ventured into the canyon without a guide led to a ban on unsupervised walks, and the trip became five days of hard slog or nothing at all.
Until now, that is. A new trip – dubbed ‘for softies’ by its organisers – uses mules to take the weight off and relieve the pressure. A team of these robust animals transports all goods from camp to camp, leaving walkers – carrying only day packs – to concentrate on the wild scenery.
This particular route is also less demanding. The assisted hike weaves through the privately-owned Gondwana Cañon Park, an area measuring 1,120 sq km, further north of where the hard-core hikers work up a sweat. While the expedition still requires moderate fitness, it’s not as daunting as the original.
My two-day hike had begun with Chris leading our group of six ‘softies’ across a flat landscape scattered with heavy stones and shards of dark orange rock that scraped sharply underfoot, as though we were walking on shattered china. Ragged clumps of bushman’s grass grew alongside patches of delicate purple flowers and unruly clusters of the deadly milkbush.
We continued beyond smooth green hills and bitter black rocks to the musky red walls of the canyon, which blurred in the misty morning sun.
As we stopped to survey the landscape we could make out a subtle movement on a distant ridge. Our mules had made good progress and were already miles ahead. “We will catch them up, if we’re fast,” said Chris. “Otherwise, we’ll see them at Echo Pools, where we’re camping tonight.”
Mules aren’t the only animals here. The area – part of the Nama Karoo desert – is once again teeming with game after Gondwana purchased the land 13 years ago from trigger-happy farmers. Many species – mountain zebra, kudu, wildebeest, klipspringers and others – have been reintroduced and this year they will be joined by five black rhinos. Even a leopard has been seen prowling the district.
The temperature nudged higher and the air grew sticky. Our mid-morning refreshment stop was welcomed wholeheartedly, and Chris disappeared down a gravelly escarpment and into a barren valley in search of firewood.
A lone quivertree, indigenous to this area of southern Namibia and across the border in South Africa, dominated the flat, parched landscape with its tall, thick trunk and exotic star-shaped branches, which Bushmen once used as hunting arrows.
Chris returned with a supply of brittle sticks, with which he made a little fire to warm his rusty iron kettle. Refreshed by cups of tea, we set off along a sandy path beside which the land sloped away steeply into a deep, wide crater.
A shrill whistle carried on the warm air – the call of a klipspringer. The animal came into view, a blur of movement as it scaled a cliff with incredible ease and agility. Within seconds, the sprightly antelope was at the top of the plateau, peering down at us.
The trail became tougher as we approached the canyon itself. The harsh sunlight illuminated every crevice, blemish and craggy branch clinging to the rocky surfaces, the oldest parts of which date back 1,800 million years.
Like a landslide of giant lumps of coal, the slope we were descending was strewn with jet-black rocks, each as jagged and sharp as the next. As I lost my footing and instinctively reached out for support, the rough surface of the heavy stone stung my palm like the points of a dozen needles.
Chris stepped in as some of us ran into difficulty, and offered a hand as we heaved ourselves over bath-sized boulders before rushing ahead to find the most suitable passage.
After descending and climbing several more peaks the path, thankfully, evened out into an airy avenue surrounded by verdant trees. Dense sand became a dry river bed, awaiting the annual rains that would soon come.
Then, we were taken by surprise. Directly ahead, and barely a few feet away, a young male kudu stood alone in the open wilderness. His smoky grey body stopped in its tracks. As did we.
The stare-off, under the glare of the high midday sun, lasted several seconds – but felt longer. Everything was still. Then, in a blink of an eye, the powerful animal seized its moment, galloping up a sandy bank, onto the rocky verge above and out of view.
With the kudu gone for dust and our energy levels waning it was time for lunch – and our first glimpse of Fish River itself.
Its calm waters, which flow for 650km before joining South Africa’s Orange River, were framed with a lush border of rich green bushes and trees on the opposite side. Barely a ripple disturbed the surface as it weaved its placid way along the canyon.
We sat on flat rocks with feet dipped into the icy water. A pair of Egyptian geese swooped past while smaller birds darted from one side of the stream to the next, descending within an inch of the glassy surface each time.
Well rested and fed, we marched on. The breeze sent a whispery layer of sand dancing across the golden void ahead. We passed a large, voluptuous dune, covered in hypnotic ripples, and watched a black beetle scuttle across, leaving an intricate trail of prints.
Sand soon gave way to stone, and we came across a series of modest piles of rocks, left in random locations yet stacked neatly and meticulously. Traditionally known as Haitsi Aibeb, these were graves of Haiseb, a deity who lived in primitive times when, it is said, animals ruled supreme and the dead could be revived.
The roaming Nama tribe, when coming across such mounds, would add another stone to the pile. Some, hoping for a favourable journey and good hunting, would leave more extravagant tokens such as diluted honey, water or venison. They would kneel on the hard ground, bow their heads and mutter prayers in their native click language: “Haiseb, khö tsi da” (Haiseb, we bury you).
Leaving the site, they would look straight ahead at the horizon, never daring to glance back: a customary practice upon leaving an extraordinary place. With this in mind, I added a small stone to the pile beside me and continued on, keeping my gaze firmly fixed on the canyon’s harsh, flat-peaked walls and grassy hills in the distance.
Feeling an absolute and exhilarating solitude, I hung back, allowing the group to walk ahead, and strolled alone with my thoughts until we reached Echo Pools.
Setting up camp was a group effort: the mules had done their part and were horsing around in the sand behind us while we built the tents under the sun’s last rays of the day. The silhouettes of the monolithic cliffs around us faded slowly into darkness.
The temperature had dropped to a bracing 3°C. The campfire glowed, illuminating our dining table at the water’s edge. Wonderful smells drifted by from the kitchen area as dinner was prepared. As we shivered at the table under a blanket of infinite stars, a three-course meal with red wine was served by candlelight. It was a chilly but civilised affair.
The hearty lamb and vegetable stew wasn’t on my plate for long. As I waited for a second helping I peered at the night sky that seemed to have engulfed us. Thousands of dots sparkled brightly as though a pot of glitter had been spilt over a dark canvas.
A hazy band of shimmering dust formed a thick band that travelled across the velvet sky. It was the Milky Way, draped above us like a shawl suspended in the air. The night turned out to be a blustery one. Our tent shuddered as the wind outside raged and we awoke to a dark and a bitter morning.
As our camp was being dismantled and the sun was creeping over the cold canyon walls, I spent a few minutes with the mules as they awaited their day’s cargo. Hazan, the leader of the pack, roamed freely and seemed reluctant to mingle with the others. Stubborn as a mule, some might say. Meanwhile his pal, Strawberry, a creamy white creature with eyes the size of snooker balls, rolled in the sand energetically.
We set off to follow the river as it weaved through the canyon, passing a lunar landscape of pale-grey boulders and limestone walls that had eroded over time, salt and water causing deep holes to deface its surfaces. Warmth started to penetrate our bodies and there was little to hear beyond our laboured breathing, the trickling stream and the gentle, whistling breeze.
Mid-morning we drank tea at a peaceful spot in a desolate valley where a few thorny Karoo acacia trees grew. The horizon, where the river and canyon meandered to the left, shimmered with heat, and all of us were grateful for a few minutes of inactivity in the shade.
Chris diligently handed out pieces of kudu biltong – salty cured meat and the number one Namibian snack – which left a strong gamey taste in my mouth.
Cutting across more sandy plains, rocky ground and steep mounds, we reached a plateau that led down to a crater so colossal it could have accommodated a stadium or two. Chris, as eagle-eyed as ever, came to an abrupt stop and pointed down to the valley floor.
It took more than a few moments for me to locate the springbok, as it was so far away, but sure enough there it was: a smudge of brown among the grey-and-black scenery. The animal stood transfixed, ears pricked and horns bolt upright. “Can he see us?” I whispered.
“He knows something is up here,” replied Chris. “The animals here aren’t used to people, that’s why they run away so quickly.”
And sure enough, it did. The moment our procession moved off again, so too did the springbok, confirming that we were indeed some unknown threat. Jumping into action without a moment’s hesitation, it danced across the treacherous ground, leaving a light trail of dust in the air.
Several hours after lunch we came to Horseshoe Canyon, named so because of its striking U-shape. Hundreds of metres below, at the base of the cliffs on which we were standing, lay pools of motionless water. Alongside them snaked a network of rough, intriguing paths, while the canyon stretched into the unknown at each end.
But there was no time to soak up the scenery. On the far banks of the canyon, what seemed miles away, was a line of small yellow tents. It was a long slog to camp and the light was quickly fading.
We pulled on our fleeces and picked up the pace significantly. This was no time for an evening stroll. Pressing on we paused to marvel at the extraordinary panoramic sunset that tinged the sky aqua in one direction and orange in the other.
We reached camp as our surroundings darkened to black. The night sky was theatrical. Shooting stars blasted above as we dined on sweet potato soup and tender oryx steaks, just yards from a plunging precipice.
I was exhausted, yes, but there had been no emergency exit for me. Still, the luxury of an extra blanket that night was just too much to resist – after all, there’s really no shame in being a bit of a softie!