This is an account of my personal experience hiking the Fish River Canyon, as well as a collection of tips and suggestions collected by our hiking group that will hopefully help others in preparing for this once in a life-time experience.
Part I – The experience
The Fish River Canyon is one of the major natural wonders of Namibia, offering its visitors a range of superlatives. Located in the South of Namibia, it is with 160 km of length and 27 km width the second largest canyon in the world. The Fish River, being itself the longest of Namibia’s scarce rivers, flows as far as 550 meters below the canyon’s cliffs. Summer rains turn awinter’s stream into a raging mass of water which floods the canyon every year. This cycle, in combination with the heat, makes it impossible to explore the canyon beyond the viewpoints far above for most of the year.
However, when I heard that one can hike through the canyon during winter and some friends were planning to do this 5-day trip, I immediately committed – to an experience that promised to broaden my horizons, to push my limits and to bring me closer to nature. I have to admit though that I was more excited about the hiking experience than seeing the Fish River Canyon. Description of size means little if you can’t see it with your own eyes and photos of the canyon taken from the viewpoints merely showed a miniature scene of vast, dry and monotonously brown land and cliffs, usually serving as background for someone smiling in its right corner. So I was curious, but sceptical at the same time whether the Fish River Canyon could be a place I would enjoy.
For this journey we turned out to be a patchy group of 18 people from South Africa, united in knowing Hannelie, who organized the trip itself. We met at the camping ground of the Namibian Wildlife Resort in Ai-Ais, enjoying for a last time the “luxuries of camping”: with blow-up mattresses, tents, hot showers and fresh food. Other conveniences like cellphone reception, tar roads and ATMs we had already given up at the boarder.
When we left the next morning for the hike, we did not only leave most of our stuff in the cars, but also our normal lives and any thoughts of it. From now on, there was no connection any more with the outside world. No thoughts of money, taxes, work and emails, no news and bills and traffic. We traded almost all acquisitions of civilisation together with the freedom and responsibilities that come with them for a light-hearted, simpler version of it and a backpack each. As we descended into the gorge and disappeared from society, the canyon became all that really mattered.
The way down already had its effect on me. When we saw different rock layers and fossilisations, I didn’t know yet that the canyon’s initial formation dates back 650 million years ago (!) However, one could sense the timelessness of this magical monument of nature. At our lunch time arrival at the canyon’s living bottom, where a turquoise water pool was formed by the river, the canyon had already surpassed my expectations. It returned to my mind how it is always worth to overcome your own doubts and laziness to go out and discover the beautiful world we live in.
From now on, it was our mission to follow the course of the river. Shielded from the world by massive walls of rock, we balanced over thousands of stones. We traced footprints on sandy ground, waded through the river or jumped over currents. We climbed up cliffs and sometimes we rambled through wast and open plains, steadily disappearing into the next section of the canyon, like small ants. This magnitude of the canyon along with the seclusion we found ourselves in, had the biggest effect on me. When we are used to being limited to a couple of square meters in our homes, in traffic, at the supermarket, in offices or clubs, then space can feel like therapy and walking becomes like meditation. Namibia is the second most sparsely populated country in the world and this becomes obvious while hiking the Fish River Canyon. Nobody besides ourselves was there claiming any space or setting rules and there wasn’t even one sign along the way.
Omnipresent however were signs of the animals that live in the canyon. Some parts of the canyon looked like the Wild West, and everywhere we found traces of the wild horses that have been living in the canyon ever since the German colonists had left them there. It was a little girl’s dream that came true for me to follow the tracks and to look for the horses behind hills and turns. We also enjoyed the insect life, made encounters with snakes and scorpions and saw the tracks of leopard and deer. Nourished by the last flood, countless flowers had come to live, gently adorning and colouring the canyon.
On the fourth evening we continued walking until later than usual in order to find a good camp-site and to bring a few more kilometres behind us before complete darkness. We were tired that day after walking more than 20 km when we climbed up a small mountain. But we knew we had to move on if we wanted to arrive back at the camp during sunlight the next day. While we crossed the plain that opened up in front of us, the sun went down. It touched the mountain slopes surrounding us into the red light of Southern African sunset. The scene was of such beauty that it felt as if we were walking above the world. As we moved on, three horses came into sight, grazing above the slopes of the canyon – a scene as surreal and magical as cut out of a dream. It was a scenery of peace and beauty to keep in mind forever, and the best reward we could get for all the preparation and endeavours. The effect was even stronger when we sat around the fire later, connecting with each other under something that is probably the brightest night sky men can possible enjoy. Simply impossible to comprehend from a desk at home, these experiences can only be felt.
The other part of the journey happened within our group. Spending five days together and sharing much more than most acquaintances normally would do, we became attuned to one another and everybody found their role within the group. We started to resemble a tribe over the days, specialising our techniques for finding the best route and camp sites and learning how to survive as a group. Most importantly, it was made clear from the beginning that we would always stay together. Each of us was on a different fitness level and without regular breaks of the people at the front and middle, we would have been at risk of losing each other, a dangerous and demoralising approach.
Mike Fisher turned out to march in the front ranks: with a map in his hand and a fishing rod on his back, he managed to indulge in two of his favourite hobbies at once, either hiking ahead or fly fishing on the side. The group further featured three star photographers. Karel Papparazi surely ran some extra miles to be ahead, aside or behind the group, documenting everything from insects to people at 5 am. He was accompanied by Madmoiselle Marie and his wife Mia who turned into Mia-Yster Malan those days. Hanna, the mother hen was moving within the group, always concerned about her brood and constantly conversing and laughing. More entertainment was provided by Gerrie Gesegdes who supplied the group with funny stories, worldly wisdoms and Afrikaans tradition at its best. A lesson of another kind was taught by Matthys Liggepak with the most pragmatic approach to packing bags. And so he danced over rivers and climbed ahead to be the scout for horses and short cuts. At the back one could find Wyhan Agterwagter whose experience and patience paired with his advanced equipment including the group’s only tent and proper wine glasses.
From day 3, crossing the river became one of our major tasks and everybody developed their own technique for doing so: An engineer’s approach was invented by Johan van Waterskoene, who sealed his shoes in plastic bags before each crossing. Others, like Jean Clipspringer and Jacobus Verwoor tried to save some time playing a game, looking for their way by hopping from stone to stone. Liezl Navorsing did a test for the South African Crocs brand, proving it is possible to cross the country without hiking shoes. The most straightforward approach was by Samuel Waterlooper: without a second of hesitation, he crossed every river wearing his (water)shoes as if it was a tar road. And at last, the slowest but safest approach of crossing the river was surely taking on and off the shoes each time, a technique that all of us had to come back to in the end.
Believe me, I could write more about this amazing experience. I fear though I might lose my readers who have been promised a “short blog” 🙂 So these are my last words: I don’t want to imply it was all always beautiful and great on the trip. I actually struggled sometimes with the sand in my face and on all my things, the cold nights on hard ground, the dirty socks and the fact that I wasn’t clean either and looked horrible the whole time. But certain experiences simply have their price and I believe we were all so happy to pay it. It is like watching movies or being part of them.
And the inspiration lasted. After coming home, we caught up on news. Amy Winehouse was dead and a crazy Norwegian had killed more than 70 people in an assassination. “Big” news we missed. But I realized, it actually meant nothing to me. What mattered, was that I valued my life, the world around me and the luxuries I enjoy in a whole different way… things were put in perspective again.
Part II – What you need to prepare: Tips and lessons learned
The essentials: Don’t forget!
- Sleeping bag
- Mini gas stove – 400 ml will be sufficient for 2 people for 5 days if you don’t use it for every meal
- Lightweight aluminum kitchenware
- Toilet paper + small spade – some of us had plastic spades for children, which are very light and cheap. But sometimes the sand is too hard to dig deep enough with them, therefore a small garden spade is better if you don’t want to leave traces.
- Biodegradable soap and shampoo – use small containers.
- Water purifying pills or drops – make sure they work quickly.
- Quick-dry travel towel
- Walking stick -you can do without, but it helps immensely for crossing the river as well as rock climbing. My stick became like my third leg.
- Some kind of mattress -cheap ones made of foam are disappointing, but better than nothing if you’re on a budget.
- Headlamp -plus spare batteries if you’ve been using it for a while.
- Fleece/down jackets are light and warm, a winter cap will protect your head from the wind – do not underestimate the nights, it gets cold.
- First aid kit
- Sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat!
- The obvious things: 1 short pants, 1 long pants, 2 T-Shirts, swim-wear, nightwear, socks, underwear, hygiene products.
- Game energy drink sachets – dilutes the chlorine taste of the water and provides energy – I could actually feel it!
Here none-essential gadgets/tools that were voted “greatest tool to have” by their owners:
- Espresso/coffee pot – some of us had a coffee (craving) in the morning, afternoon and evening.
- Wet wipes – they can be used for cleaning anything! 😉 Also available in biodegradable form at baby departments (e. g. Clicks).
- Fly fishing kit – yes, there are fish in the fish river and you can catch your own for dinner! A great idea of Mike was to bring the almost weightless grill of a “one time grill”.
- Ziplock plastic bags – very useful to separate all the stuff in your backpack.
- Foldable mug
- Lightweight tent – protects you from the wind that can blow sand into your face in the night. But face the fact – you ll miss out on the rare opportunity to fall asleep after looking at one of the most amazing night skies above you.
- Emergency bag or thin blanket to sit on and to put underneath your sleeping bags – keeps the sand away.
- MP3 player – it made me very happy to listen to my favorite songs for a while during some of the long walking stretches and made me enjoy nature more intensely.
- Lip ice and a moisture face lotion – your skin will get dry.
- Liezl recommends: a husband like Wyhan 😉
Here some of the odd stuff that we forgot and missed by hindsight:
- Sponge to clean the dishes – washing dishes by hands got a whole new meaning 🙂
- A pillow or something to use as such.
- A few of us realized during the trip that their sleeping bags were too heavy.
- Many of us enjoyed a sip of alcohol in the nights at the fire – if you don’t want to be jealous, bring your own! Strong stuff is of advantage if you think about the weight.
- Most of us mentioned a craving for sweet stuff: you can’t have enough sweeties and snacks for small stops. Also because there isn’t always enough time to make something warm during the day.
- Pack an extra bag with luxuries and food for the last night after the hike when you’re back in Ai-Ais. You will enjoy clean clothes, nice shampoo, conditioner etc. like never before! 🙂
Stuff you don’t need:
- Too many clothes – you can wash in the river.
- Too much food – you might eat less than you think for lunch because it is hot!
- Flip Flops – not practical to cross the river and unsuitable for hiking.
- An extra bottle of sunscreen – half a bottle was enough for two people.
- Too many kitchen utensils.
- Insect repellent – there were no mosquitoes.
- Don’t buy the freeze-dried food from outdoor stores like Cape Union Mart – they are expensive (R90-R100) and don’t taste good.
General tips for the hike:
- Try to stay on the left side of the river for the first two days – this will save you time and effort.
- It is great to overnight at the hot sulfur springs on the second evening, giving you the opportunity to take a bath and to wash your things in really warm water!
- Decide which method you want to use to cross the river. There are different options that I described above, meaning that you should either pack (1) only normal hiking boots, (2) normal hiking boots and some kind of sandals/Crocs or (3) aqua shoes.
- Try not to start walking after 8 am in the morning but rather take a longer lunch break – the morning hikes were beautiful, the afternoon heat though will make you suffer! 🙂
- It turns out, the weight of your backpack does matter. If you are in doubt whether you should take something with you or not – rather leave it! Most of us did not miss anything actually.
- It was a challenge to find fire wood for the first two nights, some of us started collecting it in the afternoon to carry it to the camp. From day 3 though you will find plenty.
- When the river makes a big turn, cut the corners. It saves a lot of time!
- Get a map of the canyon – it helps to identify where you are, in which direction the canyon will turn and some maps also have the short-cuts marked.
The best recipes for culinary pleasures in the wild:
Here are some suggestions for meals that are easy to make, cheap, light and delicious!
Pizza (by Mike and Stefni)
Make a basic bread dough (2cups cake flour, bit of salt and sugar, 2 tablespoons oil, 1 packet yeast and half a cup lukewarm water) and let it raise.
Put it on a lightweight grid on the fire (you can also cover the grid with tin foil).
Add toppings: tomato paste, salami, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese (processed or whatever can last long). Finish it off with avo and bake it over the fire!
Chinese noodles speciale (by Mia and Karel)
Get the real chinese noodle soups (the ones with the 3 sachets). Add chopped up pieces of droëwors, pine nuts and sundried tomatoes. Very cool combination. 😉
Flop-proof recipe for maccaroni and cheese (by Wyhan and Liezl)
Ingredients (for 4-6 people): 500g Macaroni, 250g packet streaky bacon (chopped), 3 tablespoons cake flour, 1 cube vegetable or onion stock, 2 cups (500ml) water, 2 cups (500g) grated Cheddar cheese, salt and pepper.
Instructions: Cook the Macaroni and drain them. Fry the bacon until crisp (5-10 minutes), then stir in the flour and blend well. Mix the vegetable or onion stock with the water, add it to the bacon and flour mixture, stirring constantly. Add the grated cheese and simmer over low heat until the sauce is smooth and thick, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper.
Daily recommendation for superior performance both on and off the field (by Gerrie)
Morning: 3in1 coffee and oats pap made with the Fish River water
Snacks: Droewors nibbles and chockstiks
Lunch: 6-8 provita with smoked salmon spread and some Fish River water too swallow down.
Sundowner: 200ml tomato cocktail juice and for extra enjoyment the hot & spicy flavour.
Supper: Soyamince with chopped beesbiltong stirred briskly (alternatively, add a packet of potato mash).
Desert: Whoffi (coffee and a shot of whisky) with mini tennis biscuits.
Mince Meat Pasta al Forno (by Hanna)
Before the trip, cook the mince meat as one would normally do it, but don’t use any other spices than salt…the preservatives can cause problems after a few days. When it is cooked, place it on an oven tray and dry it at 180 degrees Celsius until it looks like sand…mine took about 30 minutes. Let it cool down, and vacuum pack it…and then you are ready to go!
To “meat” up the mince again, you put it in boiling water until it is fluffy again – throw some noodles, smash or couscous in, a packet of sauce and some sun dried tomatoes, and then you have one happy camper with a full stomach.
“Stockbread” for the fire (by Jacobus) You need 1kg self raising flour or cake flour, salt and pepper, 1 packet instant yeast, 1 packet brown onion soup powder. Mix all together in a mixing bowl and divide it between 5 zip lock bags. Use 2 cleaned tins as baking tins (sweat corn or baked bean tins). After lunch, if possible, mix some lukewarm water with the bread mix and make sure the water is mixed all the way through, close the bags and let them proof. Just before dividing the dough in the tins make sure you grease the tins as well. Place the tins close to the fire with very small coals around them. Be careful not to burn them and turn them regularly so that they bake evenly. Once baked, knock with your finger on top, if it sounds hollow, it is ready.
Tap the tin all around to loosen the bread, remove and enjoy your master piece!
And finally: What were our highlights and what did we learn? Quotes from the group
“Life outside the canyon pales in insignificance compared to the majestic scenery”
“The river: I loved the river, the life in it and the peace it brings to me”
“I learned to push through the hard parts – the reward is worth it”
“I learned that I complain too much and that I should not take things too seriously”
“I learned that we are actually fine without everything we think we need”
“The Fish River canyon has its own unreal magic”
“The experience, nature and company was enough. Amazing how little you actually need to survive and to be happy.”
Most photos of the gallery below are taken by Mia and Karel Malan. Thank you guys for allowing me to upload them!