“The moon is looking down into the canyon, and how marvelously the great rocks kindle to her light! Every dome, and brow, and swelling boss touched by her white rays, glows as if lighted with snow.”-John Muir
It was July 2019. We arrived at Ai Ais Resort not sure if there would be a campsite available or room on the shuttle the following morning to take us up to Hobas and the start of the Fish River Canyon Trail. In Fact, everything about our upcoming hike had been left to chance. While researching Namibia a few months before we left the States I had fallen across this particular trail. It is the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the United States. It looked interesting and was highly sought after as noted on several backpacking blogs. This fact also meant that the necessary permits booked up quickly. One TripAdvisor forum suggested that it in fact was booked solid for 2019.
A couple months later, while at our Airbnb in Rwanda, I read that it might be worth reaching out to tour operators as they tend to purchase a bunch of permits as soon as they are released so they can offer the experience to clients. First, I reached out to Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) who told me that while they didn’t currently have any available that a lot of times people will buy permits before planning their trip and then cancel when their plans do not pan out and to call in routinely to check for any such cancellations. The other obstacle was that NWR only allows for parties of at least 3 to enter the canyon for safety reasons. Alex and I were a party of 2.
6 weeks had passed, we had completed the Giant’s Cup Trail in South Africa, and were now determined to find permits for FRC. At The Spot Backpackers near Port Shepstone I phoned NWR again. Surprisingly, they had some cancellations just 3 weeks away which seemed to work perfectly for our plans to spend 2 weeks making our way down around Cape Point and another week up the West Coast of South Africa and into Namibia. Despite the fact that we were still just a party of 2 we were able to purchase the permits. The representative said we should be able to join other hiking parties descending on the same day and to either find a group to join at Ai Ais the night before or ask at Hobas the morning of.
We walked into the reception at Ai Ais and made our inquiries. Luckily, there were spots open to pitch our tent but no room on the shuttle to Hobas in the morning. We planned to drive our Britz rental to Hobas and would just need a shuttle back to it when we finished. We made a shuttle reservation for the expected date of completion, set up our tent, and made our way to the pool. Apparently, the hot springs that I had read about were now too hot to enjoy. Later that evening we cooked ourselves a hardy dinner of rice and broccoli and prepared to get a good nights sleep.
Length: 65km hike follows the river bed Duration: 4-5 Days Season: April-September (closed remainder of year due to heat) Start: Hobas Resort Finish: Ai Ais Resort Restrictions: Minimum Party of 3 (or join another group hiking same day) Price for Trail (includes camping in the canyon): N500 (34 USD) Conservation fee at Hobas: N60 (4 USD) = Approx. 38 USD pp Camping Rates (2020 rates): Ai Ais: N315 or 20 USD/night/pp Hobas: N375 or 25 USD/night/pp Priceless Tip: Buy Gators for your shoes to keep the sand out! Reservations: NWR CAPE TOWN OFFICE E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +27 21 4223761 Website: https://www.nwr.com.na/
Day 1 – Playing With Fire
The next morning we woke up to our alarm at 5:30am eager get to Hobas before the first shuttle which was to depart Ai Ais at 7am. I had not slept well or much the night before because as luck would have it hikers who completed the trail that day had stayed up celebrating quite loudly until the bar closed. Regardless, my excitement boosted my reserves. We checked in at Hobas and were told to hang out around the restaurant until the next group of hikers arrived and the ranger would try to pair us with another group.
Success! Two other groups arrived on the shuttle and we were to start our hike at the same time. We did have to arrange transport to the actual start with the ranger as the shuttle was still full.
The initial descent was steep and full of unsteady rocks. We passed the first group who were carefully making their way down and came upon the second group. This bunch had all competed in an annual Wild Coast ultimate race with each other for years and were planning to finish the hike in 4 days versus 5. We were to pass one another in the canyon once or twice a day which made for a nice interlude.
The canyon opened up beautifully once down on the floor. We walked through soft sand and traversed over some mid-size boulders. We hadn’t set a goal for the day but ended up hiking 7.5km before stopping to set up camp at kilometer 4 on the trail map (apparently the descent does not count).
My poor toes were throbbing that evening which I attributed to the steep descent and figured they would be fine again the next morning. We had a great evening and felt quite at home gathering fire wood and filtering water from the small pool near our campsite. For dinner we made rice and potatoes in a curry sauce. The potatoes were a little tough and the curry sauce very hot (my fault for using the whole packet!) but we were happy to fill our bellies. That night the moon was beautiful and we had a decent amount of stars. Sounds of the surrounding wildlife lured us to sleep.
Day 2 – Crossing The Line
After a sound night of sleep we awoke to the cool crisp morning air. We made some oatmeal and packed up camp. Our plan was to trek about 20km and end up around kilometer 24 on the map. That day we traversed over long patches of smaller loose stones as well as patches of larger boulders and areas of soft sand. My toes were aching again by the time we stopped for lunch at the Palm Sulfur Springs. There, we came across our friends who suggested soaking my feet in the hot sulfur spring water which I did readily! It was lovely and I was relieved that my skin had not formed any blisters as of yet.
Our friends also gave us some salinity drops for our water after watching us struggle with our clogged filter and slow boiling method. They were from South Africa and were completely fine with drinking the green water straight. At that point we were still taking precautions. It had not rained recently and that July there was not much water in the canyon which made it even more important to fill our reservoirs when we did find a decent looking supply.
Once sufficiently rested we forged on following the winding river bed. I was surprised and disappointed that my feet still hurt as I had come to appreciate the versatility and comfort of my North Face trail running shoes. Though I had taken a precautionary measure and put some mole skin on suspicious areas, my toes were aching more intensely and I opted to remove my insoles which allowed some extra space and did relieve the pain (at least for a bit).
Somewhere around kilometer 24 we came upon a sandy area that looked like a camping option. The trail had come away from the river bed a bit and the pool that did exist was on the small side and a little extra green in color. At that point I felt as though I pushed my poor toes to the limit and we had made our goal of 20km and was quite ready to heave off my pack and give my feet a much needed rest. Looking at the map, Alex noted that the Zebra Pools were not that far away at kilometer 26 and according to map would likely have more water available. Thus we pushed on.
We made it to the area of the Zebra Pools yet did not find any pools of water and so we kept on. I had made it quite clear that I needed to stop very soon as my toes were back to their old shenanigans. We eventually found a spot that had both water and soft sand for our tent bed. The pain my toes were experiencing also heightened my emotions and that night I struggled through making dinner and barely ate. Poor Alex tried to help me look on the bright side but I felt a bit in over my head not knowing what to do to make the situation better. Luckily both of our bodies were tired from a long day and we fell into sleep easily.
Day 3 – A New & Separate World
I unzipped my tent flap well rested and yet not looking forward to another day of inexplicable toe pain. I picked up one shoe and reached my hand in to see if there was something a miss that could explain my predicament. Alas, there were big bulges in the lining protruding inwards. I then determined that sand was filtering in from the mesh top layer of my shoe and getting stuck between that outer layer and the solid inner layer! I quickly found out that I could knock these packed sand bulges loose and free them from my shoes. This discovery meant that things were looking up. Sure enough routine stops to remove the shoes and knock out the sand worked and relieved the unnecessary pressure on my toes. What a relief! Day 3 ended up being my favorite day.
That day we encountered a number of runners who were working their way through either a 65km or 100km Fish River Canyon Ultimate Run. As they passed we noted their very clever Gaiters covering the mesh on the top of their shoes thus keeping out the sand.
At one point we came upon a water station for the runners consisting of one guy who had been camping in the canyon for 5 days. He informed us that the water in the canyon was safe until the 80km mark and from that point on until 80km we reduced our sanitation method to just filtering the river bed water through Alex’s Buff.
We finally saw three wild horses taking cover from the mid-day heat in a shady watering hole who up until then we only knew existed due to the presence of their hoof prints and manure piles. There was even a baboon hanging out with them. We found and took one of the short cuts which allowed for a little climbing which we both appreciated. As the sun was planning it’s descent upon the horizon we approached another water stop for the runners just before a low grade ascent. We headed up and through a pass and found a beautiful spot next to the Barbel Pools to set up our home for the night.
The Barbel Pools lived up to their name as there was quite a good population of the neat little birds flying around the pools. They seemed pretty adept at fast dives and quick changes of direction. Our spot was just above the pools and behind the privacy of some tall bushes. As the sun set we could see headlamps from runners that were still making their way to the finish line at Ai Ais. We were quite pleased with our day and set to enjoy a peaceful evening relaxing by a fire and staring in awe at our unique surroundings.
There is something primal and comforting in foraging for firewood, collecting water, and preparing supper surrounded by the vastness of nature. The moon was rising later and later and the numerous stars lit up canyon walls in eerie brilliance that night. In order to enjoy the show we opted to sleep without the rain fly content to watch the night sky until our eyes fell heavy with sleep.
Day 4 – Dangerous Addiction
The Barbel pools were at about kilometer 45 ½ which meant we had approximately 20km left until we reached the finish and Ai Ais. We were in a pretty good position to finish the hike that day if we chose or to find a nice spot to camp in the canyon one last night and have an easy Day 5. We opted for the latter as the evenings under the stars and camping in such a remote place could not be beat.
We had made it just 2km when we reached the grave of a fallen German soldier, LT Thilo Von Trotha. Now this is where we got a little turned around as we followed footsteps heading to our right. This pathway opened up into a dry river bed and eventually to a river bend with a few nice pools at which we admired several species of delightful birds. Alex’s instincts kicked in and he suggested that we may have been traveling in the wrong direction. We were supposed to follow the river but after we took the trail through the pass we had cut away from the river a bit and had just reunited with it at the Lieutenant’s grave. As it turns out we had been following the river in the wrong direction back to once we came! I was a bit troubled by this revelation though I had learned from past experiences and quickly sought to discuss something other than our predicament in order to avoid anxiety and chaos.
Upon turning around we spotted the grave and saw what appeared to be a short cut up a sandy dune and got ourselves back on track. There was a nice river crossing at Bikini Beach just before the trail crossed again and cut Big Bend. After the bend the trail gradually headed back towards the river bend. This is where, at approximately kilometer 61, we made camp.
Our home for the night was on the opposite side of the river bed from the trail, up a sand bank, and behind some bushes. We had easy access to water, good firewood, stones to make a fire pit and tables out of, and of course a magnificent view. For some reason this secluded site inspired us to completely remove our sweaty layers and work around our camp as naturists which felt completely normal and necessary until the mosquitoes came out of course. This was our most relaxing night. We knew we only had 4 kilometers to finish the next day.
Day 5 – To Stay Or To Leave?
We highly recommend spending the extra night in the canyon as we did unless you are crunched for time. You’ve already paid for 4 nights of camping so why not! You could hike hard for 4 days (if you wish), enjoy one last night under the stars in the shadows of the canyon walls, and enjoy the light stroll into Ai Ais on Day 5. We encountered a troop of Baboons on our last day and were able to stop and just observe their behaviors for as long as we needed.
We rolled into camp mid-morning and checked in to let them know we were out of the canyon and to confirm our shuttle to back to Hobas at 16:30. We then proceeded to the showers to rinse off (and shave) before hitting the pool. Oh how nice it was to relax, swim, and sun bathe that afternoon. Once we developed an appetite we both had a nice lunch of Hake, chips, and salad. This, Alex rinsed down with a Windhoek Draught and me a crisp cool glass of dry white wine.
While dining, one of the groups that started the same day as us made their way into Ai Ais visibly elated with smiles from ear to ear. We congratulated them and took a group shot for them to remember the feat by. As we were not planning to stay but had time before we were to catch the shuttle we decided to take a nap mid-afternoon then explore the tourist shop.
As our time of departure neared we sat on the patio across from the shuttle station so we wouldn’t miss our ride. Well, 16:30 passed and no shuttle so we checked back in with the desk. Apparently there had been a miscommunication and our shuttle was at 10:30 that morning. So, we booked passage on the 8am shuttle the next morning and a campsite for the night.
Relieved we could continue relaxing, we set off in search of our site. We came upon the other hiking group that finished that day again and they engaged us in delightful conversation. We learned that one of the girls had set out to do the whole trail with her father and some other folks nearly a decade earlier. Unfortunately, her father had become severely dehydrated on the hike and they had to use one of the emergency exits. She told us of the tribulations of evacuating someone out of one of the canyon’s steep walls.
The next morning we made the shuttle to Hobas, picked up our car, and were soon on our way.
Reflections – Get Gaiters!
Upon reflection the Fish River Canyon was the most trying hike for me personally to date though it didn’t need to be. Had we experience with hiking in sand we definitely would have obtained Gaiters beforehand. This would have prevented sore toes and consequent emotions. Yes, we would recommend this hike as long as you are prepared for the sand. The canyon was one of the most unique places we had ever camped. The evenings spent around our primitive campsites and nights under a sea of stars made everything worth it.
Questions about the hike? Have you completed this hike and have additional tips? Please reach out in the comments!