June 2016: The Orange River starts it’s life in the snow capped mountains of Lesotho. From there it gets a bit of a run up and charges out across the northern plains of South Africa before becoming the Fish River in Namibia. For eons the snow melt from Lesotho has been crossing this terrain and carving it’s way down through the earth’s crust. Mostly this carving manifests itself in a normal looking river bed but in the far south east of Namibia it’s created something rather extraordinary. It’s managed to carve it’s way down through layer upon layer of bed rock to create the second largest canyon in the world, the Fish River Canyon.
The Fish River Canyon is 160km long, up to 27km wide and at it’s deepest plunges 550m down to the river itself. It is set amongst some of the driest and most inhospitable desert you can imagine. After our new and fairly expensive SatNav sent us down the wrong road we eventually made it into the Ai-Ais National Park which plays home to the canyon. Like most of Namibia, at first the park seems devoid of pretty much everything except rocks, red dust and the odd weird looking quiver tree. On closer inspection though, there is a surprising amount of life. Springbok and gemsbok are scattered across the plains, a wide variety of birds keep the twitchers happy and of course there are the cheeky damn baboons. How any of these creatures survive in such a harsh climate is beyond me.
We had booked ourselves in for three days in the park with two nights at Hobas Rest Camp and one at Ai-Ais Camp itself. Both were veritable oasis in the desert. Hobas provided great access to Fish River Canyon at one of it’s most impressive points. The prime viewing point for the canyon was only another 10km on from the camp across a corrugation filled road so it was really quite close. We spent a highly enjoyable few hours walking along the escarpment marvelling at the awesomeness of nature. Fish River Canyon stretched out before us and seemed to fill our vision entirely. Far below we could see the Fish River winding it’s way through like an insignificant little trickle of water.
From Hobas the drive to Ai-Ais only takes an hour-ish so it was great not to have another long drive. Ai-Ais literally means ‘hot hot water’ and is based on the thermal springs which come from the Fish River bed. A fairly well set up camp has been built around it and if you’re not feeling like doing much it’s pretty easy just to layback on a sun lounge and chill. For us though the highlight was taking a late afternoon walk into the canyon. At Ai-Ais, Fish River Canyon is virtually at end so it’s quite easy to walk up the gorge and be in the middle of no-where pretty quickly. There is the odd dassie (rabbit sized rodent) scurrying around but other than that we had the place to ourselves. We walked for about 30 minutes along the path before turning back, wading through a little water and then walking up the middle of the dry, sandy river bed. As the sun set, the surrounding red cliffs seemed to catch fire while in the shade of the river bed it was complete peace and tranquility. It was such a chilled and lovely afternoon.
The next day we packed up and headed for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park in South Africa. The weird thing was, we could have been driving through far Western Queensland on my way to a family camping trip in Australia. Endless plains of red dirt and hayed off grass stretched on forever until rugged rocky hills seemed to appear out of no where, floating in a distance heat haze. The odd dried up creek bed wound it’s way through the countryside bringing the only bit of green to an other wise brown and red landscape. Isolated sheep and cattle stations clung defiantly where you would think that no human habitation should rightly be. It was vast, dry but achingly beautiful.
This continued for several hours until we arrived at the border post only to find it had closed an hour earlier. We pulled Bertha over to the side of the road and did the only sensible thing we could. Pull out the camp chairs, get a few drinks out of the fridge and watch the sunset. Some cheerful African tunes pumping from a local’s car provided the perfect soundtrack to the end of the day. That’s where I write this.
Fish River Canyon travel tips:
- Hobas Rest Camp has a very basic shop with a few bags of crisps and packets of biscuits but that’s about it. Ai-Ais Rest Camp has a much better stocked shop but only for the basics and some really damn delicious Magnum ice creams.
- You should usually be able to buy fire wood at both camps but Hobas had run out when we arrived. The camp staff were quite happy to tell us to just get what we could from the plentiful fallen trees and brush around the camp. It was a little more difficult to find firewood at Ai-Ais but we still found enough.
- While there is no fuel available at Hobas, Ai-Ais has a mini service station and tyre repair shop in it. Fuel was also a very reasonable price.
- If you’re a photographer you will definitely get excited by the stunning views of the canyon accessible from Hobas. As you would expect, during the middle of the day the colours get fairly washed out by the sun. Apparently the best time to go is morning as late afternoon the shadows get too long and you will struggle to pick up much detail from the depth of the park. Also remember, the sun sets surprisingly quickly in the desert so don’t be lazy like we were and miss the chance for amazing light.