“…in the desert you can’t remember your name / ‘cos there ain’t no one for to give you no pain …” America’s Horse With No Name seemed rather apt as I reviewed the Go Pro video clips from this hike. The Fish River Canyon is a remote, ancient and dramatically harsh landscape as only a desert canyon can be. Here there are no signs nor sounds of civilisation, except the tracks of those who have gone before and a lost Vespa (more about that later). The night sky is bright and clear, unpolluted by artificial light, the only reminder of industrial society being the speeding specks of low-orbit satellites.
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Ever since I gazed down on the canyon from the the viewpoint at Hobas and scrambled down to its floor in 1975. I have wanted to hike the canyon. It is one of the must-do, iconic hikes in southern Africa and for some it is the only backpacking hike they will ever do, while others return annually. The hiking season is from May to September during the winter and after the rainy season. Only 40 hikers per day may enter the canyon during the season. We were the second or third group to penetrate it this year and given that the canyon was closed during 2013 because of lack of water, we encountered a pristine, scoured environment.
The previous day a hiker was heli-casevaced out. There is only one escape route from the canyon proper, so either you are carried out or choppered out. The Namibian authorities try to minimise the risks by insisting on a medical certificate for each hiker, but I think that the biggest risk is that not all who challenge the canyon are experienced or conditioned hikers. Certainly I would discourage anyone who has not done a few multi-day, full-pack hikes and thus is uncertain in his or her own mind that the hike is within his or her capabilities.
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Although the trail is described as a 90 km trail, in reality you will walk about 71 km unless you miss the short-cuts in the latter stages. My GPS recorded 68.9 km, but I did miss a couple of kilometres between battery changes. After the initial steep descent, the gradients are small. The net drop in elevation is about 560 m of which about 450 m represents the drop into the canyon. The first 18 or so km to Sulphur Springs requires a lot of bouldering and is strenuous, especially if water levels are high. According to Kevin we registered about 28 river crossings. After the boulders the trail alternately traverses gravel, sand and river rocks. Our average moving speed was 3.3 km/h. The difficulty of the trail can be determined by extreme heat (our first and hottest day registered a maximum temperature of “only” 36ºC), cold nights (we had balmy nights), sand storms (we were sand blasted during the second night), electric storms (we had some lightning and sparse rain), low or high water levels (the river level was medium), scorpions, snakes, mosquitoes and miggies (the latter two species nailed me thoroughly). Lastly, give yourself five days and four nights at least to complete the hike. A shorter forced march would make it less than fun. We drank the river water without purification or boiling to no ill effect, although this may be unwise as the water level drops and later in the hiking season.
If the 3D map does not render, download the kml file and view in Google Earth.
The stark canyon walls tell an ancient story of geology. Its geological formation commenced about 350 million years ago, but it cuts through old rocks that date back 1000 million years. The evidence of these massive mountains are visible in the gneiss and quartz formations at Ai-Ais. About 800 million years ago subvolcanic dolerite dykes, which are clearly visible on the hike, penetrated the ancient mountains. The birth of the canyon 350 million years ago started with subsidence along tectonic fault zones, the same faults through which Ai-Ais’ 60ºC hot water wells up (Ai-Ais means “very hot” in the Nama language). Glacial activity during the Gondwana period further shaped the canyon and with Gondwana’s break-up some 120 million years ago, the escarpment’s uplift increased the canyon’s gradient so that it gouged out the canyon along the existing meandering river loops. Today no evidence of the ice ages remains visible (paragraph paraphrased from Nicole Grünert’s Namibia Fascination of Geology: A Travel Handbook).
Soon after Pulpit Rock a rust-red Vespa scooter appears, incongruously propped up against some rocks. It is the metal detritus of the 1968 Cape Town Vespa Club expedition. Quite what the club’s motivation was, escapes me. However, its website contains some excellent photographs of an idiosyncratic adventure, if ever there was one.
Another well-known landmark on the trail is the grave of Lt Thilo von Trotha, who was killed in 1905 during the euphemistically named Nama Uprising. However, a revised history relates the story of the genocide perpetrated against the indigenous peoples by colonial German forces. It is well researched and told in Casper Erichsen’s excellent The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. It lends a different context to the grave than the traditional sad-romantic notion of a young colonial soldier’s final resting place in a lonely, remote corner of the colonies.