Hidden away in the remote and isolated deserts of Namibia can be found the Fish River Canyon, and unknown to many travelers, this little-visited canyon is the largest canyon in Africa and the second-largest in the world.
The Fish River Canyon stretches for almost 160 kilometers through the vast Namibian landscape. It’s carved out by the Fish River, the longest river in the country, and at its deepest reaches depths of over 500 meters.
Its sheer natural beauty at its most wild and untouched and visiting the Fish River Canyon is one of the greatest African adventures you can experience.
But where do you start? The canyon is enormous and can be taken on with an extensive multi-day hike that traverses much of the length, or it can be viewed from the much more accessible lookout points high above.
The weather will affect any trip here, with scorching summer temperatures making walking impractical and dangerous flash flooding closing the trails certain times of the year.
Any trip here will take some planning to get the most out of it, and that’s why we’ve put together this practical guide to visiting Fish River Canyon. Read on to find out the best way to travel here, where to stay and most importantly, when to go.
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Where is the Fish River Canyon?
The Fish River Canyon is located in the south of Namibia. The river itself begins in the central mountains of the country and empties across the border into South Africa after flowing for hundreds of kilometers, including through the canyon.
The canyon is, of course, huge, and a large section in the north is protected by private nature reserves. The southern area is protected as the Ais-Ais and Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park, a cross-border reserve that covers areas in both Namibia and South Africa.
The best place to access and to see the Fish River Canyon are from the Namibian side, where incredible lookouts are available at Hobas – which is where the multi-day hiking trail begins – as well as at the beautiful Ais-Ais resort further south – where the same epic hike ends.
How to Get to Fish River Canyon
If you are just visiting to gaze out over the epic scenery of the Fish River Canyon then there are lookouts available at Hobas and Ais-Ais. To get there, you will either need to be part of an organized tour or have access to your own transport.
These locations are well connected by road to each other and to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, however, there is not much in the way of public transport and the only airstrips are small and really just for private charters.
The canyon is very remote, Windhoek is an 8-hour drive away, and this is the only place you can fly to if arriving internationally. The remoteness, although a challenge, means that the area can be very quiet though.
The tough yet incredible 85 kilometer Fish River Canyon Trail begins at Hobas and ends at Ais-Ais, and it’s possible to leave your car at either the start or the end of this walk. There’s more information on the hike below.
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Best Time of Year to Visit Fish River Canyon
The canyon is located in a dry, arid area of Namibia. The canyon itself is only open for hiking between May and September, during winter when the temperatures are at their coolest. The rest of the year, the heat is too much and too dangerous for hikers in the scorching depths of the canyon.
For most of the year, there’s little water in the canyon bed either. It’s dry and a dam upstream results in little flow to the viewing and walking areas. During summer, however, the canyon can experience serious flooding when what little rain falls through the year torrents down at once, yet another reason why the canyon is closed during this hot and unpredictable season.
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Where To Stay
The nearest accommodation to the canyon can be found either at Hobas or Ais-Ais. There are a mixture of campsites and more upmarket and comfortable options available.
If you are attempting the multi-day hike, then there are many camping locations in the canyon itself, although you will need to be completely self-sufficient.
Hobas is ideally located to give easy access to the Fish River Canyon’s best and most panoramic viewpoint, which is found at Hell’s Bend. This is also the start point of the multi-day hike. There is no upmarket accommodation available here, but there are camping areas and basic toilet and washing facilities.
Hobas is also where the Ministry of Environment and Tourism are located, so hikers need to check in here with the staff if they have the necessary permits already for walking in the canyon. There’s a small shop with very basic supplies and facilities.
Ais-Ais is located south of Hobas and is the endpoint of the multi-day hike. There’s also a large number of hot springs here, and it’s the perfect place to relax or camp even if you aren’t undertaking the canyon hike.
As well as the campground, there’s the Ais-Ais Hot Springs Resort, where chalets and hotel rooms can be booked and spa treatments can be had. There’s a restaurant too and many hikers will choose to stay here at the end of the long walk to relax and revitalize. Don’t expect too much from the service or facilities however as the location is extremely remote.
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The Hobas and Ais Ais Shuttle Bus
The local wildlife office runs a regular shuttle bus between Hobas and Ais-Ais. It’s recommended to book in advance, but this means that if you are staying in one area you can easily reach the other.
Many hikers will choose to park at Ais-Ais and then take the shuttle bus, leaving there car ready at the end of the walk for them.
Hiking The Fish River Canyon Trail
As spectacular as the viewpoints and the landscapes of the Fish River Canyon are, the best way to really experience this natural wonder is to complete the multi-day Fish River Canyon Trail. This is, in fact, the only hiking trail into the canyon, and anyone not walking it is only allowed to the viewpoints and not down into the canyon.
The hike takes 4 to 5 days to complete and is 85 kilometers in length. It’s one of the toughest long-distance walks in southern Africa, it can only be completed between May and September and you will need to arrange permits in advance.
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All hikers have to be pre-approved by the Namibian government before they can attempt the hike. Reservations are limited to 30 hikers per day, however, you can only apply as a minimum group of 3 people.
You cannot apply individually or as just a couple, unfortunately. Walkers must be physically fit and even have to present a medical certificate proving this at the start of the hike in Hobas, so be prepared in advance.
As the hike is popular and spaces are limited, it’s recommended to arrange for and pay the cost of the permits in advance.
The hiking trail is tough but beautiful. It begins just outside of Hobas, with a steep descent to the base of the Fish River Canyon. This is the steepest, rockiest and generally hardest going part of the hike.
Progress will be slow, but by the end of the day you will have reached the river bed and for the next few days this will be the route you will follow all the way to Ais-Ais.
There are incredible spots to stop at all along the trail, and most days it’s possible to walk an average of 20 kilometers. There are hot springs to stop at, beautiful views to admire and wildlife to look out for.
There are several routes along the way that can be taken as shortcuts if you are pressed for time or simply tired and on around day 3, there is a very steep way out of the canyon, however, this is only an emergency exit as it leads to almost nowhere.
The 85-kilometer trail ends with a sharp ascent to the Ais-Ais Hot Springs Resort where you can rest your weary feet and relax after the tough hike.
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Hikers have to be entirely self-sufficient for the duration of the hike. It’s possible to camp anywhere along the trail, just ensure you have the right gear. Sturdy boots, walking gear, food, and provisions.
Open fires are not permitted, so carry gas stoves for cooking. There’s no water stops apart from the river water, however, to drink this first purify it. It’s recommended to take a trail map even though the route is fairly easy to navigate.
Depending on the time of year it can be very cold at night. Do not underestimate this and pack a correctly rated sleeping bag. Do not forget to back base layers and a hat to sleep in.
Another great tip we got was to carry a can of Doom to spray the perimeter of the tent. This kept snakes, scorpions and other insects from coming near to or under our tent while we traveled through Africa.
Related Article: Best Sleeping Bag for Cold Weather – From Africa to Greenland
Health and Safety
This is one of the toughest multi-day hikes in Africa, so don’t underestimate it. Make sure you are fit enough, well provisioned and an experienced hiker. The sun and dehydration will be your worst enemy but also be wary of wildlife, rocks and fatigue. It’s tough, but the Fish River Canyon hike is absolutely spectacular.
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2 thoughts on “Fish River Canyon: Planning & Trip Guide”
This is a very helpful article but I don’t see any info about how to apply for a permit.
Booking is mandatory to hike and camp in the backcountry. First, you need to call for availability. In Windhoek, Namibia (+264 61) 285 7333 [email protected]. In Cape Town (+27 21) 422 3761 [email protected]. You can then book your dates over the phone. You have 48 hours to pay a deposit (10%) to confirm your booking. Then you send an email with a confirmation of the payment. The total amount must be paid 30 days prior to the hike.