One of the greatest sights in southern Namibia is the Fish River Canyon, an impressive snake-like canyon in the vast Namibian landscape. Of course, the Fish River Canyon is much visited, but not touristy. The most famous viewpoint is perhaps a bit crowded in high season, but in other places you will be able to sit undisturbed on the edge of the canyon to absorb the natural beauty in peace and quiet. Visiting the Fish River Canyon in Namibia is a must-do experience.
The Fish River Canyon: facts and history
Though you might think that the canyon was eroded by the Fish River, but that is did not happen here. Movement of the tectonic plates created a deep trench was created in a mountain plateau. Only ater that moment further erosion took place. The Fish River was then about 300 meters higher than today, so obviously the trench was the easiest route for the river to take. Because of the hard stone layer of the plateau the river could not follow a straight route. That is why the river did not only deepened the canyon, but also created the typical bends that make the Fish River Canyon so impressive nowadays. Glaciers – hard to imagine with the current temperatures in Namibia, right? – finished the work and deepened the canyon even further.
The result is a snake-like canyon. More than 150 kilometers long, 27 kilometers at its widest and 550 meters at its deepest point, this is one of the largest canyons in the world. It is said that only the American Grand Canyon is bigger! There is a lot of discussion about that though, because do you look at length, depth or width? And isn’t there one in Tiber that is even bigger than the American canyon?
Anyway, a position on any world ranking will not make the Fish River Canyon more beautiful or impressive than it already is. Because, wow: it is such a force of nature!
Preparing your visit
The Fish River Canyon is located in the far south of Namibia, towards the border with South Africa. It is about 7 hours from Windhoek in the middle of the country. You can get here in one day from the airport in Windhoek, but we advise you to add some stops on your route. If only because there are so many beautiful things to see along the route! Check out this blog about our perfect travel itinerary through Namibia, where we tell you everything about it.
Most visitors see the Fish River Canyon only from above. You will only be allowed to enter the canyon if you have a permit for the four- to five-day hike. The hike is 85 kilometers long, starts at Hobas and ends at Ai-Aïs. We did not do the hike, but it said to be one of the most beautiful walks in the world. It is pretty though as well! So though that it is closed during the hot summer months, when it is not responsible to do such a hike. So if you want to add this trek to your Namibia itinerary, make sure you visit the country between May and September and arrange the hike well in advance.
Only a limited number of hikers per day are allowed into the Fish River Canyon and a group must consist of at least three people. You have to arrange your permit months in advance and you need a doctor’s certificate to apply. You can arrange your permit through the Namibia Wildlife Resorts. There are no facilities along the route, so you will have to bring all your food, water and sleeping stuff yourself. You’ll also need to arrange transport to the starting point at Hobas and from Ai-Aïs.
We visited the Fish River Canyon by looking at it from above. Along the canyon, from the starting point of the hike at Hobas, multiple viewpoints offer magnificent views of the canyon. In one day you have plenty of time to visit all viewpoints. The main viewpoint is near Hobas and can be visited with all modes of transport. For the other points you need a 4WD though. At some points the road is so difficult and steep that you can not get any further there without 4WD.
How to visit the Fish River Canyon
Your visit to the canyon will probaby start at Hobas. There you buy a permit for 24 hours to visit the national park. You pay 80 Namibian dollars per person and 10 Namibian dollars per vehicle, as usual in Namibia. At Hobas you’ll also find a camp with camping pitches and lodges, but we will tell you more about accommodation options later. Our tip: spend the night in Hobas to enjoy the sunset from one of the viewpoints at the Fish River Canyon in the evening!
From the gate at Hobas you drive about 10 kilometers to the main viewpoint. It can get pretty crowded in high season. You have a view over the impressive Hell’s Bend from a tribune with even picnic areas and toilets! Information signs provide information about the canyon, the flora and fauna in the area and the indigenous tribes in this region.
Slightly further – and already a bit quieter – is the hiker’s viewpoint. This is also the start of the hike through the canyon. For even more viewpoints you then drive back to the road to the main viewpoint. Along this road are two smaller roads. The first road leads you to the closest viewpoint, about 3 kilometers from the road.
The second road leads past two viewpoints: the Sulfur Springs Viewpoint and Eagle’s Rock. The Sulfur Springs Viewpoint is obviously named after the sulfur springs, but you won’t be able to see or visit them from here. From this viewpoint, a long road leads you to the furthest viewpoint, the Eagle’s Rock. This is where you need your 4WD. A bumpy yet beautiful route leads you to the Eagle’s Rock. With a bit of luck you will spot the mountain zebras from this area as we did!
From there you’ll have to drive the same road back to Hobas. You can drive via the C37 from there to the southernmost point of the Fish River Canyon: Ai-Aïs, where the multi-day hike also ends. You can walk into the final part of the canyon at Ai-Aïs, but unfortunately this part is actually not impressive at all. Well recommended is a visit to the spa though! Ai-Aïs therefore means ‘burning water’ in a local indigenous language and refers to a hot spring of 65 C. This hot spring heats an outdoor pool and indoor spa.
Fish River Canyon accommodation: camping and lodges
The Ai-Ais Hotspring Spa is a paradise for the hikers who have been struggling for five days through the blood-hot Fish River Canyon. But even without having finished this great hike it is wonderful to spend a night here. The campsite itself is fine, but not special. No, Ai-Ais deserved a place among our favourite stays because of its spa!
The price for a campsite is 210 Namibian dollars per person, but there are also (pricier) double rooms and luxury chalets. Reservations can be made through the Namibia Wildlife Resorts. The use of the outdoor swimming pool is included in the price of your stay. Normally a dip in a pool might be a good way to cool off, but the water here is actually warm because of the nearby hot spa of 65 C. For only 15 Namibian dollars you can use the indoor spa as well, where massages from 250 Namibian dollars for half an hour
can be booked. We were there in the low season – when the Fish River Canyon hike is not allowed because of the summer heat – so we had the inner spa completely to ourselves. We like!
Another traveller’s favourite is the Fish River Lodge. This accommodation has the best views of them all. You’ll sleep right on the cliff with a magnificent view over the canyon. So make sure you wup early for a beautiful sunrise! The lodges are unfortunately on the other side of the canyon than the viewpoints, so you will not easily and quickly reach the national park to visit the viewpoints from here. But perhaps you don’t even want to, as the Fish River Lodge organises many activities itself: from multi-day hikes to 4×4 trips. All this – activity and accommodation – does have a hefty price tag though.
We already mentioned a last place to spend the night: the Hobas camp. The camp has both camping spots and basic lodges. There is a swimming pool and restaurant and there are baboons around your tent (so look after your stuff carefully). The camp is not particularly recommended. But if you want to skip the pricey Fish River Lodge with its beautiful sunrise, this is where you can stay the closest to the canyon. We drove to the canyon at the end of the afternoon to watch a beautiful sunset!