The Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia is the world’s second largest canyon. The canyon itself is unlike anything else found on the continent and is rightly regarded as Africa’s very own Grand Canyon.
At 160 km long and up to 27 km wide the canyon reaches depths of over 500 metres. The canyon’s name comes from the “Fish River”, the longest interior river in Namibia and forms part of the state-run Ais-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
A myriad of wildlife can be found in the canyon from the Goliath heron and Nama padloper tortoise to the leopard, bat-eared fox and mountain zebra. One of southern Africa’s most popular hiking trails is in the canyon and is often completed over a period of 4-5 days.
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Why visit Fish River Canyon?
Fish River Canyon safari
The Fish River Canyon hiking trail is one of the more popular hiking trails in Southern Africa. The immense scale and rugged terrain has drawn many visitors from all over the world to experience what hiking or trail running the canyon can offer.
On a hiking safari, visitors will encounter many wildlife and incredible views from any of the viewpoints along the edge of the gigantic canyon to appreciate the scale and beauty of this surreal and dramatic geological feature.
After a long day hiking watching out for leopards and springbok, visitors often enjoy dipping into the Ai-Ais mineral hot springs, a natural oasis located at the base of the peaks on the southern end of the Fish River Canyon.
Of course, no hike is complete without sipping on a sundowner at one of the viewpoints along the rim of the canyon, taking in the spectacular views over the canyon as the sun sets.
In the canyon you may encounter several species of mammals, such as wild horses, Leopard, Steenbok and Springbok.
Klipspringer and troops of Chacma baboons are happy on rocky slopes and mountain zebra favour the rugged ravines but are rarely seen.
Some kudu inhabit the densely vegetated lower reaches of the canyon. The riverine bush of the canyon attracts an interesting variety of colourful birds and raptors such as rock kestrals and lanner falcons ride the thermals.
The most common rodents include mice, rats, dassies, and dassie rats. Reptiles and insects are in abundance and you may come across huge Leguan lizards; snakes (such as Cape Cobra, Black Spitting Cobra, Puff adder and Horned adder) as well as Geckos.
Various locusts, butterflies and moths are also present. In the natural pools of the Fish River are found an abundance of fish, such as Barbled catfish and Yellow fish.
Over 240 species of birds have been recorded including many surprises such as the Common Ostrich, Little Grebe, Great White Pelican, Pinkbacked Pelican, Whitebreasted Cormorant, Bank Cormorant, Reed Cormorant and the African Darter.
Other birds found include the Grey Heron, Blackheaded Heron, Goliath Heron, Purple Heron, Great Egret and Little Egret.
The Fish River area is home to over 100 endemic plant species and over 84 tree species. In particular, deciduous dwarf shrubs, grasses and succulents thrive here, despite the arid, hot climate.
The odd tree scattered here and there makes their presence even more striking against the backdrop because of their rarity including quiver trees which got their name because the local bushmen tribes hollow out the branches to make their quivers.
The plant life here has adapted to its surroundings over time. Some plants are covered in sticky hairs to collect moisture, or to trap sand in order to protect themselves from drying out. Other plants have spines or release poisonous sap to deter animals from nibbling on them.
Other activities at Fish River Canyon
Here are some other Namibian safari activities that visitors to Fish River Canyon can look forward to on their trip:
- Fish River Hiking Trail: 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, taking 4 to 5 days to complete, an 85 kilometre beautiful, scenic stretch.
- Hobas viewpoint: 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.
- Ais-Ais sulphur springs: Located south of Hobas at 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.
How to get to Fish River Canyon?
Fish Canyon has a number of private airstrips which are used by chartered planes, typically arriving from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital with many visitors from Cape Town and beyond.
Trips to Fish River Canyon are often combined with tours of Etosha National Park, a stunning wildlife destination in the northwest of Namibia.
Fish River Canyon is very remote and the capital 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 kilometre 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.
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.
Carrying a small amount of local Namibian currency, the Namibian Dollar (NAD) is advised for smaller purchases.
If you keep to park rules, you can stay with the animals as long as they are not disturbed by your presence.
Accommodation at Fish River Canyon
Tourists at Fish River Canyon can choose from a number of different options when deciding where to sleep.
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.
Ais-Ais Hot Springs Resort offers chalets and hotel rooms as well as spa treatments which can be booked, ideal after a long day’s hike.
There’s a restaurant too and many hikers will choose to stay here at the end of the long walk to relax and revitalize. Service and facilities are more limited however due to the remote location.
Alternative lodge options include the Fish River Lodge which offers modern chalets with canyon views & a cosy lodge with casual dining, a plunge pool & fireplaces.
Located on the rim of the Fish River Canyon, Fish River Lodge offers forty guests breath-taking view points directly over the canyon from sunrise to sunset.
The landscape around the western side of the canyon is vast, empty and ancient. Perfect for both solitude and adventure. Explore the canyon and surrounds by foot, safari vehicle or mountain bike and experience the drama of this 500 million year old geological wonder.
Hobas Campsite is 10km from Fish River Canyon and provides a shaded area and some grassed lawns. Each campground has a BBQ facility and a power supply with a light feature.
The Hobas campsite is on generator power, and there is no power after 10 pm. The advantage of the Hobas campsite is that you are already within the conservation area, and one can view the sunrise and the sunset over the canyon.
You can also walk along the mountain and take in the views of the canyon and it isn’t uncommon to encounter klipspringer, springbok or even mountain zebra towards the canyon.
Guests on a self-drive safari with a campervan can make significant savings by sleeping in their vehicle.
Lodges will typically have all meals and drinks included in the lodge package.
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 kilometres, including through the canyon.
Average temperatures in Fish River Canyon vary greatly. Considering humidity, temperatures feel hot for about half of the year and otherwise nice with a very low chance of rain throughout the year.
The warmest time of year is generally late February and early March where highs are regularly around 106.5°F (41.4°C) with temperatures rarely dropping below 76.8°F (24.9°C) at night.
Best time to go
Understanding the best time to visit Namibia is important as this will impact accommodation, flight prices, availability and the weather that visitors can expect on their safari vacation.
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.
The highest risk of transition is in the rainy season from October to May. Anti-malarials are advised, as well as covering up in the evening and using mosquito repellent (those containing DEET are most effective).
It is recommended to visit a travel clinic before coming to Namibia. Several Namibia vaccinations are recommended and usually administered before your departure.
Where is Fish River Canyon located?
The Fish River Canyon is located in the south of Namibia and accessed by chartered plane or an 8 hour drive from Windhoek.
What animals will visitors see at Fish River Canyon?
Visitors to Fish River Canyon will see wild horses, leopards, Steenbok, Springbok, Klipspringer, Chacma baboons, mountain zebra and more.