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The Fish River Canyon is located in the south of Namibia. After the Grand Canyon (USA), it is the second biggest canyon in the world with the total length of about 100 miles (160 km) with the maximum width of 16.8 miles (27 km) and extending downward 1,804 feet (550 m) at its deepest point. Geologists believe that the canyon was form originally about 650 million years ago as a result of moving tectonic plates and after that shaped by erosion and tectonic uplifting. The canyon starts near Seeheim and ends after 161 kilometers near Ai-Ais. The canyon cuts through the dry and stony plateau covered here and there with drought-resistant plants.
Parts of the canyon are privately own and usually cannot the accessed. Visitors can approach and/or hike the canyon from the point near Hobas, a camp site 70 km north of Ai-Ais on the eastern side of the canyon. This part of the canyon goes through the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park created in 2003 by the governments of Namibia and South Africa crossing the border between the two countries.
Hobas is the starting point for the Fish River Hiking Trail - the trail starts from the view point about 7.5 miles (12 km) from the campsite at Hobas. The hikers descend into the Fish River Canyon and follow it for 53 miles (85 km) to finish the trail at Ai-Ais. Usually, it takes five days to complete the trial. Once hikers descend into the canyon, there is no way out of it in the middle of the hike. While on trial, hikers can rely only on themselves and be completely self-sufficient.
While hiking, visitors follow all the turns of the canyon (and there are many of them) together with the Fish River that runs through the canyon. The Fish River is the longest river in Namibia. It starts at Hardap Dam about 14 miles (22 km) northwest of Mariental and continues for more than 400 miles (650 km) before it joins the Orange River at the border with South Africa. The river is seasonal; in winter the river can dry up completely. However, during summer time flash floods are possible - because of the flood danger and high temperatures, the hike is open only in winter (The opening and the closing periods for the Fish River Canyon Hike are regulated by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism and can change due to extreme weather conditions).
Although very popular, the Fish River Hiking Trail is not the only way to experience the Fish River Canyon. In particular, there are several lodges near the Fish River Canyon that in addition to accommodations also offer tours and hikes in the area of the canyon. See "Where to Stay" and "Useful Tips" for more details on ways to explore the area.
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What Makes It Special
The Fish River Canyon is one of the most impressive gorges in the world offering a unique experience for those who dare to explore its inhospitable landscapes on feet. It is a true adventure lovers' dream. The dream where the raw beauty of the nature, hot temperatures and rocky, exhaustive hiking makes the hardship worthwhile. But even if you plan only day hikes and scenic drives or hikes without descending into the canyon, you will not be disappointed. You will feel as if you've come to the end of the world with amazing scenery, absolute silence and unforgettable colors of the desert. No mobile phones in the middle of nowhere with amazing stars and Milky Way you have never seen before. And if you need statistics to be convinced that the Fish River Canyon is worth the effort and time, keep in mind that it is the second most visited tourist attraction in Namibia.
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Directions To Destination
Although you can come to Namibia by sea through Walvis Bay, the main port harbor town in Namibia, the most practical and fastest way to start your voyage is by air flying to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Windhoek has two airports, the Hosea Kutako International Airport (IATA: WDH) serving only international destinations and the smaller Eros Airport (IATA: ERS) serving local destinations.
There are very few countries with nonstop flights to Namibia. One of them is Germany where flights to Namibia depart and arrive to Frankfurt am Main Airport (IATA: FRA). In your planning consider Air Namibia. Not all reservation systems include its flights; nevertheless, it is one of few with nonstop service between Germany and Windhoek. Other airlines, most notably British Airways, Lufthansa and South African Airways, offer flights to Windhoek with connection in Johannesburg (OR Tambo International Airport, IATA: JNB) (or, in some cases, in Cape Town). Keep in mind, that flying to Namibia requires time with duration from 20 hours to 55 hours and more.
Hosea Kutako International Airport is located about 25 miles (40 km) from the Windhoek city center. Eros Airport is much closer - only 3 miles (5 km) south of the Windhoek center. If your plans include visiting Windhoek, taxis and shuttles are readily available at both airports. To give you full picture - the distance between Hosea Kutako International Airport and Eros Airport is 28 miles (45 km), but you should allocate at least 3 hours for connecting time due to boarding requirements.
Once you landed in Windhoek, you need to decide on how to travel further south to reach the Fish River Canyon area. Despite rather developed transportation system in Namibia, it may not be a simple decision if you want to travel all by yourself and rely on public transit. It is relatively easy to reach the area where Fish River Hiking Trail starts, however, if your goal is the actual hike, the whole logistic where public transportation is involved becomes problematic.
The nearest to Hobas transportation center is the town Keetmanshoop located about 40 miles from Hobas. The town is located at the junction of roads B1 (to South Africa) and B4 (to Luderitz, west coast). Keetmanshoop is 307 miles (495 km) from Windhoek. The location is convenient for an overnight stay and as a base for visiting the Fish River Canyon area. There are several ways you can get to the town:
- By train: TransNamib is the government owned railway in Namibia offers passenger services, although it is predominantly freight oriented. There are daily trains from Windhoek to Upington (South Africa) via Keetmanshoop. Windhoek - Keetmanshoop traveling time is 12 hours (departing around 7 PM and arriving about 7 AM). For more details visit TransNamib Web site.
- By bus: The Intercape Mainliner (INTERCAPE is the largest privately owned intercity passenger transport service in Southern Africa) offers air conditioned coach service from Windhoek to Upington with a stop at Keetmanshoop. The duration of the trip Windhoek - Keetmanshoop is about 6 hours with the ticket of about $40. For more details visit Intercape Web site.
- If you want to fly to Keetmanshoop you may be out of luck. Even if there is an airport (Keetmanshoop Airport, IATA: KMP), scheduled domestic flights from Windhoek Eros Airport may be limited to Katima Mulilo, Luderitz, Ondangwa, Oranjemund and Walvis Bay.
Renting a car is a popular option for traveling in Namibia where most places are reachable with a regular passenger car even if you may encounter a lot of gravel roads with far from excellent road conditions. Rent-a-car prices depend on the type of the car and rent duration, but you easily find a compact car at $55/day, a larger SUV - $185/per day, or a camper for $280/day.
If you think carefully, all options listed above are not really convenient if you want to hike Fish River Canyon - you still need to make transportation arrangements when you complete the hike. Because of this, the easiest way to experience the Fish River Canyon, either you hike it or just explore the area, is to use the services of one of outdoor tour operators which can relieve you completely of the burden of organizing your trip including bureaucracy and logistics. One of such services is The Trail Hopper offering a 7 day hike at $2,150 (2011). The price includes transfers from Windhoek and back, meals, accommodations, permits, guide). See also "Where to Stay" sections for transfer arrangement offered by some lodging services.
Another compehensive service you can use in booking traveling packages in Namibia is The Namibia Cardboard Box Travel Shop as well as NWR - Namibia Wildlife Resorts.
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Best Time To Go
The Fish River Canyon hike is only open in winter. The canyon hiking season starts 1 May and ends 15 September. At summer temperatures frequently exceed 115 °F (45 °C); the danger of flash floods is real.
If you do not target specifically Fish River Canyon hike, you may consider more extended period from April to November. Actually, Namibia's climate is generally very dry and pleasant all year round. The highest monthly average high temperature is 86 °F (30 °C) in January, November and December. The lowest monthly average low temperature is 43 °F (6 °C) in July. The driest weather is in August with zero precipitation; the wettest is in March with the average of 3.2 in (81 mm).
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Where To Stay
There are very few options regarding lodging at Fish River Canyon. If you plan for the Fish River Canyon hike, your only concern is accommodation arrangement before the hike starts (well, during the hike your only accommodation is mother nature). In this case you will spend a night at the Hobas camp site ($15 person/night). If your goal is just visiting the canyon and enjoying the scenery, you can opt to stay either on the eastern or western side of the canyon. The former means that most likely you will stay in one the Gondwana Cañon Park (large private park about 400 square miles or 100,000 hectares) properties: Canon Lodge, Canyon Village and Canon Roadhouse. Of those three mentioned, we recommend the Canon Lodge.
The lodge is located on road C37 (D324), 12.5 miles (20 km) east from the Fish River Canyon. Canon Lodge consists of a number of cottages scattered over a large area. Prices start at $190 single room/person to $155 per person/double or triple room. The lodge has all usual amenities (including swimming pool, an indoor restaurant and the bar area). The complex consists of the old farmhouse and 25 wooden bungalows.
If you select the western side of the canyon as your base, you will end up in Fish River Lodge (Soutkuil Farm No 181 Off Route D463, Keetmanshoop). This lodge is a part of the private Canyon Nature Park (about 175 square miles or 45,000 hectares in size). The Fish River Lodge is unique in that it is the only one sitting directly on the rim of canyon offering breathtaking views. The lodge is relatively new built in modern style with minimalist design; it has 20 chalets. In addition to accommodation, the lodge offers various services including transfers and tours. Fish River Lodge is rather expensive (2011 prices): single room is $230/night, double - $340 (dinner, bed and breakfast included). Air transfer from Windhoek (2 hour flying time) to the lodge's airstrip is $675 plus $12 from the airstrip to the lodge itself. Five-day hike in the Canyon area is $1500.
At the end of the canyon hike, when you come to Ai-Ais, your place to stay is the Ai-Ais Hot Springs Resort (refurbished in 2009) to relax in and around the thermal baths. The resort has a restaurant, bar and a heated swimming pool. There are 36 double rooms and 7 chalets with mountain or river views. All guest accommodations have air conditioning. Rates are from $100 per person/night in single room to $120 per person/night in family chalet.
Research and book hotels in or near Keetmanshoop, Namibia
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You can drive to several lookout points (about 12 miles or 20 km from the accommodation facilities of Gondwana Cañon Park), or walk along the rim of the enormous gorge, or take a scenic flight. Seeing Fish River Canyon does not take very long at all (unless you wish to hike into the canyon). The rest of your time is best spent lounging at the pool and relaxing. There is not much else to do there. The lodge offers some guided hikes and nature drives--inquire upon arrival.
One of the popular ways of experiencing Fish River Canyon (as well as other tourist destinations in Namibia) is a fly-in safari. With the duration from one day to several weeks they are the best way to see Namibia in a short time.
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Useful Visitor Information and Tips
Keep in mind that all traveling in Namibia National Parks is regulated by the Namibian government. To visit a park you need a permit. One of the places where you can get such permit is In Windhoek: Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Directorate of Parks & Wildlife Management, Swabou Building, Post Street Mall. Contrary to the popular belief, Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) does not issue any permits (although it may help you get one).
The Fish River Hike must be pre-booked. Bookings must be for groups of between 3 and 20 people. Individual hikers are not allowed for safety reasons. Hikers must be over 12 years of age and have a recent medical certificate of fitness. This certificate needs to be presented at Hobas, the starting point of the Fish River Canyon hike, before departure. Day visitors are not allowed to climb down into the canyon; only participants of the 50 mile (80 km) hiking tour from Hobas Hiker’s Point are permitted to climb down into the canyon. N$300 (about $45) fine is imposed for violations of Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism rules regarding Namibia National Parks.
The hike takes usually five days (although experienced hikers can complete it in four days). It is possible to book a private hike through the Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Hikers are expected to possess good health, some experience and skills to go through a very rugged terrain as well as survival skills. Once in the canyon, it is impossible to get out. Hikers are required to be entirely self sufficient on this hike, and a medical kit is also recommended. Water is available in the canyon; purification tablets/devices are strongly recommended. Beware of poisonous snakes and insects (with most dangerous being Puffadder and scorpions). There is an emergency exit about 15.5 miles (25 km) before the final point in Ai-Ais; however, in case of real emergency the exit does not provide any help since there are no roads or other facilities at the top. There no any special arrangements provided by the Park in case of emergency. There are no helicopters stationed in the area.
Consider comprehensive traveling insurance; include provisions and plan for possible cancellation of the trip, coverage of possible unexpected medical expenses, loss or damage of personal belongings, emergency evacuation.
Upon completing Fish River Canyon hike, consider spending one or more days in Ai-Ais Hot Springs, a natural hot spring oasis at the southern end of Fish River Canyon, in the Karas Region of southern Namibia (part of the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park)
Below are some general tips regarding traveling in Namibia:
- The South Africa Rand is a legal tender in Namibia. If your traveling include South Africa and you use cash, it may be easier to use the rand, as the easily convertible currency. Credit cards are acceptable in many places in Namibia; however, in rural areas cash is often the only option. Also, credit cards are usually not accepted at gas (petrol) stations,
- Namibia and its southern part (where cases of malaria are very rare) is a healthy place to travel. However, HIV / AIDS is widely spread,
- It is completely acceptable to dress informally while travelling in Namibia,
- In many places, especially in remote areas Internet connections are nonexistent or at best unreliable and very slow,
- Namibia is not a tolerant country towards gays and lesbians,
- The crime rate in Namibia is low; however, tourists may be a target of pilfering and handbag snatching - usual precautions will not hurt.
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