Fish River Canyon hike – all you need to know


Hiking Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world is quite exciting, isn’t it? This hike was on our bucket list for a couple of years and finally, we did it! Some guide books say this is the toughest hike in Africa. I’m not sure about it we haven’t done many hikes in Africa a couple of routes in South Africa including the famous Otter Trail and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. If you like hiking Fish River Canyon is definitely the hike to add to your bucket list. Even if you’re not planning to hike it the canyon is still worth visiting; it’s one of the most beautiful places n Namibia.

The total distance of the trail is 86 km, the river itself is longer but due to many shortcuts, your walking distance is about 14 km less. This post is a step-by-step hiking guide; Fish River Canyon route map, budget, booking details, accommodation options, shuttle, packing list, and more.


Fish Rive canyon from the viewpoint next to the starting point of the hike

Fish River Canyon hike route overview

  • Distance – 86 km
  • Number of days – 4-5
  • Best time – May to mid-September
  • Starting point – Hobas
  • Finishing point – Ai-Ais Hot Springs

The best time for hiking Fish River Canyon

The canyon is open for hiking between the 1st of May and the 15th of September. Outside this period hikers are not allowed in the canyon due to extreme temperatures. We walked Fish River Canyon at the beginning of May and it still was very hot during the day. If you want to get more comfortable temperatures it’s better to do the hike in June – July. The nights in the canyon are quite chilly even in the summer. In June – July night temperatures go down to 5°C and even below. It’s highly recommended to bring warm clothes for sleeping and a good sleeping bag.

The cost of the hike

  • The hike itself costs NAD500/US$35 per person.
  • Park entrance fee – NAD160/US$11 per person.
  • Shuttle Ai-Ais – Hobas NAD300/US$20 pp.

Total: NAD960/US$67 pp.

The Namibian Dollar (NAD$) is equal to the South African Rand (ZAR). The current exchange rate with USD you can find here.

How to book the Fish River Canyon hike?

Booking is compulsory. First, you phone one of the numbers provided to inquire about availability. In Windhoek, Namibia (+264 61) 285 7333 [email protected]. In Cape Town (+27 21) 422 3761 [email protected]. If any suitable for your dates are available you book them over the phone. After that, 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.

Attention! According to the rules you have to be a minimum of 3 persons to make a reservation. You can always book for three and show up only two with some excuses that your hiking buddy got sick and try to hook up with other hikers at the start after you can walk on your own.  


The sign at the beginning of the Fish River Canyon hike
The starting point of the Fish River Canyon hike at Hobas

How long beforehand do you have to book the trail?

We booked at the beginning of April for the second week in May, when we phoned there were still 4 or 5 days with 5 or so spots in May open so it’s possible to book just a month before. But if you have specific dates we’d suggest booking the hike two or three months beforehand. Only 30 people per day are allowed to start the hike. A French couple we met hiking booked it just 5 days before and they still could get a spot.

You can start training for the hike a couple of months in advance to make sure it won’t be too tough. If you live in Cape Town or nearby there are many amazing hiking trails in the city that you can do over weekends. Start with walking with a day pack and after a couple of routes add more weight and try to walk with a heavier backpack similar to the one that you’re planning to take on the Fish River Canyon hike. The toughest part of the route is a steep and long ascent to the bottom of the canyon on the first day. You can walk down one of the Table Mountain hiking trails (Platteklip Gorge, Kasteelspootr, or Skeleton Gorge) to see how you’re doing walking down with a backpack.

Medical certificate for the trek

Very important to bring a medical certificate proving you don’t have any health problems. The certificate must not be older than 40 days. A form will be sent to you after you make a payment for the hike or you can download it HERE. This form must be filled in by a doctor. We don’t know what can happen if you arrive without it very likely you won’t be allowed to walk. At Hobas the first thing they asked us was our certificates but they didn’t really look through just took them and put them in a folder. We thought it was ridiculous but actually every year there are people rescued by helicopter or park rangers (from emergency exit) because they can’t continue the hike. We met a man who spent 2 days waiting for the rangers to get to him he got a heat stroke and couldn’t walk anymore.


Campsite at Ai Ais Hot Springs near Fish River Canyon
Nice grassy and shadowed campsite at Ai Ais, a great place to stay before and after the hike

How to get to Fish River Canyon?

The canyon is situated near the border between Namibia and South Africa, about 200 km north of Noordoewer border control. We drove from Cape Town to Ai-Ais, 800 km, in one day with a couple of short stops for lunch and snacks. It took us about 9 hours. If you have more time on the way from Cape Town to Namibia you can spend a couple of days on the West Coast especially if you do the trip in August – September when you can see wildflowers in Namaqualand. Another holiday option is to combine the hike with a Cape Town to Namibia road trip.

If you’re coming from Windhoek, Ai-Ais is 700 km south of the capital, an 8-hours drive.

Border crossing process

The border control Vioolsdrift/Noordoewer is open 24 hours though we’ve heard they might not allow you to go through after the sunset so make sure to arrive before the dark. The border crossing process is quick, it takes about 20-30 minutes. After all formal procedures and passport stamps, they search your car and let you through.

To enter Namibia with your car you will need:

  • valid passports for all passengers
  • Valid driver’s license
  • car registration papers
  • If your car is still being financed, bring a letter of authority from the bank (must include dates of travel) with the vehicle license papers. They might not ask for it but it’s better to have it with you.
  • ZA sticker on your car, you can buy it at any outdoor store or some petrol stations
  • a filled form that you get at the border, bring a black pen with you to fill it
  • N$320/US$21 fee that you pay to enter Namibia with your car.

After the border control there are two petrol stations, both accept cards, a small shop and Wimpy. You can fill your cat at Ai-Ais but they accept only cash.


The Moos in Fish River Canyon at night
The Moon is very bright in the canyon at nights

Places to stay before the hike

Basically, you have two options; staying at Hobas Campsite (NAD400/US$28 per campsite up to 8 people) or Ai-Ais Hot Springs (NAD400/US$28 per site up to 4 people). Most people including ourselves stay at Ai-Ais for a good reason the campsite there is nicer; a green grassy area with trees for shadow, many toilets and showers, electric stoves for cooking, and of course the highlight the hot springs. You can’t imagine how nice it is after the hike to relax in hot springs!

Ai-Ais campsite facilities

  • Hot shower – Yes
  • Flushing toilets – Yes
  • Electricity – Yes
  • Outlets – Yes
  • Running water – Yes
  • Wi-fi – No
  • Braai place – Yes
  • Drinking water – Yes
  • Other – electric stoves, covered area for cooking, indoor pools.

If you’re planning a Namibia road trip and like camping check out our post on the best campsites in Namibia. We visited many campsites during our 2-months trip across the country.

Where to leave your car?

You can park your car for free either at Ai-Ais (hot springs) or at Hobas (starting point). Both places look equally safe which one to choose is up to you. We left our car at Ai-Ais and took a shuttle to Hobas in the morning before the hike. That worked out really well. When we finally arrived at Ai-Ais on the last day our car with all the stuff was here. Believe me, you’ll be tired after 4-5 days of walking and won’t feel like driving for an hour to Hobas to get your car. Our French friends parked their car at Hobas and had to wait for the shuttle till 5pm.

How to get from Ai-Ais to Hobas?

The trail starts at Hobas, you have two options; to take a shuttle before the hike or after the hike depending on where you leave your car. There is always a shuttle going to Hobas in the morning at any time after 6am. You don’t need to book it beforehand we arranged it when arrived at Ai-Ais. The shuttle can take 11 passengers at once.


A shuttle jeep from Ai Ais to the start of the Fish River Canyon hike
A shuttle jeep from Ai Ais to the starting point of the Fish River Canyon hike

What to expect from the Fish River Canyon hike?

The hike is very different from most of the hikes we’ve done. The trail is not very easy to walk; sand, rocks, river crossing etc.

The weather; it gets very hot during the day and very cold at night so you need both sun protection and warm clothing/sleeping bag.

Sun, you walk in the sun all day you get a bit of shade here and there early in the morning and late evening but the most part of the day there is nowhere to hide.

Drinking water on the trail

Water is always available since you walk along the river but it’s recommended to take some purifying pills or water filters. You don’t want to get sick or have stomach problems in the canyon. We always use our LifeStraw Water Bottles when hiking. Their membrane microfilter system removes 99,9% of bacteria and parasites. One filter can be used to clean 4000l of water. It’s very easy to use you can drink from a bottle or directly from a water source. You can buy LifeStraw through Take A Lot or at Cape Union Mart.

Another option is to use chlorine pills but you have to wait for about 30 minutes before it’s ready to drink and it tastes like swimming pool water, not the best option considering you drink a lot on the hike.


A map of the Fish River Canyon hike
A map of the hiking route in Fish River Canyon

The Fish River Canyon hike – our complete 4-day itinerary

Day 1. The starting point – Palm Sulphur Springs, 5 hours

We started the trek at 10am. The descent to the bottom of the canyon took us a bit less than 1 hour. It was quite steep but not as tough as we thought. Once at the bottom in 2km you reach the river and for the next 4-5 days, you’ll just follow it. We walked about 20km on the first day it took more or less 7 hours including a lunch break. If you want to take it easy you can camp right after the descent, at the river, there is a nice sandy beach.

This day we didn’t see any signs showing the distance or directions but it’s impossible to get lost you just follow the river. There are no ups and downs on the route but you walk on sand and rocks all the time so it’s not very fast walking. You can camp anywhere you want, just find a nice sandy spot next to the river. We camped somewhere between the first emergency exit and Palm sulfur springs.


Fish River Canyon at the sunset
Scenery at the end of the first hiking day in Fish River Canyon

Day 2. Palm Sulphur Springs – Three Sisters, 6 hours

We started at 8.30 and walked for about an hour before we reached the Hot springs. Actually, if you are a good walker and start your first hiking day early enough you can make it all the way and camp here the first night. The hot spring is, in fact, is a stream that goes into the river and water in there is very hot you have to mix it with cold river water. We spent about 40min. swimming and chilling here it was really nice.

On the second day the trail goes through difficult terrain; sand and rocks so you make slow progress plus we made two long swimming/resting stops. By 4pm we quite tired and my feet were destroyed so we decided to camp on a small beach next to the river. We had a fantastic night sky and the full moon didn’t even need our headlamps. In my opinion, the canyon at night time is the best! This day again we didn’t see any signs or distance marks.


Sulphur Springs on the Fish River Canyon hike
Palm Sulphur springs at the beginning of the second day of the Fish River hike

Day 3. Three Sisters – Von Trotha’s Grave, 6 hours

An early start at 7.30 or so and maybe the longest hiking day for us, we walked for 8 hours but in a way, it was our own fault we missed one shortcut. The third day is the main shortcut day on the hike. There are three significant shortcuts; we missed the first one where you climb over the mountain, the second one at 50km was easy to spot from far there is a big word “Short cut” written on the rocks, the third one comes right after that when you reach the river. For the terrain the third day was probably the most difficult as well some river crossing, rock jumping and sand walking.

By 4pm we all were quite tired and my feet were quite destroyed. We found a nice spot on the beach not far from the emergency exit and camped there. This night was the coldest of three we spent in the canyon, it was freezing! We all woke up a couple of times during the night to put on more and more clothes. By the next morning, I and Campbell were wearing everything we had in our backpacks. But the sleeping bags that we took with us were very thin for 11C min. So if you have warmer sleeping bags at least for 5C or lower you’ll be ok.


Scenery on the Fish River Canyon hike
A typical scenery on the third and fourth day of the hike

Day 4. Von Trotha’s Grave – Ai-Ais, 5 hours

The scenery on the last day was the least impressive, the canyon reduces significantly it reminds a rocky valley more than a canyon. Due to a very cold night, we all woke up quite early at 5am packing didn’t take long and in 30min. we were ready to roll. It was the easiest and the shortest day for us; in the first part you walk on a 4×4 trail, then some sand and rocks, and finally a nice easy path all the way to Ai-Ais. We arrived there at 1pm and were absolutely happy to take off our shoes and to get a cold Ginger beer for me and some beers for guys.

After 4 days in dust, heat and cold tired and with blisters we were absolutely happy to relax in the hot springs and to eat some steaks! Our mission was completed! We walked it in 4 days without any particular reason but I’d recommend do it in 5 days you’ll have more time to enjoy, rest, take photos, swim, etc.


A Cold Beer sign at the end of the Fish River canyon hike
Cold Beer sign a couple of kilometers before Ai-Ais Hot Springs

What to pack for the Fish River Canyon hike?

Don’t pack too much the more you pack the more you carry!

Shoes

Our main issue on the hike were shoes, both I and Campbell were wearing hiking boots and both had terrible blisters all over our feet and we had hiked in them quite a lot before. In fact, I couldn’t walk in my boots on the second day and put on sneakers. Our French friends that we met had exactly the same problem and a girl ended up walking in her flip-flops with thick socks. Our third hiker was wearing trail running shoes and had no issues at all, they were very comfortable for walking on sand and jumping over rocks. We tend to blame the heat it was very hot in the boots and they were full of sand all the time.

Clothes

We’d recommend wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt it’s the best protection from the sun and you’ll be hot and sweating anyway even if you walk naked. 

A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen – all must-haves, Namibian sun is extremely strong. 

Comfortable clothes (e.g. fleece, pants, flip flops) to change, always nice to sleep in clean clothes.

A towel, there will be a possibility for “showering” in the river every day, one day you even get hot sulfur springs.

Underwear, socks, how many pairs to take up to you.


Campbell and Alya with an old scooter on the Fish River Canyon hike
Campbell & Alya with an old scooter of the bottom of Fish River Canyon

Hiking gear

Most people don’t carry a tent neither did we. It adds 2-4kg to your luggage which is a lot, it’s definitely warmer to sleep in a tent but a proper sleeping bag solves this problem. Moreover, the night sky in the canyon is fantastic it’s nice to fall asleep under it.

A mattress, we had self-inflatable small mattresses and were very happy with them but if you take foam rolled up one you’ll be ok you camp on sand so it’s already soft enough.

A sleeping bag, take a good one, we had our summer bag for 11C min and one night were freezing in them we had to put on all our clothes to last till morning. And we hiked in May if you do in In June/July it’ll be even colder. We’d say take a sleeping bag that can go to 0C.

Hiking poles, we never use them but many people do for me they make the most sense for steep downs and river crossings, here you’ll have both so it’s up to you to take them or not, they aren’t really heavy.

A water bottle with a filter or purification pills

A headlamp/torch.

A route map, you can buy it at Ai-Ais or Hobas. If you hike Fish River Canyon for the first time it’s a must-have.

Cooking gear

Stove, we have a small portable gas stove that we always take hiking, it’s good enough to boil water, cook pasta or oats. Gas depends on how many you are and how much cooking you want to do but we’d say take 500ml it’ll last for 4-5 days for sure.

Pots, we had a set of two; one for food one for boiling water if you can manage with one only a bit more uncomfortable. Swiss knife, we love this thing many functional; opens cans, cuts, slices etc.

Cutlery, take plastic or bamboo forks and spoons. Cups, we had two very light plastic cups. Lighter/matches for your stove, no fire allowed in the canyon.

Food

It’s up to you what and how much food to take on the hike depending on your diet, preferences, etc. Here is our food list;

  • Breakfast – instant flavored oat sachets (3 for two people), coffee.
  • Snack – energy bar/nut mix.
  • Lunch – biltong/droewors (we always take it when hiking), crackers. Don’t cut biltong it might get moldy in the heat rather bring a big piece and cut it as you eat.
  • Dinner – a can of tuna, 250g of pasta, one tomato sauce sachet (for two people).

First-aid kit

You can make your own first-aid kit or buy a preassembled one at any outdoor shops.

  • Platers
  • Bandages
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Soap
  • Pills: Ibuprofen and an antidiarrheal
  • Scissors
  • Antiseptic wipes



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