Fish River Canyon Hike – August 2021

9 August 2021 was d-day: the start of our 6 day hike in the Fish River Canyon: an epic bucket list item!

We got up early as our shuttle to Hobas- some 70km north- would be leaving at 7am. We packed up, drove our vehicles to the parking lot, got all our gear out and got into the shuttle.

We got some glimpses of the canyon out of the shuttle in the early morning sun. After an hour or so we arrived at Hobas, presented our paperwork, paid for the hike and got back into the shuttle for the last 10km to the starting point of the hike.

And then we were there: at the start of the hike! The start of a once in a lifetime experience (although we met some people who’d done it more than once already, and we heard of a guy who who’d done it more than 20 times): 65km of rocky descends, boulder climbing and sand plodding in brilliant sunshine. Seeing that the Fish River Canyon is the second largest river canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the USA (be it at about 10% of its size) it is a major challenge and serious achievement by the end of it! The full distance of the river between Hobas and Ai Ais is about 80km but with regular shortcuts over the mountains, the walking trail is 65km. 

(Group photo courtesy of Gavin and Lee)

The first 1.3 km descend is a heavy exercise and doesn’t even count as part of the 65 km canyon hike. The official hike only starts when you’re down at the river’s edge.

When our doctor in SA, who had to fill out our health forms for the hike, had asked if we were fit and able to take on this challenge, we had been kinda blasé about it:”Yeah, yeah! We’re kinda fit. We’ve done some hikes recently (although never with a backpack) and we we’re pretty sure we can do this.”

Man… did that attitude come to haunt us!  Actually mostly me (Stefaan is way more fitter than I am). I had been very proud at the onset of the hike to proclaim that I had added some more stuff in the backpack which eventually brought it up from about the recommended ¼ of body weight for women to about 1/3 of my weight. And was that a stupid thing to do! 

The steep descend definitely gives the advantage to those with longer legs. The shorter-leg-humans like me have to do some more gymnastics to negotiate the big rock steps going down, alternating between bum-shuffles and giant, jarring steps down.  After a while I started feeling it: the extra weight on my leg muscles and almost continuous bending of the knees gave me a serious case of jelly legs and I was very grateful for Stefaan’s arm to lean on when negotiating big steps. But at a certain moment he called it and took my sleeping bag on his pack. It made the weight of my back pack slightly more manageable and we eventually made it to the bottom. (photo top right courtesy of Steffi)

It was a great relief to eventually reach the river’s edge and it was a spoil all around to cool our feet down in the icy cold water and fill up with fresh water. We couldn’t miss out on Gerhard’s sexy legs in his kneehigh socks (to prevent blisters). (photo courtesy of Steffi)

Photo below is the view we had when we eventually reached the river at the bottom of the canyon. The tiny clover leaf structure top middle of the photo is where we started the descend! (photo courtesy of Steffi)

After our little rest, the serious boulder climbing began. A hiking party that had arrived in camp over the weekend, had told us they felt very dispirited because of the very slow progress on the boulder section, and when they realised they reached the 14km emergency exit only at the end of day two, had seriously debated taking the exit (at this point you will be starting day 3 with about 50 of the 65km to go!). On our first day- descend day- we did a total of 3km (plus the 1.3km descend which everyone seems to forget – while not part of the 65km hike in the canyon, still a seriously time consuming descend and challenging almost 4 hrs- for me-  to the river’s edge) (Bottom photograph courtesy of Steffi)

Eventually we made camp on a more or less flat part of the beach: Gavin and Lee and Lut found a spot on the ‘more’ flat part while Stefaan and I pitched our tent on a  ‘less’ flat part and, subsequently, had not so restful a night. Gerhard and Steffi made their sleeping arrangements in the open under the stars (also on a flat part of the beach). For the duration of the hike Steffi was assigned the role of fire master and took care of our campfire every night. After setting up camp that night we got to cook supper. As it id kinda difficult to have fresh food on a 6 day hike, Stefaan had decided to bring boerewors along for our first evening. He set out to cook it, true bush style, on a decently heated rock. Having struggled a bit with pack weight that day, we also decided to lighten our load and share a 2 liter wine ‘papsak’ amongst the team! 2 kilo’s less to carry the following day!

As said: our first night on a not so flat part of the beach, turned into a small disaster with us slowly sliding downhill and getting stuck against a rock. During the night we had to get up to straighten our tent again because we had rolled sideways in such a way that the tent was on its side and flat on top of us. We also figured out it would be important on future camping spots to flatten the beach sand as much as possible before pitching tent, because that first night I realised that the bumps and ripples in the sand were on all the wrong places for my body to sleep comfortable.

But we made it through the night and we got up at 7am. It was decided we would try to leave each morning around 8am, but that turned out to be a dream. We usually got packed up and on the road any time between 8:30 and 9am. Gerhard was our pathfinder and was always ahead while Stefaan and I (mostly I) usually made up the tail section… especially in those first 2-3 days. 

Our second day consisted of the full-on attack of the dreaded, very slow-going boulder climbing and sloping-rockface-negotiating. With my jelly legs I really struggled. Sometimes, when stepping down from a bigger sized boulder or rock, my leg would buckle under me and I would end up on my butt. But Stefaan, my knight in shining armour, would stick around to help me over the boulder fields, and sometimes even Gavin would be around to help me over a difficult section. I had borrowed walking sticks from Lut and although they helped a lot with stabilizing on later sections of smaller boulder crossings and propelling myself forward in soft sand,… on the big boulder sections they got a bit cumbersome and I was happy that sometimes Stefaan, Gavin or Lut would take my sticks to allow me to clamber over the rocks on all fours. On one or two occasions Stefaan went ahead, dropped off his backpack and came back to where I was to carry my backpack down. Even though I would be able to have made it, I was very happy to be able to conquer a heavy boulder section feeling light as a feather! 

I was very happy when sometimes we would get a few moments of respite and an opportunity to catch our breath, when the boulder fields changed to sandy beach sections. At one of those sandy boulder patches we even could get a photo-op with the colourful Vespa parked in the canyon.

After this really tiresome rocky-boulder-day we made camp at the 12km mark and I was getting very depressed realising that we were going so slow (even slower than the party that had made camp at 14km and already had felt disheartened). I think that night Stefaan and I were so buggered we called it an early night and crawled into bed without supper! (photo top left courtesy of Steffi)

The 3rd morning wake up was stiff and sore, but after a warm breakfast, observed from a distance by a few baboons, we packed up and got under-way. We knew that we weren’t yet completely through the boulder section and although they became a bit more spread out with sandy beach sections in between, I got depressed every time I saw another huge boulder and rock obstacle in front of me. That day however we made better progress and eventually hit path sections that were well indicated gravel roads which made the walking much easier. While I just could just never come into an easy rhythm when climbing the boulders and rocks, the gravel and sand path sections allowed me to go in a very rythmic zombie mode. We even could get a photo-op with the colourful Vespa parked in the canyon.

In camp every night, we got into a routine: pitching tents and arranging sleeping stuff and Stefaans first job was usually to go to the river and filter enough water for supper and a hot drink. In the morning that procedure would be repeated to have enough drinking water during the walk. (bottom 4 photos courtesy of Steffi)

That night, at about 23km, we made camp quite late but we pitched tent on a nice flat piece of beach, had a tummy full of food, a cup of nice hot tea and slept like babies.

A good night sleep on a better and flatter beach did wonders and where my body had ached on a million different levels the first two nights, I felt way better the 4th morning. We knew that, with the hectic boulder climbing behind us, the progress would be faster. The trail varied between easy peasy gravel paths, (smaller) boulder crossings over the river bed and slogging deep sand path along parts of the beaches. As a previous hiker told us :”He’s got a whole new respect for sand.” We were very happy to have borrowed Berta’s gaiters: not a grain of sand in our boots!

Where I had to concentrate so hard on the hard descend the first day and the jelly-leg-boulder-and-rockface-climbing on the two following days  and had therefore packed away the camera, all of a sudden on day 4, I got a new level of energy combined with good doses of ‘zombie-mode’ on the very sandy stretches. Things went muuuuuch better and I had time to take lots of photos again. 

(black/white photos courtesy of Steffi)

That day we also hit our first ‘short cut’: a very steep but short uphill that would allow us to follow the trail through the mountainous hinterland between the various river bends. On those uphill shortcuts I usually sounded like a hissing steam train by the time I reached the top.

The landscape was different and the gravel paths were actually easy going, winding their way through the rocky valleys.

Arriving at the ‘beach’ sections along the river again at the other side, we could see where the down run of water had created its own set of ‘mini canyons’ in the beach sand.

By this time I had time to stop regularly to enjoy the flowers, plants and myriad of creepy crawlies living in this amazing environment. It was quite interesting to see how our footprints blended so well with the monkey foot prints!

(black and white photo courtesy of Steffi)

We made camp at 47km that evening and everyone was in great spirits with the great progress we had made.

Stefaan went to work immediately to filter more water from the river, so we could cook and make tea. 

The next day the route was quite the same: boulder crossings, sandy beaches and gravel roads. We also covered another few shortcuts and had to take a group photo on our last shortcut-summit! 

We had to admit that, although in general there are arrows and the iconic ‘pile of rocks’ path markers, sometimes it was a bit more challenging to find the trail. At one stage Gerhard deduced that the path was supposed to be on the other side of the river but when he was on that side, he ran into a rock-wall he couldn’t negotiate and eventually had to walk chest high through the water with his backpack held over his head. The rest of us, who only crossed the river much later over- yet another- boulder field, were enjoying a cup of tea at the foot of the next short cut over the mountain.

We made good time and eventually made our last night camp at 55km. We knew the next day would only be 10km which was- compared to the previous days- a breeze! We enjoyed our last supper and campfire in the canyon. (photos courtesy of Gavin and Lee)

Our last morning we were up bright and early like the previous days, but took it a bit slower packing up. I think we eventually left camp close to 10am. Our last day’s walk more or less repeated the pattern of the past 3 days: annoying slow plodding sand sections, easy gravel sections and yet again… a boulder crossing or two. The closer we got to the end we saw funny and welcoming signs made with rocks along the roadside.

Just before we eventually arrived in camp we put our footprints in the sand, just to make our mark: we had done it. Photos courtesy Gavin and Lee)

Compared to when we had camped at the “arrivals” area of the hike, Ai Ais looked pretty desolate when we walked into camp. So when we walked the few last meters and eventually arrived at the bar, we had to ring the bell ourselves. Which we did! We had deserved it: 65 km in 5,5 days… 5 nights sleeping out in the canyon! Great achievement! An epic adventure in a awesome landscape! Tough but extremely rewarding! 

But now it was time for a beer. We hung our back packs on the assigned post, got out of our shoes and flopped down in a chair at the bar for the well deserved beer.

Later we spent some more time in the hot springs swimming pool (which was unfortunately not as warm as it had been a few days before), got to chat to a couple of guys and their families and before we knew we had made plans to go visit them in Oranjemund soon.

Sunday morning Gerhard, Lut and Steffi returned to Cape town as work was calling. They were very lucky to see some wild horses on their way out of Ai Ais. (photos courtesy  Steffi)

The Shaws and us spent the rest of the day doing laundry and all sorts of other cleanup and sorting out and on Monday we left Ai Ais to go- with a detour or two- to Oranjemund to visit our new found friends.

An extra thank you to the team who graciously let us have their Slingsby map and Berta and the team who lent us their gaiters! Thanks guys. Much appreciated!

A video of this epic adventure will follow soon. Keep watching our You Tube channel!

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