This 85-km, four-day trail is reputed to be one of the toughest hiking trails in southern Africa, and is not suitable for beginners or the unfit. Although the trail is more or less flat, loose sand and large boulders make progress tiring and this, added to the fact that hikers have to carry all provisions with them, cause some to take the option of an early emergency 'escape' route from the canyon. For those who are fit and determined enough to complete the trail, the four days are a magical wilderness experience, offering opportunities for game and birdwatching as well as wonderment at the scale and power of nature.
Due to extreme temperatures and the risk of flash flooding in summer, the trail is only open from 1 May to 15 September. Groups must consist of a minimum of three people and a maximum of 40. Medical certificates of physical fitness issued within the previous 40 days need to be shown to the ranger at Hobas before starting. No casual walkers are permitted. Bookings must be made at the
or through the website www.nwr.com.na
. Roughly 2500-3000 people hike the trail each season and bookings should be made well in advance. Hikers are requested to spend at least one night at Hobas before the start of the trail and will need their own transport to get there, though transport is available from Ai-Ais back to Hobas at the end of the hike. If you are staying in one of the nearby lodges, then they should be able to arrange transport to and from the start/finish points.
The route starts from
, 10 km from
. From the rim, the path descends sharply to the canyon floor, losing 500 m in altitude on the way. Parts of the descent are very steep and it is advisable to make use of the chains. The route at the bottom follows the left-hand side of the river over boulders and soft, loose sand - one of the worst stretches of the walk. The first overnight stop is 15 km downstream at
, also known as
. According to legend, during the First World War two German soldiers sought refuge from internment in the canyon. One of them was suffering from skin cancer and the other from asthma. However, after bathing in the hot springs here these ailments were miraculously cured. Whether true or not, these springs, bubbling up from a depth of 2000 m at a rate of 30 litres per second, offer much-needed relief for sore feet and muscles after the long first day's trek.
Heading south of Palm Springs the shortest route criss-crosses the river as far as the Table Mountain landmark some 15 km on. This section of the trail is extremely tiring and not much fun as it involves struggling through deep sand and gravel. Further on, the canyon widens and the trail becomes firmer with more river crossings, more or less wet depending on the state of the river. If the rains have been good earlier in the year, trailists can expect to find a fair amount of water in the pools. Check with the rangers at Hobas regarding the availability of water.
Close to the 30-km point is Table Mountain, one of the more easily recognizable natural landmarks along the trail. After a further 18 km, you will reach the first of four possible short cuts. At this point the alternative path avoids an area of scrub vegetation known as Bushy Corner. Around the next corner of the canyon is the second short cut. Here the path climbs up to the Kooigoedhoote Pass. If you choose to take this short cut you will miss seeing the Three Sisters Rock and the point where the Kanbis River joins the Fish River. However, from the pass you will enjoy an excellent view of Four Fingers Rock. Along the third short cut you will pass the grave of Lieutenant von Trotha, a German soldier killed in 1905 during the German-Nama War and buried where he fell. A couple of kilometres beyond the grave, back in the main canyon, is the second 'emergency' exit path. From here it is a further 20 km to Ai-Ais, a cold drink, soft bed and no more walking for a few days.
Hikers must take all their food with them - a camping stove is also needed as wood for fires is scarce during the first couple of days of the hike. Maps can be bought at Ai-Ais and Hobas. Water is almost always available en route (from the river), but should be purified or boiled. It's worth taking a fishing line, provided the river/pools are deep enough; freshly grilled fish is a great luxury after a hot day's hike.
A tent is not necessary but a sleeping mat and sleeping bag is, as the temperature can fall dramatically at night. Tough walking boots, a hat, a comprehensive first- aid kit and plasters for blisters are all essential. Do not litter the canyon and carry all your rubbish out. Recycling bins are provided at the viewpoints and campsites.
Bird and game viewing
Small mammals such as rock dassies and ground squirrels are a common sight in the canyon and, with luck, larger mammals such as klipspringer, steenbok and springbok may also be spotted. Kudu, gemsbok and mountain zebra live in and around the canyon but are harder to spot and leopard is the hardest of all. The rock pools and reeds attract a large number of water birds, including the African fish eagle, grey herons and hammerkops; other birds such as bee-eaters, wagtails and rock pigeons are all common.
Ai-Ais Hot Springs Resort
The resort is very popular with families from Namibia and South Africa as a place to come and relax and lounge around in the thermal baths and outdoor heated swimming pool. As with all thermal springs the water is supposed to have natural curative properties and is especially beneficial for sufferers of rheumatism.
Open year round, the resort offers indoor and outdoor thermal pools (for a cold swim, try the river), tennis courts, restaurant, bar, shop selling basic provisions and firewood, petrol, horse riding, hiking trails and birdwatching in a beautiful and peaceful setting.
Gondwana Cañon Park
For those feeling energetic there are some enjoyable walks into the canyon, especially pleasant in the late afternoon when the shadows are long and the heat off the rocks contrasts with the cool sand. It is also possible to hire a horse and ride into the canyon. Outside the school holidays, the tranquillity of the resort may lull you into a state of complete relaxation.
Ai-Ais is a Nama name meaning 'fire-water', indicating the extreme heat of the springs here. Modern knowledge of the springs dates back to 1850 when a Nama herder discovered the springs whilst searching for lost sheep. However, it is certain that Stone Age people inhabited the area thousands of years ago.
During the 1904-1907 German-Nama War, the springs were used as a base camp by German forces. Following the First World War the site was partially developed but it was not until 1969 that the site was declared a conservation area. The present resort was opened in 1971, but was almost immediately destroyed by the Fish River coming down in flood. Since then flooding has occurred three more times, in 1974, 1988 and again in 2000, on each occasion forcing the closure of the resort for repairs.
Gondwana Cañon Park is a private operation that manages 1120 sq km of land to the east of the canyon, more or less the area between Hobas and Ai-Ais. After being over-grazed for many years by intensive sheep farming, the park was established in 1996 and game, reintroduced into the region, can roam freely now that the old farm fences have been removed. Species include small populations of kudu, gemsbok, springbok, mountain zebra, ostrich and a number of smaller antelope. Funding comes from the 5% tourism levy charged on accommodation at the four
lodges in the area , all of them situated about 20 km from the main viewing point at Hobas. Visitors can explore the park on drives, on foot or on horseback.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF