The Fish River Canyon – One Mans Experience

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Ai-Ais Camp

Arriving in Ai Ais in the early afternoon at the camp site, the afternoon can be spent organising your pack and relaxing in the hot pools of the spa itself for a small fee.

Everyone has to sign in at the reception area and the bus booked for the early morning trip to Hobas where the hike starts. Its best to get the earliest start as possible depending on the time of year as it can get very hot and walking in the early morning is always best.

 DAY 1

Waking up very early we strike camp, folding our tents up and readying ourselves for the hike. Tea and breakfast are shared around the fire as we liaise with reception at the resort and the driver of the bus that will take us to Hobas and the beginning of the hike. We left Ai Ais at around 08h00 making sure we have our medical certificates ready along with any over valuables that we did not want to leave in our vehicles.

The drive is comfortable and the aircon helps keep the approaching heat at bay. After an hour journey we arrive at the main entrance of Hobas camp site where we all crowd into an office to deliver our medical certificates and fill our names in on the register so the authorities know who is in the canyon and when to expect us out.

 We then all get back in the bus for another short journey to the edge of the canyon. We drive beyond the viewing site to a small hut (actually a long drop on closer inspection) where a sign states the start of the descent into the canyon. It’s difficult to believe, looking down, that we are about to descend to the depth we can see below us. The first few paces are aided with chains and in some areas a small slide on ones bum is necessary as we get used to moving and walking with the pack on our shoulders. I had trained my knees as much as possible before the hike doing squats every morning for a month in anticipation of this downhill but find that it is very pleasant and quite easy.

 The views of the canyon and the viewing site are breathtaking with a hundred different hues of brown and tan that mark the different rock types that make up the canyon walls. The area has received an abundance of rain the past few months as well as unusual floods earlier in the year which caused the canyon to flood and halt all hiking completely for a few months. We can see a haze on the horizon but the air is cool and once out of the shade of the wall the sun on my neck is hot. This is where my wide brimmed hat is going to save me! The paths steepness eases as we get deeper and it becomes quite an easy walk as we get closer to the bottom. It’s not an easy path to follow so we have to take care that we are following the correct route.

 Before I know it we have reached the bottom, a sandy beach greets us as we near the water which is a beautiful aquamarine colour and looking very inviting now that midday has approached and we all sit down to a well deserved snack for tea. Swimming isnt that appealing as the water is icy cold but after the first day, we all lose this inhibition and strip off and swim at any available opportunity.

 After a short rest we set off again through the sand and the odd pile of boulders that requires some good concentration. It’s easy walking this first part as its early days and no muscle fatigue has had the chance to set in. We’re all still bright eyed with the wonders of being in this steep sided canyon and as I look up I can see quite literally hundreds of different rock types that line the walls and boulders that litter the river bed. From a geological point of view this is beyond comprehension, never once in 6 days did I not stare in awe at this site of mother nature carving her way into the earth’s crust over millennia to produce such an awe inspiring sight – it’s incredibly beautiful.

 We break for lunch at a small ledge area that is the only shelter from the sun that we can find. Idle chatter whiles away some time as we eat and we all begin to get to know one another better. Some of us have a nap as we contemplate our situation and plan the remainder of the way walking to where we will camp for the night. Frikkie – our fearless leader – has done this hike innumerable times, for our chef it’s her 5th time and for Amanda and Heidi it’s the 3rd and 4th for each. For Ingrid, Marcus, Michelle and I it’s the first time and we are happy to be led and advised as we go along.

 We walk for another few hours arriving at our first camp for the night mid afternoon. The wind has been blowing most of the day, it was especially hard when we set out in the morning and there is some concern that it will blow all night. Sand in my ears is not a pleasant thought! There is a wide sandy beach that slopes gently down to the water which is pleasantly warm. Most of us strip off for a swim, we have ample time before we have to begin preparing the camp fire and evening meal. Everyone walks around contemplating where the best place will be for wind protection. My feet are not sore and I take my boots off and begin rummaging through the boulders looking for fire wood. There is quite a bit of debris but finding good fire wood is not easy and a pleasant hour is spent searching and exploring our new camp.

 I found a large boulder that seems like it will protect me from the wind that is blowing North to South, there isnt much point in setting my ground sheet and mattress just yet, if I do, by the time I go to bed everything will have a film of sand over it! Better to do it just before I go to bed with my head torch. We all gather round the campfire as the chef prepares the evening meal chatting and laughing as the sun sets. Suddenly Amanda shouts that she has seen a scorpion! Its HUGE! Easily 10cm long with a very thick death black tail and small pincers. I know immediately that its deadly, the tail is as thick as my small finger and the pincers being small tells me its primary weapon is its tail, a sure sign that it can kill a man with its neurotoxic venom. Frikkie uses a stick and gently coaxes it far, far away.

 DAY 2

The first birds chirping wake me from a light sleep. Ive slept incredibly well! The moon rose over the canyon walls during the night and bathed us in an ethereal glow that blotted out the magnificence of the star studded galaxy we had to ourselves.

The fire is cold so I gather some left over wood and coax it to life for the first cup of tea of the day. Slowly the rest of the team waken to soft groans and commentary on the nights snoring wildlife. The sand is cold beneath my feet but the hot tea in my hand helps me along as I lace my boots up and begin packing my sleeping bag and other kit away. We have a snack with our tea and begin walking within an hour of waking, best to get the walking done in the cool hours of the day so a siesta can be enjoyed while the sun bakes the floor of the canyon.

 The walking is immediately more technical, we spend a lot of our time carefully picking our way amongst the boulders, taking care where we place our feet and how we balance ourselves with the added weight of the pack on our backs. Injuries are no joke down here. We had first-hand experience on our first night in Ai Ais where we heard that an injured hiker had to produce an exorbitant sum of money before the rescue services agreed to send a helicopter out to rescue him.

 The walking now varies between boulders, long open stretches of sand along the water’s edge and sections where we are following a path between yellow wild flowers. The scenery doesn’t cease to amaze and awe me, it’s beautiful in its diversity.

We stop for lunch at the water’s edge, several palm trees on the opposite bank mark a special treat so we all head into the water before eating. It’s cold but the swim is short and once over we all crowd into a shallow pool where Frikkie has diverted the water that is flowing into the river. Its a natural hot spa, the super heated water gurgles out of the ground near the base of the palm trees and seeps into the river. By diverting its course a little we’re able to enjoy a natural hot bath and the contrasting temperatures are wonderful. At times the water is so hot I can barely stand it and I have to move to a cooler section of the pool. After an hour we swim back over and eat lunch. There is no shade here so no point in trying to enjoy a midday nap.

Just after 3pm we arrive at a suitable place for our overnight sleep. Its a great place to camp, the water is close by for collecting and the sand is flat and there are several little alcoves where we can shelter ourselves from the wind should it come up during the night. We all set about making camp and collecting firewood, setting up our sleeping areas and relaxing in bare feet and swimming in the river.

On the opposite bank the canyon side towers over us and suddenly a Fish Eagle gives its eerie cry. Looking up we can see it soaring above us on thermals as it hunts and eventually settles itself on a rocky outcrop high above us. Our chef starts making us dinner and we gather round the campfire for light conversation discussing the days hiking and how we all coped with it.

 This hike really reduces life to its bare bones. You get to see people as they really are, without any of the usual accompaniments that a material life hangs over us and personalities start revealing themselves in all manner of ways both good and bad. We are a good team, despite not knowing one another that well we know that if anything happens we will pull together and make a plan to sort out any sort of dilemma.

 We passed the red scooter this afternoon, propped on the opposite bank near one of the emergency exits. No one is sure how it got there and there are all sorts of myths and legends surrounding it. Maybe it got pushed over the side, someone says it got here when a daring young man tried to ride it from the start all the way to Ai Ais. Whatever the truth its makes for an interesting conversation piece.

That night we all huddle close to the wall of rocks and fall asleep to a Milky Way that is difficult to describe. The stars hang over us glowing incredibly brightly and the smudge of the Milky Way is spread across the sky in a long band of beauty. In the middle of the night Ingrid wakens me with her snoring, I bear it for a long time and finally call her name loudly, the sound ricocheting of the walls. It does no good, she continues to snore fit to wake an army!

 DAY 3

Birds chirping wake me again. It’s cold this morning. I feed the fire some wood and get the kettles on for a quick morning brew before we head off to get most of the walking done in the cooler hours. There are immediately animated discussions over the snoring and we laugh at the responses to my urgent call in the night. Our chef had shot bolt upright at the noise of my voice, but the snoring didn’t bother her in the least.

 We head off over sand and a short section along the water’s edge before taking a route that winds itself through fields of the yellow flowers that have been so in abundance. The animal tracks are all over the place, Oryx, Kudu, Hyena, Wild Horses but we are yet to see any of them. Coming out of a dry river bed we see three Wild Horses milling about in the morning sun. They don’t seem surprised to see us at all and admire us with open curiosity and little desire to move out of our way. One is clearly pregnant with a swelling belly and all are in excellent condition.

 We stop for lunch on a strip of sand between the boulders and the water. There is some shade and we all find little spots under the thorn trees to spread ground sheets and relax. I decide to take a bath and head into the water with my eco friendly bio-degradable soap. It’s a quick lather and then rinse using as little soap as possible. The water is clear and very pleasant after the days walking as its getting hotter during the day and a bit cooler at night. We all take time to have a short nap and then we start walking again as its not far to our campsite for the night.

 We walk through more daisy fields, the water is far off to our left as we are cutting the bend instead of following the water’s edge and the walking is relatively easy. The ground is hard and we make good time arriving at the campsite at around 4pm. Its sheltered all around by what looks to be Bush Willow trees and lots of scrub daisy that glitter in the sunlight. They have vicious thorns so either our boots stay on or for those of us that have brought sandals we put them on as we explore the new place to sleep. I have scraped myself a hollow close to the fire, I’m tired from lack of sleep or perhaps just exertion and the fresh clean air, I’m not sure which but sure I will be the first to bed this evening.

 The sand at the water’s edge is clayey and resembles sinking sand. In places our feet disappear in an instant if we stand still and I’m not in the mood to swim. I collect firewood and begin making camp comfortable for us all with stones to sit around the fire and a pile of wood off to one side that needs breaking into manageable sizes for feeding into the fire. Our chef has Lindt chocolate for us every evening after dinner so I’m waiting for the chocolate treat before putting my head down for the night. Dinner is once again spectacular, it’s a very odd sensation to be eating so well so far away from civilisation but with a little creativity most everything is possible.

 I only manage an hour after dinner sitting around the fire, I love the evenings around the fire chatting and staring at the flames, but I crawl the few paces to my scrape and make my bed by the light of my head lamp and I’m asleep in seconds.

 DAY 4

I wake up with just the faintest smudge of dawn on the horizon. There is barely any light but some of the birds are already chirping. I slept incredibly well again. The snorers have been banished to far reaches of the camping sites each night so thankfully I haven’t had to contend with any strange noises in the night.

 The fire is still slightly warm so I stack some small branches over the coals and begin blowing gently. It doesn’t take long for it to catch flame, the wood out here is mostly very light and has little fuel value as the majority of the plant life needs to conserve what little water they get so it dries to almost nothing. I fetch water from the river treading carefully to avoid getting bogged down in the mud. The water is soon boiling and several other people have been woken by my snapping of twigs and breaking branches. I get my first cup of tea down and begin breaking camp, a quick and easy task as you learn to store what you don’t need and make sure everything in your pack is zipped closed before sleeping. The mice here come out at night to forage and will take any opportunity for an easy snack of food left un-attended.

 The terrain today is not very friendly, loose sand that has a broken muddy crust that breaks under each footfall. The geology is fascinating as we are near the area of the Dolorite ridges and we can see the black seams of rock streaking across between the lighter shades of sandstone.

 We stop for breakfast on a wide flat rock and enjoy our muesli and coffee before heading off again. The canyon walls are getting lower and lower as we progress, they’re no longer towering walls looming above us but low hills that create shimmering reflections in the water as we walk along its edges, dipping our water bottles in before heading off into the interior to cut the meandering of the rivers course.

 Two river crossings pass uneventfully, and the boulder fields keep your wits sharp and honed. Stepping from boulder to boulder takes intense concentration, a broken foot or ankle here is not an option. We leave the boulders behind again and head up the side of a hill to short cut. The heat is intense and we slowly climb a gentle rise coming across a very old pile of stones, clearly a grave from World War 2. Descending the other side we’re slogging through soft sand and walking becomes quite an effort. It’s a case of putting your head down and just slogging through it to get it over and done with. The knowledge that a fresh invigorating swim is the reward at the end of the day is very enticing.

 We can see the point we are aiming for but its across a wide swath of land that is shimmering in the heat haze and with the sand slogging, my calves are feeling very well used. The mountain drops sharply to the where I think the water will be. We left it behind an hour ago taking a short cut across easier terrain and I can’t wait to get there. I put my head down and trudge along with just the end in sight and anticipating the relief of being able to drop my backpack to the sand for the rest of the day.

When I finally get there its late afternoon and the dark brown mountain sits in front of us with the water glistening in the afternoon sun. We all drop our packs and wade into the water for a very well-deserved swim.

 The sand terraces here so we decide to build the campfire on the top most one with the best views. We all set about gathering firewood and collecting stones to sit around the fire on. There isn’t much wood around here, so we have to venture quite far. As I amble about I look back at the direction we have come from and Four Finger Rock looks beautiful in the setting sun. The wind has died down and is not gusting at all and we’re hopeful for a peaceful night. The snorers have found space far away from us and three of us gather around a small bush that is adorned with Corn Crickets. They look like they belong in some alien world and chirp loudly when anyone gets near them. Long legs and fearsome spikes on their thoraxes make them look menacing but we know they are harmless.

The campfire is animated tonight, and I lose a bet with Michelle for a foot massage, so I spend the best part of an hour playing with her feet and easing some over used muscles. We get to bed late after chocolate and brushing teeth but it’s a warmish night so I know I will sleep well.

 DAY 5

I wake up wondering if its rained during the night…. I feel damp and realise that there is condensation clinging to every part of me and my sleeping bag. I ease out and pull my thermals on quickly in the pre-dawn chill. Coaxing the fire back to life takes a new fire lighter but we have only one more night in the canyon, so we can afford it.

 The water boils quickly and my first cup of tea tastes delicious as I watch the false dawn begin to light the surrounding mountains. It’s still quite cold and I’m thankful I have a scarf and warm long-sleeved top on. I’ve left my sleeping bag draped over our bush in the hope that the morning sun will dry it out before I have to pack it away, otherwise I will have to take it out at the breakfast and lunch stop to dry properly. The thought of getting into a wet sleeping bag at the end of a day is not appealing.

 We don’t bother putting our boots on as we have to cross the water in front of our campsite to the other side first thing. I think this is the first or second time I have had to take my shoes off to cross the river. Quite a record according to Frikkie who tells us that last year they were constantly removing shoes and socks to cross water.

 We don’t have far to go today as we have extended our trail hike to 6 days instead of the usual 5 and Im grateful for this, it’s allowed us time to enjoy the scenery and stop frequently to enjoy the views that we have had.

 Crossing the river we put our boots back on and round the corner to another boulder field. The canyon is now almost gone in a sense, it feels like we are walking amongst low hills and the scenery opens up into the distance, the heat haze is already obscuring the mountains in the distance.  We stop for breakfast amongst the boulders and collect wood for a quick fire for coffee and to mix with instant foods others have brought along. There is little shade and the sun is already hot so my sleeping bag comes out first to dry out some more. We have all done the same and the area is strewn with different colours and it feels like some sort of market place where we’re selling our wares but there are no customers!

 We pack up again and set off through the scrub land now, this area is dominated by low grey bushes and the occasional yellow daisies. Table Top mountain looms behind us and makes for the perfect photograph. We can still see parts of Four Finger Rock and the black seams of Dolorite rock stand out in stark contrast to the surrounding colours. We follow the side of the river for quite some time and I notice that there is an incredible amount of animal tracks around again. Kudu, Oryx and Wild Horses have all been down to the water’s edge to drink in the night. Its cooler to walk by the water and I’m glad it’s such a pristine and gorgeous day.

 We arrive at the causeway to the sounds of more Fish Eagles soaring above us and we stop to drink from the river water and take some photographs before we cross the river. On the other side is the Canyon Cafe – a small hut all locked up with a track out back that leads to places we can only guess at.

Part of the group takes a short cut here over some low ridges, but I fear that my calf will not stand the uphill, so I opt to do the long way round and I’m glad that I do. We come across beautiful scenery close to the water’s edge and stop for a quick swim in the cool water. We walk along some flat rocks for an hour or so as we near a bend in the river and then start looking for a place where we can boulder hop across without taking our boots off. The last section before lunch is difficult as we are skirting the water’s edge and the sides are steep and quite treacherous here. Not easy walking at all and at times its anyone’s guess as to where the path is and what the best way to go will be.

Most of the time its guess work but the odd footprint in some sand confirms that we are on the right track.

We finally clamber over more boulders and find the rest of the group that took the short cut already lounging around and relaxing. I envy them as my calf is agonisingly sore. Lunch is mooted, I’m not in the mood to swim so I eat quickly, and we head off again. We cross a hard section of the land and the sun beats down on us as we near some trees and the shade of the hill we have been making for.

 Some of the group are some distance ahead and scouting for a good place to sleep tonight. There are lots of dry river beds along this section so it’s up and downhill quite constantly until we hear Frikkie calling us not long after. We head down towards the water and find a perfect campsite for our last night in the canyon. Sandy terraced sections lead down to the water and we all start looking for places to sleep for the night.

 I decide it’s time for another bath so quickly strip off and sit in the water for a good scrub before the heat of the day disappears. I wash in the clothes I was wearing and lay them out on a bush to dry. Michelle and I have found an area on one of the terraces we call the “loft” and declare it our sleeping place for the night. The wind is up and its well sheltered so we should have a peaceful night’s sleep.

 The campfire is made on an open section of the beach and once the firewood has been gathered we all potter about doing our things. Michelle has agreed to massage my calf as by this time it’s hurting quite seriously. I know it’s from the boulder hopping as the pain is up the side of my left calf. The boulder hopping is done on the tips of your boots, not with the flat of your foot and I’m sure that the sand slogging has not helped it much either. The wind decides not to die down but the mood around the fire has an element of excitement, we’ve all had an unforgettable experience and while we are looking forward to finishing we all know that we will miss being here terribly.

Life has seemed so simple the last few days, reduced to bare necessities with absolutely no frills and just the basic human elements of survival and the need to keep going no matter what. We all laugh at things that have happened over the last few days and joke with one another over small incidents that brought cheer or laughter to us while we struggled with sore feet and aching shoulders. We start fantasising about the beer we will have when we arrive, the fact that we’ll actually be able to sit on a toilet when we feel the need instead of finding a secluded bush, a warm shower or a long hot bath!

 We make a blazing fire and it roars around us as we sit and chat after dinner savouring the final evening of fantastic chocolate dessert. I turn in early and return to the loft I’m sharing with Michelle with my headlight to find a mouse has started eating away at the melted chocolate bar I left on the top of my pack. I shoo the mouse away and it scurries off in alarm only to return seconds later with an enquiring look on its face as if to ask, “where is my snack?”. I shoo it away again and minutes later I hear the chef doing exactly the same! Then its scuffling around Heidi and finally there is silence.

 Michelle tucks herself into her sleeping bag and we stay up watching the stars and whispering to each other head to head…. suddenly there is more scuffling of feet on the groundsheet and the mouse darts between our heads! We turn our headlamps on and it is scuffling around still searching for more snacks…I finally fall asleep with the wind whispering in the trees above my head and the stars blazing a final goodbye to me.

 DAY 6

We wake during the night sometime to the sound of plodding hooves and realise the Wild Horses are wandering around our campsite….I drift off again.

The lightening of the sky wakes me, and I can hear the first birds begin their calling. The wind has died and its quite cold this morning. I pull all my thermals on plus my scarf to keep my neck warm. The sand is cold under my feet so I put my socks on as well and head over to the fire to bring it to life for a morning brew.

Packing up and setting off was a bit sad in a way, this was our last day, the final stretch and though I was tired and sore I was sad that it was ending. I’ve spent 10 years of my life living in the bush, its where I belong, amongst the wilderness animals and I longed for it not to end.

 We stop for breakfast and tea on a wide section of sand in the shade of a mountain and make a fire as we chat about how far there is to go and what we are going to do when we arrive. It’s a beautiful morning and the heat is building. One more river crossing and then a small section of sand before it’s all over. A boulder field comes along with quite a few muddy rivers amongst it all, as I walk I can hear Michelle and Ingrid behind me so I call back that the mud is slippery. As I hear them crest the rise I watch them walk down the embankment thinking they have heard me, suddenly Ingrid slips straight onto her bum! Michelle is laughing and steps to one side to pass her and promptly falls onto her bum too! We have a good laugh together!

 As the boulder field starts thinning, I see signs of the pump stations that feed the hot water springs at Ai Ais and know that we are getting very close. Then around a corner I come across a couple that have walked from the campsite up the gorge, “not far” they tell me. Then I can see the weir in the distance and the flood retaining walls of the campsite come into view. We’ve done it!

 Mariclaire and I march into the campsite, a slight spring in our step. She took a run for the last few meters and it feels pretty good to be back here. There is a sense of euphoria as the rest of our group straggles in. We head straight for the bar and a refreshing beer even though its only just past 11am!

 Its been an incredible experience!

From start to finish this has got to be one of the most profound hikes I have ever done. It ranks up there with some of the sceneries I have seen in Africa and Im still in awe of the distance we have walked and the sights we have seen. 90 kilometers of sand, boulders, hills, valleys and mud! Purely from a geological point of view it has been awe inspiring! The scenery has been magnificent every second of every day, no matter where you turned there was some view to take your breath away and leave you marvelling at the majesty of this creation that Mother nature has carved into the Earth’s crust.