How not to hike the Fish River Canyon.
Four friends decide to hike the Fish River Canyon. What could possibly go wrong?
Ispent hours poring over maps and reading articles about the Fish River Canyon – studying the dos and don’ts, the tips and tricks, survival guides and personal stories of triumph and trial. That is, after I got home from my first attempt at hiking it… Rewind three months: My friend Hayley had booked four spots on the trail. The crew consisted of me, her, her colleague Jenny, and Jenny’s fiancé, Max. I feel comfortable in the wilderness but none of the other hikers were particularly fit, and none had done a multiday hike before. I was concerned about their abilities but I’m always up for a new adventure, so I agreed.
The next two months blitzed by. No training and minimal planning had been done. After some lastminute gear shopping, we crammed into a Hyundai i20 and set off on the 1 200 km road trip from Johannesburg to the desert, with a night in Upington. Late the next afternoon, the i20 rattled around the final few bends into the canyon and we arrived at the AiAis resort.
We sauntered into the shop and announced that we would like to camp for the evening, and we asked about transport to the start of the trail. The bemused store clerk told us about the trail shuttle and that we were meant to book accommodation in advance.
Just as we were leaving the shop, something caught my eye: a Slingsby Fish River Canyon hiking map. “That would be nice to add to my collection,” I thought to myself, and bought one.
The next day we joined three other hikers on the shuttle. The 80 km drive, on a gravel road in an open vehicle, was considerably longer and colder than I had anticipated. Soon I was dressed in all of the clothes I had brought along. Not exactly the scorching desert we had expected…
Under a grey sky and a fine drizzle, we finally cast our eyes upon the magnificence of the canyon: an immense, serpentine fissure carved into the land by eons of flowing water. The red cliffs dropped dramatically and dark stratus clouds obscured what must have been an endless horizon. With much excitement, and a heap of trepidation, we heaved our packs onto our backs and took our first tentative steps into the abyss.
About halfway down the 450 m descent, Jenny’s legs began to rebel. Progress was painstakingly slow as we picked our way down. I longingly looked at the other three hikers far below, who were already at the river.
It would be more than three hours before our party reached the canyon floor.
We had lunch at the first sign of water – a murky, stagnant pool. We filled our bottles and added some chlorine droplets. Urgh, should have bought a filter…
The sun made a fierce reappearance as we saddled up for the afternoon. I thought that level ground would improve our tempo, but the soft sand, loose rocks and Jenny’s aching legs proved otherwise. However, the slow pace did provide us with plenty opportunity to marvel at the scenery. The stark cliffs were otherworldly, like something from a post-apocalyptic Hollywood thriller.
At sunset we called it a day, a worrying distance before our intended first camp…
After a rest and with lighter packs, I felt certain we’d make up time. But a mere hour into day two, my confidence waned. Jenny’s pain was worsening and – in an attempt to lighten her load – Max was also beginning to take strain.
Increasingly frustrated at the frequent stopping, I suggested to Hayley that we give the other two a head start. They laboured on, and just before they vanished out of sight, Hayley and I got going. We rested at Wild
Fig Bend, but when we started walking again, I could no longer see Jenny and Max. Concerned, we picked up the pace but this started to cause a stabbing pain in Hayley’s calves. After another hour’s slog, we arrived at the first escape route where we’d all agreed to meet and reassess our situation. There was still no sign of the others.
Now rather incensed by their disappearance, I suggested to Hayley that she wait with our kit while I ran ahead to see if they were still ahead of us. She didn’t like the plan but we had little choice.
Driven by an ever-growing unrest, I quickly caught up to our shuttle mates who were resting at Palm Springs – they hadn’t seen Jenny and Max. The only conclusion was that Hayley and I had somehow managed to slip past them. I hurried back to find Hayley in a panic – she had been alone for nearly an hour.
Voluntary quiet time is one thing, but being abandoned in the Fish River Canyon is quite another. The cliffs soon begin to feel like they’re closing in on you; the unnerving silence broken only by the occasional cawing of a crow. But I had to find the others, so off I ran again.
Back somewhere below the Walls of Jericho, I saw two swaying backpacks. Relief is an understatement. After nearly four hours apart, we began to piece the story together. Not long after Wild Fig Bend, Max had crossed to the opposite side of the canyon for a toilet break behind a boulder. Jenny had found some shade and waited. Hayley and I had somehow hurried past and no one had noticed.
We returned to where Hayley was waiting anxiously. The mood was sombre and emotions were at a knife edge. It was late afternoon. Jenny’s legs were no better, Max was struggling, Hayley was still in pain, and I was exhausted. We were majorly concerned about our ability to complete the rest of the 70 km in just three days if the first 15 km had been this bad. We decided to set up camp and reassess in the morning.
The canyon’s enigmatic wild horses visited us in the night and everyone seemed to have slept well. The mood was better. After consulting the now indispensable Slingsby map, we decided to push on.
But the optimism didn’t last long. By the time we reached Palm Springs, Hayley was in tears. Her leg pains had returned with intensity and each step was agony. Jenny and Max weren’t doing much better. It became clear that we would have to do what we were hoping to avoid…
Devastated, we turned back towards the escape route, now 3 km behind us. Hayley was distraught but we reassured her that getting everyone out safely was the main priority. I knew this too, but couldn’t shake my own deep sense of disappointment; I wanted so badly to turn around and hike through the canyon on my own.
We came upon a couple from Luxembourg. We explained our situation and they asked if we had some way of contacting the rangers. The escape route, you see, takes you to the Swaelbron viewpoint, some 16 km from Hobas rest camp. It could be hours, even days, before someone happened to go there. There’s zero cellphone signal but – thank goodness! – the Luxembourgers had a satellite phone.
The escape route is vicious. Just to be clear, it’s not a neat footpath winding up a gently sloping ravine with handrails and route markers to help you along. If “escape route” wasn’t painted in white letters on a rock, you would do well to find it because it looks like every other gully you’ve passed along the way.
You inch your way up a nearly 500-metre ascent, over loose scree and boulders, along a virtually non-existent path. The escape was made even more brutal by the fact that I was now shuttling packs! This did not help my surly disposition.
It’s barely a kilometre in distance but it took us five agonising hours to reach the top. I could see an olive-clad figure in the distance – our saviour had arrived.
The view back into the canyon, framed by quiver trees, was spectacular. We soaked it up, snapped some final pictures and bundled ourselves into the back of the Land Cruiser.
Back at Hobas, we hobbled straight to the shop. Four beers later and all our pain and disappointment had dissolved. We had come to the desert for an epic adventure in the unknown, and that is precisely what we got.
The group has vowed to return one day and successfully complete the Fish River Canyon hike.