A vast, sinuous chasm, the Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s greatest natural wonders, and vies with the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia for the claim to being the Earth’s second largest canyon. At 160km in length, up to 27km in width and with a depth of 550m in places, its grand scale can best be appreciated by gazing across the canyon rim, or by climbing down the almost sheer rock to the valley floor and undertaking a gruelling five-day hike along the predominantly dry river bed.
Local Nama folklore has it that the deep meanders of the canyon were formed by the death throes of a giant snake killed by their warriors because it had been preying on their livestock. Modern science has a less evocative and more prosaic explanation, and one that stretches over millennia, starting when sediment and volcanic rock deposited around 1.8 billion years ago began to metamorphose under pressure. Around 700 million years ago, doleritic magma forced its way through fissures in the ground forming the black dolerite dykes you can see today streaking the canyon walls. Periods of tectonic upheaval, the formation of a shallow sea, glaciation and erosion followed, creating much of the dramatic gorge visible today.
It was only around fifty million years ago that the Fish River began to flow, further deepening the sinuous ravine. Nowadays, the river only runs for a couple of months a year at the end of the rainy season (assuming sufficient rain); it is soon reduced to a trickle and most months merely consists of pools of water, which feed the occasionally sighted hardy populations of klipspringer, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and kudu, as well as the more ubiquitous baboons and rock hyrax. Some of the pools contain sizeable fish. This precious water source in such an arid region was known to stone-age peoples, as several archeological sites have been found in the canyon.
The canyon’s main viewpoint is 10km from the park entrance. From here you can drive or walk northwards a couple of kilometres to Hikers’ Viewpoint, which marks the start of the five-day trail and offers a different perspective on the canyon. The other two viewpoints involve longer drives southwards (signposted off the main access road) and are only possible in 4WD: the first is to Sulphur Springs (6km), and the second is to Eagle’s Rock (another 6km).