Namibia’s grand canyon

Fish River Canyon in Namibia is said to be the second-largest canyon in the world. Visiting it is an incredible experience.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Fish River Canyon, Namibia

At the small information centre at Fish River Canyon in Namibia, where a series of boards have excellent information about the site, one question and answer section catches my eye.

“Why does the Fish River loop like a snake?” it asks.

Printed below is this answer:

“Because it was gouged out by Koutein Kooru, a snake frantically scrambling to get away from San hunters. Or, because rivers flowing on a low-gradient plain do not have a pre-defined direction and therefore usually meander in loops.”

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

I like both answers. And why can’t they both be true?

If the indigenous San people who have lived in this part of Namibia for tens of thousands of years believe that a snake formed Fish River Canyon, then who am I to argue?

Science only tells us so much about the world we live in. The legends that are formed by its residents are also an important part of it.

What is Fish River Canyon?

But with this canyon in Namibia, the cold hard facts are impressive enough by themselves and they are the ones I am concentrating on today, as I stand on the edge and look out at this incredible natural formation.

Fish River Canyon is:

  • Up to 160 kilometres long
  • Up to 27 kilometres wide
  • Up to 549 metres deep

People often refer to Fish River Canyon as the “second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon”. But there are actually a couple of problems with that.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Firstly, it depends what measurement you’re using – is it length, width, depth, or total volume?

And, secondly, many experts don’t consider the Grand Canyon in the US to the the largest in the world anyway! The Tsangpo Canyon in Tibet gets the title, according to many people.

However, all that aside, the Fish River Canyon is clearly one of the largest in the world and seeing it for yourself is a breathtaking experience.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

The canyon is one of the stops on my trip through South Africa and Namibia with G Adventures and yet another of the remarkable natural sights that these countries hold. Namibia, in particular, just has so many world-class spots… many of which I knew very little about before arriving.

Obviously Fish River Canyon is one of these spectacular natural sights. It’s the kind of place that, if it were an easy drive from major US cities, would be just as famous as the Grand Canyon.

But, having said that, there’s something nice about being able to visit without hordes of other tourists or much (if any) tourist infrastructure near the canyon.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Visiting Fish River Canyon

Most visitors will only see Fish River Canyon from above. I’m one of them.

To get different views and angles, I walk along part of the rim for a couple of hours, following the bends, looking down to the river below and across to the other side.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

It doesn’t matter which direction you look, every perspective is impressive in its own way – whether it’s the steep cliffs, the changing colours in the rocks, the glinting of the water below, or the canyon’s outline snaking towards the horizon.

The reason that me and my G Adventures group stay up on the rim of the canyon is because you are not allowed to go down on your own or for a day hike.

The only visitors who can hike down to the bottom of the canyon are those who have permits to heading out on the multi-day Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail.

Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail

The Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail has got to be one of the best long-distance walks in Africa.

It’s a 90 kilometre route (or 80 kilometres if you use the shortcuts, rather than always walking along the water) that takes most people about 5 days.

If you want to do the hike, you need to be prepared. Not because it is overly difficult (although it’s certainly not easy either) but because of the restrictions and challenges of the geography.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

You need a permit to do the Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail and there is officially a maximum of only 30 people who can do it each day. It’s self-guided but you’ll need to be in a group of at least 3 people for safety.

You’re also required to show a medical certificate that says you’re fit enough to hike. This is partly because there are only two emergency exits along the route, other than the start and end points. So, if you did run into trouble, it’s a huge effort for rescuers to come and get you.

The Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail is also only open between May 1 and September 15 because it’s considered too dangerous the rest of the year due to heat and possible flooding.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

If you are interested in doing the hike, you’ll need to get in contact with Namibia Wildlife Resorts who manage the permits and access. There’s very little information on their website, so you’re probably best just phoning or emailing direct. Permits sell out well in advance for some times of the year, so get in touch as soon as possible.

This epic Namibia canyon

At a viewpoint at the top of canyon, I see the start of the hike. This apparently is one of the hardest parts – scrambling down the steep slope with chains to hang on to for support.

Once you’re at the bottom, the walk is relatively flat, as you clamber over boulders and navigate around pools of water.

I think it would be an incredible experience to do the hike, to be so close to this monumental piece of nature for days upon days. But, then again, this experience I am having is also amazing and the views are unlike anything I have seen before.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Fish River Canyon took hundreds of millions of years to form. First plate movement created space for a river to flow, then glaciers made it even deeper, then the ground’s incline was made even steeper when Africa and South America separated and the river created even more of the canyon.

Whether you’re here for just a few hours or a few days, we are so insignificant in comparison to what is around us.

It’s why the science – the facts and figures – only get us so far. Sometimes it’s legend and spirituality – like that of the San people and the story of the giant snake – that are needed to truly make sense of something like Fish River Canyon.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

I travelled to Namibia with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Namibia.

5 thoughts on “Namibia’s grand canyon”

  1. awesome post
    epic canyon Namibia is amazing. hiking and trekking are full of adventures. it is really an appreciatable activity. I like all the treks of different countries like Malaysia Thailand and Pakistan best one is the Karakoram mountains range treks.


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