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The Fish River Canyon



The Fish River Canyon in Namibia is (allegedly) the 2nd largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. The immensity of this magnificent landscape is truly breathtaking. The towering rock faces and deep ravines were formed by water erosion and the collapse of the valley due to movements in the earth's crust over 500 million years ago. Today the canyon measures 160km long up to 27km wide and almost 550m at its deepest. It is fair to say that when you arrive at the canyon though, its exact location is a bit of a mystery as the 500m vertical drop from the flat dry plateau is completely out of view.
Nowadays the canyon is part of the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Self-drive tourists, hikers, photographers and nature lovers world-wide are attracted to this long, thin, meandering river. Depending on the time of year, you could be looking out to a dry river bed or a rainy-season raging torrent. The northern most entrance is the gate at Hobas Campsite and a further 10km drive takes you to the main viewpoint. Stunning views of the gorge combine with your first impressions of the Nama Karoo to the east of Fish River and the Succulent Karoo to the west of the river. The latter extends into the Sperrgebeit National Park and has over 1.600 different plant species, many of them occurring here and nowhere else. Other outstanding vantage points are at Hell's Corner and Sulpher Springs.
The environment of this spectacular scenery embraces a number of habitats bringing together several species of mammals, an abundance of reptiles, insects and fish that live in natural pools and the Fish River itself. For example the hot springs occurring on the canyon floor, the most well-known being at Ai-Ais, form pools of water which in turn attract many types of waterbirds. So birding around the canyon can be very rewarding.
Egyptian goose, olive thrush, black-headed, grey and goliath heron, African black duck, flocks of Abdim's stork, black stork, Cape robin chat, reed and white-breasted cormorant and dab-chick have all be observed on many occasions. Along the dry Fish River bed, the cooler temperatures allow for permanent pools of water to remain, left behind from when the river last flowed. Thickets of reedbeds flourish and residents such as African marsh warbler, great reed warbler, Cape reed warbler, red bishop, masked weaver and red-billed quelea gather. Black eagle and jackal buzzard nest in the steep cliffs and the African fish eagle has also been observed in the same area. At least 6 species of chat have been recorded in Fish River Canyon and birders have also observed black-headed canary, Cape sparrow, hamerkop, martial eagle and rock kestrel over the years.
The klipspringer is one of Fish River Canyon's most unique creatures. The hoof structure enables this 'rock jumper' to walk on the tip of its hoof. It leaves an unmistakable double-rounded spoor, allows for extra grip with the ability to bound smooth rock surfaces and leap from boulder to boulder to escape predators. Other canyon residents include mountain zebra, kudu, steenbok, gemsbok and springbok, attracting predators such as leopard, jackal, brown hyena and bat-eared fox. Rare sightings of a small population of grey rhebok have been recorded.
Sharing the water in a number of canyon floor water pools are several species belonging to the order Odonata where large numbers of epaulette skimmer dragonfly congregate. In the breeding sequence, males stand guard over open water whilst out of sight amongst dense vegetation, females can oviposit. Sentry duties are common amongst male dragonflies, especially with blue emperors, who constantly patrol for females along running waters to the south. The larvae of the common hooktail are 'sand swimmers', who possess the ability to burrow themselves out of sight, an action unheard of in almost every other species of dragonfly.
One of Namibia's most widespread and common butterflies, the red tip, flutters around the Fish River Canyon. The larvae of other species of tip such as Queen's purple and doubleday's orange use the leaves of caper bushes and shepherd's tree to feed on. Kalahari orange tips are common from October to March.
The Nama padloper tortoise is endemic to Namibia and protects itself by hiding in the rocks and crevices around the canyon, usually from heavy rains. Emerging often after a torrential downpour, the nickname of 'thunderstorm tortoise' has been bestowed by locals. Sparse and irregular rainfalls affect their food consumption with mating opportunities increasing with a healthy intake of greens.
Sharp-toothed catfish and yellow fish are found in the natural pools of Fish River. The former can adapt to almost any habitat. In some of these environment, they are preyed upon by leopard and African fish eagle. They themselves will eat other fish, birds, small mammals, reptiles, insects, other invertebrates and plant matter such as fruit and seeds. Largemouth yellow fish swim upstream from the Orange River and into the Fish River continuing on for many miles. The frog population includes the marbled rubber frog, common platanna and Boettger's caco.
Beetz's tiger snake, a slender reptile, shelter in dry, rocky regions of the canyon emerging at night to feed. The Karoo girdled lizard perch on boulders during the heat of the day, pausing only to catch a beetle or grasshopper for lunch. The Nile monitor lizard is common in the river valleys of the canyon and being an excellent swimmer can escape in the water when in danger. A deadly species of snake found in Fish River Canyon is the Cape cobra. The neurotoxic venom can result in death or paralysis in humans. Another species of cobra, the black-necked spitting cobra should also be avoided. Their venom yields are also high and fatal to humans.
Apart from its outstanding natural beauty and diverse and unique flora and fauna, the Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail is well-worth a mention. It is one of the most famous hikes in southern Africa, covering a distance of 86km in the base of the canyon. The duration is either 4 or 5 days depending on your group size and fitness and hikers are required to take absolutely everything with them. There are no facilities whatsoever and water can be drank from the semi-permanent pools scattered around the route. The start point is at Hobas and ends at Ai-Ais and there are only 2 emergency exits along the trail! The Cardboard Box Travel Shop can arrange a guided hike of the Fish River Canyon, perhaps a better option for the less-experienced hiker.
It's recommend taking an early morning ramble along the canyon where the bark of baboons echoes around the rocks and klipspringers dart up gullies. The view from the top is breathtaking

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