As it turns out, one visit to Namibia was not enough. Namibia has everything we enjoy when traveling in Africa: wide-open space, spectacular scenery and wild animal sightings. But it was a discovery we made as we were leaving Namibia on our first visit that made a return trip feel urgent: the Fish River Lodge.
This is the brochure that caught my eye. A view like no other – stay on the edge of the world’s 2nd largest canyon. That sounded interesting. The Fish River Lodge is the only lodge located directly on the rim of the Fish River Canyon also offering guests access down into the heart of the canyon. Now you’ve got my attention. Multi-day hikes into the canyon that are fully-catered. I want to do this!
All of that took place in the fall of 2016. By November 2017 we began planning our return trip in earnest. In September 2018 we departed for Namibia. The Fish River Lodge was the main draw for this visit, but we also took time to go wine tasting in Namibia and we visited three remote camps in areas of Namibia we had not previously visited. It was the trip of my dreams, but it was not without a few tense moments.
Driving from Windhoek to the Fish River Lodge
Our travels in Namibia have always started in Windhoek, the country’s capital. The city lies smack in the center of the country and 680 kilometers (nearly 425 miles) north of the Fish River Lodge. On our last trip we flew from Windhoek to each of the remote camps we visited. That was not an option with the Fish River Lodge as there are no flights between the lodge and Windhoek. That meant we would have to drive.
The distance and remoteness of the road to the lodge were concerns. The distance takes over 8 hours to drive and the last 110 kilometers is on sometimes rough gravel roads, which brings with it the chance of a puncture (flat tire). It is not advisable to drive at night for safety reasons, animals on the road mostly, so we would need two days to make the drive.
Finally, the most challenging consideration was that Namibia drives on the left-hand side of the road. Gulp.
After considerable research and much discussion we decided to make the drive. We left Windhoek in an enormous SUV with two spare tires. Just in case. We chose the larger SUV because the tires are heavy duty and we had the option of carrying two spare tires. After hearing another couple’s tale of having a flat tire on the gravel road to the lodge, and spending a good portion of the day backtracking to get the tire fixed so they would have a spare in case of another puncture, we were happy to have chosen the larger vehicle.
Our driving experience was very positive — once we got out of town on the B1 and B4. Driving in town was extremely stressful because left-hand driving felt so unfamiliar, though local drivers are very courteous. We found the navigation system in the car very helpful as well.
Once out of town we found driving courtesy extended to the open road as well. Slow traffic always keeps to the left and slower vehicles signal with their right-turn signal that it is safe for a faster vehicle to pass on a two-lane road. The faster vehicle then signals with his left-turn signal as he moves in front of the slower car then flashes his hazard light twice as a thank you to the slower vehicle. The slower vehicle may flash his lights to acknowledge the courtesy. We’ve noticed this same courtesy when driving in South Africa.
The landscape around Windhoek is hilly and the road follows the contour of the hills. As we drove south the landscape flattened and the road seemed to go on for miles in a straight line. The soil went from sandy to red to sandy again. Some areas were dry and dusty, others were a little green.
We noticed many herds of sheep and cattle grazing along side the road, always tended by boys or men. At one point we had to slow down for a troop of baboons taking their time crossing the road.
Every few kilometers there were brightly-colored, covered picnic tables along side the road. It can be a nice place to stretch your legs and break up the monotony of the long drive (but no bathrooms).
Our first overnight stay was at Kalahari Anib Lodge on the way down and we overnighted at the Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge on the way back. Both are game lodges and offered comfortable lodging, a game drive with sundowner and excellent meals. Much better than staying at a roadside motel.
We stopped for gas in Keetmanshoop and, aside from the stress of driving in town, the experience was actually fun. Gas attendants enthusiastically waved us into the station and up to an open pump before filling the tank and washing the windows. All of this service came with lively conversation and clean bathrooms. Tipping is expected and we were happy to do so. It was a very different experience from pumping your own gas at home.
Driving the Final Leg
After crossing the Fish River on the B4 we made a left turn onto the D463, a fairly nice gravel road. In Namibia the roads are named as to their condition, B roads are tarred (paved) roads in good condition with with good shoulders, C roads are tarred but like our country roads, D roads are gravel in fair condition depending on recent weather and the F roads, just tracks made cross-country and not maintained as regularly as the D roads.
The first 90 km of gravel road were pretty good with a few soft sandy spots and occasionally narrowing at cattle guards. We even caught up with the grader smoothing the roads at one point.
The turn off to the lodge is well marked but for the next 20 km we had a 20 kph speed limit. It was possible to drive faster, but why be so uncomfortable? And there were actually speed bumps! The road is fine for small SUVs like a Renault Duster or Subaru Forester but we were happy to have the bigger vehicle with tougher tires. Our tires were pretty scrubbed up from rocks by the time we got to the lodge. Most people did come in with the smaller SUVs though.
The Fish River Lodge
The Fish River Lodge is located directly on the rim of the Fish River Canyon. The location IS spectacular. The lodge is constructed of concrete, metal and glass with wooden accents. As you pull open the large wooden doors to enter, a panorama of the Fish River Canyon comes into view through floor-to-ceiling windows. Covered outdoor seating directly in front of the lodge looks out over the infinity pool and beyond to the canyon. The main lodge sits in the middle of 20 private chalets that spread out along the rim of the canyon.
Each chalet has floor-to ceiling windows facing the canyon with a covered porch beyond. When I asked if we could leave the door to the porch open, I was told not to do so because of snakes. No problem! En-suite bathroom included double sinks and a large open shower (there is also a private outdoor shower).
We were given our chalet key in a pouch along with a torch (flashlight) and two sets of earplugs. We asked about the earplugs and were told we might need them at night because of the wind. Hmm, we had read something about that. It was calm at the time, but it did get very windy on some nights and they came in handy. The weather is unpredictable and every time we asked about the weather forecast we received a vague answer. That’s just how it is on the Fish River Canyon, though our stay near the end of September was sunny and warm with cool nights.
Meals in the main lodge were delicious. Breakfast began with a buffet of coffee, juice, fruit and cereal followed by a hot breakfast. The lunch menu offered many delicious choices and eating on the patio while taking in the view of the canyon was very relaxing. Dinner included a starter, main course and dessert. The bar was fully stocked with spirits and wine (mainly from South Africa).
We spent one night in a chalet before we began our hike into the canyon and two nights after we returned giving us ample time to enjoy the hiking trails on the rim of the canyon near the lodge. There are two trails along the rim, one is flatter and the other crosses a dry riverbed with some elevation change.
An evening drive with a stop for cocktails at sundown (aka sundowner) was available every evening and a beautiful way to relax before dinner. It is also a chance to meet people from around the world, compare travel stories and stories of Namibia.
Hiking the Fish River Canyon
We met with our guide, Andy, on the afternoon we arrived at the Fish River Lodge. While sipping a glass of wine we discussed the details of our hiking adventure that would begin the next morning. We quickly learned we were the only guests on the hike, which suited us just fine. In addition to Andy there would be two camp hands to organize the tents and bucket showers and a cook to prepare our meals.
Andy organized our hike to suit our preferences. We were offered the opportunity to hike into the canyon down a steep trail with cables and handrails or to drive into the canyon. Because we didn’t know how strenuous the rest of the hiking would be, we opted to drive into the canyon.
We were up the next morning and at breakfast in the lodge by 6 o’clock. By 7 am we had checked out of the lodge and were at the safari vehicle. We left our bags at the lodge and brought only toiletries and clothes for several days with us. We each carried a daypack with camera equipment, personal items, water and lunch. Sun protection and a hat are essential.
Morning temperatures on the rim were colder than in the canyon and jackets were a must on the rim. We hiked in pants during the day and started each morning with a t-shirt under long sleeves and a vest. Before lunch time we were in t-shirts and pants.
Both days the terrain was variable and we walked on a combination of Jeep trails, animal trails, across open land and along the Fish River. We scrambled over boulders, picked our way through rock fields and climbed up and down the side of the canyon. Good hiking shoes are mandatory and my shoes were a bit torn up by the time we finished our hikes.
We hiked 6 miles the first day over mostly flat terrain. It was an easy day of hiking. In retrospect we could have taken the walk into the canyon rather than driving down from the lodge, although the drive took us over a rugged, rocky roadway and was a bit of a rodeo.
The second day was much more strenuous. We walked 11 miles that day and our trek took us further down into the canyon, along the water and then out of the canyon along a steep canyon wall. We asked Andy to hike a bit further than the day before and he delivered on our request. The afternoon was very warm and hiking through large rock fields was challenging as was our climb out of the canyon.
Both days we took time to drink plenty of water and to break for a snack before and after lunch, which we always enjoyed in the shade of a tree. We began our hikes by 8 am and finished by 3 pm giving us a few hours to relax before showers at 5 pm and dinner by 7:30.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shades of brown, rust and gray. And the sound of silence was awesome. This vast area is uninhabited by people and the only sounds we heard were the wind and the sound of our own footsteps on the rocks.
We spotted a large herd of kudu (way off in the distance), a couple of ostriches, the odd antelope and a few baboons. We saw many game trails and all kinds of tracks in the sandy soil. There is little vegetation making it necessary for animals to be on the move constantly to find food.
Birdlife was surprisingly abundant along the large pools of water, which are all that remain of the Fish River in the dry season. The damp sand along the river also provided an interesting record of the animals that come to the water to drink. Consistent with our other experiences in Namibia, travel here is more about he landscape than large numbers of wild animals. This makes individual sightings very special.
Tent Camps in the Fish River Canyon
We stayed in two tented camps in the canyon. The camps remain in place during the hiking season (April through September, roughly).
The first evening we camped in a grove of acacia trees. The camp site included four tents, toilet and bucket shower located among the trees and bushes. The outdoor kitchen was a ways away along with the dining table and fire pit.
The second camp was perched on a ledge overlooking the Fish River. Three tents along with shower and toilet were located on the lower level. The kitchen and dining area, plus fire pit were one level up. The tents for the camp staff and our guide were located on the rim of the canyon.
Cots with comfortable mattresses, sheets and comforters made for cozy sleeping. Warm water in the morning to wash up was a welcome luxury. The meals were excellent. Breakfast always included coffee, fruit, juices and yogurt followed by a hot breakfast. Sack lunches included a sandwich, energy bars, boiled egg, fruit, salty snacks and water. It was always more than we could eat.
Dinner was preceded by time to relax with a glass of wine. The meals were just as delicious as those we enjoyed in the lodge and included a starter, main course and dessert.
Our time spent in the Fish River Canyon is one we will never forget. We are both SO happy we made the trip. We have posted our photos of the Fish River Lodge and our hike into the canyon on SmugMug.
Plan with a Professional
We never would have undertaken the self-drive if not for the assistance and advice we received from Expert Africa in planning this trip (and the rest of our stay in Namibia). The Expert Africa website has detailed information on every facet of travel in Namibia, and we used it to inform our decisions. Expert Africa arranged every detail of our travel in Namibia and did not overlook even one tiny facet of our trip. Thank you Josh!
Next up: wine tasting in Namibia!