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Two great rivers Southwest Africa

Depending on whom you talk to it's either the second largest canyon in Africa, after the Blue Nile Gorge of Ethiopia, or the second largest in the world after Arizona's Grand Canyon.

Depending on whom you talk to it's either the second largest canyon in Africa, after the Blue Nile Gorge of Ethiopia, or the second largest in the world after Arizona's Grand Canyon. But regardless of where it ranks in the geographic hierarchy, the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia is one whopping big hole. More than 160km long, 25km wide, and half a kilometre deep it slices through layers of sedimentary rock that span at least 1,000 million years of geological time. Rocks now exposed in the base of the canyon were deposited during the Proterozoic Era when the first simple forms of life, little more than clumps of organic molecules, were learning how to procreate in the earth's primordial oceans. Higher in the canyon's walls layer after layer of younger rocks – shales, sandstones, conglomerates – contain a fossil record of the creatures, now long extinct, that inhabited the shallow sea that once covered this part of the globe.

Despite its size the Fish River Canyon sneaks up on you without warning. After driving for hours across the monotonously flat semi-arid upland of central Namibia we arrived at a viewpoint on the canyon rim and suddenly there it was – a sweeping vista across the winding inner canyon to the distant rim of the outer canyon. This spectacular gash in the earth is actually a canyon within a canyon. The comparatively straight outer canyon was formed by faulting when the region was uplifted by tectonic forces and the accumulated pile of marine sediments was raised high above sea level. The ancestral Fish River set a shallow meandering course across the flat bottom of this fault-bounded rift valley and as uplift continued the river compensated by eroding deeper into its bed. And over the next 50 million years or so it carved out the winding inner canyon which amplifies but faithfully preserves the twists and turns of the river's original course.

It was late afternoon when Betty, Odie and I arrived at Hikers Viewpoint. With only three of us we had the flexibility to set our own agenda and the luxury of being totally self contained. Odie, our hard-working South African guide, agreed to drive the landcruiser south to the next viewpoint and start dinner there while Betty and I hiked back along the canyon rim. A sign beside a trail leading into the canyon warns hikers not to go down.

Although we hiked only about five kilometers along the rim of the outer canyon the tightly meandering inner canyon offered an ever-changing kaleidoscope of switchbacks, cliffs, and narrow-crested ridges. Except for sparse euphorbia bushes and a few quivertrees there is no vegetation on either the plateau surface or the canyon walls. A lone dassie, basking on a sunny ledge, was the only other living thing we saw on our short hike. These strange little animals, the worlds smallest hoofed mammal, look more like Whistler marmots than elephants. Yet biologists, in their scientific wisdom, claim that dassies, or rock hyrax, are the African tuskers’ closest living relative.

By the time we caught up to Odie she had a braai sizzling on the grill. The three of us each cracked open a beer and watched the long evening shadows creep into the canyon while we waited for dinner to cook. I asked Odie about the trail leading down into the canyon. Hikers Viewpoint, she told us, is the starting point for one of the most demanding hikes in Africa – the place where self-contained backpackers descend into the canyon for a 90km hike along the riverbed to Ai-Ais. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) limits access to one group per day and hikers must book months in advance. They must also come with a certificate of fitness signed by their doctor, and convince MET that they have the experience and equipment to handle the demanding terrain and extreme temperatures. Once in the canyon there is no easy way back out.

Ironically this massive canyon, carved out of solid rock by rushing torrents of water, cuts through what is now one of the most arid regions on earth. After finishing our meal and packing up the Toyota for the drive to Ai-Ais we sat on the canyon rim and watched the sunset. Far below us the last rays of the sun caught the surface of a small pond. For a few minutes it glowed with a brilliant gold light and then faded into the darkening void. Like the other rivers within Namibia the Fish River flows only during the wet season. But unlike the others it retains pools of standing water throughout the year and there is evidence that stone-age humans used these water sources as early a 50,000 years ago. How those primitive people survived remains a mystery. But somehow they were able to live in a place so inhospitable that only a few well-equipped modern campers dare to venture through it.

It took almost two hours to drive the circuitous route across the plateau and down to Ai-Ais Restcamp and it was well after dark when we set up our tents on the lawn in front of the lodge. Ai-Ais, "burning water" in the Nama language, is located at the south end of the Fish River Canyon, where the valley opens into a lush bottomland covered with camel-thorn, tamarisk and ebony trees. This small, green oasis is nourished by wells and local springs, including the hot sulphur spring that gives the place its name. We intended to leave Ai-Ais early the next morning but the local gas station was out of diesel.

"When will you be getting some?" Odie asked.

"No idea," the attendant shrugged.

A long-distance trucker, who was also stuck, speculated that so much fuel had been bought by black-market speculators that the whole region was dry. Betty and I walked back to the lodge for a second coffee and Odie went on a quest for fuel. It was almost noon before she had scrounged enough from other drivers to get us to our next camp.

The temperature was a stifling 40 C when we arrived at Felix Unite Campsite on the Namibian side of the Orange River. Although the plateau and surrounding hills are parched and treeless the valley itself supports a lush growth of reeds, shrubs and trees – a narrow ribbon of green winding through a stark brown rockscape. The Orange River, which forms the border with South Africa, is unlike the rivers within Namibia in that it flows throughout the year. It heads far to the east where heavy rainfall in the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal give the river enough momentum to make it across the dry interior of southern Africa all the way to the Atlantic. It is South Africa's longest and largest river – a river that carries diamonds as well as water.

Along its 1,800km course through South Africa the Orange River has added diamonds from the volcanic pipes in Kimberly to the sand and gravel of its bed. For millions of years these tough bits of crystalline carbon have tumbled downstream into the Atlantic, where ocean currents sweep them northward into the dunes and offshore sands of the Namib. The process is still going on and it has made Namibia one of the worlds leading sources of gem-quality diamonds.

The Felix Unite Campsite, located about 10km upstream from the main border crossing at Noordoewer, is perched on a low terrace only a few metres above river level. Our tent site, overlooking the river to the rocky hills of South Africa, has the luxury of a braai pit, a tap, and a table shaded by a thatched arbor. The camp also runs "guided kayak trips" on the river and early the next morning we helped Ian load three boats onto a trailer and drove to a launch site 20km upstream. Except for the feathered double-ended paddles the gear bears no resemblance to what we call kayaks here on the B.C. coast. With no top deck the boats are basically open canoes made of incredibly heavy fiberglass. Floatation is provided by two sealed five-gallon pails lashed into midships with bungy cords – stable, indestructible, and tourist-proof.

Boosted by a gentle current we followed Ian, our official river guide, through shallow, braided channels lined with tall reeds where ducks and long-legged herons abandoned their feeding to let us pass – reluctantly taking flight in a clatter of wings and noisy complaints. We bounced through a few easy rapids but the trip was tranquil and relaxing rather than exciting. In no hurry, we took our time, stopping a few places for pictures, and stretching the 20km paddle into a full day on the river. At one of our many stops Betty and Odie went for a swim while Ian and I checked out the gravel for diamonds. We didn't really expect to find any but according to Ian the odd one still turns up. Besides it was a welcome excuse to spin out the day, our last one in Namibia. Early next morning we would be crossing over the Orange River into South Africa and starting our long drive to Cape Town.