Fish River Canyon, Namibia travel guide: All quiet at the planet's second largest canyon

We arrive at the planet's second largest canyon at 6.30am, the moon still bright in the cloudless Namibian sky and the sun rising fat and yellow, behind us.

The first thing I notice is the silence. Thanks to the foresight of our guide Johannes Lekoloane and a 5.30am alarm call at the nearby Fish River Canyon Lodge, we are the only tour group here.

When I visited its larger American cousin many years ago, also at dawn, the Grand Canyon was already abuzz with light aircraft doing scenic flights and coaches drawing up at vantage points around the rim.

Here, in remote southern Namibia, we are alone, a group of four visitors from Australia and Britain, our Peregrine Adventures guide Lekoloane and driver Shadrack Marimana and two trainees, Leroy and Valdy, marching purposefully toward the canyon lip.

We can already see into the canyon's interior, a vast gape in the desert that is emerging every moment from the shadow of night. A cool desert breeze whistles up over its edges as I get my first look into its depths from a crumbled clifftop.

You can't hide from first impressions and mine is a sort of awe-struck whinny. This is one of the planet's great sights, hard to measure correctly because of its irregular shape but between 90 and 160 kilometres long, 27 kilometres broad and nearly 600 metres deep.

Formed originally by tectonic movement, when a huge block of the earth's crust subsided and created a trench, the flow of glaciers (hard to fathom in the present arid environs) also shaped the upper canyon and then, during the break-up of Gondwanaland, 210 million years ago, when Africa and South America separated, the rise of continental edges caused an increase in the canyon's gradient.

Fish River is one of the few canyons on earth fashioned by a combination of tectonic, volcanic, climactic and erosional forces.

It is also, in places, almost half the age of the planet, its base rock dating back 2 billion years, the canyon itself forming 350 million years ago.

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As we walk along its ramparts, the veil of shadows gradually recedes over the canyon, the ox-bow shape of the Fish River beginning to appear far below, the cliffs above it drawn and pleated, the tops of several outcrops appearing as brown and round as crust on freshly baked bread.

By the time we reach the viewpoint 45 minutes later, where hot tea and coffee and biscuits await, the fissure is almost fully revealed by the sunrise, and other visitors are arriving.

We visit Fish River Canyon on day 11 of our 15-day "Classic Namibia" tour with Peregrine Adventures. Getting here, the previous day, involves an eight-hour drive from Sossusvlei, in the Namib desert, with brief stops to stretch our legs, photograph a bright yellow cape cobra by the roadside and for lunch at the dusty town of Bethanie.

The drive may be long but it is anything but dull. Throughout the journey, sandstone mesas and buttes rise up like colossal tankers from the desert floor, many as long and flat as celestial banqueting tables, dwarfing that famous little knoll behind Cape Town.

We arrive at our accommodation, set amid jumbles of granite boulders, 20 kilometres east of the Fish River canyon, as the late afternoon sun is losing its ferocity yet illuminating the surrounds in intense honeyed hues.

The Canyon Lodge is the most exceptional place that we stay in Namibia, 25 stone chalets, with thatched roofs, hewn into the enfolding rock and scattered around the rubbly terrain, set within the 1250-square-kilometre Gondwana Canyon National Park.

The lodge, built in 1996, is on the site of Karios farm, where Bavarian brothers Alfons and Stephan Schanderl sought to build an empire based on sheep and goats in 1908, before being forced to flee Namibia following the First World War, when South Africa took control here.

Their original farmhouse is now the lodge's reception and restaurant area, with an old tiled stove and original farm implements on show. There is even a metal bedhead on the roof – a Bavarian sign for a batchelor waiting for a wife, marked 1913.

We may have come principally to see the canyon, but for the rest of the day we dwell by the lodge pool, constructed, out on a limb, beneath an outcrop of massive boulders, or on the stone terrace, looking across at the conical peak of Spiegelberg mountain in the distance.

We also spend time clambering up a couple of clusters of huge rounded rocks, that look for all the world like giant's playthings, haphazardly discarded in piles.. Some are so neatly eroded they could be used for oversized games of marbles, others split asunder or broken into perfect halves, their insides glinting silver in the sunshine.

A day that begins before sunrise at Fish River Canyon ends with sundowners at the top of a tumble of rocks at the lodge, with the colours in the rocks magnified and deepened and the shadows of the encroaching night creeping back across the desert plain, gradually unravelling a Namibian night sky that's as big and starry as any I've ever seen.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/namibia

namibiatourism.com.na

See also: Beyond the Grand Canyon - 10 other spectacular canyons and gorges

See also: On board 'the world's most luxurious train' through another planet

FLY

South African Airways has daily flights from Perth to Johannesburg and on to Windhoek. Fares from the east coast start at $1720. See www.flysaa.com  

TOUR

Peregrine Adventures' 15-day "Classic Namibia" trip visits Fish River Canyon with regular departures from the capital Windhoek, from $5595 a person, twin share.

 See www.peregrineadventures.com/en-au/namibia/classic-namibia-102183​ 

STAY

Canyon Lodge at Keetmanshoop has bungalows from $164 a night. See  www.gondwana-collection.com 

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures and with assistance from South African Airways.

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