Ai-Ais: The sheltering desert

During the Second World War, when South Africa’s armed forces took over South-West Africa, two German geologists and their loyal dog escaped internment by hiding in the desert for two years.

Despite the inevitable hardships, Henno Martin, Hermann Korn and their hound Otto found solace and meaning, far away from the cities and madness of war. Martin’s book The Sheltering Desert is one of the all-time survival classics, and must-read for nature lovers and visitors to Namibia.

Their story epitomizes the natural attraction of desert life, and I kept thinking of their adventures while spending two weeks in the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in the south of Namibia.

This is pure desert. Temperatures in summer exceed 50 degrees Celsius, and drop below freezing in winter. Evaporation rates are among the highest in the world at over 5 000 mm per year, while average rainfall is barely 50mm.

On paper, this is the last place you’d want to spend your holiday. Yet the beauty of the landscape, the sparsity of life, the endless horizons and the sheer natural glory makes this cross-border conservation area enormously popular with adventurous visitors. For reasons known only to desert devotees, these arid lands inspire a near-spiritual devotion in everyone who goes there.

“And we looked at the wilderness and the world with new eyes. New questions were written in the skies, and the spirit of the intellectual adventure filled the barren mountains and the gloomy gorges,” wrote Henno Martin. “This revelation itself was surely another astonishing proof of the marvelous capacity of life to transcend, even under the most stringent conditions, the realm of mere existence? We were able to identify ourselves with the animals and the plants that snatched beauty and joy from the barren desert. We were no longer alone.”

It’s this sense of connection to nature that draws people to the Richtersveld and Ai-Ais National Parks. Together, both parks conserve about 6 000 square kilometres of spectacular desert mountain scenery – about 75% of the park is in Namibia, and 25% in South Africa.

The concept of transfrontier parks makes perfect sense in many ways. Ecologically, the two parks are almost identical, with similar species of plants and animals, and similar climates. Managing the area holistically contributes to its preservation in the long term.

There are also benefits to the visitor, who can now access both the Namibian and South African side, using the pont at Sendelingsdrif to cross the Orange River easily.

Before the pont was built, visitors would have to drive a detour of 500 kilometres through the main border post at Noordoewer. Just remember your passport, because you will have to have it stamped at immigration on either side of the river.

Without doubt, the main attraction at Ai-Ais National Park in Namibia is the Fish River Canyon, one of the biggest in the world. The 300 million old geological formation is 550 metres deep in places, and meanders for about 90kms in length. The widest point is about 27kms.

From the visitor viewpoint above the canyon meanders from the northern to southern horizon, a fearsome assemblage of rocky cliffs, ridges and plummeting depths.

A few years ago I walked the famous five-day Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail during winter, but this past year the trail has been closed because the river was bone dry after a recent drought.

During summer, the trail is always closed. Park ranger Wayne Handley told me how – despite plenty of warning - foolish visitors sometimes tried to walk down into the canyon during summer time, only to die from dehydration and sun exposure.

“We once had to helicopter a dead Frenchman out of the canyon. After two days his body had turned pitch black from the sunburn, as if he’d been roasted on a braai. Very little can survive down there.”

But the mornings and evenings are always cool, and the daytime heat is a “dry-heat”, because humidity is very low.

I stayed at NWR’s Ai-Ais camp for a few days, where hot springs bubble out from deep within the earth. (Ai-Ais means, appropriately, “very hot” in the Nama language, and the water is about 60 degrees Celsius).

In winter, when it gets really cold, visitors come to enjoy the warm baths. (At Klein Aus Vista Lodge in the north, snow has been recorded several times during the past few decades!)

There are some fully equipped chalets at Ai-Ais, and a great restaurant and bar.

The best views of the canyon, however, are near Hobas camp, which is further north. This is a smaller, simpler camp, but more in keeping with the wilderness surroundings. Be sure to chat to camp manager Eric Gubula, who has been here for several years, and knows the area better than anyone.

Visitors can also stay at the more upmarket Gondwana Private Game Reserve, about twenty kilometres from the entrance to the canyon. There are several accommodation options, but the best is Canyon Lodge, with several semi-luxury thatched chalets interspersed among massive granite boulders.

For Namibia Wildlife Resorts, go to For Gondwana Canyon Lodge, go to For Klein Aus Vista, go to

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