Tackling the Fish

For 5 million years, water and sand’s been carving its way down the Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world, almost 550 metres deep in places.  Catch a glimpse of it in the photo below.  On the 22nd June 2013 it was our turn to tackle this popular five-day hike in a 1 day 100km trail run format.


In my previous blog post, I promised to tell all about the highs and lows of last weekend’s outing, The Fish River 100km Ultra.  So, here goes my third blog post.

The Fish River Canyon 100km Ultra added an extra dimension to ultra-racing: a very remote location in southern Namibia.  From my home town Cape Town, I drove 900 odd kilometers to get to the start, ran 100 kays mostly on soft sand and boulders, followed by the first leg in reverse: driving back home.  Unlike professional athletes who have the means to allocate many days to a race, us enthusiastic amateurs have to cover the whole trip in as little time possible off work.

The long drive did fulfill a role though.  Other than the obvious, it prepped my mind for the even longer day that would follow, as a big psychological barrier in ultra-races is a sense of little progress.  This feeling sinks in heavily when terrain is not conducive to fast forward progress.

So, sitting in the car for hours got my brain into ultra-mode, without tiring my body, breaking the distance to go into small chunks, progressing one chunk at a time.  It really helps that the N7 freeway north to Namibia is a relaxing route.  Especially the last 60 kays to the border post, when the scenery becomes a real treat and traffic diminishes.  So pulling off to the side of the road to stretch my legs, I got to experience a peaceful quiet that does not exist in the city.

Crossing the border into Namibia at Vioolsdrift, I opted for the scenic route and swopped the main road for dirt roads.  Heading straight into a space that seemed and felt like the middle of nowhere.  If you’ve not been to Namibia, it is hard to imagine how those spaces stretch out forever and ever.  I stopped many more times to soak up the silence and vastness of it all.

Eventually the breathtaking Fish River Canyon stretched out in front of me, with only 40 kays of my road trip left.  I was mesmerized by the sheer size of the canyon and tried to take photos for you, but photos can not capture and do justice to its gigantic size and beauty.

Finally I pulled up to the race village, set up by the organizers African Extreme Promotions, which offered endless views of the majestic canyon, that would soon become our challenge.  The location was by far the best I’ve ever had the privilege to call my base.  See the photo below, showing our tents pitched on the edge of the canyon.  I eagerly carted my togbag to my allocated tent and soon joined the rest of the entrants and crew in the social area.

race village

I leaned forward to peer far into the canyon and realized the next day’s task was not going to be an easy one.  And it wasn’t.  Taking in the width of the canyon, combined with very high canyon walls, put the task into perspective for me.  It dawned on me that the challenge will be to pick the best running lines and navigate, whilst keeping an eye on the rough underfoot terrain, without stopping.

That afternoon, my friends Cornel de Jongh, Cole Stanton and I decided to tackle the big day together.  To share the responsibility of navigation and to give each other much-needed support and encouragement.

The day started with perfect running weather.  Nice and cool, but not too cold.  The field was small: 25 runners in the 100km race.  The winner, the talented local Fanuel Kapapero Thinyemba, made his mark by taking the lead after 5 kays…we never saw him again on route!

The first 10km was easy dirt road running along the edge of the canyon, followed by a tricky 2km descent into the canyon.  We took the descent very easy, no need to fall and injure oneself this early in the day.  Now we were faced by a 16km giant-boulder field and our progress slowed down quite a bit.  At the pre-race briefing we were told that the terrain eases up after the giant-boulders.  Well, it did, sort of.  However, our new challenge was running on legs that endured a boulder pounding, so now easier was a relative concept indeed.  What followed was smaller boulders, strewn across large patches of thick, soft sand.  Lots of soft sand…and that was the terrain for most of the rest of our journey.


In the time period leading up to the race, the canyon had very little rain, resulting in the cancellation of all hiking in the canyon, which is a very popular hiking trail with groups booked long in advance to set off every day.  This meant that the hiking paths were not well cleared by recent hikers, which made our pathfinding task more difficult.  It is worth mentioning that the race organizers describe the event as an adventure race, in addition to it being an ultra-trail run, due to the navigational challenges involved.  For us three, sticking together was a wise decision, as three brains and pairs of eyes spot trail much better than one!  We plotted our way with a Google Earth map printout, GPS and common sense.

A big treat was seeing The Wild Horses Of The Desert on two occasions.  We spotted leopard foot prints a few times, but did not manage to see these shy, elusive cats.

Eventually the sun started dipping into the west and we had about 16 kays left to cover in the dark.  Fortunately the night sky was lit up by a Super Full Moon (the closest full moon of the year) and that sight made every step worth it.  In this last stretch, the canyon becomes very wide and as a result navigation more difficult.  Luckily for us, we caught up with ladies running the shorter race (65km option).  Low and behold, one of them had eleven canyon hikes to her credit, so she knew the tricky way out like the palm of her hand.  We stuck with these heaven-sent angels and so were guided to the finish at Ai-Ais Resort, without getting lost, at 8.30pm after starting the day at 6.15am.

The Fish River Canyon 100km Ultra is a must do for any trail runner who wants to experience an adventure in an incredible and unique setting.  When the going gets tough, taking a moment to soak up the amazing surrounding natural beauty, will fuel you with energy to keep going.

In my next blog post, I will share the lessons learnt from The Fish River 100km Ultra and talk a bit about the moments and days following such a challenging ultra-event.

Happy running.

6 Responses to Tackling the Fish

  1. Philip Boardman 01/07/2013 at 2:58 PM #

    Baie dankie vir ‘n goeie beskrywing van die Vis. Was daar, het die T-hemp (‘n baie Mooie nogal!) 15e – ‘n hele paar uur na jou. Maar vir my was dit ook ‘n baie spesiale gebeurtenis in my lewe!! Philip Boardman

    • Marius van Zyl 01/07/2013 at 4:36 PM #

      Hi Philip. Geluk met jou finish, wat ‘n lekker gevoel. Ek is bly jy het my post geniet. Sterkte vir jou volgende avontuur. Marius.

  2. Roelf 03/07/2013 at 8:41 AM #

    Nice one Marius! After reading your blog my feet started itching again :-)

  3. Peter 18/07/2013 at 5:35 PM #

    Hi Marius, thank you for the great trip down memory lane. It was my second Fish Ultra and the experience even better. Hope to see you next year?

    • Marius van Zyl 19/07/2013 at 4:35 AM #

      Hi Peter. Well done on finishing two in a row. The Fish was an amazing experience. See you next year!

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