Does this have the Grand Canyon beat?

Story highlights

  • Namibia's Fish River Canyon is 500 million years old
  • Several tours offer mule treks into the canyon
  • Nearby is the Quiver Tree Forest, home to a unique aloe species
Namibia's Fish River Canyon looks petite to anyone who's ever visited Arizona's Grand Canyon. Still, the gorge runs an impressive 1,800-feet deep and 100 miles long. It is the second largest natural gorge in Africa, and one of the most picturesque scenes the continent has to offer. Here's why you should visit the Fish River Canyon right now.
The Quiver Tree Forest
The striking quiver tree, or kokerboom, is unique to Namibia, and only found in the southern part of the country. A species of aloe, the quiver tree is renowned for its unique, sculptural beauty. The name comes from the fact that local bushman traditionally used the tree's quills to make their quivers.
Nearly 300 trees congregate in the Quiver Tree Forest, 124 miles from the Fish River Canyon, and a handy stopping-off point for anyone making the long trek out to the remotely situated gorge.
Giant's Playground
Nearby the Quiver Tree Forest is the area known as Giant's Playground, so called because of the stacked arrangements of massive, dolerite rocks that can't help but look placed by human (or giant) hands. As it happens, the maze-like formations are completely natural.
"This area is sub-volcanic. It was a shallow sea millions of years ago," explains Marian Hulme, the owner of the local rest camp and caretaker of the forest.
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"Lava pushed up and cooled down underneath the water. After the water disappeared, it opened up with erosion and [formed] like this," she says.
In addition to these natural sculptures, Hulme's father, who was a caretaker before her, created art from stones and recycled materials. Hulme keeps up the tradition.
"Everything here tells a story. That's the idea [behind the art]," she says.
You can mule trek
Many tour operators offer two-to-five day mule treks. Visitors can explore the area with a guide on foot, while mules carry the load of their baggage.
Mannfred Goldbeck, a local historian and CEO of tourism venture The Gondwana Collection, launched the Canyon Mule Trail years ago.
"I looked at the Grand Canyon and saw how they do it there, and just adapted it," he explains.
"We are constantly looking for activities that are soft adventure, and have a minimum impact on the environment. We are giving this area back to nature. We have to be the custodians of this area for generations to come," he says.
Eco-tourism
While the canyon -- parts of which are 500 million years old -- remained unchanged for millennia, Goldbeck explains the arrival of European settlers in the 18th century had an unsettling effect on the canyon's ecosystem. Years of over-hunting and over-grazing took their toll, and a lot of local flora and fauna started to disappear from the area.
"The first explorers came in and they disrupted the balance that existed here. This is a very dry area, and only gets some rain [two to four inches yearly]," says Goldbeck.
In addition to its tours, The Gondwana Collection has created a private nature reserve in the area, and built several eco-lodges around the canyon. Goldbeck says the operative's aim is threefold.
"Tourism was secondary," he explains.
"Our first idea was to protect this area. We also wanted to bring people back into the area that once lived here. We had three legs: environmental, financial and social. Without any one, the pot will not stand."