The Mysteries of the Fish River Canyon: Palm/Sulphur Springs

Sulphur Springs, Fish River Canyon. Photo: Sven-Eric Stender

The powerful grandeur of the Fish River Canyon inspires stories and legends, and feeds fantasy.

A green pocket and several prominent palm trees make Palm or Sulphur Springs an unmistakable landmark on the five-day Fish River Canyon trail.

Hot water gushes down a stream from inland at a temperature of about 57˚C. It flows into the river where hikers can find a muddy but warm spot to sit amid the rocks for a Sulphur Springs spa.

People always wonder about the clump of date palms at the hot springs and how they got there. There are several theories as to the origin of these palms, the most popular being that they originated from dates eaten by German prisoners of war.

As the story goes, four men escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Aus in 1916. The camp had been established the previous year, when Germany surrendered to Union forces.

After three weeks of walking, the men reached the Fish River Canyon via the Konkiep River, and made their way to a cave known to a member of the party. They stayed there for about two months, hunting and catching fish. It is possible that they paused and rested at the springs on their way and left date pits, which would have taken root in the fertile ground. The men were recaptured a few months later and incarcerated until the end of the war.

Another theory, also dating back to this period, is about a German cancer patient who descended into the canyon (something which is prohibited today unless on the canyon trail). He is said to have bathed in the sulphurous water every day and returned after nine months, healed.

Whatever the real story, the fact that this is the only section along the river-course where palm trees are found assures us that someone, at some time, ate the sweet fruit while enjoying the warm waters of the spring. And they either discarded or planted the date pits, which were left to grow into the magnificent trees we see today.

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