Words and photos by Roxanne Reid
The Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, in the far north-west of the Northern Cape, is the only true mountain desert in southern Africa. If you have even a small spark of wildness in your soul, here are six reasons why you should add it to your bucket list.
1. Mountain desert views
Don’t be put off by the entrance to the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park via Sendelingsdrif, which passes through areas that are being mined for diamonds. But about 30km from the entrance gate, beyond the turnoff to the Hand of God and the Oena Mine, the scenery will knock your socks off.
This is mountain desert, one of the most arid regions in South Africa. It’s a place of bizarre rock formations and theatrical vistas, of rolling hills and rugged mountains, a few zebra-stripes here or crumbling chocolate flakes there. Some of the rocks are 2000 million years old.
Best of all are the mountain passes. Drive the Halfmens, Akkedis and Domrogh passes and the widescreen views will stop you in your tracks, from stark koppies dotted with strange plants to extravagant layers of surreal pink, mauve or grey mountains laid out before you in deafening silence.
At first glance the rocky hills and sun-baked sand of the Richtersveld might seem bereft of life, but a staggering hotchpotch of plants scratch out a living here. That they survive at all is a feat; with rainfall of as little as 40mm a year, they rely on moisture from the malmokkie, or early morning fog, that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean.
Signature plants include the halfmens, a succulent with a thick spiny stem that can grow up to 3m tall, the quiver tree (kokerboom) and an amazing array of succulents, some of which resemble stones until they explode into flower. Botanists from all over the world come to study them. No wonder the park was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007.
Although scenery, mountains and plants are the major draw cards and birds play second fiddle, there are more than 200 species in the park – from rosy-faced lovebird, and Verreaux’s eagle to swallow-tailed bee-eater and tractrac chat, even water birds like fish eagle and goliath heron along the river.
There’s a mixed bag of small reptiles and mammals too. Hartmann’s mountain zebra, leopard, brown hyena, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox and klipspringer all live in the Richtersveld although you might only see their tracks in the sand.
4. Stars and sunsets
Here, where light pollution is unheard of, masses of stars cluster above you in the clear desert air, and sunsets lay on a flourish of colours from ginger to pink and deep crimson. Sit back and marvel.
The Richtersveld is one of the last places where traditional semi-nomadic stock farmers graze their goats and sheep, even inside the borders of the national park. The local communities own the land, which is leased to SANParks and managed jointly. It’s hard to imagine how the Nama shepherds survive here, but they do – as they have for some 2000 years. Next time you venture into the Richtersveld, stop and talk to them. (It helps if you speak Afrikaans.) You’ll be amazed at what you can learn from them.
Take the scenic route to the park through the Richtersveld Community Conservancy. At the little settlements of Eksteenfontein, Lekkersing or Kuboes you may be able to arrange to watch a demonstration of the Namastap dance. For the men there are daredevil intricacies with their feet and a chance to show off, for the women a slow shuffling and stepping in a circle or in lines across the ground. Being drawn into a circle of Namastap dancers is one of my fondest memories of this part of the country.
6. Wilderness chalets and camping
The campsites and wilderness camps inside the park are hard to beat for their bravura setting. Whether you’re camping at Potjiespram, De Hoop and Richtersberg along the Orange (Gariep) River or Kokerboomkloof among weird rock formations inland, at Tatasberg’s wilderness chalets on the river or Ganakouriep’s in the dry interior, the scenery is so fiercely magnificent that it’s impossible not to rediscover a lost piece of your soul.
• The quickest way to get to the entrance gate of the South African side of the |Ai|Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is via Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay, just 90km away. If you have time, a much more scenic route is through the small settlements of Kuboes, Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein, where you can stop over to meet the locals.
• You need a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle.
• You must be self-sufficient with food and medical supplies, bring your own firewood and drinking water.
• Invest in a good map and take a GPS loaded with good map software.