A trip through the Richtersveld
If you plan to visit this new South African park, read about the trip we made in july 2001, enjoy!
Where it is
The Richtersveld is the far NW end of Namaqualand in South Africa. The Gariep (Orange river) forms the Northern and Eastern physical and administrative border with Namibia. In the west it is limited by the Atlantic Ocean. From 1991 the NE mountainous corner of this area is protected as the Richtersveld National Park. The park forms arguably the most interesting unit of the Richtersveld proper and is more or less bordered by the Gariep and the VanderSterr-Rosyntjiesberg mountains in the west and south.
This inhospitable terrain has a very dry and extreme climate situated in the winter rainfall area that extends from the Cape to Luderitz in Namibia. The typical vegetation found in the Richtersveld (mountain succulent steppe) stretches northwards across the Gariep into Namibia. There are plans to consider the Richtersveld National Park and the Ai-Ais nature reserve in Namibia as one unit.
Caught between the extreme desert of the Namib and the cold Atlantic ocean, the weather swings with the prevailing wind direction, not only as a seasonal alternation, but just as well on a daily basis. Easterly mountain winds bring dry heat and dust, while westerlies bring moisture in the form of sea mists or rain from cold fronts.
During summer daytime temperatures are very high and rain is very sparse. On rare occasions a summer storm may pass. During the night however, the wind turns to the west and thick fogs penetrate the Gariep valley sometimes for over a hundred kilometre. Winters are less hot but can bring even more wind and dust. In a normal year cold front sweep in from the Atlantic and bring some rain. But there are winters where the rain is below normal or completely absent and where vegetation must survive on sea fogs alone.
There is little doubt that it is this climate that has shaped the evolution of the unique flora of this area, although the diverse geology had a likely role as well. The first obstacle the sea fogs encounter on their journey inland are the mountain chains in the west (Vandersterr berg, Rosyntjiesberg). It is these mountains that carry the wealthiest vegetation, in particular the summits. The valleys beyond and the mountains near the Orange river are far drier and have a very scant vegetation
We spend our first night on the windy campsite Potjiespram, just a Tamarisk bush on the river bank, tired from the long drive all the way from Ai-Ais in Namibia. The shepherd's dog watching us from the bushes all night.
The next morning we followed the track towards De Hoop, and very quickly found a lot of 'Halfmens' trees, Pachypodium namaquanum, most of the time growing on the south side of a steep hill. According to the legend, each Halfmens is actually the spirit of a Nama who died here while he looked back in the direction of the land he left behind on his trek. These remarkable plants all incline their heads towards the North. Although they occur throughout the park on mountaintops, it is in this northern hilly area that they occur in great numbers.
Meanwhile we have passed some very large Aloe pillansii, some reaching a height of at least 8 m. At first I didn't find it easy to distinguish between young plants ofA. pillansii and A. dichotoma(quiver tree). Adult A. pillansii are usually larger, have fewer branches, have far bigger leaves, a much wider base than A. dichotoma. In flower, A. pillansii has hanging flowers while A. dichotoma has an upright peduncle. It's the young ones that give a problem: but then I read in a booklet that the stem of young A. pillansii tends to become broader as they grow. In other words the stem near the ground is markedly thinner than say 1m above ground.
Unfortunately, A. pillansii is really an endangered species: it is estimated that perhaps as few as 200 plants remain in the wild (including Namibia). A lot of young plant succumb to goats...
The track that first followed several dry riverbeds, suddenly starts climbing strongly and passes over much rougher terrain: the start of Brown's pass. This 10 km stretch requires the utmost of driver and car, not a 4x4 (Toyota Condor). A Swiss couple in a Combi can't make it and turn back. This is a really rough mountain track where a 4x4 is really required, but with a strong car with a high clearance and a 4x4 mind, you can make it! To give you an idea: imagine a small mountain stream in the Alps, remove all the water and drive through it towards the top… The kids love all the shaking and bumping, but Carole refuses to look up again.
On top of the pass, one is rewarded with a magnificent view of the Koeroegab plain, which drains into the Gariep near De Hoop. The narrow gorge that leads towards the river gives us some more anxious moments where we have to pass across some dry waterfalls. Tomorrow we have to return the same way.
De Hoop is one of the most beautiful spots in the park. The very arid mountains bordering the Orange river, hardly have any vegetation at all. A few lonely Euphorbia virosa and reddish Aloe gariepsensis sit high on the rocks above the river. There is nobody else there and we enjoy the splendid hot afternoon with brief walks here and there, while the kids have fun near the river (I don't think there are any crocs in there). Night brings millions of stars and the distant barking of baboons and jackal. We are careful to keep all the garbage in the car, but the next morning a jackal has dug up the hole where we burried the dishwater.
The campsites Potjiespram, De Hoop, Kokerboomkloof en Die Koei, if you visit them in that order, are all a leisurely day drive from each other. And that includes frequent photo-stops. The return from De Hoop poses no problem ( it is a one-way trip because the road along the river from De Hoop to RichtersBerg has been closed) and we bounce along southwards through the Koeroegabvlakte. We see numerous Cheiridopsis, Ceraria namaquensis and some young A. pillansii along the way. The landscape is simply amazing.
After some time the track changes to an easy road across the Springbokvlakte on the way to the Tatasberg. The Tatasberg is a granite intrusion that has intruded the much older rocks that make up the buld of the Richtersveld. It has some of the most spectacular lunar landscapes in the park. Wheathering and erosion has created weird shapes in the course granite. With a bit of fantasy you can recognize the toadstool, the snake, etc…We find a beautiful spot on the campsite Kokerboomkloof near Die Toon , in the shade of a giant Granite sausage. This time we have neighbours, 2 elderly couples with brandnew Landrovers and even real 4x4 caravans specially equipped for aoff-road driving (Only in SA can you find something like that!).
After the worst heat of the afternoon has passed we wander amongst the hundred quiver trees and the jumble of round granite boulders that is called the Giant's playground. A similar type of landscape can be seen around the Spitskoppe Namibia.
The aura of this place is so intense that I can't concentrate myself on my book and I keep staring into the night sky until a immense falling star tears me from my revery.
The next morning we reluctantly leave and travel west towards our last camping spot, Die Koei near the Vander Sterrberg and Hellshoogte.
About half-way we stop near a magnificent A. pillansii surrounded by numerous Astridia longifolia on a small koppie. The more we travel west, the more succullents we see: this is definitely an indicator for increased precipitation. When you leave the plain across the easy Koeroegab pass, it is worthwhile stopping and taking a hike up the hill. These hills are simply packed with plants, at least 50 % of which are succulents. It is not hard to identify several Crassula species, Adromischus mariannieae var kubusensis, Larryleachia spec., Cotyledon orbiculata and at least three different Conophytum species (I will not attempt to identify them). On the shaded side of the hill, big botterbome (Tylecodon paniculatus) and some pretty Gasteria pillansii var. pillansii hidden amongst the rocks. A few plants look like true 'bonsai': Tylecodon reticulatus subsp. reticulatus, Tylecodon wallichii subsp. ecklonianus, and the wonderful and rare Othonna herrei.
The campsite Die Koei is situated in a dry streambed and indeed the least pleasant of the four: there is absolutely no protection against the driving wind. But we quickly set up the tents and go exploring up the Hellskloof pass that same afternoon.
Halfway up the mountain, make sure you stop when you see big shrubs of Aloe ramossissima. On the sandy soil around them, look for flowering Stapelia gariepensis and if you look really well, you may see the rare Notechidnopsis columnaris.
This rather shrubby Aloe turns to all shades of red, brown, green and even bluish in the sun. There are simply hundres of thousands of plants here. It is hard to grasp that this is one of the rarest plants on earth. But if you think about it, including a few spots across the river in Namibia, Hellshoogte is the only place where they can be found. Unfortunately we are the wrong time of the year to see them flowering (yellow and red variety): in contrast with the bulk of the Aloe species, they flower in mid-summer. We enjoy the spectacle anyway…
The next morning we descend the Hellskloof pass towards the park gate (keep that permit ready!) and follow the southerly route via Khubus, through the magnificent gorge in the Stinkfonteinberg and the (sizable) village Eksteenfontein. But before we leave the Richtersveld National park, we make a last stop near an enormous A. pillansii to end all our discussions about the actual height of some of these trees: can they attain 8 m? see for yourself ! (Leentje = 1,35m)
A few kilometres south of Eksteenfontein, look out for some more giants of Aloe pillansii against the background of the Dragon's Back Mountain.
Some practical tips:
You have to have a permit to enter the park. The number of visitors and cars are limited, so book well in advance.
For a first visit take the route Steinkopf - Port Nolloth - Alexanderbaai - Sendelingsdrif (petrol everywhere and tar to Alexanderbaai). Buy supplies in Port-Nolloth. Fill the tank at the gate in Sendelingsdrif.
Once inside the park you are on your own. Make sure you have plenty supplies of water, petrol, firewood and film! Certainly take a good shovel, because the campsites are mere signboards and have no facilities at all. There is no water, toilet, sometimes a small fireplace has been constructed. There are 4 official campsites dispersed throughout the park, they are all well indicated. It is not possible to get lost if you follow the numbered signposts.
Anything you take in, you must take back out: bring a couple of large garbage bags. Provide for any extreme of weather, very hot to very cold and wet conditions, anything may happen! Strong evening winds can ruin your dinner and dust is problem (protect your camera). In the event heavy rain would fall, make sure you leave deep riverbeds immediately, or you may not be able to get out of there for a few days (De Hoop).
If you can get them (in time), buy some maps:
My special thanks to Graham Williamson for answering my letter and giving some practical advice. He should know I met his ex-secretary in the park and we exchanged quite a bit of information!
Make your bookings through:
Aloe 27, 2, 1990
Van Wyk, Abraham E. & Smith, Gideon F. 2002, Regions of Floristic Endemism in Southern Africa, Umdaus Press
Williamson, Graham 2001. Richtersveld, the enchanted wilderness, Umdaus Press.
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