If I were to name my top 10 places to visit in the world, the Richtersveld, in far north-west South Africa, would be one of them. It’s remarkable for its disguised nothingness, which in reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
When rocks formed over hundreds of thousands, millions and billions of years, tumble together in a muddle of almost every geological process known to man, the force of millennia comes washing over you. It’s weighted by the unfathomable passage of time, yet feels liberating in its ability to make you feel inconsequential. It puts human life on earth into the insignificance it deserves.
A FEELING OF INSIGNIFICANCE
I love vast uninhabited spaces and nowhere in South Africa epitomises this more than the Richtersveld mountain desert. The vistas of hazy, layered mountain ranges are endless, but look at the detail beneath your feet, and in a vein of glinting, white quartz you might see tiny white endemic succulents, that mirror their surrounding to remain almost unseen.
There are plants here, so adapted to this arid desert, that their inner temperature can reach 72°C and still remain alive! You’ll see flaky sedimentary mud layers, black volcanic lava, glinting granite outcrops, sandstone boulders like a giants’ playground, valleys of sand, rivers so saline drinking it would kill you and metamorphic rock that has reinvented itself several times over. All this creates a bewildering variety of scenery, but also hide the most precious stones known to man – diamonds!
THE NAMA PEOPLE OWN THIS LAND
The Richtersveld National Park belongs to the Nama people. Their language contains just 5 clicks, as opposed to the 40+ clicks the San Bushmen’s various dialects, although evolved through the same genetics up here in the very north-west corner of South Africa.
DON’T COME IN SUMMER…IT’S WAY TOO HOT
The Richtersveld is where the Orange River forms the border with Namibia and an old-fashioned pont transports people and vehicles over the river without much border fuss at Sendlingsdrift Camp inside the park. Both riverbanks banks are situated within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Conservation Area; a transfrontier park encompassing national parks of two neighbouring countries with tourism products accessible on both sides. More info here. Further upriver is the largest table grape farm in Africa, with rows of vines running for many kilometers. With an average temperature of 24°C (76°F), and over 30°C (86°F) for 60% of the year, and the hottest ever temperature recorded in South Africa at 47 °C (117 °F), this farm ripens its grapes several months before anyone else and they jet off into the fruit bowls of Europe in November.
A 4×4 is pre-requisite for travelling through most of the park, with tracks or riverbeds strewn with immoveable rocks and soft sandy trails rutted so deep, it’s easy to sink into the sea of sand. But travel-less-easy allows you to reach places few people visit and that’s the joy of being in the Richtersveld. Who needs ablutions? Some camps have nothing whatsoever, others have the solar showers, toilets and running water. But use water with care as it has to be transported far to these camps because the underground water is too salty to use.
MY FAVOURITE SPOTS
My favourite camps inside Richtersveld National Park are Richtersberg camp site on the grassy banks of the Orange River, Kokerboomkloof camp site in a giant’s playground of sandstone boulders and Ganakouriep Wilderness Camp for its golden-hued valley amongst mountains. But there are more outside the National Park in community conservancies and the World Heritage Site. It’s a bit confusing to know which designated area you are driving in around here, as there are community lands and the National Park, some of which are buffer zones around the Richtersveld World Heritage Site, created for its cultural and biological landscape. And, amongst all this pristine beauty there are still dusty, dirty, noisy, working diamond mining concessions, that have agreements to continue mining.
I’ve literally just scratched the surface of the blissful, crazy, flora, geology and spiritual remoteness here, so look out for a full article about the Richtersveld in Travel Africa Magazine (one of the 2021 editions), so buy a copy or do a search for it.
Also take a look at these article I wrote many years ago; the Wetter the Better . And if you understand Afrikaans, take a look at the ENCA news clip for a TV extract, the only English language part from me at the end of the reel, all about canoeing down the glorious Orange River, with Bushwhacked Outdoor Adventures. They have a delightfully relaxed, quirky camp on the banks of the river, with wholesome fire-cooked food and birds aplenty for enthusiasts, like the Orange River white eye.
Every South African I talk to – and they love their road trips – has the Richtersveld on their bucket list. Is it on yours? Feel free to contact me for advice in planning your trip – firstname.lastname@example.org