Lying on a sun soaked boulder with a cold drink in hand, watching the full moon rise over the eastern mountains and the sky cast a pink glow over the Kokerboom “forest”, our final evening in the Richtersveld heralded just one more surprise on our incredible adventure…. a huge dust storm that descended and enveloped us all in an eerie light and a fine layer of desert dust. With not much water to go round at this remote inland camp site, it was time to fully embrace the desert life and head to bed with a body full of dust and a head full of memories…
After a tumultuous year, the call of the wild rang loud, so when experienced 4x4ing friends invited us to join them on an epic escape to the Richtersveld in late October we were quick to say yes… and deal with the consequences of our decision at a later stage! Our destination, one of the oldest desert regions in the world and a region known for its’ rugged landscapes and harsh climate, is where pioneering adventurers, curious travellers and intrepid explorers wander. With only a few tame camping trips under our belt and zero bush camping or 4x4ing experience, our family of four are not the usual suspects for this sort of adventure, but the beauty of meeting new friends is that they often challenge you to try new things and these friends are the type to push you right out of your comfort zone…
For a few weeks prior to the trip we were nervous about everything – the vehicle, the drive, the food prep, the packing, the scorpions, the climate, the ablutions (or lack of them!) After a year of fear it felt almost normal to worry constantly… as we were to discover these were all unfounded!
When the day finally dawned and we headed off up the N7 towards the north-western corner of South Africa, there was a tangible feeling of freedom as we left the fear behind along with the pressures of city living in the midst of a pandemic and moved towards wide open spaces and no cell phone signal.
As a concession to us first time 4x4ers in the group we initially had two nights booked at The Growcery camp site on the edge of the Orange River to recover from the 700km journey. An emerald jewel in the lunar landscape, here we were able to enjoy hot showers, lush green grass, flushing toilets and ice cold beers, luxuries indeed.
This rest stop meant a morning swim to Namibia across the Orange River, an afternoon nap in the breeze under the trees and a gentle canoe up the river and cruise back while watching the red bishops sway in the reeds. Before heading off into the desert frontier we stocked up on fresh salad ingredients from their abundant vegetable gardens and plenty of braai wood for our onward journey.
On leaving our first camp we headed inland through the Nababiep Valley where we marvelled at the layers of history recorded in the geological wonders. We enjoyed lunch overlooking the river where we swam in the deep cool pools of the Orange River – the perfect antidote to the 40 degree air.
Despite the sweltering heat and searing sand we hopped out the car to explore the incredible Petroglyphs etched in the earth by the San people and built a cairn to mark our crossing of the Helskloof pass.
In this barren place it was a marvel to discover that life continues – white butterflies drifted past our windows, black scorpions scuttled over the road and a ground squirrel sought shelter beneath a rock. Despite first impressions, signs of life were everywhere.
On our arrival in the Richtersveld Community Conservancy area we stopped at the tourist office in Eksteenfontein to pay our community fees before heading down a little explored road towards the abandoned mine at Fluorspar.
This equally large southern neighbour to the Richtersveld National Park has been returned to the people who have survived in this remote land for generations, to own and manage. They have set aside this area to be conserved for research and tourism while continuing their traditional transhumant lifestyle – where they migrate seasonally with their livestock of sheep, goats and donkeys and make use of a fragile succulent ecosystem. This is the last place where the traditional way of life of the Khoikhoi (of whom the Nama are the largest surviving clan) survives. On our trip we were lucky enough to meet Dickson and Maria, a Nama couple who have been together for 7 years, and who were very proud to show us their herd of 7 goats and 40 sheep plus a few bedraggled dogs and one enthusiastic puppy.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, this area is not subject to diamond mining and is the more pristine of the two areas. It offers some of southern Africa’s most untouched hiking, 4×4 driving and camping opportunities. Here we slept beneath the stars in a dry river bed surrounded by silence and hills scattered with Kokerboom. The kids in our group were crazy for the piles of ancient green rocks the valley is named for and the space to play, mask-free!
At Tierhoek we set up camp beneath huge boulders and let the kids loose to explore the surrounding caves. Just a few km’s from our first bush camp, it was incredible to see the changes in terrain from one valley to another. Here the flat, sandy plain was filled with alien-looking vegetation and delicate desert flowers. This was a great place to wake in the early hours (once the moon had set) to stare at the infinite starry sky imaging the many generations of nomadic people who had also spent the night in this exact place. Before the blazing heat of the day descended we hiked to the top of the mountain, scrambling up through the crags and cracks of the rocks, to enjoy panoramic views over the vast plain.
From there we headed towards the Richtersveld Nature Reserve gate and on towards Sendelingsdrift, a small mining town set on the banks of the Orange River. After checking in and completing all the required paperwork at the SANParks reception area, we managed to have a quick visit to the incredible succulent nursery headed up by SANParks’ Pieter van Zyl.
An expert on the area, Pieter has himself discovered 23 species of plants, his latest discovery, made just the month before our meeting, is a 3m high succulent discovered in the mountains above Richtersberg. He is currently writing a book about his discoveries and his love for this land which started at the age of 14 and was inspired by his Grandmother who had a vast knowledge of the traditional medicinal plants used by the Nama people. Pieter has worked at Sendelingsdrift for eight years and is one of the few non-Nama who can now read and write the Nama language. We couldn’t miss this unique opportunity to buy a rare succulent for our collection (although my husband was less pleased about having to transport it on the rest of our journey!)
The next stage of our drive, from Sendelingsdrift to Richtersberg via De Hoop, was certainly the most challenging, but by this stage we were quite experienced 4x4ers and enjoyed the two mountain passes, sandy river bed and the final road of razor-sharp rocks as it allowed us to fully test out the capabilities of the Fortuner Epic.
Finally, after a bumpy ride, we arrived again at an Orange River oasis with grassy banks and views across to Namibia. The lush contrast that the river brings to the arid surroundings make a stay on its’ edge essential. The cool river provides endless entertainment for children. Swimming, inflatable boat races and abundant fishing for telapia and yellow fish kept them all busy so that the adults were able to spend time reading in the hammock, snoozing in the shade and slowing down enough to enjoy the birdlife – pied kingfisher hovering over a potential catch, masked weavers making nests and fish eagles calling to claim their territory.
Days here are quiet and slow, the shadows shifting across the volcanic mountains and the river receding as the heat rose to full mid-afternoon intensity. To escape the heat we took drives from camp to discover desert secrets such the hidden valley that leads to the Tatasberg view point. Here layers of lava rocks lie alongside massive boulders and shimmering sandstone cliffs. We took shelter from the blazing hot sun under the perfect “shepherds tree” to enjoy our afternoon drink and discovered the surprising difference this shade made! Then we sat back to soak in the silence and seclusion of this copper-tinged valley with views across the infinite gorges and mountains of the vast Namib.
After 4 nights riverside, we wound our way inland through kloofs of burnt black rocks and stark baked earth. The landscape ever evolving to reveal more wild, raw beauty. Our final night on our epic escape was spent at Kokerboomkloof… a surreal spot where the silence is astounding and the plant life fascinating. Favoured by photographers for the Kokerboom “forest” and some of the best rock formations in the Richtersveld, the light here is particularly beautiful and we were lucky to watch a full moon rise behind the boulders and experience a desert dust storm descend at dusk as the colours of the day dissolved.
As we packed up camp early on our final morning for the epic 14 hour drive home into the shimmering horizon, we realised something we’d been warned about, a certain addiction had set in… for the untamed and the unpredictable. The journey to these places may be long, the destination may be dusty, but the reward will always be great and it is a privilege to drive these little explored roads and to visit these wild, pure places that few people get to experience.
The Hand of God rock formation is one of the great artworks of the Richtersveld. Sculptured into the schist rock face, since the discovery of this hand-like eroded rock formation the locals have believed this is a sign from God. The rock belongs to the Namaqualand Metamorphic Province, a subgroup of Orange River Group that serves as the basement rock for the entire region. These are mineral rich rocks that formed through volcanism and which were subsequently subjected to erosion and intense folding, deformation and volcanic intrusion. The ages of these formations range from 700 million to 1 billion years ago placing them in the late Proterozoic to early Cambrian eras.
The incredible ancient Petroglyph engravings of the San people can be found in several places in the Richtersveld such as the Nababieb valley. The majority of these date back at least 2 000 years while some engravings are as old as 10 000 years. They are geometric in design and incorporate dots, spirals and grids. It is thought that the ancestors of the San chipped these engravings on the black dolomite rocks in the first stage of Shamanism – a trance like state brought about through dance.
The Richtersveld is one of the Earth’s richest resevoirs of plant life and it is a treasure-chest of desert flora. A staggering assortment of plant life (approximately 4 849 species, some occurring nowhere else on earth), is found here – mainly succulent and aloe species. The unique vegetation of this part of the world an example of one of the most interesting mega-ecosystems of the world, the succulent Karoo.
This is one of the world’s richest succulent areas and there is no desert flora on the planet possessing similar richness of species. On a surface area of one square kilometre more than 360 plant species of flowering plants are found at a site with an average rainfall of less than 50mm per year – although 2020 has been a record year for rainfall in the area.
Iconic plant species to see include the “halfmens” succulent – an iconic feature of the park and a botanical wonder of the world, this succulent with an unbranched, cylindric stem is usually 1.5 to 2.5m in height but sometimes towers up to 4m. Near the top, it has a tuft of branches, which lean northwards at an angle of 20 – 30 degrees. The Nama people revere the human-like trees as the embodiment of their ancestors, half human, half plant, mourning for their ancient Namibian home from which they were chased south in the late 18th century by the Germans.
Several species of quiver trees occur in the Richtersveld. The branches are hollow and the San people used them as quivers for their arrows, thereby naming the tree. The bastard quiver tree or “kokerboom” can be up to ten metres tall with are only a few branches high up on the trunk and reaching skywards. Male trees are recognisable by their bright yellow flowers that grow close to the leaves in winter. Female trees have light red cones, dotted with green. Wind, and desert whirlwinds known as ‘dust devils’, are responsible for pollination. The bark of the quiver tree branches is smooth and light coloured, the bark on the trunk is golden-yellow and grows in a way that resembles scales with very sharp edges. Due to the absence of growth rings in this monocot species, it is very difficult to tell how long these trees live although estimates suggest they live between 250 and 350 years.
Tips for visiting the Richtersveld
- Admission and overnight permits must be obtained at the park office at Sendelingsdrift before entering the park. Maps and info about the region is also available here.
- A community fund of 1% will be added to the cost of all accommodation and activity reservations.
- To avoid paying the daily conservancy fees invest in an annual Wild Card (although these are limited to the national parks and nature reserves of the Republic of South Africa).
- Day visits are not recommended unless accommodation is secured in the area.
- Overnight visitors must arrive before 16:00 to reach camping sites before dark. Driving in the park at night is not permitted.
- One of the best times to visit the park is between June and October to enjoy the desert flowers (dependant on the rain!)
- There are almost 200 bird species in the park. Pack your binoculars and cameras.
- Visitors should always have a good supply of water and good quality battery or solar powered fridge/ freezer is essential as there is no power available at any of the camp sites.
- Camping and making fires is strictly forbidden in any other places other than at official campsites.
- There are no shops in the park, but there is a small general store, Sonskyn Café, at Sendelingsdrift where cold drinks, fresh water and wood are available to purchase. The shop is open on weekdays only and is closed for lunch between 1 & 2pm.
- There is an ATM available at Sendelingsdrift.
- Unleaded 95 petrol and 50ppm Diesel is available at Sendelingsdrift.
- The old pont at Sendelingsdrift offers an unusual and convenient way of crossing the Orange River over in to the Namibian side of the park.
- A torch/headlamp is required when walking outside at night.
- An extra spare wheel, tools, spares, enough food and extra water containers are essential as are sturdy hiking boots or trail running shoes.
- Insect repellent is strongly recommended although this is not a malaria area.
- The use of drones inside (and over) the park is strictly prohibited.
- All rubbish must be removed on departure.
- Gas cookers are recommended due to evening winds.
- Do not sleep on the bare ground and wear closed shoes after dark as the park is ideal scorpion habitat – there are 18 species in the park. The dangerous scorpions are the ones with small pincers and a large, thick tail and sting.
- Baboons and vervet monkeys can make a nuisance of themselves in campsites so be sure to pack away all food overnight.
- No pets, generators, outboard motors, quad bikes or motorbikes are permitted.
- Picking of plants, removal of seeds, rocks, crystals or driftwood is an offence.
- There is no cell phone reception in the park although there is minimal reception at the main gate and at Sendelingsdrift. (Cell C, MTN and Vodacom networks).
Driving tips for the Richtersveld
- A 4×4 is essential. You can drive to Sendelingsdrift with a two-wheel drive vehicle although much of the last stretch will be on very sandy dirt roads. Once in the park, and to travel many of the alternative routes to and around the park, you will need a 4×4 vehicle. Driving in convoy is recommended. Single vehicles must sign an agreement to report back to park headquarters on departure. Sedan vehicles are not permitted.
- For 4×4 enthusiasts don’t miss the incredible Helskloof mountain pass. We drove this 78km route out of the park from Kokerboomkloof to the main exit gate (approx. 4 hours) and it was an incredible way to end our visit.
- Another spectacular route, recommended for 4×4 vehicles only, is over the mountain pass between Eksteenfontein and Vioolsdrift through the Nababeep reserve.
- The drive up to the Tatasberg View Point is well worth it to see the incredible intrusive igneous rock formations that are about 500 million year old. The views from this Secret Valley are well worth it too. Just be warned, record temperatures of 60 degrees Celcius have been recorded here in mid-summer!
- Be aware that currently the route between De Hoop and Richtersberg is challenging for even experienced 4×4 drivers due to the deep sand and sharp rocks.
- The climate in this part of the world is very dry, with extreme peak summer temperatures sometimes reaching over 50 degrees. Nights are cool, but may become cold during winter. Heavy night-time dew occurs in the park. Our visit during October was very bearable, but day time temperatures did hit 40 degrees and we were very grateful to be camping on the river for the majority of our visit. Based on our experience in early summer, a visit in mid-summer would not be recommended, especially with children who can dehydrate quickly.
Where to stay in the Richtersveld
Camping accommodation is offered at a variety of rustic campsites in the reserve. Potjiespram, De Hoop Camp Site and Richtersberg are all located on the banks of the Orange River. Potjiespram is the newest campsite with 18 sites. De Hoop is one of the most popular and has ablutions with cold showers to service 12 campsites. We stayed at Richtersberg Camp Site for 4 nights and loved the easy access to the clean, fast flowing river and beautiful views over to the Namibian mountains. There isn’t as much shade as at De Hoop, but there is less dust and less wind during the afternoons. There are ablutions with flushing toilets and cold showers to service 6 campsites. The flat areas on the edge of the river are only accessible when the water level is low and at high water level all campsites are above the beach, set away from the water.
Kokerboomkloof Camp Site is the best of the ‘inland’ campsites in the park and worthy of several nights’ stopover. We were quite disappointed that we only managed 1 night – although maybe we were fortunate not to experience the heat of the day here as shade is limited. There is no water available (even in the ablutions) so bring your own or fill up your water containers before you leave the banks of the Orange River in order to be able to flush the dry toilets.
There are also rest camps with chalets equipped with air conditioning, a fridge and a two plate electric stove. All units have cold water showers and front porches with views over the Orange River. Sendelingsdrif Rest Camp has ten chalets (4 x 4 bed units and 6 x 2 bed units) and there is a swimming pool in the camp. Tatasberg and Ganakouriep Wilderness Camp each consists of 4 x 2-bed self catering units with showers and a caretaker is resident on site. The units are kept clean but the washing of utensils and making of beds is the responsibility of the guests for the duration of their stay. Note that the water at Ganakoeriep, Tatasberg and Hakkiesdoring is not suitable for drinking and it is recommended that you take your own drinking water.