It happened to me on a seriously rugged trip to the magnificent Richtersveld National Park, despite the fact that my family’s allegedly macho machine of the time (it was sold soon after) broke down and left my small son and I stranded in the rocky wilderness for more than six hours. After all, what better time to get better acquainted with all the little bugs and reptiles that creep and crawl through the scrubby wasteland, examine the rare plant life that miraculously occurs there more closely, and wonder if there really are any other humans within a thousand kilometer radius?
The Richtersveld National Park is in far northwestern corner of the Northern Cape. The fastest way to get there from Gauteng is to travel west on the N14 through Upington and Pofadder to meet the N7 at Springbok. The route from Cape Town is direct on the N7. At Steinkopf you leave the N7 and approach via Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay, with the final 80 kilometres being on gravel through the miserable mine dumps left by the diamond digging conglomerates.
If you want to get a broader sense of the Richtersveld though, you can take the slower road from Vioolsdrift via Kotzehoop. It winds through spectacular scenery to Eksteenfontein and then on to the park entrance at Sendelingsdrift. Admission and overnight permits must be obtained here.
The park, which is essentially an infinite mountain desert of 162 445 hectares with flat sandy plains in the south, jagged orange peaks in the northwest and wide Orange River flowing through it, is breathtakingly desolate. We caught sight – in the far distance – of only four other people on our five night camping visit there.
The facility is jointly managed by the local community and the South African Parks. The Nama people, who lease the land to the board, continue to live and graze their livestock in the area. It is not unusual to wake up and find a small herd of goats grazing alongside your tent near the river. Later in the day, they will simply disappear into one of the craggy valleys behind you. Seldom do you see their herdsmen.
Despite a severe and dry climate, with temperatures rising above 50 degrees Celsius in summer and an average rainfall of only 68 millimetres per year, the park is home to an overwhelming assortment of plant life. Even if you think you are not interested in flora, you cannot help but be fascinated by gnarled quiver trees, tall aloes and curious ‘halfmens’ trees that seem to keep vigil over this remarkable landscape. The ‘halfmens’ is honoured by the Namas as the incarnation of their ancestors as they mourn their ancient Namibian home.
The Richtersveld is also inhabited by a surprisingly wide variety of fauna including an ever-scuffling array of reptiles and mammals like grey rhebok, duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, kudu, Hartman’s mountain zebra, baboon, vervet monkey, caracal and leopard. Birdlife too, is prolific.
There are four camping areas in the park, all of which have recently been upgraded to include some form of ablutions. Closest to Sendelingsdrift is Potjiespram, which has 18 allocated sites that are serviced with toilets and cold-water showers.
De Hoop, which is on the banks of the river, is the most beautifully located site. It accommodates 12 camping parties and also has ablutions with cold showers. The offering is similar at Richtersberg, while Kokerboomkloof’s eight campsites are serviced only by dry toilets. There is no water is available on site at Kokerboomkloof and the nearest water point is Richtersberg, which is 32 kilometres away.
If you are looking for something slightly more lavish, rest camps with chalets have been built at Sendelingsdrift, Tatasberg and Ganakouriep.
We had a superbly secluded camping holiday at Potjiespram and De Hoop. We were delighted by our surroundings and isolation. On the way out of the park however, when our not-so-trusty 4×4 decided it should have remained on the asphalt advised us of such by dying beneath us, we temporarily bewailed our remoteness. My husband set out on foot and, six hours later, returned with ranger and required engine part.
The lesson? Visit the Richtersveld National Park. It is a unique and fascinating part of SA. Be sure though, that your 4×4 is up to leaving the suburbs and meeting the challenges of what it was supposedly built for.
(First published in The Weekender.)