The Richtersveld is a reminder of vastness out there while the pandemic constrains us. Our (cancelled) three-week trip to three nature parks would have started in mid-May, so instead of actually going away, while under continuing lockdown I reminisce about a previous trip out into nature.
Of the many places we have been to, I am not sure why I chose to “revisit” the Richtersveld in this post. Perhaps its rugged remoteness and its ancient and elemental landscapes offer a reprieve from the smallness of current horizons?
The landscape is full of drama – mountain ranges, hills, valleys, fascinating extrusions of rock, sandy dry river beds, plains and plateaus resembling moonscapes, and yet a river runs through it. Not just any river, but the Gariep (Orange) River.
The Gariep River rises in the mountains of Lesotho and runs west towards the Atlantic Ocean, fed by many tributaries as it flows. The river, with a total length of 2,200 km (1,400 miles), flows through the Gariep Dam, the largest dam in South Africa, and is used for irrigation, hydro-electric power, and much of its water is channelled to water-scarce regions of the country. Moving west the river runs through the arid regions of the southern Kalahari region and through Namaqualand, forming the border between South Africa and Namibia. In its final stretches before running into the Atlantic Ocean at Oranjemund, it bears alluvial diamonds, which are still mined including in the Richtersveld and also offshore along the coast.
The Gariep River flowing through the Richtersveld National Park. It is the only perennial river in the region and it supports a diversity of life, including water birds
This photo is taken from the same spot as the previous photo with a view downstream. The De Hoop camping area is on the near bank of the river. The dot at the near small bay-like curve in the river is our campsite. Also visible are water tanks feeding the small buildings that house showers and toilets for campers
My husband climbed up above the camp to take the two previous photos. When he turned around with his back to the river this was the contrasting view
The Richtersveld National Park is in a region of extremes. The aridity contrasts with the permanent water flows of the river, the temperatures soar to the high 40s in summer and drop in winter to very low lows, typical of desert climates. Superficially, it looks desolate – a home of rock and sand, but it is a biodiversity hotspot.
The region falls in a transition between winter rainfall and summer rainfall zones. In a narrow zone, the plants of the (low) winter-rainfall Namaqualand region, part of the Succulent Karoo biome, and of the summer-rainfall Nama-Karoo biome mingle. To add to the complexity, the seaward facing slopes may get precipitation from heavy and regular coastal fog especially in the months of autumn, whereas the inland facing slopes are drier. The mountain ranges also have an effect on rainfall patterns and effectively create micro-climates. The section along the Gariep River bordering Namibia falls into the Desert Biome where conditions are harsher with even less rainfall.
A view of a sandy plain dominated by a tall tree aloe, Aloidendron pillansii (formerly Aloe pillansii), an endangered species endemic to the region and a flagship species of the Richtersveld National Park. Its common names include giant quiver tree, bastard quiver tree and baster-kokerboom. Threats to its survival include “its small population size, low natural recruitment, illegal collecting, and habitat loss through mining, impact of livestock and climate change” (http://southafrica.co.za/plants-richtersveld.html)
The Succulent Karoo biome is exceptional in its biodiversity and it has the most succulent vegetation of any of the arid regions of the world. In the Greater Richtersveld region there are about 2700 species of plant, with 80% being succulent. Endemic plant species number 560 with 194 of the plant species being classed as Red Data species.
The region is famous for its massed spring flowerings of colourful flowers. However, even in May (early winter) flowers may still be found. The following photos are of some of the flowers we saw during our visit to the Richtersveld in May 2008.
One of the more renowned plants of the region is the Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) – a succulent plant endemic to the region that can be several metres tall. It drops its leaves to conserve moisture in the summer and its growth takes place during the winter. It inclines its rosettes of leaves towards the sun to maximise its benefit and to expose its flowers to pollinators. In a group all the plants can be seen inclining towards the north. Legend has it that people who had been driven off their land turned to look back longingly at their homeland, and the gods took pity on them and turned them into half-men half-plants able to look back forever at their homeland (http://pza.sanbi.org/pachypodium-namaquanum).
A halfmens plant tilting slightly to the north. This is photo is scanned from a print I took on our first visit to the Richtersveld in the winter of 2002
View of distant mountains and in the foreground the smaller of the tree aloes, the maiden’s quiver tree (Aloidendron ramosissimum) and two botterbooms (Tylecodon paniculatus). The botterboom is another summer deciduous species. Like the halfmens it grows its leaves during the winter months. During summer it photosynthesises through its yellowish-greenish stems (http://pza.sanbi.org/tylecodon-paniculatus)
The beautiful yellow flowers of the maiden’s quiver tree. Reputed to flower from June, we were perhaps fortunate to see them already flowering in early May during our visit in 2008
One of the loveliest places to camp in the Richtersveld National Park is at the De Hoop camp on the bank of the Gariep River. Visitors to the park have to carry with them the water they need, but here one has a supply of fresh water straight from the river. When we first visited in 2002 there were no showers or toilet facilities at all. But by 2008 a small building, housing toilets and cold-water showers was a welcome addition.
A view upstream and our campsite can be seen in the distance on the right-hand side. What a beautiful place to camp and watch the light change on the water and on the mountains
The view from our campsite across the river in the afternoon sunshine. In 2008 my husband and I traveled alone and we enjoyed the simple solitude
However we were visited by birds such as this pair of African red-eyed bulbuls watching us in our camp
Other birds visiting our camp included this Orange River white-eye
The road to Potjiespram, one of the other campsites in the park
The Richtersveld National Park was proclaimed in 1991. The land is leased to the South African National Parks Board by the local Nama community and it is managed jointly by SANParks and the Nama community. Nomadic Nama stock farmers continue to graze their livestock on the land.
To the south of the park is the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, which in 2007 was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the importance of the transhumance lifestyle of the Nama stock farmers who migrate seasonally with their livestock and of the need for the protection of the botanical diversity of the region (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1265/). Unlike in the Richtersveld National Park, there is no diamond mining in the Heritage Site.
In the far distance we saw a herder walking with his goats, sheep and dogs in the Richtersveld National Park
In another section of the park we saw a herd of hardy cattle wandering freely
In 2003 the ǀAi-ǀAis-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park was formalised between the RIchtersveld National Park on the South African side of the Gariep River and the ǀAi-ǀAis Hot Springs Game Park in Namibia. The Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa, is located in the park.
Map from: https://www.richtersveldnationalpark.com/map.html The Richtersveld National Park is located 875 km north of Cape Town
This is my version of an iconic and most photographed view in the Richtersveld National Park
A quiver tree, a botterboom and I – bearing witness to the great yonder
And one of the final views at Helskloof pass as we were leaving the park. A quartz rock, a botterboom and a colony of red-leaved Aloe peasonii drawing the eye to yet another range of mountains in the distance
Currently, because of the Covid-19 pandemic all national parks are closed to the public. For more information from SANParks about the Ai-ǀAis-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park see https://www.sanparks.org/parks/richtersveld/
Posted by Carol