Ai-Ais / Richtersveld:
Photo: Ronelle Rademeyer
Ai-Ais / Richtersveld:
Follow the river that runs through it
12 August 2019 | Tourism
The Orange River joins the Namibian border at our country’s most south-eastern point, about 45 kilometres west of the Augrabies-Falls and a mere two kilometres west of where the Bak River joins the mighty Orange, still on the South African side. The 240 km stretch from Noordoewer and Oranjemund via the C13 main road is the more accessible area though and follows the scenic curves and meander of the Orange River - it is a route worth exploring.
The green slopes of the Orange River form a stark contrast against the rugged kloofs and harsh landscapes of the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Trans-frontier Park. Over a distance of more than 2 000 km, this perennial river carries its load all the way from the majestic Drakensberg Mountains along the border between South Africa and Lesotho - about 193 km west of the Indian Ocean and at an altitude of over 3 000 metres - and spits it into the misty Atlantic Ocean close to the coastal town of Oranjemund, on the other side of the continent.
In ancient times even elephant roamed this area, a former hunting ground of the early Khoi-San inhabitants. They named the river Gariep. After the Dutch colonised the Cape, it became known as the “Groote Rivier”. In 1779 Colonel Robert Gordon, commander of the Dutch East India Company garrison based in Cape Town undertook a trip into the interior. When he reached the river, he named it in honour of the head of the house ruling the Netherlands, King Willem V van Oranje-Nassau.
Today the south-western part of the Orange River is part and parcel of the so-called peace park or transboundary protected area, straddling the border between South Africa and Namibia. It was formed in 2003 by combining the Namibian Ai-Ais Hot Springs Game Park and the South African Richtersveld National Park.
Most of the South African part of the park forms part of the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape World Heritage Site, which measures 5 920 square kilometres.
The idea behind peace parks or Trans-National-Protected-Areas (TNPA’s) is to re-establish, renew and preserve large functional ecosystems that transcend man-made boundaries - thereby protecting and regenerating natural and cultural heritage vital to enabling and sustaining a harmonious future for man and the natural world. Peace parks also encourage tourism, economic development and goodwill between neighbouring countries.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed on 17 August 2003 by the then presidents of South Africa and Namibia to form the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Trans-frontier Park.
Apart from the Orange River that runs through it, the largest canyon in Africa, the Fish River Canyon, is also located in this park, with this semi-perennial river joining the Orange river about 60 kilometres west of Aussenkehr (as you follow the road).
Scenic Route C13
There are various options for exploring the park. Following the banks of the Orange River all the way from Noordoewer to Oranjemund proved to be a breathtakingly beautiful choice. Various river rafting companies such as Felix Unite, Bundi and Amanzi Trails offer tailor-made adventure packages for tourists on the Namibian side of the river. This is an ideal manner in which an intimate relationship with this mighty water carrier can be brought about.
An alternative to this bravery, is the more steady option of continuing the journey by car along the well-kept gravel road, the C13 - normal bakkie or SUV can more than hold its ground.
The small village of Aussenkehr is the first hamlet you’ll encounter along the route. This lush valley is home to Namibia’s lucrative grape export industry. From there the winding road leads to Sendelingsdrift, where a border post was established in 2007 to enable tourists and locals to travel between Namibia and South Africa within the boundaries of the park. Enjoy the magnificent experience of crossing the Orange River with the ferry, but remember to bring your passport along, if you plan on crossing the river here so as to enter the Richtersveld section of the park.
The town Rosh Pinah, known for its zinc mines, is found some 25 km north of Sendelingsdrift. Driving roughly halfway towards that mining town, you will find the turn-off towards Oranjemund along the MR118, which also leads to the Tsau //Khaeb National Park (Sperrgebiet).
The upgrade of this road to bitumen standard was completed in 2017, the same year in which Oranjemund opened its boom-gate to visitors for the first time. Oranjemund started its transition from a Namdeb-owned mining town to an independent municipality in 2011 already and tourism stakeholders established the Oranjemund 2030 Alliance (OMD2030) to promote that process.
Although it is likely to still take some time before Oranjemund is fully transformed into a self-sustainable and economic vibrant town, tourists can since 21 October 2017 drive through the Sperrgebiet (as the German name of that area implies, it was previously a “forbidden area”) and visit this diamond town without a permit from the mining company Namdeb.
The town’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shali Akwaanyenga says tourism is one of the development pillars set for the economic growth of the town. With the bridge and border post providing visitors easy access to Oranjemund, coming in from Alexander Bay in South Africa on the other side of the river, new tourism avenues and adventures can be developed for this area. One such envisioned option is an all-wheel coastal tour northwards along the Atlantic Ocean’s coastline.
For now a trip to Oranjemund along the C13 and MR118, implies that most travellers return to Rosh Pinah along the same road. But Tourismus Namibia proposes that you be more adventurous and either follow the southern bank of the Orange River departing from Alexander Bay back to the pond at Sendelingsdrift (where you find a rest camp) or possibly drive further down to Port Nolloth and enter and explore the Richtersveld Park from that side. Once back in Namibia, you can travel inland to Aus, Lüderitz or Keetmanshoop and experience Namibia’s south by following the route of your choice.
Pack your bags and supplies - a most enjoyable meander along this southern-most part of our country is waiting and will surprise you.