Namaqualand - home of the nama

Photo: Chloe Durr

Namaqualand - home of the nama

06 July 2020 | Tourism

Coming up from the Cape, my farewell to South Africa and gradual transition into the Karas region of Namibia was an extreme experience in terms of contrasting landscapes. Seascapes quickly disintegrated into dusty vistas with the heat-haze rising on the horizon. Distant shapes would eventually take on real form and unveil a vision of the “Halfmens” succulents, quiver trees and shape-shifting rock formations in a mountainous abyss.

The remote Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Trans-frontier National Park is both inhospitable and alluring. It can be accessed at Sendelingsdrift coming from the western town of Port Nolloth on the South African side, or if accessing it from Namibia’s interior, you would approach the park coming from Noordoewer or from Rosh Pinah. It encompasses 6 000 hectares of arid country, divided between South Africa (27%) and Namibia (73%), making up the only true mountain desert in Southern Africa. The Richtersveld is cradled within the great loop of the Orange River (these days also known as !Ariep or Gariep in South Africa), which forms the northern and eastern boundaries of the park. The snaking river cuts through a barren, rocky landscape creating a unique contrast of riverside greenery in arid dryness.

The Richtersveld is a visually saturated land of sensory extremes. The merciless temperatures can soar over 50°C in the summer months (October to April) and plummet below freezing on winter nights in the months of May to September. Visitors are dwarfed by the towering mountains and your eardrums constantly need to adjust to the changing altitude. It is a world-renowned biological hotspot (pun intended), an adventure enthusiast’s haven and a photographer’s paradise. Much of the charm of Richtersveld lies in its ancient cultural heritage, particularly the Namaqua, i.e. Nama cultures (Khoekhoe/Khoikhoi ancestors), as this isolated area remains one of the few places where their traditions have been able to survive. Despite the fascinating geology of the Richtersveld, its cultural heritage and biodiversity is the reason for its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Sendelingsdrift is the beginning and the end
Whether you arrive by pontoon or by road, Sendelingsdrift is where your Richtersveld journey begins, and where you bid adieu to the last remnants of civilization. Phone signal here is sporadic and electricity intermittent. There are two campsites within a 30 minute radius of the reception building - Sendelingsdrift and Potjiespram. Be reminded that their proximity to the diamond mines could spoil your expectations.

Tip: don’t rely on card machines, bring ZAR cash (Namibian currency is not accepted). If there is fuel available, fill-up here, but don’t count on it.

Following the tradition of other travellers and Nama ancestors before me, who believed that “Grootslang” - a beast older than earth - will devour you if you fail to build a stone cairn, I obliged before setting off to De Hoop. We travelled carefully along a corrugated gravel road guided by weathered signage and neatly laid-out rocks that lined the roadside. The sculptured landscape was highlighted by the “Hand of God” - a 2 meter high impression of a hand that is weathered into the surface of a rock face along the road leading to De Hoop Campsite. The Akkedis Pass aptly describes you sliding like a lizard around hairpin bends, rocks and stones.

Tip: leave your caravan and trailer at home.

De Hoop - most popular among visitors
Here we were greeted by the friendly Eddie Moor and his loyal hound. Eddie is one of many semi- nomadic Nama shepherds, who have lovingly taken charge of De Hoop campsite whilst overseeing their flock of goats and sheep. After collecting firewood for us from his humble Nama dwelling on the bank of the Gariep, he built us a weatherproof fire-pit, where we sat together as the sun set over the Orange River. We listened to stories of his ancestors and about the “Zama-Zama” (illegal artisanal miners in the area) and even learnt dancing Kuboes.

De Hoop is arguably the most popular campsite in the park and during December large family groups flock to the riverbank - the row of toilet cubicles is a testament to this. The 12 campsites stretched along the riverbank are kept immaculate, as are the cold-water showers and ablution area. De Hoop is a fantastic base from which to explore the park, and the site itself has historical ruins dating back to the 1920’s. Sunrise walks in the riverbed, followed by a refreshing swim in the Orange River is a wonderful way to rejuvenate the soul.

Tip: Pack a ground tent to reserve your camping spot as you are likely to spend the day on an off-road-expedition uncovering hidden gorges, unveiling ancient Petroglyphs, admiring fascinating rock formations, and seeking Halfmens-clusters.

After manoeuvring the 90-minute soft-sand-trek upriver from De Hoop (where you are most likely to get stuck if you have not deflated your tyres) we arrived at Richtersberg. There is a less challenging route inland, but it is significantly longer.

Richtersberg allows for privacy
This site is just as idyllic as De Hoop but far more intimate, with deeper river pools to swim in and six grassy campsites. This is the camping place of choice for people seeking privacy. As with most of the riverbank campsites it is also a prime spot for seasonal fly fishing (permit required) and bird watching (keep an eye out for the Jackal Buzzard).

Tatasberg provides comfort
Three kilometres east of Richtersberg is one of two wilderness camps, ideal for those preferring a more luxurious Richtersveld experience. The five self-catering, solar-powered chalets have equipped kitchens with fridge and clean linen. The amenities seem comfortable and the views are undeniable, but situated further from the river, so you might miss the “oasis in the desert”-feeling. Be sure to visit the “Secret Valley” further south, where towering inselberg-like mounds (reminiscent of “bokdrolletjies”) are perfect for Sundowners!

Ancient Kokerboomkloof
Set against the mighty backdrop of “Die Toon” (toe), the dramatic landscape of Kokerboomkloof changes with the moody light and the numbing silence engulfs one. It is a geologically astounding and historically rich site. Stone tools (microliths) dating back to the early Stone Age some 4000 years ago were found here, left behind by ancestors of the San Bushmen.

There are eight campsites hidden between ancient, sandstone boulders scattered across the plane and amongst quiver tree forests. Whilst still breathtakingly beautiful, Kokerboomkloof is a shadow of its former glory as the harsh weather conditions have turned many of the quiver trees to lone stumps. There are ablution facilities here, but the remote location coupled with very low rainfall means that water is in short supply. Don’t miss the Springbokvlakte viewpoint - an expansive sight that will leave you feeling incredibly small.

Tip: Bring water and anything that creates shade.

You will dread your departure from the Richtersveld, but the Helskloof Pass soon makes up for it. Keep an eye out for the Pearson’s Aloe (endemic to Helskloof) and the Cornellskop Sinkhole as you make your way back towards Sendelingsdrift. After experiencing the adventurous Sendelingsdrift pontoon-border-crossing to Namibia we entered the Ai-Ais section of the Trans-frontier Park.

Welcome to Namibia
Following the road along the Orange River towards Noordoewer, you will cross the point, where the Fish River joins the Orange River and from there you will approach the magnificently green sight of the Aussenkehr wine estates. Enjoy the massive planes and different geological splendour, as you turn onto the C37 gravel road, which takes you on a shorter path to the Ais-Ais hot springs, where you will find the rest camp of Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR). Ai-Ais offers the perfect rejuvenating experience of hot water spring baths and you can explore the mighty Fish River Canyon (refer Namibia Tourismus edition 08/2019, featuring Ai-Ais and the Fish River Canyon)

Like a diamond in the rough, the Richtersveld holds endless wonder. Whether you are a solo traveller seeking time and space for deep reflection and adventure, or a family wanting to get away from urban life you will find yourself spellbound by this astonishingly beautiful aridness. Enjoy rock climbing, hiking, fishing, bird watching, botanical and geological treasures, solitude, silence, swimming, adventure, and exploring the 220kms of 4x4-tracks through the Richtersveld. (Pre-book your permit for more advanced hiking and 4x4 routes). I have only just scratched the surface of the wonders on offer in the Richtersveld. Use my short experience as a springboard to select more of what tickles your fancy.

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