When intrepid adventurer Johan Kriek received a call from Boundless Southern Africa asking if he would be keen to explore the magic that is the Richtersveld, the answer was a fairly easy and enthusiastic: “YES, please!”
Chat to any adventure seeker – local or international – about the Namib desert, and they can probably pinpoint its location on a map, without difficulty. Besides that, most of them have either been there or still have a wish to go! However, did you know that our own Richtersveld National Park forms part of the Namib Desert, the oldest desert on Mother Earth? The entire Richtersveld area boasts some of the richest desert flora in the world. The mountain range which forms the southern border of the Park (Rosyntjieberg Formation) is part of a volcanic ridge that erupted two billion years ago. Furthermore, this area has the second most identified number of plant species per square kilometre on earth. This even outnumbers the world’s tropical forests, although this specific locality receives a mere 85mm average rainfall per annum.
After Table Mountain National Park, the Richtersveld National Park boasts the second most plant species of all the South African National Parks. We can carry on… So, now that I have your attention let me start at the beginning. Roland Vorwerk, the marketing manager of Boundless Southern Africa – an initiative responsible for marketing of the Transfrontier Conservation Areas in Southern Africa – called me up, asking if I would fancy a trip to re-discover the magic of the Richtersveld section of the /Ai /Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. To which I, without hesitation, replied: “What a question, man!! Our arid parks are amongst the favourite of my favourites!!” He continued talking and said that we would be travelling in fully kitted Toyota Hilux “campers”, supplied by Bushlore 4×4 Rentals and discussed other logistics. He lost me at “your transport into the desert and back is sorted”. Man, this is going to be epic!
Big Sky Country
The expedition started late-November with two of five Bushlore vehicles leaving Gauteng for the Northern Cape. We soon found ourselves travelling in the “Big Sky” country of the former Wes Transvaal (North West Province). This seemingly endless flatland is the real deal. With very few other vehicles on the road, we made excellent time. We whizzed through Vryburg, Kuruman and Upington, straight to our first overnight stop on the banks of the Orange River. Khamkirri (place of the Leopard in Nama) is a beautiful oasis. As we relaxed with a cold one, enjoying a magnificent sunset over the Orange river, I could not help but feel extremely privileged to live in sunny South Africa! Early the next morning we tackled the long straight tar road sections via Pofadder and Aggenys to Springbok. The landscape along this route undergoes a rapid change. One after another breathtaking vistas unrolled like magic around us. It makes one wonder why southern Namibia is on so many overlanders’ bucket lists, while we have the same surreal landscapes in our own Northern Cape. All I can say is, plan your trip so that you can spend time here. The first prize would be for you to include the
Namakwa 4×4 Eco-Trail
from Pella to Vioolsdrift (or parts thereof), so that you can experience some of the natural wonders of our own country. We made a quick stop to refuel in Springbok, before we turned north to Vioolsdrift, where we were scheduled to meet up with the other three Bushlore camper vehicles. Just before we reached the border post, we turned left onto a gravel road towards Kotzeshoop, and then followed along the Orange River for around 10km before arriving at our rustic and funky accommodation – Bushwhacked Outdoor Adventures. We ended this day’s travel with a delicious meal cooked on an open fire, whilst sitting at their famous pub overlooking the river into Namibia. The perfect ending to our day, as well as the ideal setting from which to start our Richtersveld adventure. The next day our adventure moved into high gear as we enjoyed a half-day kayak excursion on the cool waters of the ancient Orange River, which in all likelihood is probably around 100 million years old! The source of this ancient river is 2 200km away in the highlands of Lesotho. Moving slowly and stress-free on the river’s water is the perfect way to unwind and recharge after the long drive and simply let your hair down. It’s the ideal pause to cleanse your soul and free your mind in preparation of tackling the arid hinterland that awaits.
Namakwa 4×4 Eco-Trail After lunch we set off on the Namakwa 4×4 Eco-Trail and made our way towards the Helskloof / Nabieb Nature Reserve, which forms part of the Richtersveld World Heritage Site. En route we stopped for a visit to the ancient petroglyphs, believed to date back some 2 000 years. Rock carvings made by chipping directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammer stone are known as petroglyphs, while rock paintings are called pictographs. We then turned right onto a proper 4×4 track where the road swings away from the river in a southerly direction. After around 30 minutes of careful manoeuvring through thick sand and narrow rock openings, we arrived at Kanikaip – a community campsite on the banks of the Orange River. This is almost too good to be true, having no amenities aside from two long drop toilets – pure untouched wilderness par excellence! Our campfire burned late into the night as endless stars appeared, close enough to touch. This is a land of legends – legends about ancient giant snakes and “half mens bome” (halfhuman trees), brave explorers, and pioneering missionaries all interwoven with the rich history of the Richtersveld. The next morning we reluctantly stored our camping gear and had to sadly tear ourselves away from this lovely paradise.
Even the baboons across the river on the Namibian rock face barked a sombre farewell to us – I reckon that they do not often witness people in their territory. This is one of the many places one should be sure to camp for at least one night. We left the campsite on a different route, which runs parallel to the “main” Helskloof pass road on our way to Mount Rooiberg. Quite a bit of low range was required as we drove through gullies and dry river beds, while the path winds between the magnificent raw and desolate mountains continually climbing towards Mount Rooiberg. The Richtersveld’s bioregion is unique. It falls in the middle of three major biomes – Namib Desert biome, Succulent Karoo biome and Nama Karoo biome, and even a small patch of Fynbos in the Stinkfonteinberge. It is, simply put, breathtakingly spectacular. A further wow factor is the 33 unique plants found around here, which are not found elsewhere in the entire world. Just bear in mind that this part of the trail is not really off-road trailer friendly. Well, not in my book, at least! Unless you really want to endure a hellish struggle over rocks, navigate through narrow gaps and extremely sharp curves instead of travelling on the main Helskloof pass road to Eksteenfontein. A further word of caution: roadside assistance in this thirstland is never just around the corner, so be well prepared in case of trouble!
Northern Cape “Spitskoppe”
Arriving at Mount Rooiberg, one cannot help gasping and gaping at these endless vistas and the harsh mountain environment. The absence of mining activities in the Conservancy ensures that the unique Richtersveld area and the local flora and fauna are preserved. Collectively, the Conservancy and the National Park enable the conservation of more than 50% of one of the world’s most endangered plants – the Giant Quiver Tree (Aloe Pilansii). Our route took us past the Rooiberg guesthouse on our way to the peaceful little settlement of Eksteenfontein. After a brief stop in “town”, we continued on much improved roads to our next overnight stop – Tierhoek campsite. Having been in the overlanding game for more than 30 years, I had, until this trip, been unaware of the existence of the Northern Cape’s own “Spitskoppe” lookalike campsite. Believe me, this is a simply beautiful setting and one of the wonderful gems that I discovered on this tour. Do not miss the opportunity to camp here. It is an experience not to be missed with no water, no amenities, no human interference – pure bliss! And yes: it is off-road trailer friendly.
After another reluctant departure, which soon became the norm on this epic adventure, we continued on our way. One can travel on a 4×4 trail from here to the Nama settlement of Kuboes or, alternatively, use the main gravel road. Unfortunately, we had to opt for the latter as we ran out of time and would otherwise have been late for our planned activities and lunch. Even so, the vistas and views did not fail to delight. We even noticed a haziness on the horizon, reminding us that the cold Atlantic ocean was a mere 80km in the distance. Kuboes is a special little village, known as the heartland of the Nama culture.
Reverend Johan Hein, teacher and evangelist, began his work here in 1844, and established the landmark Rhenish Church in 1893. The local school still teaches the Nama language, which – to the untrained ear – sounds similar to the language of the San people. Local children performing original Nama dancing, combined with a really delicious stew of goat’s meat and samp, set the tone for our time at Kuboes. A visit to this delightful little town is a must, and there are quite a couple of guesthouses to choose from. From Kuboes the road led us further in a northerly direction to the southern entrance gate of the Richtersveld National Park. Did you know that the Park is a contractual park, owned by the Richtersveld communities and jointly managed by South African National Parks? After COVID-19 protocols were adhered to, we were allowed to enter the Park headquarters at Sendelingsdrift, which was our overnight campsite. Here you will also find a fuel station and small shop to replenish stock. This is also where one can take the vehicle ferry The famous Bozbavok bar at Bushwhacked Outdoor Adventurers in Vioolsdrift offers shaded seating under a large lapa and deck overlooking the Orange River.
It is a great place to get first-hand information about the area as the hosts are very knowledgeable, friendly and eager to help. Time after time when visiting the Richtersveld, I stand in awe of this beautiful part of our country.
If you have sufficient time, it is ideal to visit the /Ai /Ais sector of the /Ai /Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Our group entered the Park the next morning and drove from Sendelingsdrift, via Halfmens Pass and Penkop Pass, across the Goeroegab flats back to the Orange River at De Hoop campsite. All the roads in the Park have been upgraded, and although we kept the vehicles in 4WD, we used high range most of the way. Although De Hoop does not have much shade, it really is a pleasant experience. The campsite is located at the river and offers proper ablution facilities. However, we followed the river upstream to Richtersberg campsite. Although much smaller than De Hoop, it has the same super setting, a bit of shade, and good ablutions. This was my personal favourite riverside campsite in the Park. A little known Richtersveld fact is that it is home to a flat lizard named in honour of Sir David Attenborough. Additionally, the region is inhabited by no less than 18 species of scorpion, of which the largest can grow up to 18cm in length! Thus, I’d advise wearing closed shoes in this area. Unfortunately, we did not encounter a single scorpion while we were there.
Towards the end
The third campsite we visited is now my favourite “nonriver” campsite in the Park. En route we crossed the beautiful Springbokvlakte, where you simply have to visit the breathtaking Tatasberg viewpoint, before continuing to the Kokerboomkloof camp. This campsite has eight individual stands, each with its own individual ablution facilities. The stands are far enough apart to ensure that you and your neighbours will not bother one another. At least a one-night stay at this campsite is a must.
The earliest evidence of human occupation in the area was discovered at Kokerboomkloof – between 3 000 to 4 000 years ago. The ancestors of the present Nama-speaking herders in Khoekhoen/Khoikoi settled here around 2 000 years ago. Moving on, we travelled through the stunning Helskloof Pass to exit the Park before arriving back at the Park’s Southern Entrance/Exit gate. This road surface had improved vastly since I last travelled through here, when it was quite a rough 4×4 track. From here, you must make time to visit Alexander Bay, as the Orange River mouth is a vital feeding and resting place for water birds. An astonishing number of 64 different species has been recorded here. In season, Cormorant and Terns can be observed on the sandbank close to the river mouth in numbers exceeding 15 000. This is probably one of the most dramatic and scenic regions in South Africa.
Our very own Mountain Desert Park, which proudly forms part of the 6 045 km2 /Ai /Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Incidentally, the “/” before /Ai / Ais is indicative of “clicking” sounds. I have been privileged to travel to many places on this continent and time after time – when visiting the Richtersveld – I not only discover something new, but continuously stand in awe of this beautiful part of our country. If it is not yet, it definitely should be on your bucket list!
About Bushlore 4×4 Rentals
Bearing in mind that my own Land Rover Defender is kitted out precisely to my liking, how did I find this fully kitted-out Toyota Hilux double cab 4×4 Safari Camper on a real overlanding experience? I can happily report that this vehicle did not lack anything. Being an A/T 2.4 diesel, it was powerful enough to easily cruise at the national speed limit, with the rev counter hovering around a low 2 000 r/min mark. This, in turn, allowed for excellent fuel consumption and being fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank, we managed an easy 1 000km plus range.
The camper is also fitted with a 60-litre water tank, with a handy tap at the rear of the vehicle, and a dual battery system providing power to a 40-litre on-board fridge/freezer. Providing further peace of mind is the standard inclusion of a recovery kit, 12V compressor, puncture repair kit, high-lift jack, axe, spade, jumper cables, basic tool kit and proper off-road tyres. Additionally, the following items are part of the vehicle’s on-board kit: a roof rack, two rooftop tents, all bedding, awning, aluminium canopy with gullwing side flaps, kitchen unit, all cutlery and crockery, a drawer system, fold-up table, camping chairs, 12V lamp, two gas cylinders, cooker tops and a first-aid kit. Bushlore will, on request and at an additional fee, provide a GPS, two-way radios and even a satellite phone. Looking at things objectively and calculating the vehicle’s cost plus the expense of the accessories, it seems to make perfect financial sense to rent rather than buy your own expedition vehicle. A “no-brainer” perhaps, especially if you only venture off the beaten track once or twice a year
What is Boundless Southern Africa?
Boundless Southern Africa is a regional market development initiative that promotes Southern Africa’s Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs) tourism and investment destinations on a national, regional and international scale. TFCAs was founded on the realisation that natural resources straddling boundaries between Southern African Development Community (SADC) destinations are shared assets with substantial potential to make a meaningful contribution to regional integration, biodiversity conservation, the preservation of wildlife and the socio-economic development of rural communities living in and around them.
There are 18 TFCAs – seven of which form part of the Boundless initiative – in the SADC area and includes both terrestrial and marine environments at various development stages. Their configuration varies from Transfrontier Parks, including two or more adjacent and protected areas like Kalagadi Transfrontier Park, including the complexity of land-uses such as communal land concession areas and protected areas like Kavango-Zambezi TFCA. SADC TFCAs is home to impressive natural and cultural attractions such as the Kruger and Chobe National Parks, the Fish River Canyon, the Okavango Delta, the Victoria Falls and the Lubombo and Maloti-Drakensberg Mountain Ranges. There is also substantial geographical overlap between SADC TFCAs and inscribed World Heritage Sites. This means that many TFCA tourism destinations have a wealth of nature, wildlife and cultural heritage experiences on offer, creating a strong basis for developing authentic tourism products and experiences that are multicountry, multi-faceted and unique to the Southern African region.