The Richtersveld

The Richtersveld region stretches from Steinkopf and Port Nolloth in the south up to the Orange River, and from Alexander Bay to Vioolsdrif.  The Richtersveld National Park is a small part of this, in the loop of the Orange River.  This park is the most undeveloped and inaccessible wilderness area in South Africa. 

In brief
We followed the route recommended for newcomers to the region: Turn west at Steinkopf and follow the tar road up to Alexander Bay.  From there the road is a good sand road right up to Sendelingsdrif, the entrance to the Park. 
We exited the park at Helskloof Gate and drove south to Eksteenfontein.  From there we headed off west via Helskloof Pass, and thence down to the Orange River.  We followed the river upstream to Vioolsdrif where we rejoined the N7, the main highway between the Cape and Namibia.

Port Nolloth
Port Nolloth is a small town, originally built to provide an export harbour for the copper from Okiep.  It seems to be the centre of administration for the Richtersveld region.  We stayed a little south of the main town in Mac Dougal's Bay, a small bay protected by a semi-circle of rocks a few hundred metres out from the shore. The picture shows the rows of houses on a very gray day, mostly holiday homes and some retirees, and the very quiet water between the beach and the rocks.

The Diamond Fields
Turning north one follows a good tarred road running almost straight through the flat country. And almost immediately you come across the fence which encloses the area between the road and the sea, with severe warning notices every few hundred yards. See Jocelyn scanning the horizon for any stray diamonds! The diamonds in this region all came originally from the 'kimberlite' pipes which formed by volcanic action many ages ago.  These are all far inland - they were cut away by wind and rain, and the gravels containing the diamonds washed down the Orange River and into the sea.  Bear in mind that many ages back the sea levels were completely different, and the land was also different, so it is quite possible that the Orange River exited to the sea at different points, south of the present mouth at Oranjemund.  In any event, these gravels were distributed up and down the coast, and today they are mined for diamonds.  The mining activities on land have really chewed up the countryside - All the way north from Port Nolloth one sees the results of many years of diamond mining, with little or no attempt to rebuild the land afterwards.

Alexander Bay
This is a mining town belonging to Alexkor, and one needs to pass through a security gate before entering the town.  We drove through the town and down to the sandy spit which leads to the river mouth.  This is the most westerly point in the Republic of South Africa, so we can add one more to our list of compass points achieved!  

The picture shows Jocelyn waving in triumph:  On the right of the picture one can see the large bay formed by the Orange River, and to the left you can just see the white tops of the ocean waves of the Atlantic.  If you look carefully, just behind Jocelyn, you will see what look like a couple of hills on the horizon.  These are the dumps of the real diamond fields in Oranjemund, across the river in Namibia.  These belong to Namdeb, the joint operation between de Beers and the Namibian government.

Here you see the intrepid explorers gazing out to the Atlantic after their great travels!







This is a view of the 'beach' at Alexander Bay, looking south:  Strewn with driftwood from the annual floods down the Orange River, and with enormous piles of gravel which have been excavated in the search for diamonds. 




You leave Alexander Bay and turn inland towards the Park ... and almost immediately the tarred road disappears and from here on we are on sand roads.  Brandkaros is a village about 27 km from Alexander Bay, where vegetables were grown for Alexander Bay.  You can see how dry the countryside is, with a garish splash of green where lucerne is grown along the river flood plain.  Note the dry, dry ridge on the other side of the river in Namibia - This is the start of the Namib desert, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres to the north.

The Richtersveld National Park
A 4x4 vehicle is an absolute requirement to visit the Richtersveld Park, and don't even consider going there in an ordinary sedan vehicle.  This is brought visibly home to you when you enter the park:  From the Parks Board office in Sendelingsdrif one proceeds up a very good gravel road for a few kilometres - This is really a mining road, and one must beware of large trucks and other mining vehicles.  

Suddenly the road comes to an end...  There is no gate into the park, no guards limiting admission...  But the road becomes a narrow track and almost immediately you have to change down into low-range and start climbing over rocks, humps, boulders and make your way up a dry river bed! The road alternates between rocky tracks and sandy river beds. The picture above shows one of the typical sandy sections, while that on the left shows us climbing out of a river bed and starting a long, rocky climb through the mountains.

Of course, being on our first visit we did not really know what to expect:  All the guide books dealt with the heat, the dryness and the desert.  However, at this time of the year we are coming to the end of the winter rainfall season, and the park was full of greenery between the rocks and stones - As you will see later on, the flowers in some sections of the park were absolutely amazing.  But it is completely different later in summer, when the whole park turns into a desert.


The picture on the right shows the top of one of the many passes through the mountains, with many shrubs and bushes in their spring foliage.






Here is a view which gives an idea of how desolate this region can be - Just imagine temperatures in the 40's or even 50's in summer!

(That's degrees Celsius for you Americans: 40 Celsius = 104 Fahrenheit)




De Hoop Camp
The route from Sendelingsdrif to De Hoop camp is only 42,9 km, but it takes about 2 hours of driving. Over the last section the altitude drops rapidly, following a river bed (very dry)!  At the bottom you suddenly come across a wide expanse of sand, which is the Orange River flood plain. The contrast between the dry, brown hills and the green undergrowth along the river is dramatic.  It was slightly overcast during our visit... Just imagine what it must be like in mid-summer.  Almost in the centre of the picture you can see a tiny tent (just right of the trees along the river), and this is De Hoop. 

There are no facilities whatsoever.  We drove downstream for a few kilometres to find a nice spot to camp.  By unspoken agreement, all campers were far apart - not from being unfriendly, but in order to enjoy the feeling of being completely on one's own. Here you see our tent and vehicle, with Jocelyn enjoying breakfast in bed!



The view at right shows the view towards the west, showing the flood plain sands and undergrowth, and the awe-inspiring mountains in the morning light.





Another view looking downstream.  It must look somewhat different in summer when the river is in flood.







When we were leaving De Hoop I climbed up a rise to get a better view, and discovered these graves, dug out of the rocky hillside.  Who were these people? There must be a story here, but no information was available.

On the opposite slope one can see a flat area marked out by painted rocks. On our way out we realised that this was probably the 'official' camping area - I'm sure no-one uses it, except possibly when the river is in flood!

On the way out of the park
As you can see the weather was mostly overcast and grey, and we had a little rain at times. Being there in early Spring had the great advantage of being the best time to see most of the flowers.

Here is an excellent example of the Botterblom, Tylecodon Paniculatus.



In this picture you can see a lot of greenery in the foreground, but the area highlighted by the sunlight breaking through the clouds shows just how sparse the vegetation can be.


Another view from one of the steep mountain passes, showing the flat sandy areas between the hills and mountains.
This is very typical of the tracks through the mountains.
An easier road on the way out of the Park!
Another view showing the wealth of spring flowers.
Quiver Trees
Telephone poles or electricity pylons?  Neither!  These are Kokerbooms, Aloe Dichotoma. This view was taken just outside the Park, after exiting at Helskloof gate.
Here is a close-up of one of these strange trees, showing its size in relation to everything else.  You can see the rocky terrain, with shrubs showing spring greenery... But not for long - By mid-summer all these shrubs will be dry as bones, until the next winter rains and the following spring.
Land of contrasts
These two pictures were taken less than 5 kms apart, on the road South to Eksteenfontein. The only difference between these two areas was rain: While most of the region had rain at some time during the winter, there were patches which had obviously missed out ... And you can see what a difference a little bit of water at the right time can make!  I imagine that the whole region looks like that on the right in late summer.
A little mystery...
Throughout the Richtersveld we noticed these derelict windmills and reservoirs.  Every so many kilometres we came across a windmill, a reservoir and a concrete drinking trough.  No longer in working order, these must have been built to ease the way of herdsmen trekking along the north-south route with their goats or sheep.

In this picture you can see ground water, the result of the rains.  But for the greater part of the year this area is hot, dry desert, and these windmills would have been the only source of water.

Who built them, and who maintained them?  And why did they stop maintaining and using them?

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