Formidable Richtersveld…where the earth’s creation began

By Stef Terblanche

I first spent time in the ever-alluring and enchanting Richtersveld in the north-western corner of South Africa some years ago.

Waking up early one morning, on about my second or third day camped beside the Gariep River, also known as the Orange River, I was met by a ghost-like figure emerging in the distance out of the early morning mist and desert dust. Josef Damroch was his name, and he was covered from the tip of his hat to his shoes in white-grey dust. The 60-year old had walked most of the 40km from the settlement of Kuboes to tend to his livestock.

Behind him followed a flock of goats and sheep. And all around him, as the sun shifted higher, opened up a vista of dark, rock strewn desert mountains cascading down to a narrow stretch of sandy plain, covered in the only green vegetation for many miles. Running through this, the river constantly changed its mood from rushing noisily down a series of rapids to a sedate and almost motionless flow, with reed-covered islands bursting with bird life in the middle.

For me this was the enduring image of the Richtersveld that has remained with me ever since. Since then, nothing much has changed, just as nothing has changed for centuries, and yet every day is different, bringing new discoveries and surprises, with everything constantly changing.

The locals like to refer to this special corner of the earth as the place where God’s creation began. They may well be right, for the Richtersveld National Park and the neighbouring Richtersveld Community Conservancy is one of the Earth’s richest reservoirs of plant and animal life, regarded as the only Arid Biodiversity Hotspot on Earth. The conservancy is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated the ‘Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape’. The two areas together have an astonishing variety of plant, bird and animal life, much of it endemic.

The area is a constantly changing canvas of natural beauty: from its rugged, high mountain desert, to areas covered in flowers in the spring, to arid sandy plains, lush river vegetation and birdlife, and an eerie Martian landscape of giant boulders spewed up by an ancient and very angry volcanic eruption. This may well have been God’s creation laboratory.

Great silence

Once you leave the noisy Atlantic Ocean driving inland, the great silence takes hold of you. It is the same solid silence you find within the people who live here, a small part of which you will take home with you and cherish forever. It is totally devoid of the noise and the rush of modern life outside the area. Like the land here, so are the people.

They landed here from every direction over a period spanning many centuries: the pastoral Nama farmers, the San hunter-gatherers, Griquas, Basters and a sprinkling of Afrikaner trekboere (nomadic farmers). Today their descendants live here in harmony like the boulders, rocks, unique vegetation and diverse animal life, next to and among each other.

Josef Damroch told me he loves the silence and distances, of which he had no fear. If his car failed to start on any given day and he felt the need to visit his animal flocks at De Hoop along the Gariep River, he would think nothing of it to simply walk the 40km, even if temperatures here can rise to over 50 degrees Celsius (122 °F), and water is scarce or non-existent until you reach the river. Another Nama herdsman, Saul Fredericks, told me he loved spending time alone in the park with his livestock, even though these days he has much company from visitors from far and wide. But the solitariness and the silence, that is his addiction. The company you learn here to enjoy the most, is your own, while the best understood conversations over time become those voices in your head.

The national park straddles the Gariep in a transfrontier park shared by South Africa and Namibia, and lies in the northern Namaqualand region of the Northern Cape Province, midway between the icy Atlantic and the national road from Cape Town to Namibia. To the south of the park is the conservancy, its only towns being the tiny settlements of Eksteenfontein, Kuboes, Lekkersing and Sanddrift in an area covering approximately 3,000 square kilometres. Further to the west, but outside the actual Richtersveld area, lies the fishing and diamond mining towns of Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay.

It is from these communities – Kuboes specifically – that Josef Damroch hailed. He and his fellow Namas still live here like their forebears have done for centuries, with the addition of a few modern comforts. In 1991, after 18 years of negotiations with the local community, the northern part of the area was proclaimed as a national park, in which the local people continue to live and graze their livestock and the mountainous desert is communally owned and managed, providing the community with an annual income.

Last refuge of an ancient lifestyle

The conservancy is the last refuge for their transhumance lifestyle of migrating seasonally with their livestock from mountain to river and back that has sustained the Nama people here for two millennia. It is also the last place on Earth where the traditional way of life of the Khoikhoi, of whom the Nama are the largest surviving clan, has been preserved. The local Nama people still construct their centuries-old traditional matjieshuise (in Afrikaans), or haru oms (in Nama) – portable huts suited both to their nomadic lifestyle and the harsh climate, made from woven reed mats in a beehive shape.

These huts are both an artistic and engineering feat in that they are light, easily folded up, portable and cater for all seasons, offering cool and well ventilated shelter in the extremely hot summer, naturally insulated by the grass mats in winter, and protected from the occasional rain by porous stalks that swell up with the rain water. They are environmentally friendly as well as all the materials are organic and not over-harvested. And their construction is a social, communal affair, with both women and men participating in collecting the materials, weaving and preparing the mats and assembling the hut.

While most of the Nama people in the region today live in more modern homes, they still use these huts for storage, cooking and as guest sleeping quarters, also for tourists, or are sometimes still used by the nomadic Nama herdsman moving around with their large flocks of goats and sheep. The endurance of such traditional craftsmanship testifies to the deep respect that is maintained for ancient cultural traditions in this remote mountain desert, one of the oldest and largest in the world.

In different parts of the Richtersveld I met Nama men and women who, like Josef Damroch, speak their native Nama language as well as an old-worldly, perfect form of Afrikaans, still with traces of the Dutch origin of the language. English is not always widely understood here, but you’ll get by, while you might just find some, who originate from or have links to northern Namas in Namibia, who would possibly be able to converse in German. But here you don’t really need any language other than peace, goodwill and generosity to get along.

The Bosluis Basters

Sharing the small settlements of the greater Richtersveld with the Nama people, are people of mixed race ancestry known as Basters. Under the erstwhile apartheid laws, they were forcibly relocated here from their homes at Pofadder further east in Namaqualand, making the month-long relocation trek on foot, donkey carts and ox wagons.

The Basters are descended from the Khoikhoi and Cape Dutch farmers. They were known as the Bosluis Basters, not after ticks as the name would suggest, but because the majority came from a farm called Bo-Sluis near Pofadder. At first they were treated somewhat as outcasts, even being prevented from worship in local churches. But a Good Samaritan, the Reverend Eksteen, took them under his care, set up a church for them, and the group eventually settled mostly in the towns of Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein, the latter named after the reverend, where today they live in harmony with the Namas. But even as recent as the 1980s, it was frowned upon for a Baster and Nama to marry.

Just outside Eksteenfontein, Nama farmer Willem Josef told me with the honesty of one who has never heard of political correctness, of the uncomfortable relationship at first with the “halfnaaitjies” (half breeds).

“You see we had never seen these people with their straight black hair before. We weren’t sure whether we should address them as uncle and auntie or sister, or as sir and madam,” he said with a chuckle, referring to the racial forms of address of the apartheid years. “But today we all get along wonderfully.”

At De Hoop, on the banks of the Gariep River, you will also find the ruins of the homestead of one of the last white Afrikaner farmers who lived here, and was also forcibly removed out of the area because of apartheid. This hardy and resourceful farmer, named Avenant, lived and farmed here with his wife and three daughters until about 1960. Two of the daughters’ graves are still in the higher lying areas to which the family would relocate each winter with their livestock. Around the ruins of their home some parts of engine blocks can still be found of the Chevrolet trucks the farmer used to travel in and out of the area, with just the company of four women, over terrain where 4X4 vehicles struggle to pass today.

Halfmensboom

You might also notice some other ‘people’ here, distant figures that seem to be standing still and peering towards the north. These are the halfmensboom, or half-human trees, so typical of the landscape here. Nama legend has it that when their forebears were driven out and southwards from northern Namibia by a warring tribe, those of them who stopped to look back would become frozen on the spot, forever looking north…just like the Biblical Lot’s wife mentioned in Genesis 19, who turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at Sodom.

Part of the very unique flora of this region, the rare succulent halfmensboom or Pachypodium namaquanum is found only in the Northern Cape and in southwest Namibia. Reaching heights up to 3m high, they grow on the shady, southern slopes of the mountains here and are one of the few tall plants able to survive through the seasons.

Another tree typical of the area is the quiver tree or kokerboom (Aloe dichotoma). The Richtersveld is home to about 650 succulent species, boasting the world’s largest diversity of succulents, and a major attraction warranting a visit to the region. In the rugged and hostile landscape here, three biomes are represented: Desert, Succulent Karoo and even a small area of Fynbos in the Stinkfonteinberge. More than 350 plant species here are endemic. In the Richtersveld Heritage Site alone, there are 33 plants that are not found anywhere else in the world. Another rare site here is the Lichen Hill, covered in moss-like lichen of bright orange, greens and browns.

These, as well as the other plant life, are sustained by a ghostlike mist that creeps up from the Atlantic in the early mornings, called malmokkies or Ihuries by the locals.

4X4 country

For outsiders visiting the area, especially the national park, and lacking the survival knowledge, skills and hardiness of the local inhabitants, this is definitely 4X4 country where you preferably travel in groups, and bring everything from fuel to firewood, food and water with you. Inside the park there are no amenities or serviced campsites, just designated areas where visitors can camp in the wild.

In terms of an international treaty signed in 2003, the Ai–Ais Hot Springs Game Park in Namibia and|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld National Park in South Africa resulted in the establishment of the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park. One of the main features of the Transfrontier Park is the world’s second largest canyon, the Fish River Canyon.

Also a major attraction is the flowering season when parts of the park erupt into springtime floral splendour, between June and October, but depending on good rains. The Richtersveld Park also offers excellent bird watching opportunities with around 200 species, especially along the banks of the Gariep River. It also has a diverse range of animals including grey rhebok, duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, kudu, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, baboon, vervet monkey, caracal and leopard.

There are a number of guided hiking trails of different duration and distances in both part of the transfrontier park, with a Hiking Trails Base Camp situated in the panoramic Ganakouriep Valley. The old pontoon across the Gariep at Sendelingsdrift, last used in 1988, has been restored and can transport vehicles across the river to the Namibian side and back.

Within the World Heritage Site is Cornellskop, the highest point in the Richtersveld that is the home of the legendary giant snake that the Namas believe lives in the Wondergat (mystery hole), a deep shaft leading straight down into the earth, some 4.5m in diameter, and almost perfectly circular. It is said the snake can transform itself into a young maiden who lures men to the river to drown them. The 19th century prospector Fred Cornell, after whom the area is named, was so troubled by the snake that he unsuccessfully tried to blow it up with dynamite. Or perhaps it was just the heat and loneliness getting to him.

Geological wonderland

The fascinating geological history of the area dates back over 2,000-million years, with major geological upheavals having created the landscape we see today, and leaving behind a treasure trove of information about the history of the Earth. There are a number of significant archaeological sites her.

In one area visitors will come upon a Martian landscape of massive upturned boulders. These were blown into the air by a dramatic volcanic eruption 2,000-million years ago, and have remained where they landed, some very precariously balanced over the millennia. Some are so large that several 4X4 vehicles and tents can often be found camping underneath their overhang.

At one spot in the park you will also find a very large imprint in the side of a rock named the Hand of God. This clearly seems to support the story that God’s creation may have begun here.