Rich, Richer, Richtersveld
Writing the Richtersveld’s story is way above my intellectual abilities, and articulating eloquently about this extraordinary place is an injustice to the reader and the Richtersveld. Often the less one knows is dangerous, and the more you know, the more intimidating the subject becomes. I am over my head with this blog, and I ask you to forgive my ignorance.
Before I even start with this blog I must tell you our Wifi capabilities are virtually non-existant therefore I have just placed some fotos, towards the end of the blog, randomly just to get the job done. Africa and wifi are like an unhappy marriage, together forever but separated from table and bed! Frustrating to say the least. The good book says trials teach us patience, I'm not so certain. I'm sure you'll understand.
I said the following about India “every human being needs to go to India at least once in their lives.” There, one learns about humility, joy, respect, authenticity and making the most of the life you’ve been dealt with and living it gracefully and with thankfulness.
About the Richtersveld, I will say, “every human being needs to go to the Richtersveld at least once in their lifetime.” There, one learns about our insignificance, arrogance and the incredible wonder of this planet we often abuse and take for granted. How small our contribution is yet our footprint has a tremendous impact. In the Richtersveld, I realised how fragile the earth is. As John Varty says, “we must tread lightly on this earth.”
People have spent decades studying the soil, the plants, the mountain ranges and the glacial plains. I can’t do that. It would be best if you got there. Sooner rather than later. Thankfully very few people will ever have that privilege. Ironically if it became a mass tourist destination, the delicate, fine balance would be destroyed.
Our morning rituals were changing. Shorts, T-shirts, and SPF 50 suntan lotion replaced my daily squirt of Amariche. Hats and sunnies are a requirement, and we apply Vicks to our noses and Zam Buk to our lips. Soon we’d be doing saline baths for our eyes. The days were getting hotter, sucking all the moisture from the air.
But first, let me get you up to speed.
We left the Goegap Nature reserve and made our way to Steinkopf, then turned towards the sea, stopping briefly in Port Nolloth, thinking we might spend the night at Mc Dougal Bay caravan park as we’d been recommended to do. Unfortunately, it was a miserable, blustery day, and I didn’t see my way clear to being cold; what’s more, a gail was whipping the sea into a foamy froth.
Butch took me for a scenic spin around the village, and then we headed north, hoping we could make good time and spend the night at Sendelingsdrift instead.
We rolled into Alexander Bay just after lunchtime, dehydrated and starving. We took up the Mom and daughter duo’s recommendation to stop for a takeaway hamburger at Impressions Family Restaurant. Thank you, it was an excellent call. I concur they make the best gourmet hamburgers north of Cape Town.
This was my first road trip through a desert of this magnitude, and it certainly was impressive. We made good time and stopped at the Sendelingsdrift campsite for two nights, the official entry to the Richtersveld.
Daisies were flowering abundantly on every verge and rockery—a patchwork of colour keeping the thorn trees’ roots cool. Namaqua daisies in marmalade colours were in full bloom. While setting up our campsite, a chattering of Vervet monkeys heckled us. They were no bother; we enjoyed their antics as they went from tree to tree, scouring for easy pickings. They’d get nothing from us and soon moved on.
It had been a gruelling day for Butch, a longer drive than anticipated. Soon after sunset, we enjoyed our supper and retired to an early night. The moon was full and cast a yellow glow through the dusty air.
Our second day was spent exploring the area and doing all the usual sightseeing. Traipsing around the mine dumps looking and seeking out ancient rock engravings, thousands of years old. We think we might've found a fossilised tree in our explorations, slatey rocks stacked to give that impression.
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly my walk through the nursery and ultimately meeting the botanist Pieter Van Wyk who has been instrumental in creating the magnificent gardens and fantastic nursery. Pieter's passion for plants adorns his body in a landscape of perfectly inked dots. Mesmerising and beautiful. I felt moved and quite emotional by his commitment.
What he told me is both inspiring and scary and made me so aware of my footprint on the earth I wished I could fly rather than change the excruciatingly fragile composition of the soil layers. Layers as thin as a few millimetres produce the perfect conditions for seeds to germinate or not.
If memory serves, he mentioned that although the Quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma, Kokerboom, with its shallow root system, annually produces thousands of seeds and seedlings, only one specimen will survive in eighty years. Trees can be hundreds of years old. (On the pavement in Upington at the Oasis hotel, there’s a tree believed to be between 200 and 300 years old.)
I spent an hour admiring the displays of ancient-looking, potted indigenous plants carefully curated in containers. The soil seemingly layered to produce the exact conditions from where the plants were removed in the veld. Finally, stones, crystals and gravel unique to that plant’s specific area are placed strategically to produce the same climatic conditions for that individual plant.
The mind blowing cost of mining in the area begs the question, “is it worth it?” Enormous machinery moves a tonne of earth to produce 1.5carats of diamonds. Tragically, the worked soil can NEVER EVER in a billion years be rehabilitated. Not because of an unwillingness by the mining companies to do so but because it’s humanly impossible to rehabilitate a two billion-year-old landscape. Staggering.
The dreadful conundrum is that one morning, while riding our bikes; we met a delightful man Riaan, the operations manager of a mine. Riaan went out of his way to make it possible for us to ride up to the mine to photograph some of the enormous digger-loaders and tipper trucks used for excavations. We witnessed men working these machines with pride and enthusiasm. I respect the miners who spend months away from their families in the desert’s unbearable heat, constant dust and loneliness. Being negative about their work makes me feel guilty, yet the effect on the earth saddens me greatly. It must be noted that only a fraction of mined diamonds is used in jewellery production.
Riaan, you were a delight, and a true raconteur we thank you for your generosity and kindness. Our grandchildren were super impressed with the pictures we sent them, and some had the short clips on repeat, I’m sure to the parents’ annoyance.
Our vocabulary went from fairly sophisticated to two words. Wow, and awesome. Awesome in the biblical sense would not be amiss! Reminding me of the hymn we sing, “How Great Thou Art…then sings my soul!” My soul sang. It did.
A landscape of unsurpassed magnificence. While slowly navigating the narrow passes, riverbeds, plains and hills, we were dumbstruck. Around every corner, at the crest of a hill and on the summit of passes before and behind us lay, stretched out or condensed, a landscape beyond our wildest imaginings. A movie set couldn't create such magnificence.
Georgia O’Keeffe, the American artist and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz who lived in Taos, New Mexico, came to mind. They might’ve known how to interpret the spellbinding beauty we witnessed. Words like ochre, salmon, steel blue, ice, granite, magenta, gold, pumpkin, blood orange, and sunshine came to mind. Images of grinding down natural stone, sheetrock or granite to powder while gathering berries, roots and bark to produce the precise colours would be the only way to reproduce what an artist’s eyewitnesses. No artificial colours could do the sunsets, mountain ranges, striations or glacial dumps justice.
Our Honey Badger’s size and weight made it impossible for us to visit all the campsites and areas in the Park. We decided to limit ourselves to four sites and campsites, spending more time at each so that we could do a proper investigation.
Although the Park isn’t all that large and as the crow flies campsites aren’t that far apart, the journey would be at a snail’s pace for us.
Our itinerary included Sendelingsdrift Rest Camp for two nights, Potjiespram campsite along the Orange river for two nights, De Hoop campsite for four nights and finally, two nights at Kokerboomkloof rest camp.
Each spot was unique and hard to leave. We were able to ride out each day to do some slow exploring on our bikes, getting the feel of the land on our bums, the heat and the sunshine on our skins. Butch would make regular photographic and picnic stops during the drive. Then we would shake out our table cloth to take it all in unrestricted by the close confines of our vehicle.
In my mind’s eye, deserts have always conjured up visions of sand and shifting dunes, a few palm trees nourished by a spring which are oasis, the Richtersveld is made up of mountain ranges, passes, winding twee spoor tracks and ancient animal footpaths. Giant rock formations and colossal pyramid-like “dumps”, and vast plains.
In low range, with our hubs locked, we engaged 4x4 and went grinding our way zig-zag through the Swartberg Pass, Halfmens Pass, Penkop Pass, Akkedis Pass, Maerpoort Pass, Tattasberg and Kokerboomkloof. Our jaws dropped when we crested, and below lay the Springbokvlakte in all its magnificent splendour.
We, who sometimes miss landmarks like the Halfmens, recognised Die Toon immediately, as if for the first time by anyone. The Hand of God is as clear as daylight, and I believe the wise Namas thought all of this could only be God’s handiwork. It’s been around for all of 700 million years.
Twice we visited the viewpoint at Tattasberg. One trip doesn’t cut it. We placed stones on the land surveyor’s beacon for our children, their spouses and grandchildren. Our own little cairn.
In defiance, we showed the finger to The Toe after Butch’s iron Bucking Bronco threw him right off into thick sand. He will get the hang of negotiating sand and overcome his fear of falling and spoiling our travels, and nothing he can do can spoil our adventures.
At Kokerboomkloof, Dassie Rats would bask in the sun during early mornings, siesta in the cool shade of a massive boulder during the hottest hours and come out to play at sunset. When they tired barking geckoes would take over until at last when the evening star appeared the world turned quiet and cooled doen. By 3h00 we'd pull up our sheet to combat the early morning chill.
I scampered all over the rocks exploring, marvelling at the Quiver Tree forest and relaxing after a strenuous ride in a cool cave with a view. While I was setting up my camera, Lorna Binneman-Reade, a well-known Worcester artist, came to mind. She pointed out shadows, light, texture and composition to me on my photographic walks in her garden and her and David’s studio. Always eager to encourage, teach and inspire, she unknowingly taught me to look closely, see the unexpected, and use an opportunity to create a picture at any time of day. David Reade does it fluidly in a glass.
Not only were we entertained by the Vervet monkeys and Dassie rats one evening, but we were also pleasantly surprised to have a Genet come around at supper time. I called her Genet Jackson.
Bird watching and listing our sightings is what we do on all our trips. On my Sasol Bird App, we mark our sightings and start with our list of birds, recording them on “Our African Adventure” list. We were pleasantly surprised by the number of birds we recorded in the Richtersveld, and the sighting of a Dusky Sunbird was a highlight.
After I visited the nursery, I became very aware of the trees in the Richtersveld. Stunted, small, hardy and misshapen. Some thrive, and many die or are in hibernation. They are all fascinating. To think a minuscule root can penetrate a rock, crack it and survive. Trees became the subject of one of our days of exploration, and I couldn’t resist them.
Butch and I are social beings and love meeting people wherever we go. In this way, we have made lasting friendships with people all over the world from all walks of life who we continue to correspond with, albeit through Social Media. (What could be easier or more convenient?)
To overcome my shyness, we ask strangers questions. Most people are eager to help and will always answer a simple question.
So we came upon a herd of goats (boerbokke) on one of our snack breaks while cycling. Eventually, the herdsman and his dogs came along. Bingo. I asked him how many goats were in his herd. He replied that he couldn’t count but knew each one by name. They knew their bleats and which lamb’s bleat would call the ewe. He was missing a ewe and her lamb. This information conveyed a few things about the shepherd. We then asked him why he was there. Without missing a beat, he said, “For the quiet!”
The Quiet brings many folks back to the Richtersveld. We also met Andrew De Villiers Farmer. A SANParks employee was doing his rounds. Andrew, a builder by trade, went to Johannesburg to make his fortune but returned after a few decades in the city. Together with Bokkie, his wife, a butcher, and their three children, they returned to live in the quiet. “You only need to sleep in the sand on your back once to understand. Man, you lie on your back in the sand and look at the stars at night. Those are times more precious than diamonds.”
As a young man, he’d shepherd his father’s goats. His diet consisted of goat’s milk, edible roots and dry goat meat cured in the breeze at night. He’d fill a tin buried deep in the sand to keep his milk cold. He told us he'd gather seeds from edible wheat-like grasses, what we might consider a weed. Once stoneground bakes delicious askoek. "right there in front of our eyes is everything we need to eat." He said. His beloved mother taught him that “sheep and goats are more precious than diamonds, and all you have to do is look after them”!
Andrew confirmed that he, too, an educated man, didn’t count his flock but knew them by name and could scan them and tell if even one was missing. A raconteur, Andrew had us spellbound and could answer many of our questions about a herder’s life. He made it sound very romantic and effortless. Yes, “gold is where you find it.” The Alchemist.
Gerard, his wife and their friend from The Netherlands were lovely and agreed we were in God’s own country, fortunate to be so privileged to enjoy the desert and promised to look out for us when we crossed over from Morocco to Spain! They promised that our beds would be ready by the time we pulled into their driveway.
Our final surprise was a sighting of three adult ostriches and their nursery of chicks. So they are there.
Everyone from the gateman at the Park’s entrance gate was pleasant and welcomed us, saying, “there’s always space for everyone in the Richtersveld.” We enjoyed Richtersveld humour, helpfulness, kindness, patience and hospitality. On our way out, the young gatekeeper from the Orange Free State said, “there’s no noise here. I can send my money home and save some, too, my mother thinks I need a wife, but I’m happy in the quiet.” 10/10, San Parks, you make us proud.
Roger Parsons, a very learned man, geologist, and lover of the Richtersveld suggested we invest in these books: Geological Journeys (2 books), Off the Beaten Track, and Fifty geological sites to visit, written by Normal/Whitfield. Enquiries made in Upington’s Book store were disappointing as none of these books was in stock. They did have Africa’s Top Geological Sites, which we’ve added to our library.
Of course, there’s always a balancing of the books. It seems we can’t visit any place and come through it unscathed. Poor old Honey Badger lost her electric steps, again on a large rock and narrow causeway, as we negotiated a narrow passage on our departure from our riverside campsite at De Hoop. The sound of those steps ripped from the chassis was similar to a nail scraping a blackboard! Blood-curdling.
We have numerous friends who’ve been to the Richtersveld, suggested we visit, and promised we’d not be sorry we did. The only thing we regret is that it took us so long. At last, we joined the club. Suppose it is on your bucket list. Good. If not, give it serious consideration. You will need a 4x4, tent and your camera. It’s not an easy passage, but being there is worth every minute. The scales have fallen from my lids, and I will tread softly on the earth.
The Richtersveld was declared a World Heritage site a few years ago.
ii throw in the towel and reluctantly admit technology wins this round. No matter how resilient or patient I am I simply can't edit this post! Consider my spelling errors typos and my grammatical errors a slip of the tongue. My connectivity wanes and dips so often I can't get to saving anything! Sorry. At least I have an ample supply of electricity!