By George Brits
We’d been to the Richtersveld before, but in pursuit of yellowfish. It was always a mad dash to get to the at De Hoop, get the fly rods out and start harassing the local fish population. Of course, we’d noticed the landscape, but if your mind is elsewhere you don’t really take it in. Our recollection was vague at best, but we did not really remember anything particularly magical about the place. Nice enough, but not memorable, apart from the fishing that is.
Furthermore, parched, barren landscapes don’t really resonate with my dear wife. Drop her in the green valleys of the Drakensberg, or the lush coastal forests of Maputaland, and you’ll lose her for days. But the desolation of a desert wilderness just does not appeal.
But, every few months the Richtersveld features prominently in one of the mainstream outdoor magazines, testifying to the fact that it is one of our premier off-the-grid wilderness areas. It’s clear that you can’t really claim to have comprehensively travelled the country if you haven’t spent time there. So, with a bit of time on hand, and not many options – it was the middle of winter – we decided it was time to head north for a proper exploration.
Our truck is reasonably well equipped. But you don’t need a ‘Camel Man’ truck to tackle the Richtersveld. Most of it can be done in a regular bakkie or an SUV. See our forthcoming article ‘50 Tips for a Memorable Visit’ for more on the what’s and what-nots of going to the Richtersveld.
We run four batteries in our dual battery system and two pure sine-wave inverters: 600W for day-to-day use, and a largely unused 3kW for reasons that now escape me. I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. The batteries run two 40l Engel fridges, which hold more than enough perishables for a three-week excursion. The laptop and camera battery chargers are hard wired – meaning you only have to plug in the laptop’s cable or put the camera batteries in their charging cradles to start working.
We also have two drawers that sit between the two front seats and extend into the back of the truck’s double cab. This allows us easy access to our cameras. A set of 110mm drain pipes in the back of the cabinet stores the tripods, monopods, hiking sticks, and, of course, a fly rod or two. Our forthcoming article about setting up your truck for easy access to your cameras will have more details about our particular setup.
But we still had to add a bit of kit. There is no drinking water in the park, except at Sendelingsdrif. So, we carried 60l of water on the roof, and another 20 ‘shop-bought’ 5l plastic drums in the truck. It sounds like a lot, but it only adds the weight equivalent of two teenagers to the truck – and they have long since flown the coup. The water on the roof probably messes with the truck’s centre of gravity, but we rarely travel fast, and it did not feel as if it made a noticeable difference to the truck’s handling.
Because we usually stay in farm cottages on our travels, we have never got around to sorting our shade screening around the truck. So, we tossed a beach umbrella on the roof as well. This proved to be a really great idea. We had lunch at impromptu pit stops most days. There are very few shade options in the park. And because we had most of our ‘picnics’ a little way away from the truck, a mobile umbrella was a lot more useful than a fixed awning would have been.
Our first stop in the park was at Gannakouriep wilderness camp. This is a long way away from the life blood of the Orange river, and a completely different environment to that which we remembered from our previous trips to De Hoop’s river camp.
It was clear from the get-go that we were in for a pleasant surprise. This was confirmed over subsequent days as we explored the Gannakouriep river bed and the Hakkiesdoring valley. The surprises would continue to accumulate as we explored the park over the next few weeks.
Away from the life-giving green ribbon of the Orange river, the landscape was stark and austere – but mesmerising in its wild beauty. We drove up the Hakkiesdoring valley on the first morning. It’s an out-and-back trip, and the road only leads up the valley – nowhere else. As a consequence, there was no other traffic for the whole day. This proved to be a recurring theme for the next few days as we explored the area around Gannakouriep.
It could easily just have been a seasonal thing, but the smaller birds were much more habituated around the huts at Gannakouriep than elsewhere in the park. So, most mornings were started off with a few hours behind the lens, waiting for the little critters to arrive, before we went on our drives or walks. The rewards were slow, almost as if the birds were teasing us.
But almost each day a ‘new’ species would hop onto the rocks in front of the veranda, and by the end of the week we had shots of mountain wheatears, capped wheatears, familiar chats, karoo chats, ant-eating chats, the ubiquitous cape and red-eyed bulbuls, sunbirds and a crombeck.
After a week, it was time to head over to the Tatasberg wilderness camp on the Orange river. We did so via Kokerboomkloof. If we go again, or should I say when we go again, we will make a point of stopping over at Kokerboomkloof for a few days. The valley is that picturesque. But we also suspect that its best times might be at sun-set and sun-rise.
The valley has a charismatic rocky outcrop in its centre and boulders of various sizes are strewn throughout – almost like a group of giant kids got interrupted in a game of marbles.
The quiver trees after which the valley have been named are dying off in their droves as higher temperatures and an intense, prolonged drought is taking its toll.
Time will tell whether the valley will recover to its former glory, but even if it does, it will take decades for these slow growing aloes to make a come-back. Perhaps it won’t even be in the Kokerboomkloof, but in cooler valley further south in the park.
To get to the river camps, one can take either of the roads down the Tatas river bed or the Abiekwa river bed. The latter is definitely a no-no if you are pulling a trailer. The Kooks river bed is also an alternative for folk coming from the north (i.e. Sendelingsdrif).
The Richtersveld is a reasonably young geological complex, with the various events that shaped it still clearly visible in its hills and valleys. This is evident in the enormous variation from one valley to the next. Our forthcoming ‘Richtersveld photo essay’ will give you a good idea of this diversity.
So, whichever of these valleys you take to get to the huts at Tatasberg or the campsite at Richtersberg, you will almost certainly want to explore the other valleys as well.
We spent most of our younger years scaling the passes and traversing the escarpment of the Drakensberg. It is still one of our most loved areas in the country. Will always be. But compared to the Richtersveld, one could be excused for thinking that the valleys in the Berg have been cut from a single template.
For a photographer, the variation across the different valleys provide a range of distinctive canvasses to paint your landscapes on. But what really makes it come alive is the almost limitless variety in foreground interest. You have hardly finished juxtaposing one rocky outcrop onto a vertiginous backdrop for ‘the best shot of the trip’, only to move a short distance to ‘discover’ a completely new aesthetic as the foreground bleeds into the mountains in a completely different composition.
THE ‘SECRET VALLEY’
Just outside Tatasberg wilderness camp there is a small track that leads off into the Tatasberg river bed. It’s the next one over from the Tatas river valley. The camp manager called this his secret valley – presumably not because it’s a secret, but because tourists tend to focus on the river when they are here.
For us, this was one of our top-3 destinations in the park. We spent three days in this valley alone. The drive up the valley is about 11km in length. From about a third of the way up the mountains around you consist almost entirely of boulders in all shapes and sizes. At the head of the valley, we scrambled up to the ridge above us. There is no path. You just have to pick a line and head for the top. But once you are on the ridge, the view stretches over the Tatas river valley and off into the distance as far as the eye can see.
Life next to the river is very different to life in the interior. Not only does the river add a touch of colour to the landscape, but it’s also a lot busier. Animal life in the park is pretty scarce, as one would expect. But your best chance of spotting some wildlife is here.
One of the highlights of our trip was a set of photos that we took of a mother and a juvenile lesser spotted genet that came foraging around our hut for edibles. According to the camp manager, they sometimes crawl into the kitchens through the open ceilings – so pack away your foodstuffs before you retire for the night! If not from the genets, then definitely from the field mice and shrews.
In general, the fauna in the park clearly bear the scars of living in such a harsh environment. For example, we are used to the plump, relaxed ground squirrels that scurry right up to your car in places like the Mountain Zebra National Park and were taken aback at how wary and battle scarred the ground squirrels in the Richtersveld were.
One of the greatest aspects of our three weeks in the Richtersveld was the solitude, particularly during the first half of our stay. Over the first two weeks we never came across more than one other vehicle a day. This changed during the last week, which coincided with the first week of the school break. We counted twelve trucks in Kokerboomkloof (not all at the same time) when we went back for a second look! The first time we were there we had the Kloof to ourselves for the entire afternoon.
But of all the sections in the park, the riverine sections were the busiest. Not least because this is where the goats are kept. The Richtersveld National Park has a permanent goat population of around six thousand and can swell by another two thousand seasonally – and many of these herds can be found along the river.
Also, at the time we were there, there were crews from ‘Working for Water’ and clearing alien vegetation from the banks of the Orange river. After the out-of-season quiet of the Gannakouriep valley, it felt like a bee hive of activity.
HOW LONG DO YOU GO FOR?
In our reading before the trip, we came across a wide range of opinions on the ideal length of stay. We could easily have stayed for another three weeks. We basically only got around to ‘cataloguing’ the basics of the different valleys and ridges of the park and did not even touch our macro lenses. That is perhaps a bit extreme.
But if you are of an active disposition, be that fishing, hiking, cycling, trail running or kayaking – try and stretch it to a week, at least. Anything shorter will be short-selling the opportunity. Also, don’t just anchor yourself at one spot. Try and move around the park so that you can experience the full breadth of its diversity.
And if your camping setup does not lend itself to a quick set-up, mix and match camping with the wilderness huts. They provide a nice break to catch your breath in the midst of all the dust and chaos of camping – for non-regular campers that is.
All in all, We will definitely be back.