As one of the least known regions in South Africa, the Richtersveld is a spectacular mountainous desert landscape characterised by a desolate and forbidding backdrop of rugged kloofs and high mountains. Those who travel here find a starkly beautiful world filled with surprisingly diverse scenery, from sun baked plains, to sharp mountains of volcanic rock, sliced through by the lush Orange River. Though barren and desolate at first glance, closer examination reveals a rich collection of specially adapted desert life forms. It’s no wonder that the landscape has been described by travellers as “martian”.
This is a harsh and unpredictable land where water is scarce and moisture comes in the form of early morning fog – called ‘Ihuries’ or ‘Malmokkies’ by the local people – which rolls in from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, sustaining a remarkable range of life. In fact, the Richtersveld is regarded as the only Arid Biodiversity Hotspot on Earth, with an astonishing variety of plant, bird and animal life. Some species found here occur nowhere else. Gnarled quiver trees, tall aloes and the quaint ‘Halfmensboom’ (half-person tree) keep vigil over this inscrutable landscape.
The northern part of the area was proclaimed a National Park in 1991, after eighteen years of negotiation with the local Nama people. In June 2007, “The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape”, just to the south of the National Park, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the core zone of which was declared the Richtersveld Community Conservancy in recognition of the rare botanical diversity and vanishing lifestyle of the Nama people it protects. It is the last refuge of the Nama people living what is known as the transhumance lifestyle – to migrate seasonally with their livestock from the mountains to the river and so make sustainable use of the fragile succulent ecosystem.
Early archeological evidence tells us that the San inhabited the Richtersveld area thousands of years ago. 2000 years ago, the first Khoekhoen or pastoral people moved to these regions from Botswana. Like the San they were hunter-gatherers. The Nama herders in the Richtersveld are said to be descendants from these pastoralists and the San.
315km from Springbok in the Northern Cape, the park is only accessible by means of a 4x4 and offers some of South Africa’s finest hiking, camping and cultural experiences. Once inside the park, camping is the only accommodation alternative, although there is a choice of 5 campsites:
Potjiespram, De Hoop, Richtersberg, De Koei and Kokerboom Kloof.
- To be declared a Hotspot, an area must have incredibly high species diversity and a high percentage of endemism. It is quite a unique distinction as there are only 25 Hotspots in the world.
- 2700 species live in this area alone and almost 600 exist nowhere else.
- It is here that you will find the giant Baster Quiver Tree (Aloe pilansii) of which only a few hundred remain on the remote mountaintops of the Richtersveld.
- The Nama people tell the legend of the ‘Halfmens’ tree. It is said that the ancient Nama people that fled from Namibia southward to this region were transformed into these half human trees. The ‘head’ of these trees always faces the north and is a reminder of those people looking longingly towards the beloved land they left behind.
- One of the main features of the combined park is the world’s second largest canyon – the Fish River Canyon.