On a pilgrimage in big sky country

Published Feb 23, 2016


Windhoek - It’s a good thing the days are as long as they are hot in the Richtersveld this time of year.

I arrive at the Sendelingsdrif reception office of the Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park at 4pm, only to be told that it will take another four hours to reach my overnight campsite at Kokerboomkloof.

It’s only 75km. I’m driving a brand-new 3-litre diesel-powered Land Rover Discovery 4 and I’ve spent years driving off-road!

Who does this woman think she’s talking to?

It took 4½ hours. I can’t even say I took the scenic route because the whole damned place possesses an unearthly beauty that makes the northern Namaqualand and southern Namibia an incredible place to visit.

It is about 900km from Cape Town to Sendelingsdrif, so there’s no way you can safely get to Kokerboomkloof in one day.

Leave early and overnight in a West Coast village such as Hondeklip Bay or break your journey, as I did, at Clanwilliam before setting off at dawn.

Going there is rarely a spur-of-the-moment decision… though, in my case, it was just that. An old Namibian comrade-in-cups kept posting about the wondrous showers falling in the drought-savaged south of his country and I had to see the Orange River – also called the Gariep – in spate.

There were a few drops of rain as I left Clanwilliam and the localised showers got heavier as I drove northwards up the N7.

The mist in some of the passes was almost impenetrable and driving got quite scary when this coincided with roadworks and their attendant stop and go’s.

It’s not much fun coming up suddenly on stationary and barely visible pantechnicons.

Conditions cleared outside Port Nolloth but it was obvious rain had graced the Northern Cape. There were yellow, white, mauve and orange flowers and succulents signalling regeneration everywhere on the plains.

Most people associate deserts with rolling sand dunes such as one would find in the Namib, Sahara and Gobi. There are many other kinds – the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is part of Africa’s only mountain desert – but they are all unusually arid, desolate and can generally be described as “big sky country”. In other words, you can see a long way in all directions.

I find this humbling as I stop the Discovery at the top of Akkedis Pass and look across a flat lunar plain to a distant horizon of sharply peaked mountains.

It’s taken hours to get here from Sendelingsdrif because one has to be very careful not to lacerate the tyres on sharp rock slivers.

To those uninitiated in the beauty of deserts, there’s not a lot to see… just periodic quiver-trees, grotesque “Halfmens” trunks and a dust-devil or two. There are few animals to be seen and, at this steamy time of the year, almost no other visitors.

Solitude has its unique appeal: as a mate of mine is fond of saying, “I’d rather be in the desert thinking of God, than in church thinking of the desert”.

The Transfrontier Park (proclaimed in 2003) covers more than 6 000km2, of which less than a third falls within South Africa.The Richtersveld and /Ai/Ais sections are split by the Orange River.

Kokerboomkloof is close to the river but there’s no hint of its proximity. It’s a vast bowl surrounded by giant kopies that glow ochre in dusk and dawn. There are eight campsites with rudimentary facilities (toilets and sinks for washing up, no drinking water) and I have the place to myself. The seclusion and silence of this tableau, lit by a full moon, are spine-chilling. You’ve got to really like your own company to enjoy the desert – both by day and night – and, equally, you don’t want to visit the place in a large group.

I toss a foam mattress on the ground and climb into my sleeping bag… not the cleverest idea, I read later, because scorpions abound.

The next day is spent traversing the park before cutting down to the De Hoop campsite on the banks of the Orange. I get there relatively early because it’s damned hot (37ºC) and I figure lazing in the river or parking off under a tree would be more sensible than driving around.

The water is clean, cool and pushing strongly. Bliss.

I find a flat partly submerged rock and that’s me for the next couple of hours. It’s not long and I feel a tickling on the tops of my feet and ankles; dozens of tiny fish are nibbling on dried skin. Hey, people pay money for this!

De Hoop, like the other campsites, is designed for few visitors. The ablution facilities are less rudimentary than those of the previous night and there’s also a cold water shower (tepid actually but adequate for lathering up and rinsing).

As pork steaks sizzle on the braai that night, it seems the sound of the river is getting louder.

Is it just that sound is amplified by the darkness?

Next morning it’s clear my ears weren’t playing tricks.

The river level has increased vertically by at least 15cm.

My bathing rock is completely under water.

The morning is still cool and I spend the first part of the day watching the birdlife… herons, bokmakieries, three-banded plovers, mountain wheatears, an African pied wagtail with a ring around one leg, a swallow-tailed bee-eater and weavers.

On the other side of the river is Namibia and that is where I’m headed.

An elementary vehicle ferry departs daily from Sendelingsdrif but a park employee tells me I’ll need to wait “a week or two”: the Fish River joins the Orange between De Hoop and Sendelingsdrif, and their combined inundation has made crossing impossible.

So it’s out of the park and along spectacular dirt roads to Vioolsdrif. Standing on the bridge that links South Africa and Namibia, movement catches my eye; below me an almost two metre-long leguaan slithers into a pool.

(When I return less than two days later, the river is about 150m broader.)

The dirt road is in superb condition and it takes no time to cover the 60km to the resort at /Ai/Ais where there’s a 20-room lodge with air-conditioning, fridges and hot running water - the latter not really necessary - as well as full-service campsites.

Facilities are a bit disappointing but it’s off-season and I give management the benefit of grudging doubt (but some rather explicit instructions) before pointing the Discovery towards the Fish River Canyon.

Obviously the rain has fallen more abundantly and recently in this ??Karas region than the Namaqualand because there are puddles deep as waterholes and the veld bears a green sheen. There’s more game than south of the border and the kudu, gemsbok, springbok and Hartmann’s zebra are sleeker than their South African counterparts.

I’ve stopped the Land Rover to photograph some tiny plants when a resident of Owamboland (his clapped-out Mazda 323 has an Oshakati registration) pulls up and gleefully enquires [itals]”Is dit stukkend? (Is it broken?)”[itals]. He’s come across Landies beside the road before but this time he’s wrong.

The Fish River Canyon is the second largest in the world and again, I have the place virtually to myself. I stand on the rim in scorching heat and look down, down, down to where the muddy Fish meanders. From this height I have no idea of its flow-speed.

That night back at /Ai/Ais, I get a better idea as it hurries past the braai site, a good 40m from the gabions that protect the banks. There’s a knee-high island mid-stream and on it, long grasses riffle in the breeze.

The next morning the island is gone and the water is nuzzling the wire-bound rock bundles. Life comes quickly, quietly and with awesome power to this ancient place.


If You Go...

l A visit to the Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is more in the nature of an expedition than a getaway.

There is no shop other than at /Ai/Ais resort in Namibia and visitors are obliged to bring all equipment and supplies including, if you’re camping, drinking water for the duration of your stay. Sedan vehicles are not allowed in the Richtersveld section.

Ensure your spare tyre is in good nick and that you have a working wheel-jack. There is limited cellphone reception.

Jim Freeman, Saturday Star

Related Topics: