There is a white lie that I tell everyone. Please keep this to yourself. I do, contrary to the standard answer I always give, actually have a favorite national park. Well, three actually. But today, I’m just going to tell you about one. Mostly because I am longing for the sense of absolute peace that being in this park brings.
/Ai/Ais- Richtersveld Transfrontier Park (the verdict is still out on the placement of those hyphens) feels like a mythical lost kingdom on a hot planet far from Earth. I’ve written before that, to me, the Richtersveld is where the belly of the earth burst through to the surface and came to rest, its rocky innards awkwardly propped up against one another. I love this place, and I visit it often in daydreams.
A few months ago, we hurled the Q5 – packed to the brim with water and hiking boots, torches and naartjies, car recovery kits and of course, aftersun – and aimedfor the Namibian border. We were advised at the time that the corrugated road after Alexander Bay was a nightmare, so headed instead for Vioolsdrif. Stopping over in Vryburg for the night (we stayed at pretty, cosy, affordable and private Poetry Guestrooms, which has become a regular stop for us for all trips to the Northern Cape) meant the 12 hours to the border were a breeze. I had never been to Namibia, and the 142km to Sendelingsdrif meant we could see the south-west of the country, along a well-kept dirt road that traverses Aussenkehr Nature Reserve. This meant travelling for quite some time along the Orange River and a couple of vineyards, and across the Fish. It was well-worth the detour.
(As an aside: If you ever head this way, make sure you have the necessary docs, including ownership papers or a letter from the bank or rental company saying it’s okay to cross the border. I’m still not so sure on the policy for taking alcohol and meat over the border. Our car was searched – we of course had some wine and some meat, and we were okay. The officials were quite tough and mean and rude though, be prepared for them being pushy. Also check border times before you go. Don’t forget the ZA sticker, valid passport, drivers licence, and road user’s fee of about R220 a car. But all worth it once you cross!)
After the Sendelingsdrif border, we stopped at the pont, waited for the guys to bring it over, and drove on in order to cross. Great fun! (Again check before hand – it may be closed if water levels are too high or too low, or if the wind is too strong. Then there’s conservation fees to be paid at the office, and a fee for using the pont, so just plan for these in your budget.)
We booked into the Sendlingsdrift Rest Camp in order to find our feet, which gave us easy access to a couple of the attractions nearby. On our first afternoon, we headed over Halfmens Pass to search for the man-like succulents and test the bounds of the Q5, and even stopped in at Potjiespram alongside the river to watch the baboons. We zipped through to the Hand of God – an imprint in the rocks resembling a giant hand, and clambered up a random cliff to toast the sunset.
On day 2, we headed to Tatasberg Wilderness Camp via Akkedis Pass. We managed the two-track dirt road, which is quite rocky at some points, without hassles. But nearing De Hoop Campsite, enroute to Tatasberg, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on the very-4x4-only Abiekwa riverbed track that we were warned to avoid. But what did we do? We tried anyway. How bad could 11kms be? After scratching craters into the underside of the car and almost getting full stuck and wedged between boulders after a 50-minute long 1.5kms, we admitted defeat and headed back.
The sandy banks between De Hoop and Tatasberg were a breeze compared to the rocky path.
After a standoff in a road with a herd of sheep, ringing and clattering away with no herder in sight, we had found Tatasberg. Morné, the camp attendant who was the only living soul for at least 10kms around, greeted us at the camp with a set of keys just as the sun was sinking beyond the river. Orange waters (yes – we discovered where the river gets its name) turned to purple, as baboons barked in the distance.
We truly felt like were the only people on the planet for a good few hours. I cannot even begin to describe the sense of immense tranquillity that descended on me watching that river – knowing the world could come to an end right then and we would probably just carry on braaing our kebabs and toasting the overwhelming stars –alive or shooting – with glass-upon-glass of wine. (Oh dear, here comes the wanderlust). During the night, the wind rattled the canvas underneath the reed-covered chalets, and we heard strange noises drifting in from the surrounding mountains. After they grew closer, we headed out to discover a genet breaking into the kitchen to chomp on a kebab stick.
Heading along the 11km to Echo Canyon the following day, we found ourselves in the heart of the Tatasberg Mountains. Red peaks jutting into blue skies and iconic quiver trees protruding from the dry rock made me think of the saying that the Richtersveld is the land that God made in anger. Yet all I could feel was calm.
The Richtersveld is the place of giant marvels: boulders the size of houses stacked precariously over time masquerade as mountains, and quiver trees and halfmense cling to cliffs towering over sandy valleys. But the teeniest plants find respite here too, developing incredible adaptations to ward off the effects of freezing-cold nights, harsh desert winds and the sizzling rays of the sun. I’d been told that one needs to get down on the ground, cheek planted in the sand, to truly appreciate the vegetation. And it’s true. Miniscule succulents and shoots sprout between the grains that you could never see from above.
There is much to do in the park, and while simply seeing the geological masterpiece of one of the most breathtaking pieces of the earth tops my list, there are hikes, mountain biking trails and very-4x4 routes to try too. We traversed some on a detour via Gannakouriep Wilderness Camp back to Sendlingsdrif, and I’ll never forget the bouncing that accompanied taking the soft river sands at 50kms/h in trying to avoid getting stuck.
One thing is for sure: /Ai/Ais- will alter the state of your soul – either bringing it serene rest or shaking it to the core.