Covering an incredible 6 000km2 of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and southern Namibia, the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park has been called the world’s richest desert thanks to its array of hardy succulents, many of which are endemic and unique.
Proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site for its botanical and cultural significance, Richtersveld’s mountain desert landscape rolls between scorched plains and rocky ranges, punctuated by towering quiver trees. It’s one of South Africa’s final wild frontiers, revered in San and Nama mythology and offering open spaces to intrepid adventurers.
Meet the halfmens
Standing in the mountain desert of the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, you might pinch yourself if you spot a lonely figure or perhaps a group of people on the horizon. It’s not a mirage, however – it’s the human-like halfmens succulent.
According to Nama legend, the endemic plants are the frozen forms of tribespeople driven by conflict from Namibia into the arid Richtersveld; as they paused to gaze north, looking wistfully back at their gentler homeland, the gods took pity and turned them into half-human halfmens, consoled for eternity by the view of home.
The scientific explanation is that Pachypodium namaquanum always leans north because it’s phototropic, growing towards the sunshine and using the light to make its flowers more visible to pollinators. Either way, the iconic trees cut a bizarre sight, growing up to 4m with a spiny trunk devoid of branches and a mop-top of crinkly green leaves and flowers. The best place to spot them? Halfmens Pass.
Walk on the moon
Three guided hiking trails explore the 1 625km2 South African section of the park, giving a visceral experience of this lunar wilderness. Kodaspiek Trail is the “soft” option, lasting “just” two days and a night; Lelieshoek-Oemsberg (three days, two nights) rewards hardy hikers with a huge rock amphitheatre and a waterfall; and Vensterval (four days, three nights) is the daddy of them all, taking in quartzite gorges, clumpy botterboom succulents growing from rocky crags, and the downright Tolkien-worthy Tswaies Mountains and fountains of Armanshoek.
Unsurprisingly, mystical locations and extreme activities are as common as lava rocks in this sun-blasted moonscape, where the mercury passes 50°C (122°F) in summer. Just 14km from the main entrance gate, Sendelingsdrift, is none other than the Hand of God: the uncanny rock formation supposedly created when God pressed a mighty hand into the rock. Activities in the park include 4WD adventures, stargazing, photographing the fiery sunrises and sunsets, fly-fishing and rafting down the Orange River.
Explore the desert ‘mega-ecosystem’
At first glance, the parched expanse of the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park may look as empty as the cloudless sky above, but these plains and mountains support one of the world’s richest desert flora.
Despite receiving just 68mm of rainfall annually (the UK gets around 1 500mm), 1km2 of Richtersveld contains over 360 species of flowering plant. The 2 000-plus types of succulent include quiver trees, their branches used by the San to make quivers for their arrows, and psammophorous plants, which emit a gooey substance to attract a protective layer of sand.
Equally resilient and adaptable, the animals range from Hartmann’s mountain zebras and klipspringer antelopes to myriad reptiles and over 200 bird species, including the jackal buzzard. Part of the Succulent Karoo biome, the world’s only arid biodiversity hot spot, the Richtersveld produces another surprise every spring (around September), when it blooms with a multicoloured carpet of wildflowers.
Go off the grid
Visiting the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, one of Africa’s greatest wildernesses, is a survivalist challenge. It’s just about possible to cover the gravel road to Sendelingsdrift Gate in a 2WD, but thereafter it’s 4WD all the way. Other than the fuel and cold drinks available from the small general store at Sendelingsdrift (closed on weekends), you have to be totally self-sufficient and there’s no cellphone reception in the park.
If the prospect of a tooled-up camping expedition brings out goosebumps beneath your khaki T-shirt, check into one of the riverside campsites, whose Afrikaans names recall the rugged Voortrekkers who once crossed these deserts. With basic facilities including cold showers and dry toilets, you’ll need to bring everything to these six- to 12-site campgrounds – sleeping on the bare ground isn’t an option with all those scorpions about.
Don’t be deterred if you don’t have a Toyota Prado and a satellite phone to hand, because 4WD Richtersveld tours are offered from Springbok and Port Nolloth (both in the Northern Cape).
There are also more comfortable park accommodation options: Sendelingsdrift Rest Camp, which has a swimming pool and 10 air-conditioned chalets equipped with fridges, two-plate electric stoves, showers and porches overlooking the Orange River; and two wilderness camps, complete with showers, 12-volt lighting system (and back-up paraffin lanterns), fridges, gas stoves, hot water and resident caretaker. See? Luxury!
Cross the border on a pontoon
The Orange River defines most of the South Africa–Namibia border, and when the river is high enough, you can cross both on the Sendelingsdrift pont. Don’t worry, it’ll take your vehicle too (one at a time please). Dating from the pre-1990 days of South West Africa, when South Africa governed Namibia, the restored ferry saves a 485km detour to cross between the park’s two sections.