Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

At night, cold sea air tumbles over the Richtersveld, bringing with it just enough moisture to keep plants and animals alive. There is very little rain.

Over thousands of years, the plants that pepper the rocky soil have found myriad ways to adapt to the harsh conditions in which they live. Some have developed leaves that have large “bladder” cells to store water when it is available; others have developed white scales to reflect the sun’s rays. There are those that stay underground in the form of bulbs, flowering only after rain, and those that suck the moisture out of the air when the mist rolls in.

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The Richtersveld, a World Heritage Site, reportedly has the highest succulent diversity in the world. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

There are a staggering 2 700 plant species in the Greater Richtersveld area, which includes the Gariep region, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Of these, 560 species (20%) are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world and making the Richtersveld, as part of the Succulent Karoo, one of South Africa’s three biodiversity hotspots. 

This region is succulent central – 80% of the plant species are succulents, and this is widely regarded as the area with the world’s highest succulent diversity. The United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declared the 1 600km² Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape a World Heritage Site in June 2007.

A landscape such as this doesn’t support much wildlife, but there are leopards and baboons in the crags, 197 bird species and – wonderfully – eight frog species. The frogs bury themselves under the sand and only emerge just after rain.

Here are some of the heroes of the Richtersveld:

The Nama people

Nama huts, known as matjieshuise in Afrikaans, can still be seen within the folds and valleys of the Richtersveld mountain desert. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

It is only in the Richtersveld that the ancient semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Nama people persists – some say some of their traditions have lasted up to 2 000 years. In December 2002, ancestral lands, including the Richtersveld National Park, were returned to the Nama. The following year, the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park was formed, incorporating Namibia's ǀAi-ǀAis Hot Springs Game Park.

They manage the park in collaboration with South African National Parks and live much as they have always done – moving with the seasons to secure grazing in this sparse landscape, making their domed rush-mat houses and speaking their language, especially when passing on their oral history to younger generations.

Namaqua rain frog (Breviceps namaquensis)

Rising from the sandy soil like an angry earthquake survivor, the Namaqua rain frog doesn’t have webbed toes but can inflate its body and squeak dramatically when threatened. The frog’s eggs are laid underground, covered in a thick “jelly” that softens into fluid when the eggs hit tadpole stage.

The 'halfmens' (Pachypodium namaquanum)

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From a distance, fully grown halfmens trees have a human-like appearance. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

Gaze at a Richtersveld hill and you might find yourself wondering what mad dog or Englishman is climbing its flanks in the shimmering heat. Look again and you will see it is one of this region’s most iconic trees, the spiny cactus-like halfmens (half-human), with its shaggy mop of leaves that, from a distance, resemble someone with bad bed hair.

The legend goes that when the Nama people fled southward from what is now Namibia, driven out by other tribes, the gods took pity on them and turned them into these half-humans that now forever gaze northwards towards their home. (Each Pachypodium namaquanum does actually face north and scientists believe this allows them maximum sun exposure in winter.)

The bastard quiver tree (Aloidendron pillansii)

Quiver Tree Route
The San people used quiver tree branches to make quivers for their hunting arrows. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

The bastard quiver tree’s white stems reach up to 10m upwards, contrasting emphatically with the Richtersveld’s vast blue skies. Just as the landscape is sparse, expending no wasted energy, these trees have pared down their growth to its essentials. They send few branches into the air, and their curved leaves are swollen with stored moisture. 

In spring and summer, bright yellow flowers produce nectar savoured by sugarbirds and ants. There are many other quiver tree species in the Richtersveld, but Aloidendron pillansii is one of the rarest.

Bushman’s candle (Monsonia flavescens)

Bushmans Candle
The Bushman's candle blooms in a variety of colours that can transform the arid Richtersveld landscape into a vivid floral spectacle. (Image: Welchman family collection)

The prickly Bushman's candle, with its delicate lemon-yellow flowers, is found on rocky slopes, predominantly in the Richtersveld, but also in southern Namibia and Namaqualand. These endangered plants have fleshy, wax-covered branches that are highly flammable, hence the name. They are also called Sarcocaulon patersonii.

Vygies (Mesembryanthemum)

Mesembryanthemum protect their gametes from night-time dews or frosts but open in sunlight. (Image: Welchman family collection)

Who doesn’t love the psychedelic colours of this family of cheery flowers? The Richtersveld is home to – some say – about a third of all known “vygies”, of the genus Mesembryanythemum.

Ghaap (Hoodia gordonii)

Hoodia gordonii is one of the most sought after succulents due to its medicinal properties. (Image: Herry B)

As one of the so-called wonder plants of the 21st century, Hoodia gordonii is sought after for its supposed medicinal properties as an appetite suppressant. However, trade in the plant is restricted. 

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was awarded a patent for the active ingredient in hoodia, known as P57, in 1996. In 2002, the San people’s rights over hoodia were acknowledged, granting them a percentage of the spin-offs from its marketing.

When to visit

The best time to visit the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape is in spring when wildflowers scatter the landscape and temperatures are bearable, and sometimes even cold. From October, temperatures soar, with 52°C having been recorded at the height of summer.

Take walking shoes, a good camera with a macro lens and a sense of wonder. This is a place of natural miracles.