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Red hot Richtersveld

21 February 2006

There are moments of pure magic in life that are frozen forever in our minds. Our arrival at the new Tatasberg Wilderness Camp in the Richtersveld joined that most prized collection of memories.

We've always loved the incredible contrast of the lush life-sustaining oasis of vegetation alongside the Orange River and the sun-baked starkness of the dramatic rock formations that give South Africa's only mountain desert its unique character and appeal.

It's a wild, untamed beauty and on this precious day we had just ended a great 4x4 drive with a sighting of a black-backed jackal with an unusual burnt orange colouring that exactly mirrored the colour of the tumble of boulders behind it, providing effective camouflage in the barren, rocky landscape.

Then, just as the Tatasberg camp swung into view, we heard the haunting cries of a pair of fish eagles soaring high above: a picture-perfect scene with hi-fidelity sound effects to match.

"This is amazing," we enthused. "How long has the camp been open?" Our Nama host grinned delightedly: "You are the first guests, although we expected you last night." Fact is we'd headed for the Tatasberg peak featured in the park's handout literature; then spent several frustrating hours searching for the elusive wilderness camp which is actually quite some distance away from its namesake on the map. Ultimately we had to return to the park's HQ at the Sendelingsdrif entry gale for proper directions - a round trip of eight hours.

Tatasberg Wilderness Camp

Hopefully by now they supply guests with more adequate route instructions, but the unexpected bonus was that we ended up camping at Kokerboomkloof beneath a magnificent canopy of bright stars, counting no fewer than nine shooting stars while we braaied and sipped our wine. Bliss!

Our last visit had been five years earlier in the sweltering heat of December when the mercury can top 50C, and this time it was the tail end of winter with cold nights and superb days.

Which is best? There's a compelling if perverse argument for experiencing South Africa's only mountain desert at its most extreme in mid-summer, although it would seem more sensible to visit in the cooler months, and especially during the flower season between August and October.

Whenever you visit you'll marvel at the diversity of plants and succulents, many of them endemic, which survive in such a seemingly hostile environment.

Much of the Richtersveld's appeal is timeless, although the march of progress is apparent. A series of chalets have sprung up at Sendelingsdrif; soon a nearby pont across the river will be opened to the public; and the 8-bedded Tatasberg and Ganakouriep Wilderness Camps have been created, along with the 10-bedded Hiking Trails Camp. But perhaps the most important news is that campers no longer have to trudge off with a spade for toilet stops, nor dodge unsightly scraps of toilet paper blowing in the breeze.

All campsites now have tasteful ablutions that include proper toilets (either flush or enviro loos) and there are showers, at least at the riverside camps.

Personal favourites remain the upgraded De Hoop and Richtersburg sites which retain their informal, unspoilt feel beside the river, so a cooling dip is never more than seconds away.

Much as we love basic camping, we can heartily recommend the superb self-catering experience offered by the new wilderness camps, which provide a fully-equipped kitchen, comfy twin beds and bedding, along with an en-suite facility with a hot shower and flushing loo.

Sendelingsdrif chalets

The Sendelingsdrif chalets are especially convenient for new arrivals to the park, or those with a 4x4, but the atmosphere is compromised by nearby mining activity and vehicle traffic from very early in the morning.

The unusual reality of the Richtersveld is that it is a contractual park managed by SanParks in co-operation with the local Nama community, allowing diamond mining to continue within its boundaries. Despite signs claiming that rehabilitation is in progress, mining has scarred the landscape irreparably on the run in from Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay, but once well into the park the atmosphere of wilderness is recaptured.

Part of the attraction for many is the fact that it is a high-clearance 4x4 destination, although some of the network of more than 200km of roads and tracks is accessible to 4x2s. In places it is reasonably challenging with bone-shaking rocky sections in the mountains and deep sand tracks along the river. These won`t suit low-slung soft roaders - although a skilful and determined driver could probably get almost everywhere!

Be warned: punctures or cut tyres are a real possibility and help can be a long way away! You need to be well prepared.

Remarkably Richtersveld had its peak of 5000 visitors a couple of years ago, with just 3500 people visiting the South African side during 2004 - an average of fewer than 10 visitors a day.

By contrast Namibia boasts significantly higher numbers, although most are day visitors to Fish River Canyon, rather than overnight campers at the Ai-Ais restcamp. Sadly this has been neglected in recent years and has not had a good Press.

Soon, it is hoped, the Ai-Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park will be a working reality with valuable tourism spinoffs to both sides of the park and the possibility to use the pont crossing from Sendelingsdrif. This means it will no longer be necessary to make the lengthy detour to the VioolsdrilYNoordoewer border post via the main South African N7 and Namibian Bl route which links Cape Town and Windhoek.

Another appealing option for travellers on the South African side is to exit the Richtersveld at the Helskloof gate and drive the mountain pass via Helskloof Reserve between Eksteenfontein and Vioolsdrif.

At the time of writing only diesel and leaded petrol was available within the park, the nearest source of unleaded being at Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth.

Leisure Wheels - 1 February 2006Geoff Dalglish

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