During the Easter weekend, the Desert Kayak Trails hosted the first large group of participants down the magnificent Orange River, within the parameters of the /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
The /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park measures 5 920 km² and spans some of the most spectacular arid and desert mountain scenery in southern Africa.
It is part of the Succulent Karoo biome, which has the richest succulent flora in the world, harbouring about one-third of the world’s approximately 10 000 succulent species. It is also one of only two entirely arid ecosystems to earn hotspot status, the other being the Horn of Africa. A biodiversity hotspot is a biogeographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is under threat from humans. Another outstanding feature of the Succulent Karoo is the high diversity of geophytes or bulblike plants. It is home to the tree-like succulent, the halfmens and 69% of its plants are endemic. Furthermore, it is a haven to many unique species of lizards, tortoises and scorpions.
The transfrontier park also features the Fish River Canyon, which is the second largest canyon in the world and the largest in Africa.The Orange River mouth is a Ramsar site and the 350 million year old and erosion-rich Orange River gorge abounds with history, folklore and grandeur. The Richtersveld is one of the last regions where the Nama people's traditional lifestyle based on nomadic pastoralism has been preserved.
On 1 August 2003 a new era for desert tourism and conservation of this unique succulent biodiversity dawned when the treaty on the establishment of the /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park was signed by the presidents of Namibia and South Africa.
The heads of state of Namibia and South Africa signed a treaty establishing the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park on 1 August 2003. Since then, joint management, tourism and financial protocol plans
have been completed. In 2007 the pontoon at Sendelingsdrift was refurbished and immigration offices and staff housing were built on both sides of the Orange River.
Joint activities between the Namibian and South African components of the park got under way in 2010, including joint patrols by park managers and the introduction of a border permit that allows officials from both countries to easily cross the border while on official duty within the boundaries of the park. With cross-border operations well in hand and successful, the attention turned to increasing visitor numbers to the TFCA. This was done by developing unique cross-border products, which led to the launch of what was to become the annual Desert Knights mountain bike tour.
In April 2011, the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld joint management board approved the park’s integrated development plan and joint operations strategy. The latter outlines joint activities at an operational level, such as joint patrols for monitoring and law enforcement, managing joint assets like the pontoon at Sendelingsdrift, joint research and the identification and implementation of cross-border tourism products.
The park’s management committee, comprising park managers supported by an intersectoral management and development task group, was also established. This committee has since successfully jointly managed daily operations and is using joint management board meetings as strategic work sessions for decision making at policy level.
In an important event for visitors, the upgrade and extension of the Fish River Bridge was completed in 2012 and has since proven its worth during floods. The joint training of staff was also started and, owing to its success, was expanded in 2013.
The /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park has become a model for joint planning, operations, training and cross-border events.
During 2014 the park continued its staff training. Plans are afoot for a fully guided and catered kayak trail, ranging from one- to four-day trips, with local communities doing the catering and assisting with camp attendant duties and river guiding. With this in mind, the African Paddling Association was approached to help select and train river guides. Thanks to funding from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and Peace Parks Foundation, the training took place during February. Skippers also underwent additional training to support the operation of the Sendelingsdrift pontoon and the park’s joint river patrols. Park staff were trained in the use of geographic information systems (GIS), to use the monitoring tools needed in conservation and to enable them to create management maps. This training was conducted by Peace Parks Foundation and the Southern African Wildlife College.
Peace Parks Foundation was asked by the park’s joint management board to develop a mountain bike trail at Hobas that will be available to tourists throughout the year. The trail was introduced during the Desert Knights mountain bike tour, which saw 118 cyclists cover 280 km between 24 and 30 September 2014. It involved five days of cycling, some of it at night under the full moon, and one day of canoeing on the Orange River. The aim of the event is to further unlock the tourism potential of the park. Proceeds of the tour support joint conservation activities in the park.
Two more tourist products are now on offer. In 2015 the Desert Kayak Trails were launched. The Richtersveld Wildrun was started in 2014 and in 2016 it will become a transboundary event, from the Richtersveld to the Ai Ais Hotsprings, along very remote areas in the park.