Richtersveld 1997

Experiences and Impressions of the Richtersveld

Participants: Pete & Sandy van Gysen – Isuzu Blazer
Terry & Maria Purdon – Rocsta Diesel

I know that previous articles have been written on this part of the world, but after a trip like this, one feels compelled to relate ones own experiences in this remote and beautiful wilderness.

Our chosen route was via Vioolsdrif and Eksteenfontein to Sendelingsdrif. This forms part of the Namaqua Trail, but as time was limited, we had to ignore the numerous little sign posts to inviting looking deviations from the main track. I would certainly recommend it to any lover of rough roads and inspiring countryside. How often is it that the scenery comes right up to the edge of the road without an intervening fence?

Peace of Paradise - campsite in lower left
Peace of Paradise – campsite in lower left

The first night stopover was at Peace of Paradise, which we reached comfortably by mid afternoon. This oasis, on the banks of the Orange River is about 23km downstream from Vioolsdrif and is the last green lawn you will see for a while. It is a popular take-off spot for canoeists braving the rapids of the mighty Orange. These congenial folk are the only one’s I have met, who can pack more into a canoe than we had in the back of the Isuzu. We never did hear if they managed to negotiate the rapids with all their belongings intact

Next day’s run to Sendelingsdrif took us through Eksteenfontein. Sunday is a bad day if you have plans to do any shopping or fill up with petrol in this quaint little settlement. As we drove through at 1 o’ clock on a stifling hot afternoon, there was hardly a soul in sight although we did notice that both churches were packed to capacity with everybody dressed up to the nines.

Our approach to Sendelingsdrif was heralded by darkening skies and flashes of lightning. From a distance it appeared as if we were heading into the mother of all thunder storms, but as we approached, what we thought was heavy rain turned out to be dust, so thick at times that I switched on my lights – a rather pointless exercise, but I thought maybe the driver of one of the gargantuan mining trucks, which I had heard about, would at least see that he had driven over something!

With the formalities of booking-in completed, we topped up with fuel and a good dose of sand then set off for Potjiespram about 10km away. Luckily, the dust seemed to be fairly localised to the mining operations around Sendelingsdrif and by the time we reached the campsite, the wind had dropped and conditions were perfect for our first night in the park.

Potjiespram - campsite at lower left
Potjiespram – campsite at lower left

As with the other campsites, the trick for those of us without roof-top tents is to find the flattest and softest patch of sand with a dash of shade as close as possible to the water. Potjiespram offers all of these and more. Our chosen campsite was home to the fiercest duiweltjie thorns I have come across. While these may be no problem to a set of 8-ply Goodyears, they certainly could wreak havoc with our air mattresses. Then I remembered an article in one of the old newsletters. Although it referred to tyres and sharp stones and something about a balloon, I thought it might apply – so deflated said mattresses to .2 bar and enjoyed a relatively comfortable nights sleep.

It was while sitting around the campfire in this idyllic setting, that we met our first scorpion. The innocent little creature happened to stumble into the glare of light thrown by the 300cp Cadac. Amongst the clatter of spilled drinks and cries of “kill the bastard”, he casually disappeared into the darkness towards our tent. Needless to say I was hastily dispatched to make sure that all was securely zipped .

Steep and rocky road
Steep and rocky road

Next day, we leisurely made our way the 40 odd kilometres to De Hoop. The scenery en route was stunning and apart from a few steep and rocky sections the road is easy. Generally, most of the public roads in the park are driveable in 2WD, but I found that high ratio and locked hubs gave more control especially in the thick gravel and sandy sections, and prevented wheelspin on the steep rocky patches.

Keeping your hubs locked can also avoid wise cracks and jeering laughter as I found out to my embarrassment when I pulled up in a patch of sand to survey the riverbank for a suitable campsite. When I tried to take off, the powdery substance beneath the wheels simply churned while I sank lower and lower. Then it was out with the spade, but to no avail. Finally, the snatch rope, and out I popped. I could not let this little obstacle get the better of a Rocsta, besides I had my honour to salvage, so in I ploughed again, this time with a little speed. Again – that sinking feelin! Then… the words that all 4×4’ers dread…. “Have you locked your hubs?” – I never realised that 4 wheels driving can make so much difference!

De Hoop campsite
De Hoop campsite

In the book Southern African 4×4 Trails by Andrew & Gwynn White, De Hoop is described as one of the most delightful camping sites they have ever enjoyed and I can only concur. It was the cover picture on their 1996 yearbook that prompted me to do this trip and needless to say we headed for that very spot. All we needed was a couple of Landys and we would even have had the same photo.

Cunningly, the above authors conceal the fact (under the title of Fauna and Flora) that De Hoop is also the favourite haunt of one, rather large, black cobra who came to pay his respects while we were having lunch under a shady tree at the rivers edge. This handsome specimen swam nonchalantly up to the bank and made landfall right under the diningroom table. Needless to say, everyone had left the table by this time without excusing themselves and, I, having had some experience with reptiles as a youth, perhaps foolishly, returned to retrieve my camera and capture the scene, thinking it would make a great story for the kids back home. For the next ten minutes I pursued our visitor up and down the bank, hoping he might become annoyed enough to raise his hood for the camera and deaf to the pleas and warnings being shouted from a safe distance away. I might have paid more heed had somebody told me at the time that this cobra was of the spitting variety with an enviable reputation for accurately ejecting a stream of venom directly into the eye at ten paces. Still, I live to tell the tale, but our daily ablutions in the river were never quite the same afterwards.

Black Spitting Cobra
Black Spitting Cobra

De Hoop provided the base for our second day in the park which we spent relaxing in the shade and when the heat became too unbearable, relief was only a few steps away in the fast flowing Orange.

Next morning we set off early for our next campsite at Richtersberg. One has the option of various routes to reach this camp, the shortest being to follow the river, but one is warned of very deep sand on this section. Under normal circumstances this would not have concerned us, but a recce of the track the previous day had revealed that a built up section of the road just beyond our campsite had been undermined by the flooded river and since this route follows the flood plain of the river, we deemed it prudent to take the long way around.

Since we had the whole day to reach our destination we decided to explore the central areas of the park. The highlight of this expedition was the Tsobadap Pass . For some reason I was under the impression that our route would involve climbing the pass, but we crested a ridge and without warning the road dropped away beneath us and we were faced with a breathtaking view of the valley below.

tsobadapThe road winding down below us presented the closest thing to a 4×4 track we had so far come across so it was low ratio and down we bumped – just the thing a short wheelbase diesel loves. The Isuzu arrived at the bottom with a slightly modified towbar, but if it hadn’t been for some reluctance on the part of the women folk we probably would have turned around and headed up again. Anyway – that’s what “next times” are for.

The rest of the journey was plain sailing which at least gives the driver a chance to take in the scenery. We arrived at Richtersberg in high spirits and had no trouble in selecting a campsite which met up to our, now stringent, specifications. This one came with lounge and bar facilities buried deep inside a shady grove of trees next to the waters edge. By this time we were fairly confident that the river was not going to rise during the night and wash us away. Our carefully placed markers over the past couple of days had indicated that the level of the river was in fact subsiding.

Our activities in setting up camp for the night were the focus of keen interest by a troop of Vervet monkeys.One inquisitive youngster approached to within a few yards and watched with obvious fascination as we unfolded chairs and tables and relaxed with the evening’s sundowners. Our fear of the camp being raided during our absence were unfounded as this was the last we saw of them.

The following day was to be our last in the park and we still had a lot to see. We had originally intended to spend a night at Kokerboom Kloof, which is also highly recommended. Unfortunately this campsite was ‘full’. I think full in the Richtersveld is defined as more than four people occupying the same hundred square miles of territory.

A Kokerboom or Quiver Tree
A Kokerboom or Quiver Tree

Nonetheless, we were determined to see what we were missing and set out next day to explore the Springbokvlakte and complete the circular trip via Kokerboom Kloof. After an hour or so, the snaking road slowly straightens and the bone jarring thump of rocks and corrugations lessen, until one seems to be gliding effortlessly over the soft sandy track which leads you down the centre of the Springbokvlakte. The desert-like plain stretches out on either side and slopes gently down towards the river in the distance. With the heat and dust it is hard to imagine rain in this part of the world, but every now and again one is reminded that it does fall here occasionally and judging from the deep furrows left by previous vehicles I can imagine that these arid plains can become a mud-junky’s heaven.

The road continues down toward the river, but one is brought to an abrupt halt by yet another no-entry sign, which seem to block all the really interesting looking tracks in the park, so it’s a virtual about turn at marker number 10 and head for the hills.

View over the Springbokvlakte
View over the Springbokvlakte

Kokerboomkloof is easily identifiable by it’s proximity to the aptly named “Toe”, so guided by this landmark, we had no difficulty in locating our objective. This is the only campsite where one is constrained to camp within the bounds of three designated and well signposted areas. Time prevented us from any thorough exploration of the surroundings, but definitely a candidate for the “next time” list although I doubt whether my fold up spade will be adequate to tackle the rocky terrain should nature call too strongly.

One should not miss the two lookout points on the trip back. The first gives a marvellous view across the Springbokvlakte where even an amateur photographer like myself has managed to capture a shot which would make National Geographic envious. Apart from the view, the second has some fascinating caves and rock formations which would make any sculptor swell with pride.

Another view site near Kokerboomkloof
Another view site near Kokerboomkloof

It was with a touch of sadness that we returned to Richtersberg to spend our last night in the park. I found it quite remarkable that no-one had expressed a longing for that first hot shower nor mentioned their yearning for a soft bed. It seemed we had it all right there.

The rigours of 4 wheel driving had taken their toll on our fuel consumption so after leaving the park next day via the Helskloof pass, we returned to Sendelingsdrif to top up. Without mentioning vehicles, suffice it to say one of us needed 30 litres to reach capacity while the other gulped down 60 odd litres of pure hi-octane. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Thanks Pete, for carrying my load.

The green lawns of Piece of Paradise proved rather inviting after all and even enticed the roof-top tenters to make their bed in the shelter of the reed walls. Supper was a sumptuous affair with potjie roasted leg of lamb, roast potatoes, mushrooms and gem squash, but despite the excellence of this cuisine the chef was severely reprimanded for neglecting to provide the mint jelly.

It was just as well that one of us had read his manual on survival in the wild. Personally I would never have thought of shaking out my bedding before retiring, especially since we were virtually back in civilisation, but in following survival instructions to the letter, Pete happened to dislodged the meanest looking scorpion I have ever seen. To say it measured up to a baby croc may be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly changed their minds about sleeping on the ground – forever! I have my doubts whether we will be welcomed back here after presenting the camp super with his wayward pet safely incarcerated in a glass jar, just as his party in the bar was really starting to liven up. Was it my imagination or was that carefree laughter emanating from the pub somewhat subdued thereafter?

Back home after such a trip leaves one feeling somewhat empty, but at least we have the photos and video to remind us, and, lest we should forget the details, I have roused myself from my literary lethargy to commit the memories to the electronic media. If this article can inspire just one Sunday 4×4’er to undertake such a trip, my effort will not have been in vain.