The garden that pretends to be a desert
We landed at Upington Airport from O. R .Tambo International in Johannesburg. Hot is not the word, more like scorching hot at midday. Our guides awaited us and what a relief to discover that the four wheel drive vehicles in the parking lot were air-conditioned. There were five of us, all friends from the UK. We are on our way to the Richtersveld National Park.
The Richtersveld, in the Northern Cape Province, consist of 800,000 hectares of hot, dry and hostile country for the unprepared visitor. We where prepared... sun block, hats, the necessities we could fit into a carry-on and our guides in their equipped vehicles.
Our first overnight stop - the Augrabies Falls on the Orange River. The Orange first accelerates through a series of cataracts before plunging 65m into a pool. Over millions of years the river has gorged a ravine 250m deep into the rock. When in flood the volume of water exceeds that of the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We viewed this spectacle from vantage points called Arrow Head, Moon Rock, Oranjekom and Ararat.
Day two saw us on the way to Springbok, our last 'town' before we entered the moonscape of the Richtersveld National Park. This was our last chance to stock-up on what we didn't think of when packing - batteries, extra sun block, etc. From here we headed for Lekkersing (singing with enjoyment) to meet some of the Nomadic Pastoralists for an evening of singing and dancing.
On day three we entered the park at Sendelingsdrift (missionaries drift). The park takes up only 20 percent of the Richtersveld and is an alluring place for anyone with pioneer inklings. The rugged and remote terrain presents a challenge to both off-roading and survivalist skills: food, water and fuel have to be brought into the park. Lucky for us we had our guides who thought of everything: food, drinks, ice and lemons for the G&T's.
We camped at Pooitjiespram (this one you'll have to ask about when you get there) on the Orange, or Gariep, River. Here the contrast between riverine vegetation and the stark desert around us was startling. Life on the banks of the river was bountiful. Egyptian Geese, Cormorants, Herons and Kingfishers fed in the shallows. Water birds weren't the only creatures with whom we shared the rivers edge. Petrus the Nama goatherd, his two dogs and his 400 goats provided local interaction.
For the next couple of days we bounced along corrugated dirt tracks with many stops to explore. Stark and hostile as it seems, the Richtersveld is a garden of great floral diversity and is considered to have more endemic species of succulents than any other place in the world. We soon realized that our air-conditioned 4X4's was no place to appreciate this desert garden.
Donning hats and copious amounts of sun-block we braved the scorching sun. There, on bended knees, we discovered the garden that pretends to be a desert. Hidden between stones and tucked beneath spiny shrubs were marvels of creation. Some hug the ground while others are a little bigger but stay low to conserve energy - it's easier when you're little.
There was also the Halfmens (half human) resembling an old Nama: weathered and bristly, stooping towards the sun, wise and obstinate who took a different approach to survive - see me, I'm big. Planting its roots on shady slopes and extending its trunk, covered in a fountain of leaves, to the sunny north to photosynthesize the winter rays or the Quiver Tree that have learnt to throw all its seeds into one thunderstorm. The seeds are programmed to germinate only when rains are good. Even then - not all its seeds will germinate at once, some stay dormant for many years until the time of 'plenty' comes again.
By the end of our week's trip, it seemed as though we had acclimatized to the Richtersveld. What wonderful creatures human beings are. We settle well into new environments and unlike the succulents of the Richtersveld who had evolved over thousands of years, we had transformed in one week; succulents had invented ultra-violet protection, we bought ours from the pharmacy; and where the plants have developed waxy layers, we wear hats and scarves. Smart things, humans.
Maybe not so smart? Sometimes all we want to do is go to those wonderful and glamorous places we see in brochures. Little do we realize that they are just man-made and that what nature has to offer does so much more for the soul. Camping in the wild opens the mind and brings rest to the inner person. Oh, and let it be known, dining under the stars at a well set table, with white linen and a three course meal prepared on an open fire, brings the day to a perfect end. Not to mention the stories and fun around the fire.