Photographing the Richtersveld

I was really looking forward to the 4 day trip I would be taking with my husband Casper into the Richtersveld, as I had heard the flowers this year where fantastic. I was a little nervous as we were going with the 4 x 4 club and there would be 34 people in 17 vehicles, meaning an average of 2 persons per vehicle, including 2 small children. How would that go?We left the day before we would meet up with the 4 x 4 group and planned to overnight at Aquacade close to the Vioolsdrif border post. We left Durbanville at eight in the morning after packing the last food and veggies in the rain. By the time we got to Picketberg, the weather was clearing and everywhere you saw hints of the typical Namaqua flowers. After Clanwilliam and van Rhynsdorp we travelled through the ‘Knesvlakte’ and even here you saw new plant growth and a sprinkling of flowers. Once we got to Garies the flowers were everywhere – the hills were purple with daisies.

We stopped at Kamieskroon, where every field was covered with yellow, orange red and purple flowers.

Our next stop would be Springbok for ice and the tomatoes I had forgotten. Springbok is normally a brown/grey color but today is was bright orange from the hills to the sidewalks and the gardens in the town.The next town en-route to Viooldrif is Steinkopf, our last petrol stop and then onto our destination. On arrival at Vioolsdrif the GPS seemed extremely confused and we did a detour through the border post (the roads have changed since they last updated the GPS maps)! With much laughter from both us and the border officials, we were on the dirt road to our overnight stop. Aquacade is a great stop over, we wanted a place where we would still be able to have a good shower and clean bed and that is what we got. Sitting in front of our little chalet overlooking the Orange River we had a sense of peace and relaxation. After a good night’s sleep, shower and everything packed we set off at eight to the meeting point at Vioolsdrif. By nine all the vehicles were ready to set off into the Richtersveld. After about a half an hour we were driving through a riverbed and stopped to deflate the tyres.

We then split into two groups with a group leader for each group. We travelled through this arid region along riverbeds and over mountains. With interesting stops at prospectors points and eventually stopping for lunch at an abandoned mine. Everywhere we stopped there were flowers from tiny purple to big orange flowers, sprinklings of lavender coloured flowers in the river beds. The vastness of the area is awe-inspiring.

Photographs of the Richtersveld do not do the region justice: the area is so vast, so dry and to see the life it has to give makes one speechless. The amazing Quiver Trees (Kokerboom) that dot the mountainsides left me reflecting on what these special trees meant to the local people of years ago. The Kokerboom or Quiver Tree Aloe dichotoma is a tree aloe. It is also a succulent plant because it has the ability to store water in its stems and leaves. It is one of the most characteristic plants of the Northern Cape, and is known as 'garas' by the Namas (from the word meaning "to scratch lines") and 'choje' by the Bushmen. In the past local people hollowed out the soft branches and used them as quivers for their arrows, hence the English vernacular name.After traversing the riverbeds and mountains we made a stop at an abandoned granite mine and there we found the first of the ‘Halfmens trees’ or ‘Noordkykers’. The Nama people tell the legend of the ‘halfmens’ tree. It is said that the ancient Nama people that fled from Namibia southward to this region were transformed into these half human trees. The ‘head’ of these trees always faces the north and is a reminder of those people looking longingly towards the beloved land they left behind.This rare succulent (Pachypodium namaquanum) is found only in the South African province of the Northern Cape and in southwest Namibia. Growing on the shady, southern slopes of the mountains in the Richtersveld, it is one of the few tall plants able to survive through the seasons. They grow extremely slowly (only 2-3mm per year), but may reach a height of 3m when mature.

From a distance, these trees really look human figures staring toward the north. But science says that the reason they lean over in that direction is to give maximum exposure of their rosette of leaves to the sun during winter.

After some time at the granite mine we travelled to our overnight stop in a river bed where we set up camp. As the sun set we had time to reflect on this amazing place called the RIchtersveld. We all got together around a campfire, had a braai and went to bed early.The next morning everyone was up, packing up the campsite to be ready to leave at nine. Again we split into two groups and travelled through this mountainous region with fresh colours of green and purple that one does not see very often. We also get to see another smaller version of the ‘Halfmens’ in flower from really close up, this is such an interesting plant.We followed dry riverbeds filled with purple and yellow flowers.

We stopped for lunch at another abandoned mine where they used to mine feldspar, mica, beryl and tantalite. One cannot believe that there were people that would mine minerals and gems in this vast region and the amazing distances they had to take their product to be processed.From the mine we travel over more mountains. We entered a region where you had a feeling that there is more human life. We saw herds of sheep and donkeys as well as the herders’ home. These herders move with their animals to the best grazing areas throughout the year.

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We drove over mountains and difficult passes till be came to an open plain that was awash with yellow and orange flowers, our next overnight stop was close.

We all set up camp. The children on the trip went rock climbing and we all had time to sit back and relax, read a book or just look out over the plain. For those that don’t know on trips like this there are no luxuries like running water and toilets so a few of the lucky campers that had mobile showers had a quick wash, while other went off to find a secluded spot with their spades. We all got together again for a braai, late night cup of coffee. Some of us went off into the distance to star gaze, the stars are so bright and clear you can identify many of the constellations (if you know them or have a star gazing book handy!)On Day 3 we were all ready and packed up early again to set off on the rest of our adventure. This time we joined the second group and waited a while for the first group to get a head start. After leaving the vast plain we got onto a gravel road that felt like an ‘autobaan’. We missed the turn-off onto the small track and did a 20km detour. We did not mind the road was good and the scenery amazing. Finally we were back on a small track heading for more mountains, as we got closer to the other group we looked at the tracks going over the mountain with some trepidation. The whole group got together at an old farm settlement for lunch before heading off over the mountain.Along this route we came across water troughs, abandoned mines and more open and vast areas that take your breath away. We travelled through riverbeds and mountain passes till we stopped for lunch in an area that seemed void of flowers and new growth – dry and arid.

At this point the two groups were each divided into novice and advanced drivers into specific places to drive as we were going through a valley with difficult obstacles. We drove in the second group at the tail end as Casper has a lot of experience in 4 x 4 driving and the more novice drivers in front of him. We could then watch what they were doing and assist if they had any problems. After a few difficult obstacles the group came to a standstill as there was a really difficult section to get through, some of the ladies decided to walk ahead. Walking was a lot faster and the ladies felt safer.

Once through this obstacle the road improved and Rodger, who drove in the lead and knows the area, told us all on the radio we would now reach an area where we could all leave our calling card. We had no idea what he was talking about. What an amazing site it was coming around a bend in the road: awe-inspiring mountains and then hundreds and hundreds of piles of rocks, each built by passing visitors. Driving into this area nearly had a spiritual feeling to it. You just wanted to get out and build your own little sculpture with the rocks of the area.From here we drove on an easier road with massive mountains around us till we reach some large – very large rocks that must have fallen down the mountains decades ago. Here we found the petroglyphs. The drawings are very interesting but it is very sad fact that so many people have scratched their names and signature over these age old engravings (Sannie loves Jannie etc). It is as if these people do not appreciate the historical value of these engravings.

It was becoming late and we set off to our last night’s camp site. The area was more rugged and barren than any other area we had travelled through in the last few days but suddenly there are green trees and the Orange River! We found ourselves a spot on this little island with the other 16 vehicles and set up our camps, immediately changed into our swimwear and went for a swim in the river to clean off the dirt and dust of the past few days.Our last evening around the campfire was as peaceful as the nights before. Nobody was allowed a radio on the trip, and nobody had brought a musical instrument. Except Casper and I. We had brought along our daughter, Mieke, and she has an amazing voice. We asked her to sing and as she started to sing “Hallelujah”. The whole campsite became quiet. It was a very special moment. The rest of the evening they bribed her with marshmallows to sing some more!

The next morning the light was beautiful on the mountains around us and everyone that had a camera was out to try and catch the amazing light. With a sad feeling that the trip has come to an end we packed up and had the last meeting with all that were there before we set off on the last stretch back to civilization and the real world.I do not believe anyone is truly able to capture the essence of the Richtersveld on film. The sheer desolateness and arid beauty is something you can only carry with you in your mind’s eye and heart. I hope to be able travel through that region again soon to experience the peace and beauty and to be able to return once again with such a feeling of harmony and gratitude to have been able to be there.

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