The Four Wheel Drive Club of Southern Africa

Trip to the Richtersveld, Northern Cape – August 2006

The Richtersveld Myths

On the 17th August a friend and I set off for the Richtersveld National Park to achieve a long time ambition of ours to fly fish the Orange river for large and small mouth yellow fish. We departed at 7pm that evening intending to drive through to Upington and overnight there. We arrived at Upington in the early hours and decided to push on to Springbok as we were not tired, having taken two-hourly breaks during the trip down.

The approaches to Springbok were fantastic to say the least as the Namaqualand flowers were putting on a grand show. The locals told us that this was just the start and the flowers would be at their best end of August to mid-September. This I would love to see – it could be a trip for the club!

Here we hit our first snag all accommodation in the town was fully booked out by tourist groups and hordes of 4×4 drivers from our part of the world. We decided to have a meal and push on out of town and camp along the road but Lady Luck was on our side as in the restaurant we spoke to the waitress who told us that her aunt had a B&B business on the edge of town and she would phone and see if she could help us. Lo and behold she had just received a cancellation and had a room available. Needless to say, we took it and dived into a bath as soon as we got there. The hospitality was great, the place clean and well maintained and a good night’s sleep was had by both of us.

We had arranged for an early start as we had to be booked into the Richtersveld National Park with sufficient time to get to the Richtersberg camp site on the far eastern side of the park. At the time of booking we enquired about travelling times in the park as the distances were not great, and we were informed that the 75km to the camp site would take 4 to 5 hours if we didn’t get lost! As we still had 300 km to go to the Sendelingsdrift reception office, we decided to miss breakfast and go for the park. Imagine our surprise when we took our travelling bags out to the vehicles – our thermos flasks were full and a large pack of bacon and egg sandwiches were waiting for us together with a big smile and best wishes for a safe journey. This is true hospitality.

At Alexander Bay we filled up with diesel and took to the sand, dust and corrugations for the last 80 odd km to the gate which we reached without mishap. We booked in, paid the R160 park fee and were told by the duty ranger that certain roads were closed due to the heavy rains they had a short while ago. We asked about the condition of the roads in general and if they were clearly marked as per the 4×4 Info Map we had for navigation, and he assured us that this was so and marked the roads that were closed. He confirmed that it would take 4 to 5 hrs to get to the camp site. We were also informed that there were two other parties at the Richtersveld camp site. Time was checked and it was estimated that we would be on site at around 4pm – plenty of time to set up and check out the river and rapids. We said our goodbyes and drove off into the park.

First track intersection 4.4km turn right, next one 10.1km right again – we were on our way to catch fish in the legendry Richtersveld Park. 7km down the trail we had not come to the junction R1 so we stopped and discussed things. We decided to go on as the next point R2 should be just ahead. R2 did not materialise either. We could not turn around and go back as we were in a narrow gully, starting to climb a very steep mountain side, so up we went. This trail is a 4 to 5 rating requiring low range first and second gear for 4kms – great stuff but very time consuming.

We were now on a flattish area so we pushed up the speed. This is when we found the worst corrugations I have ever experienced. Speed was down to 5 km/h for the next couple of kilometres. We then found a sign. Yippee, we were saved! The signpost said R17 left, R19 straight on. Sorry, not on the map – we were lost! We knew that the campsite was to the north-east, so we took the road to R19 as it appeared to go in the right direction, but after several twists and turns we were travelling south with no signs of the trail changing direction. We had been travelling in the park for over three hours by this time and had covered some 35+ km.

The coffee in the Thermos flasks was finished and we badly needed a cup of tea, so we pulled over and brewed up on the gas stove. This was absolute heaven! Lost in the mountain desert, at peace with the world and drinking a cuppa! What more could a 4×4 off-roader ask for? After tea we decided to go on and see where the trail would lead us. After all, we were seeing areas we would not have seen if we had gone directly to the campsite. The trail took us down into a river bed that had water running down it and this made for steady driving as the sand was firm and without corrugations. A couple of kilometres further on the river bed narrowed and the ruts became deep and full of water which made for tricky driving. Eventually we powered up a steep bank and out of the river bed and found another signpost. This one said R19 left R32 R33 straight on. Yes, you have guessed it, not on the map, but what the hell. Let’s go and see R32 and R33, so off we went.

This trail took us through some stunning country and awesome mountains with plenty of deep sand, difficult rocks and plenty of corrugations to drive through. We came over a tricky pass and down into a beautiful narrow valley to find a three-way split in the trail. R19 back the way we came – no ways that option – R32 R33 left and a wilderness camp straight on. Naturally we headed for the wilderness camp as it was now getting late and would soon be dark. At the very worst we could overnight there and continue the adventure in the morning. We arrived at the campsite 25 minutes later to find a luxury chalet camp and all fully occupied. We asked the Nama camp manager if we could camp off to one side as we were lost and trying to find Richtersburg camp site. He would not let us stay there as the place was full and people were paying R400 a night to be there.

He told us that we were in the South Eastern part of the park not far from Hellsgate (yes this is on the map), and he told us to go back the way we had come for 1.5 km and we would see a faint track off to the right and to take it as it would lead us to were we wanted to go. The sun was going down behind the mountains and dusk was setting in as we headed back down the trail. Once out of sight of the wilderness camp we had a pow-wow and decided to move back down the trail a bit further and camp in the veld as driving is not allowed after dark for very good reasons, so off we went and drove onto an open piece of sand and brewed up a very welcome cuppa.

The chairs, stove, one cooler box and drinks came out of the Land Rover and a simple supper of spaghetti and cheese on rye bread was had. We toasted the stars, mountains and life in general and turned in for our first night in the fabled Richtersveld Park – lost but very happy campers.

Next morning we were up bright and early and off to find our campsite. The branch track to the right turned out to be just that – it was a goat track and did not look as though anybody had ever driven it but we did. It twisted and turned and steadily climbed up towards a solid wall of rock. As we got closer we saw that the track followed a very narrow and steep valley. Up it we went and soon we discovered that we were again on a very heavy off-road trail with no turning back. The track led us upwards at a very steep rate over rocks and around bends that the two long-wheel base vehicles just managed to get around. It was slow and in many places scary stuff as one mistake would result in damage to the bodywork and more than likely getting stuck in a bad position.

We made it and popped out the top onto another flat plateau covered with flowers and greenery. Crossing this we came to a river bed with shallow water running down the middle. The track led into and along it. We followed and for some 3km enjoyed smooth running on firm sand, then up the bank and there was a sign post pointing four ways with four different numbers on it. Out with the map and we have a number that appears on it which enables us to locate our position. We discovered we were SSE and some 25km from the campsite. After a cup of tea we pushed on, down hill most of the way and fairly easy driving. Two vehicles were coming towards us, so we stopped and had a chat. They were moving to another campsite and assured us we were on the right road to the Richtersberg site. They also got lost trying to get there on the first night and camped in the veld. As we progressed, the terrain became more and more sandy with some very deep stuff in places. We came through a short narrow section and found ourselves facing the ablution block and campsite of the Richtersberg camp site at last.

We parked and walked up to the campsite to find that it had people in residence with two tents up and three vehicles parked there. We said “Hi”, and were met with very sullen and unfriendly faces without a greeting, so decided to look at site two and three which were further down river. After some tricky soft, deep powdery sand driving we got there to find one site full and the other one with unfriendly people on it. Also the sites were very small and would be grossly overcrowded if we set up there anyway. Apart from that, we could not fly fish from there as the bank was straight down into deep water and our fish were in the rapids, so back we went and continued in soft powdery sand upriver until we were away from all civilisation.

We found the rapids and pools we wanted that could be reached easily plus a tree on the river bank, so we settled there. We had arrived! Camp was set up quickly as was the fishing tackle. We had a cuppa and planned that we would fish in the early morning but would take a look at the river now. We found it running dirty and a little high due to rains further upstream – not too good for us but what could we do. Back at camp we relaxed, had a bath and made supper. Roast rabbit with mashed potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower a dill and ginger sauce with a bottle of red wine to wash it down.

Day three saw us working the fly rods hard in the rapids and pools below them. We caught fish but not as many as we expected. The dirty water was the problem – visibility was down to a few inches. Artificial flies do not create vibrations in the water so we adapted and tried various things added to them with little success but it was fun. It was too hot to fish during the middle of the day so we explored the surrounding countryside on foot and were amazed to find the ground swarming with wasps which paid no attention to us. We could not fathom out what they were doing flying aimlessly around two inches off the sand. They kept at it until sundown when they congregated under any available dry piece of wood for the night.

There were lots of black beetles running over the sand. They were quite tame and very curious about us and the campsite. There were a few lizards on the rocks but you could not get near them to get a close look. Fish eagles were often calling but could not be spotted. There were the usual doves and some LBJs that we could not identify and that was it – no scorpions, snakes, birds that ate with you at breakfast, mice, otters or other four-legged animals of any kind and we did look hard.

Day four and five were similar. We explored upriver and fished other pools and rapids as we found them but the fishing remained the same – the odd fish every now and again. We climbed some hefty mountains which put things into perspective and made one realise just how insignificant we really are in the grand scheme of things. It also made one appreciative of Mother Nature’s gift to mankind. The magnitude and beauty of it all was mind boggling.

Day six was pack-up day and an early start was required as we had to be out of the park by six pm. There was no way we would go back the way we came as that was looking for trouble and we did not want to go down some of the things we came up, so we planned a different route back which would let us explore other areas of the park. The route we planned was 49km to the reception and would take four to five hours to travel provided the trails were not up or down goat tracks on sheer mountain faces. We triple-checked the campsite and left it as we had found it – even brushed over our tracks in the camp. At 9 on the dot we left, planning to be at reception at around 14h00 – enough time to get to Port Nolloth and overnight at the hotel. But again we underestimated the Richtersberg mountain desert. We did not get lost this time but encountered some very tricky riverbed driving, abominable corrugations, hairy climbs and descents together with dust that cut visibility to a few meters. Needless to say the time flew by and we arrived at reception as it was closing. We decided to stay at the Sendelingdrift chalets for that night and continue in the morning. Guess what? Nothing available – all fully booked for the next week, and instructions: You can’t camp here you must leave. So we did, and after some great fun dirt road driving in the dark and impenetrable sea fog we eventually arrived at Port Nolloth at 21h55 to find that there was a room available and the dining room was still open. We washed the dust off our hands and fed like kings on prawns and wine with coffee to follow. A shower and into bed tired and contented with the sound of the sea in our ears. We had been driving for 13 hours and been up for 16 hours. Needless to say we booked in in the morning.

After breakfast we settled up and went out to the vehicles. I have never seen two sadder looking things in my life. They were coated with a plastered mix of dust, sand, salt and general road grime all glued together by the sea fog of last night. They were in a disgusting state, so we went to the nearest garage and had them hosed down which was a good thing bearing in mind it was a sea fog and dust mix.

We decided to drive through as we did coming down with full thermos flasks and two-hourly stops. Dinner was at Kuruman in a very nice restaurant. I arrived home at 03h10 on Saturday 26th August having travelled 3513km with fuel consumption at 9.3 l/100km. This was much better than I anticipated as my Land Rover has the 2.8HGV engine fitted which is a very powerful unit and we had covered many kilometres travelling slowly in 4×4 mode, much of it in low range. There were no breakdowns or punctures during the trip.

Overall the trip was fantastic and I recommend that people should visit that part of the world at least once in their lives. We will be going back again, this time in June and will explore the North East/West sections of the park and fish the rapids and pools there.

Oh yes! the Richtersveld myths. Well there are three of them.

Firstly, there are no Halfmens in there. We think they grew into Fullmens and trekked to Namibia. During the whole trip we did not see one and we travelled just about all of the Southern area. Incidentally most of the quiver trees were dead. Only a few that we saw were alive – a truly sad state of affairs.

Secondly, the rangers will tell you that all the roads are clearly signposted, but this is definitely a myth. The map they give you at reception is all but useless. It is a good thing that a visitor is required to be totally self-contained plus emergency food for five days as well. I can easily see somebody getting lost and breaking down in a remote area that is seldom visited if at all.

Thirdly, the fact that you have a confirmed booking for a campsite does not mean that it is available when you arrive there. The park rules clearly state that only so many people are allowed at each site, but this is not so, as they overbook to a degree that is criminal and force people to camp elsewhere. We encountered on two occasions the sullen unfriendly reception of people who may have booked or may not have. Reception told us that there were two people on site when we booked in. They also confirmed our booking and payment. As stated earlier this was not so – when we arrived the sites were full.

These are the Richtersveld myths, but hey, don’t be put off. It is Mother Nature’s gift to us all. Go and experience it for yourself.

Tony Willmoth