For no reason other than the novelty of crossing into Namibia on a ferry, our journey through the country began in the Richtersveld. The Richtersveld is a mountain desert tucked away in the far northwestern corner of South Africa, a territory that forms a formidable frontier land dividing South Africa from Namibia. Surprisingly, the mainly arid and rocky terrain that characterises the region is traversed by the abundant waters of the Orange River. The river stands in stark contrast to the all but inhospitable mountains that flank it, and as a consequence, the area has evolved a unique ecosystem capable of straddling the enormous moisture gradient.
It’s worth pointing out that the Richtersveld is a geographic region and not simply the name of one of South Africa’s national parks. ‘The Richtersveld’ has become a term synonymous with the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, but this national park constitutes only about half of the area occupied by the entire region. The balance of the area comprises a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was declared in 2007 and falls under the administration of the local community.
Being that this was our second visit to the region and having travelled extensively throughout the National Park during our first encounter, we chose the Tierhoek Community Camp (28°38’05.7″S 17°00’45.0″E) within the World Heritage Site for our overnight stop. Unfortunately, as with almost all community managed initiatives, the Tierhoek Camp is poorly run. Trying to contact a representative of the camp before our trip proved to be impossible and upon arrival, we found that buildings and reservoirs that had quite obviously been built to attract tourism, now found themselves derelict, and in some cases, destroyed.
However, despite the lack of attention that the camp receives from its operators, our stay there proved to be one of the highlights of our tour. Tierhoek Camp is tucked away in a small but deep valley carved into the foothills of the Richtersveld. Looking in any direction other than south, one faces boulder-strewn walls that tower upward. Face south, however, and you gaze upon a geographic transition zone where the flat coastal lands meet the beginnings of the craggy Richtersveld.
In the mornings, before sunrise, the shallow depressions that lie at the base of the formative mountains collect the mist created by the cold, moist air blowing off the ocean. This phenomenon makes for superb photography with distinctive foggy desert mountain compositions. Furthermore, the camp, as well as the park itself, is virtually abandoned; we were the only people there. For these reasons, I suggest that compared to the National Park, the UNESCO side of the Richtersveld is more likely to produce the unique and compelling images that all landscape photographers are after. There are simply fewer eyes gazing upon its scenes and the misty mornings just don’t occur further north.
Also, our visit the Heritage Site was brief, and Tierhoek is just one of several community camps dotted throughout the 160,000-hectare conservancy. It is certainly conceivable that you could spend days wandering around taking photos and never cross paths with another soul. Personally, I find the combination of landscape and solitude so alluring, that I am already pondering a return journey.
But before you pick up your camera bag and tripod and head to the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape World Heritage Site – to quote its actual name – there are a few things to keep in mind. First, there is no infrastructure there. If you visit, you will need to be entirely self-sufficient, there is no water, and there are no ablution facilities. Second, it’s an unforgiving land, and if circumstances conspire against you, there may be no one around to help, and making a phone call is not an option. These warnings should not deter one from a possible stay, however, but it is essential that one understands that visiting is not at all like the tourist-centric experience that you will find at the nearby National Park.
If you do choose to visit, here are a few pointers. All the administration for the reserve takes place at the Tourism Office in the nearby village of Eksteenfontein. The signage for the Tourism Office is poor, but it can be found at the following coordinates 28°49’22.4″S 17°15’20.8″E. Moreover, it appears that the Tourism Office is not permanently manned – unsurprising given the lack of tourists – but we found the dutyman by asking at the nearby Community Centre located on Akker Street (28°49’29.1″S 17°15’17.0″E). For completeness, the charge for camping was R50.00 per person, and we were issued with a formal receipt.