More about the Richtersveld

Amanzi Trails’ Orange River trips take place in an area known as the Richtersveld, a geographical region covering 160 000 hectares. It is a harsh but beautiful desert region, resplendent with rock formations and extraordinary fauna and flora.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

The Location

The Richtersveld is located in north-west South Africa within a region known as Namaqualand.  The northern border of the Richtersveld is on the Orange River which is also the border with Namibia. The geological history of the area is estimated at 2 000 million years.

The terrain can be divided into four main landscapes:

  • The Orange River and its adjoining flood plains
  • The gentle, wave-like plains
  • The rolling hills
  • The rough & rugged mountains

The Climate

The lack of precipitation make the landscape extremely harsh. Summer temperatures can reach 50˚C but winter is very temperate with temperatures of 20 – 25°C. The nights sometimes bring dew. This is often the only source of moisture as the average annual rainfall is less than 25 mm. Occassionally coastal fog rolls in over the mountains, providing an additional source of water.

The Cultural Heritage

The Richtersveld is home to the Nama people, one of the oldest surviving cultural groups in South Africa. These nomadic people practise communal land ownership and today still live in the Richtersveld National Park where they move with the seasons. They live primarily in three small villages in the area: Kuboes, Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein.

In the Nama culture, music, poetry and storytelling is regarded as paramount. Traditional folk music, tales, proverbs and poetry have been handed down from generation to generation, thereby maintaining their cultural traditions. They live in huts (“matjieshuis”) built by hand from reeds. A source of income for the Nama people is to host tourists in their houses and experience their way of living. They are skilled craftspeople and produce various leather crafts, mats, musical instruments, jewellery and clay pots.

The San Rock Engravings

San Rock Engravings, also known as petroglyphs, can be found at several sites in the Richtersveld. These engravings, believed to be around 2000 years old, are particularly visible in the areas bordering the Orange River.

The images are chipped into the dolomite rocks found in the area. They differ in design but most of them portray geometric patterns with dots, spirals and grids. A few of the carvings portray animals such as giraffe and sable antelope, either reinforcing the nomadic movements of the San and / or suggesting that these animals were once found in the region.

The Archaeology

Archaeological discoveries within the Richtersveld indicate ancient wildlife and human inhabitancy in the area. Various fossil fragments of wood dating back 17 million years have been found.

Fossils of animal species indicate that ostriches, elephants, rock hyraxes, giant tortoises, shrews, hares, beetles, snails and lizards all lived here about 10 000 years ago. It is believed that the climate was cooler and thus more favourable for survival.

Human remains date back to 1 100 – 1 400 BC. These were probably those of San hunter-gatherers. The area was inhabited later by Khoi-Khoi pastoralists. They introduced sheep and cattle to the area. The many engravings found on the rock formations in the Richtersveld are believed to be the work of the San and the Khoi-Khoi.

The Fauna

Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, Gemsbok, Duiker, Vaalribbok, Springbok, Steenbok, Klipspringer, Black-backed Jackal, Cape Fox, Bat-Eared Fox and Leopard still inhabit the Richtersveld. Reptilian and insect life is prodigious. Snakes include Puffadder, Black Spitting Cobra and Horned Adder. The world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua Speckled Padloper, is a special species of the Richtersveld.

A fascinating aspect of the Richtersveld is the zonation of birds over short distances according to climate and geomorphology. The Orange River mouth has species such as Flamingo, Spoonbill, Little Bittern, White–backed Night Heron, Maccoa duck and Cape Shoveller. Many rare vagrant species also arrive at the mouth which sees many twitchers descending upon the town of Oranjemund en-masse. The coastal plain has many raptors of which a few examples are Lanner and Peregrine Falcon, Black-breasted Snake Eagle and Rock Kestrel. These open plains are also home to eight species of Lark. The submontane and montane zones are home to Booted and Verreaux’s (Black) Eagle, Ludwig’s Bustard, Dusky Sunbird, Ground Woodpecker and Southern Grey Tit in addition to the raptors of the coastal plains. The Orange River zone has many water birds and the riverine bush attracts Diederick Cuckoo, Cardinal Woodpecker, Barn Owl, Acacia Pied Barbet, Freckled Nightjar, Orange River White-eye and African Hoopoe to name but a few.

The Flora

The Richtersveld has a tremendous variety of desert flora. Up to 360 plant species can be found within one square kilometre. About 30% of the indigenous species in the Richtersveld are also endemic.

In order to survive in this harsh desert environment, many species have adapted in the most extraordinary ways. Many different strategies for obtaining sufficient water and storing this water have been observed. Some plants store water in “bladder-like” cells on the surface of their leaves, while others grow only underground.

A succulent species of special interest is the rare Elephant’s Trunk or “Halfmensboom” (Pachypodium namaquanum). It is very habitat-specific, requiring slopes with a northerly aspect and altitudes between 300 and 900 metres above sea level. It has an extremely slow growth rate of approximately 7mm per annum.  It has a long bare trunk covered in thorny spines, with each row of spines hypothesised by some to represent one year of growth. The grey-green velvety leaves sprout from the top of the stem, from where the flowers also arise in July to September.

The plants all face north at an inclination of 20°- 30°. In the Southern Hemisphere, this increases transpiration (the loss of water through the leaves) which appears counter-intuitive. The growing season, however, is in the winter months and this is always the time when the plant has leaves. The chances of precipitation are highest in winter. By facing north, the plant is able to optimise its growth by maximising photosynthesis (the manufacture of glucose by a process utilising water and light). The flowers also face north. This permits maximum reflection of light, making them more visible to pollinators. The plant then lies dormant throughout the scorching summer months.

This phenomenon of facing north, together with their human-like appearance, has an early folklore explanation. Legend has it that the Nama who now inhabit the Richtersveld used to live in much more fertile areas in Namibia.  They were driven out of their homeland by violent conflict with other tribes and as they fled south across the Orange River (the Gariep), they discovered a forsaken mountainous desert which they felt sure to be created by the gods in a moment of rage.  Grieving and longing for their homes, some of the Nama people turned in the midst of their flight to gaze northwards for the last time (much like Lot’s wife in Christian history).  The gods took pity on them and transformed them into “halfmens” (semi-people) who now look toward their lost homeland for eternity.