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Roving the Richtersveld

He likes taking on the long road alone, admits Jim Freeman. While this is not always advisable when tackling difficult terrain, he was fully prepared before setting off to rove the Richterveld in a Landy Discovery.


I have a confession to make: I am a devotee of the road, no matter how long or difficult and, regardless of possible danger, I love to take it on alone.

Not having someone riding alongside in support (whether in a separate vehicle or in the passenger seat) has sometimes left me in a pickle, and I would not for a moment recommend that someone confront a place like the Kgalagadi without some form of backup.

Some of my worst mishaps have been suffered by taking vehicles into areas for which they were ill-equipped or wildly inappropriate. But that was certainly not the case when I took a Land Rover Discovery 4 SDV6 HSE to the Northern Cape and Southern Namibia for nearly ten days.

A roadtrip to explore both the Namaqua National Park (NNP) and the vast |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park (AARTP) – in total 600,000 km2, of which less than a third falls in South Africa – is more of an expedition than a getaway. Planning and provisioning is required.

Sedans in the NNP are restricted to the popular flower route that draws thousands of visitors each year, but this means they miss out on most of what this harsh, yet strikingly beautiful reserve has to offer.

Except for |Ai-|Ais and the Fish River Canyon, which are accessed by public road in Namibia, sedans are forbidden in the AARTP.


Be prepared

When it comes to refuelling and stocking up on provisions, it is important to remember the isolation of these places.

There is neither fuel station nor shop in the NNP. From Cape Town to Groen River is around 500 km and, although distances in the park are relatively short, you will be spending a lot of time in low-range with deflated tyres – two things that guzzle petrol or diesel.

Fill up at Garies if you are entering through the southern entrance, or Kamieskroon if using the Skilpad gate in the north. Even if you **do** refuel at Garies, I recommend (if only for peace of mind) you pop out of the park and top up at Kamieskroon before taking on the Caracal 4×4 Eco-route.

If you are exploring the NNP from the south, you can fill up at Hondeklip Bay or at Soebatsfontein if you are proceeding to the Skilpad rest camp It is also never a bad idea to keep a jerry can in the back of the vehicle.

Other essential equipment is a car battery-operated compressor with a pressure gauge for deflating/re-inflating tyres, a tyre repair patch kit, jumper cables, tow rope(s) or kinetic recovery straps, and a spare fan-belt. I would also include a shovel and sandbags.

Make sure your tyres, including the spare, are in tip-top condition. The Richtersveld is a tyre-killer and you are a long, long way from Port Nolloth if you shred a second one on razor-sharp rock shards.

Do not expect Woolworths food markets in Garies, Kamieskroon or Springbok. Stock up with quality perishables (if that is your fancy) before you leave home. You will therefore need a top-class cooler box and, preferably, one that plugs in to the vehicle.

The Discovery has a 12V auxiliary socket behind the back seat. I do, however, recommend draining the cooler box whenever possible and refilling it with fresh ice.

The only electrified accommodation (i.e. fridge-freezers) in NNP is at the Skilpad chalets and at Sendelingsdrift, Tatasberg, and Gannakourieb in the AARTP.

Take loads of bottled water. You will not regret it, especially in the summer months when peak temperatures hover around the 43 ˚C mark.

You need to be completely self-sufficient for water in the two parks and, though there are rudimentary ablution facilities in most camps, drinking the water is strongly discouraged. You might also consider prepping yourself a first-aid kit.


On the road (at last)

So, the Landy is packed and ready to go. It is not a monster vehicle (even though ostensibly a seven-seater) and I had to fold the back seats down to absorb all the gear, meaning there was just enough space in the vehicle for two people.

If you have more travel mates, you will have to make the road trip shorter, hitch a trailer or spread the load to an accompanying vehicle.

The road was long but I had plenty of time, so I decided to take a slow bumble northwards on the N7, spending my first night at the Clanwilliam Hotel.

It is one of those off-highway platteland gems that all of us of a certain age fondly recall from our earliest road-tripping days: good rooms (with air-conditioning), a swimming pool, and a restaurant that serves delightful spare ribs. And a lovely breakfast before you resume the road.

The Landy made short shrift of the road to Garies, despite persistent fog. Just a warning – do NOT take the N7 turn-off that says Groen River unless you have lots of time to spare. So a Garies refuel it was and from there on gravel to Groen River.

At reception (you can buy 5-litre bottles of mineral water there) I confirmed my overnight booking for the rugged seaside camp at Delwerskamp.

The rangers made a point of telling me to drop my tyre-pressure before leaving the camp the next morning; the sand, they said, was deep and soft in places. They even marked on a map the places I could get stranded.

If I went back to NNP, I would spend at least two nights at Delwerskamp. Given the time of year, I had the camp to myself. I rigged my bivvy to the Land Rover, away from the stiffening onshore breeze, and lit a fire as night fell.

There was no sound but the deafening Atlantic and no light but the ever-blueing coals and iridescent stars shooting this way and that. Dinner comprised a rib-eye steak and Villiera Merlot. And a little more merlot. I was not driving, was I?

The next morning, I forgot to deflate my tyres and hit the sand while still in high-range. The pressure gauge, shovel, and sandbags (and, belatedly, low-range gear selection) were used to full effect – as was my vocabulary of four-letter words.

Note to self: when stocking first-aid kit, pack soothing after-sun lotion.

There is much to see in NNP and I want to return to the Skilpad chalets if only to renew my acquaintance with the grey mongoose that came inside to check out the kitchen counter.

I left NNP and refuelled at Port Nolloth before heading into the Richtersveld.

Till now, the Land Rover had been magnificent. I had let **it** down, rather than the other way round.

Its six-speed transmission hummed on the highway with the 82-litre tank having a stated range of nearly 900 km. The only time its 180 kW on tap, massive 600 Nm of lugging power and off-road capabilities (as well as mine) were properly tested was in the sand.

I got to the Sendelingsdrift reception centre at AATNP at around 4.00pm and could not believe it when told it would take another four hours to reach my overnight camping spot at Kokerboomkloof, just 75 km away.

After about two hours, I realised I should have taken their warning seriously. However, though summer may be hellishly hot, the days are long and there was little chance I would be caught driving in the dark.

To get to Kokerboomkloof, you drive up a radically zig-zagging rise called Akkedispas. The Disco had no problem with the hairpin corners, having a mere 2.885 m wheelbase and extremely responsive power-steering. The agility of the vehicle also allowed it to tiptoe around rocks that continually threaten to rip the sidewalls of the tyres.

It was an exhilarating experience and got better and better as the drive went on, with the setting sun bathing the entire glorious topography – mountain, kokerboom, **halfmens** – in magnificent golden light.

Kokerboomkloof campsite could be to desert pilgrims what Stonehenge was to ancient druids. I arrived there as the last light of day struck the huge rocks dotting an area so vast it could accommodate Afrikaburn.

I was the only person there and, even if I was not, I would hardly be aware of my neighbours.

The full moon rose and there I was with just the fiery-necked nightjars and snapple of a braai fire. I did not want the night to end.

The next morning I had an early cup of tea and a shower (each of the eight campsites has cold-water ablution facilities that blend in with the surroundings) before cleaning up and packing. I wanted to move out before it got too hot.

I drove slowly, drinking in the wonderful vistas; road down, road up. Over one blue mountain range to the next. There were few animals prancing and preening, most seeking only to survive in this arid region.

The roads were not particularly well signposted but I had been provided with a reasonably adequate map at park reception so did not stray too often. There were some very sandy bits – but, after my unfortunate Namaqualand experience, I deflated the tyres and engaged low-range immediately.


Crossing the Gariep

Every game trail crisscrossing these sandy sections headed in one direction – to the Orange/Gariep River separating South Africa and Namibia.

One of the reasons I had decided to visit the Richtersveld was that a Namibian friend told me there had been some good rains in the south of the country and I had driven through several showers since leaving NNP.

There were puddles deep as sheep-dips on the road from Port Nolloth to Sendelingsdrift and the delicate, yet hardy **vygies** had not only risen their heads above ground, they had already gone into bloom.

The Orange was coming down in slow spate when I got to De Hoop and pulled the Landy under a tree. It was noon and nearly 50 ˚C, so I walked into the river and sat on a rock with cool, clean water up to my chest.

After a while I started twitching; I looked down and there were dozens of tiny fish nibbling the dry skin on my legs. Some people pay money for this experience at a spa.

Gemsbok, kudu, springbok, and zebra came down to drink all afternoon. There were baboons and birds everywhere.

And bugs. That night I was desperately glad I had brought insect repellent and was sleeping on a camp bed about 40 cm above the ground.

The river had risen considerably the next morning and, on reaching Sendelingsdrift, I found it was flowing too strongly for the pont that was due to ferry me across to Namibia (after presenting my passport at the border post in the camp).

It was a great disappointment because it meant I would have to make a huge detour to access the Namibian (|Ai-|Ais) section of the transfrontier park. Sendelingsdrift has no shop but there are petrol and diesel pumps, so I filled up and started the trek to Noordoewer and the Namibian border.

I missed the turnoff to the “scenic” route via Eksteenfontein, so backtracked almost to Port Nolloth before taking the R382 to the N7. Once across the border, I took the C37 dirt road – which is of exceptionally good quality – through Aussenkehr to the resort at |Ai-|Ais, which means “burning waters” in Nama and refers to the thermal springs that proliferate.

I stayed in a double room suite at the resort but, frankly, would have been better off camping either there or at Hobas, just 10 km from the Fish River Canyon.

Nevertheless, I was able to watch the Fish River (a major tributary of the Orange) rise by several metres overnight and, at dawn the next morning, spotted a brilliantly coloured swallow-tailed bee-eater.

The Land Rover was in its absolute element at pace on gravel and it was a quick drive to the quirky Canyon Road Lodge. I also could not resist photographing the Discovery next to one of the wrecks in the desert – as I am sure countless other off-road drivers have done.

Sadly, I could not explore much more of the Namibian section of AARTP: with rivers coming down in flood, there was no guarantee I would be able to cross them. So it was “Home, Rover!” with the promise that I would return …