Expert Reviews – |Ai-|Ais Richtersveld TP

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Epic Mountain Desert
Overall rating

Definitively remote and wild, |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld covers 6000 sq km of mountain desert, on both sides of the South Africa-Namibia border. In this harsh land, you won't find the Big Five lapping at waterholes, but you may spot a rare leopard or caracal, brown hyena or black-backed jackal. The main reason to visit this extreme corner of southern Africa is the unique landscape, in which the Orange River runs between bone-dry mountains and the world's largest desert fauna. In this surreal environment, early-morning fog rolls in from the cold Atlantic, curling around quiver trees, tall aloes and Halfmens trees.

|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld is only accessible by 4WD, and it's worth scheduling a week here, as even the sturdiest Toyotas move slowly. Guided hiking trails and accommodation in campsites, chalets and cabins are offered on the South African side of the park, which covers 163,000 hectares south of the Orange River.

A surreal rugged and barren landscape best known for the dramatic Fish River Canyon
Overall rating

Combining South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park, and Namibia’s Fish River Canyon and Ai-Ais Hot Springs, this park spans a spectacular arid and rocky desert of sharp gravel. A host of cacti, succulents and kokerboom (quiver) trees survive, but there are very few animals. The easiest and most popular access point is Namibia’s Hobas viewpoint on the western rim of the Fish River Canyon; I’ve watched some amazing sunsets here and the switch-back tortuous curves of the Fish River at the bottom never fails to impress. I’ve also enjoyed the Ai-Ais hot springs resort by the riverbed at the southern end, and visits to both give a combined experience of what is a dramatic huge gash in the earth. The South African section of the park is a rough and hot mountainous region (fully-equipped four-wheel-drive only), but where the highlight is the Orange River which slips silently between the parched peaks.

Land of the mutant plants
Overall rating

The most magnificently isolated of South Africa’s national parks lies on the remote Namibian border formed by the Orange River. It is by no means a conventional safari destination, and is accessible by 4x4 only, and then only after a two day drive from Johannesburg or Cape Town. The main attraction of the region is its ragged scenery and unique vegetation, supporting as it doe some of the most peculiar of the 3,000 plant species endemic to the Karo biome. These include the succulent quiver tree and bulbous halfmensboom, whose name – literally half-human tree – refers to a traditional belief that it is half-plant and half-human. Typical dry-country antelope such as gemsbok, springbok and klipspringer are likely to be seen, and the area supports a number of birds endemic to the arid west of South Africa and Namibia, but it must be emphasised that the park’s remoteness and wilderness feel are its primary attractions, not the wildlife.

An Arid Place for Landscape Lovers
Overall rating

There are two main ways for visitors to experience and explore the park’s rugged beauty and dramatic landscapes. A series of adventurous 4x4 routes wind their way through the parched Richtersveld on the South African side, but, personally, I like exploring this desolate park by river. South Africa’s longest waterway cuts through a geological paradise and visitors have a chance to join 4-, 6- or even 8-day fully-catered canoe safaris. You will negotiate a series of minor rapids as you paddle and drift beneath contorted mountains, deep canyons and bizarre rock formations at every turn.
The Richtersveld contains a treasure-trove of endemic desert flora that survives in some of Africa’s most beautiful geological landscapes, but this is certainly not a place for avid wildlife enthusiasts to frequent, as few large mammals survive in this harsh and unforgiving environment, and those that do tend to stick to the Namibian side of the transfrontier park. So, while you’re unlikely to come across any of the Big Five during a visit here, you will experience a wilderness vibe and geological masterpiece second to none.

Few landscapes on earth can rival the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Conservation Area for enormity, arid beauty, sizzling sunshine and a feeling of absolute desolation. For decades, the park was the exclusive domain of a handful of experienced 4x4 enthusiasts and hot spring visitors, but more recently a new breed of explorer has taken to conquering the rocky desert on foot and bike.
The lack of dangerous wildlife has prompted some extreme events to take hold and cater for privileged few energetic adventure seekers wanting to explore more than just the Fish River Canyon hiking trail and /Ai/Ais hot springs.
Quite likely the only wildlife you’ll see during your visit is the endemic Hartman’s mountain zebra, along with oryx, kudu, springbok and baboons, but leopard spoor is common and /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld is an ageless and primordial landscape like no other. Sitting around a desert campfire, the night sky dripping with a billion stars, the sense of remote, ancient wilderness is intoxicating.

Magnificent desert flora in the Richtersveld
Overall rating

The Richtersveld has the richest desert flora in the world, but you need to be here at a very specific time after the rains to be able to see any of it. I’ve visited at the best time of the year. This is August-September when Namaqualand is in full bloom. You won’t see carpets of daisies here which are the image of Namaqualand, but if you look closer at the very harsh rugged terrain you’ll see hundreds of tiny little flowers and succulents. Even if you miss the flower season, the Richtersveld is still worth visiting. Not really for its wildlife, but for the beauty of its stark rugged terrain. Animal life is very low and you’ll be lucky to see any big mammals at all. 4x4 is recommended, but I did fine with my ordinary high clearance pick-up truck or bakkie as we say in South Africa. This park gets very few visitors and a feeling of remoteness is definitely part of the appeal. While the scenery and isolation are the main attractions for me, a big interest group for the park is adventure seeking 4x4 enthusiasts.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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