The great Fish River Canyon, that enormous chasm splitting a vast, arid land, commands our attention. It’s the second-largest canyon on Earth. Yet there is so much, around it. This is a transfrontier park of huge dimensions. The Richtersveld is a fascinating realm of its own: one of the greatest hotspots of floral diversity on the planet. Between them, the Orange River creates a wonderful riverine oasis joining rugged worlds.
When to be there:
The park is open all year; travel is most comfortable in the cooler months (May-Sep)
The Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail is only open from 1 May to 15 September due to heat
Depending on rain, desert flowers are in bloom in September, especially in the Richtersveld
Rainfall in the park is erratic & extremely low; there’s no need to plan around it
The best way to experience this park is to get active
There are great 4x4, hiking & mountain bike trails in both sections of the park
Canoeing, rafting & fishing are possible along the Orange River
The diversity of succulent plants in the Richtersveld is unique; don’t miss it
WHAT TO REMEMBER:
Don’t overestimate your fitness; the park is huge & rugged, temperatures can be extreme
Bookings & additional permits are required for many trails & activities; enquire in advance
4x4 is needed throughout the Richtersveld section of the park
Valid passports are required to cross between the Namibian & South African sections
Cabanas and permanently erected tents on the banks of the Orange River. This camp also serves as the starting base for several river rafting & canoeing adventures.
Nestled in the great valley of the Karas region and situated on the banks of the Orange River, about 50km from the South African / Namibia border post.
The Orange River Lodge is situated near Noordoewer on the border between South Africa and Namibia.
Fairly basic accommodation at the famous hot-springs near the southern end of the Fish River Canyon.
Probably the most popular lodge in the area. Friendly staff, interesting rooms and an emphasis on growing all local produce make for a wonderful stay.
The smaller sibling to the Canon Lodge & Village, this fun establishment boasts loads of character.
Supposedly laid out like an African village - this tends to be second choice to the Lodge but still offers good value.
On the opposite edge of the canyon to all the other lodges, Fish River Lodge offers a unique perspective, excellent service and stunning views.
Campsite close to the main viewpoint over the Fish River Canyon
Visit the Kolmanskop Ghost town near Luderitz
Visit the Sperrgebiet with visits to the abandonded mining town of Pomona & the rock arch at Bogenfels
Several cruises around Luderitz harbour, options include sunset cruises & a visit to an oyster farm
Maccoa ducks prefer permanent wetlands in open grasslands and semi-dry country.
The Egyptian goose is very vocal and noisy and honk and hiss when threatened.
The French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire collected this species in Egypt during the Napoleonic wars.
The flat-headed free-tailed bat is a free-tailed bat with an extraordinary flattened skull.
Geoffroy's horseshoe bat are a highly gregarious creature that occur in colonies of several thousand if suitable roosting sites exist.
This is the largest member of its genus in the southern region.
The Sundevall's leaf-nosed bat has best been described as small and fragile.
The South African shelduck prefer shallow, seasonal pans, dams, rivers and sewage works
African black ducks can be detected by a loud quack from the female, often repeated in flight.
Yellow-billed ducks prefer a habitat of open waters of estuaries, stillish waters of rivers, lakes, streams, marshes, swamps, dams and sewage works.
Red-billed teals inhabit most inland wetlands whether man-made or natural usually in pairs or small groups.
Three hundred million years of erosion. Over such a time span, just a tiny fraction of a millimetre cut into the land each year (0.00183 millimetres to be precise) results in a canyon that is 550 metres deep. The Fish River Canyon is also close to thirty kilometres wide and well over a hundred kilometres long. Yet its dimensions are awesome beyond the numbers. Standing on the canyon edge, its immensity is felt, not measured. No landscape in Namibia instils a more profound sense of time and space.
Over time, the raised landscape was levelled into a so-called peneplain by erosion. It was then covered by new layers of sediments of the Nama Group from 600 to 540 million years ago, when the area was inundated by an ocean after the breakup of Rodinia. Once the continents had been realigned as Gondwana, erosive forces began to cut into the now-exposed sedimentary layer, creating the upper canyon. These included glacial erosion during the Dwyka glaciation some 300 million years ago.
When Gondwana broke apart 120 million years ago, the gradient of the Fish River was increased by uplift and localised rifting. This significantly sped the rate of erosion, forcing the deep cut of the lower canyon into the underlying rocks of the Namaqua Metamorphic Complex. The distinct dolerite dykes that extend for up to 100 kilometres across the landscape here are evidence of the volcanic activity that was part of the original metamorphosis.
A wonderful Khoesan legend, that the canyon was created by a gargantuan, winding snake, is an apt analogy of the geological forces that moved this landscapes and carved out the canyon.
The vistas of /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld can certainly make us feel small. Yet they also draw us into their geology and archaeology, into the enthralling web of evolution that includes our own genesis. The Orange River Basin is central to the history, and the modern social, political and economic fabric, of much of southern Africa – and certainly of Namibia. It has divulged significant insights into human ancestry and culture; it was the arena for ever-increasing conflicts in the shaping of nations. It delivered alluvial diamonds to Namibia and is vital to water supply, power generation and the economy of South Africa.
It’s postulated that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The oldest currently known remains of our species, dated at 300,000 years old, were found in Morocco, displacing the idea of a single ‘cradle of mankind’ in East Africa. Hominid evolution in any case includes numerous other genera and species. The discovery of various significant hominid remains from the Orange River Basin and its fringes (at Taung, Florisbad, Sterkfontein, Rising Star, etc.) demonstrate the importance of the basin in our long history.
Tool use by hominids is documented for several million years. The oldest accurately dated stone tools known from Namibia were found close to the Orange River and pre-date our knowledge of Homo sapiens. More recent artefacts, from the time that humans were the only hominans left on Earth, have been found at many sites across the country.
Numerous rock art sites are known from /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld, and one of the most stunning African art finds ever made comes from the Huns Mountains in the park. The archaeologist Wolfgang Wendt named the site Apollo 11, commemorating the space mission that landed man on the moon while he was excavating rock shards with the figure of an animal drawn onto it, later dated to around 30,000 years old. Since then, discoveries of much older ornamentation have been made in South Africa, but the Apollo 11 slab remains the oldest figurative art known from Africa.
The 2,000-year history of the Nama in Little Namaqualand, part of which became known as the Richtersveld in the mid-1800s, is affirmed by its World Heritage listing. The Khoekhoen tradition of transhumant pastoralism has remained largely intact here over this period. During the second half of the eighteenth century, increasing encroachment by Europeans on Khoekhoen land in the Cape caused many Namas to move across the Orange (known to them as the !Gariep, the Great River) and settle in Great Namaqualand.
At the same time, groups of mixed Khoekhoen and European descent in the Cape, who had taken up European clothing and customs, weapons and horses became known as the Oorlam. Some Oorlam clans, including the Afrikaners, Bondelswarts and Witboois, moved north into Great Namaqualand and with their superior equipment and a growing tradition of commando warfare and livestock raids came to dominate much of South West Africa prior to the arrival of German colonists. Over the following century a merger took place between Nama and Oorlam, punctuated by conflicts and alliances amongst them. The term, Oorlam, later fell into disuse; today only the title Nama is used in Namibia.
Jakobus Jansz Coetsé is widely cited as the first European to cross the !Gariep into Great Namaqualand and leave an account of his 1760 travels, yet there are historical records of a Boer trading expedition crossing the river as early as 1738. There was undoubtedly repeated unrecorded trade and travel into Great Namaqualand, and settlement by Europeans began here in the late eighteenth century. The official border of the Cape Colony was extended from the Cape Peninsula all the way to the Orange River in 1847. Four decades later, Germany declared South West Africa its colony – and soon changed the fate of local communities.
Nama leaders sold the first land to the Germans and entered into various treaties that cemented colonisation. Yet growing discontent over the next two decades led first to the Bondelswarts Uprising of 1903 (which coincided with the start of the Herero–German War) and then the full-blown Nama–German War. The latter was instigated by the Witboois in 1904 and joined by most other Nama groups. The renowned Nama leader, Hendrik Witbooi, died in battle in 1905, but a protracted guerrilla conflict between the Nama and the German Schutztruppe continued until 1907. Great Namaqualand was subsequently divided as farmland for Whites, with only small pockets remaining for the Nama. During the South African administration of the territory between 1915 and 1990, several Nama homelands were created, which remain the communal lands of the Nama today.
Over the years, the discovery of diamonds and the construction of large dams, agricultural projects and other infrastructure have made the Orange River Basin a central facet of the economy of both South Africa and Namibia. Yet the developments have also changed the hydrology and ecology of the !Gariep and its Namibian tributary, the Fish. Only a fraction of their former flow now reaches the ocean, and biodiversity has been badly affected.
In light of the Fish River Canyon’s evolution over several hundred million years, its conservation history of little more than half a century doesn’t seem particularly impressive. Here, as in so many other ways, the colossal nature of these landscapes shows up our own insignificance – but also our ability to destroy or protect. This world may be vast, but it exists in a delicate balance that needs careful management of human influences. The humble beginnings of isolated national monuments may have expanded into a transfrontier conservation area, yet the protection of its riches needs to be strengthened …
According to legend, the hot springs in the lower Fish River were discovered by a Nama shepherd in 1850. Human presence in the region goes back countless millennia and this was probably just a rediscovery linked to European record-keeping. It’s likely that the springs, with a temperature of around 60 degrees Celsius, have been known – and intermittently used – for a very long time. They became a base camp for German troops during their war against the Nama between 1903 and 1907, and soon after were used by South African troops during the South West Africa Campaign at the start of the First World War.
Most of the Hunsberge and the lower stretches of the Fish River, including the area around the hot springs, remained unoccupied state land during the widespread land reallocation of the colonial period. Interestingly, the area encompassing the most impressive part of the canyon had been allocated as a freehold farm by the early 1960s.
In 1962, the site known then as Klein Aiais (today’s /Ai-/Ais Hotsprings Spa) and the farm ‘Fish River Canyon 381’ were proclaimed as national monuments. A series of proclamations in 1968 included /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs (without a game park designation) and several other resort locations around the country. The protected area initially did not extend to the canyon – this was added a year later. Several freehold farms and the state land encompassing the Huns Mountains were incorporated in 1988, and more land was added in 2002 to arrive at the park’s present boundaries. /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Game Park remains the official name of the park, even though the main attraction is the Fish River Canyon.
The Richtersveld National Park is much younger, declared in 1991. It is owned and jointly managed by the Richtersveld Community and South African National Parks. It took 18 years of negotiations between SANParks and the Nama to proclaim the park and create its management structures.
After the formalisation of the Richtersveld National Park, the vision of a transfrontier park could be pursued in earnest. Further years of consultations, this time across borders, led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries in 2001. /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld officially became Namibia’s first transfrontier park in 2003, when Presidents Sam Nujoma of Namibia and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa signed the treaty. A year later, a joint management board was appointed to oversee the running of the park.
The formation of the Richtersveld Community Conservancy was initiated around 2002 to strengthen the relationship between the South African communities and Richtersveld National Park, as well as to create a clear structure to manage of the cultural and environmental riches of the area adjoining the park. This later enabled the application for World Heritage status – the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
Also in 2007, the Sendelingsdrift Tourist Access Facility was opened. It includes customs and immigration offices on both sides of the river and a pontoon to ferry visitors between the two countries. With a valid passport, this allows easy crossing from one section of the park to the other.
Interestingly, the Orange River border between South Africa and Namibia remains disputed, more than a century after it was defined. Namibia claims that it lies in the middle of the river, while South Africa sees it on the northern bank. Numerous consultations have not settled the matter – which partly hinges on mineral resources. Diamonds were discovered along the lower Orange in 1957 and mining still continues on both sides of the river today, as well as at other sites in the vicinity.
In the course of human expansion and exploitation across the region, a lot of large wildlife disappeared from the area – long before the park’s proclamation. In historic times, elephant, rhinos, giraffe, buffalo, hippo and crocodile occurred along the Orange River and parts of the Fish River catchment, but were all locally extinct by the 1930s.
The huge catchment of the Fish, in a landscape that has some of the highest runoff yields in Namibia, results in occasional, powerful flash floods. These have repeatedly damaged the /Ai-/Ais Hotsprings Spa (in 1972, 1974, 1988, 2000 and 2006). The resort was first opened in 1971, yet little development other than Hobas Camp has taken place in the Namibian section of the transfrontier park, while an extensive network of four-by-four routes and campsites has been created in the Richtersveld National Park over the last two decades.
Travels in African wildlands are usually guided by hopes of seeing large predators, rhinos and elephants. In /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld, animals – like people – become mere specks in the vast, arid landscape. Wildlife densities here are relatively low and sightings are few – the breathtaking landscape dominates all. In the Richtersveld, plants take over as the most intriguing lifeforms. The Succulent Karoo has the highest diversity and endemism of succulent plants on Earth and the Richtersveld embraces a particularly unique part of this biome – including its Namaqualand daisies.
The ‘Namaqualand daisies’ are world famous. For a few short weeks between early August and late September (depending on when it rains) the flowers bloom in an incredible profusion of colour. The spectacle occurs across a broad winter-rainfall swathe from the Atlantic coast of southwestern Namibia to the Garden Route District of the Western Cape Province in South Africa. This is the Succulent Karoo Biome.
‘Namaqualand’ is a broad, poorly defined area. Historically, Little Namaqualand is the northwestern part of South Africa abutting the Orange River and the Atlantic in the District of Namakwa. Great Namaqualand refers to the greater part of southern Namibia north of the Orange. Both names stem from pre-colonial days, when the Nama lived here. Today, Namaqualand is an indiscriminate tourism label, made famous by the flowers.
The daisies are a short show of exuberance, yet the flora of the Succulent Karoo is fascinating all year round. Over 6,000 different plants have been identified in the biome. Around 40 per cent occur only here and nowhere else on Earth. This is one of only 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots, and one of only two such hotspots found in an entirely arid environment. The !Gariep Centre of Endemism in the Richtersveld covers a particularly rich portion of the biome with over 2,700 recorded plant species, of which over 550 are endemic.
Legend surrounds the halfmens, one of the most striking plants of the park. It is venerated by the Nama as an incarnation of their ancestors. The reverence is portrayed in the tale of grief-stricken people left behind on a great trek, who became half-tree, half-human, forever facing north in the direction of the departed.
The charismatic quiver tree is perhaps the most-photographed tree in Namibia. There are actually three species of quiver tree, all of which occur in the park. And there are many other intriguing plant groups, including the vygies (also known as ice plants, or mesembs), a large family of dwarf shrubs with succulent leaves. Amongst them are stone plants (Lithops genus) – which look more like pebbles than plants. The plant diversity and uniqueness stretches north of the Orange: over 100 endemic plants occur in this part of the park, 35 of them in the Huns Mountains alone, which makes this one of the areas of highest plant endemism in Namibia.
The Nama Karoo and Namib Desert biomes just reach into the park from the east and northwest, increasing its diversity of habitats and lifeforms. The Orange River creates another winding slither of diversity, with a profusion of terrestrial and aquatic animals and plants confined to its course.
With over 50 species of large mammals, around 200 birds and over 50 reptiles, there is no shortage of interesting animals in the park. The name Fish River indicates the abundance of fish in its permanent pools, which increases significantly in the Orange.
There are numerous endemics amongst the reptiles, small mammals, amphibians and insects, such as the Namaqua dwarf adder, Namaqualand tent tortoise, Namaqua dune molerat and Namaqua rain frog. Large mammals include the klipspringer, vervet monkey, baboon, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, springbok, steenbok, kudu, gemsbok and leopard, and the park is on the northern fringes of the grey rhebok’s range.
Like many other parks in Namibia, the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Game Park is currently underutilised. The focus is almost exclusively on the Fish River Canyon, which is – rightfully – one of the most visited tourism sites in Namibia. But there is so much more to this park, and conservation should include utilisation, even if this is through limited, guided access to wilderness areas or sensitive cultural sites.
The perennial jewel of the Orange River creates a wonderful counterpoint to the ephemeral Fish. The place where the two rivers meet is an ecologically sensitive and visually stunning environment. It lies right along the public road, and – as there is no official viewpoint or parking area – people have made their own tracks to explore it. There are in fact no developed rest stops or interpretive sites on the 72-kilometre transit route along the Orange River.
The huge swathe of the Huns Mountains is currently completely inaccessible to visitors. The famous Apollo 11 Cave, which is at the centre of a cluster of important archaeological sites, is certainly a sensitive area where access must be strictly controlled. Indeed much of the heritage of the park, including its archaeological, recent historical and current cultural traditions, remain poorly recorded and not adequately protected.
This hinges on two issues: more research (and funding for that) is needed; and staffing of the park needs to be significantly expanded. There is currently only one park station at Hobas, which makes it difficult to effectively manage the extremely rugged and inaccessible 4,358 square kilometres of the park. There are only two accommodation facilities and two related access points for visitors, at /Ai-/Ais and Hobas, as well as the transit route along the Orange River, between the recently constructed Gamgab and Dreigat Gates, which are manned by ministry staff.
By sharp contrast, the much more recently established Richtersveld National Park is well developed. Four-by-four routes allow visitors to see much of the park. Campsites and self-catering rest camps are dotted along the Orange River, as well as at a number of sites in the hinterland of the park.
Richtersveld National Park is jointly managed by SANParks and the Richtersveld community living next to the park, who have grazing and other user rights in the park. The community participates in park management through representatives elected from the four settlements around the park, Kuboes, Eksteenfontein, Lekkersing and Sanddrif.
At a higher level, a joint management committee between Namibia and South Africa oversees the administration of the transfrontier park. There are many threats and challenges that need attention. Dealing with mining impacts is relevant on both sides of the Orange River. Mining is a very important economic sector, yet rehabilitation of the environment has become a mandatory part of the industry, which needs to be enforced more effectively. Illegal off-road driving is a problem in the remoter parts of the park. This has unfortunately been encouraged by the publication of prohibited routes on some tourism maps.
Invasive vegetation is creating issues along parts of the Fish and Orange rivers, and other watercourses in the catchment. Wild tobacco and species of the genus Prosopis (common name mesquite) are the most problematic plants. Combating invasive vegetation is an ongoing battle, but there are initiatives to address this. On the other hand, indigenous plants are being threatened by illegal collecting. The halfmens, which has a very restricted range in southern Namibia and northern South Africa, is a good example. It rarely survives outside its natural habitat, but it is severely threatened by illegal collecting and trade. In fact, close to 20 per cent of plants in the Succulent Karoo are currently considered to be endangered by overgrazing, mining and illegal harvesting.
Around 100 kilometres north of the main viewpoint at Hobas, the recently completed Neckertal Dam is by far the largest dam in Namibia. In combination, the Neckertal, Naute and Hardap dams have a significant influence on natural flow regimes and thus on all water-dependent life of the Fish River. Yet the Orange River has been affected to a much greater extent by dams and water abstraction along its length, with only a fraction of catchment runoff now reaching the ocean. And there have been talks of building another dam around 80 kilometres upstream of the park, in the vicinity of Vioolsdrift and Noordoewer to ‘regulate the downstream flow’ of the river.
In light of this variety of internal and external threats, the main challenge right now is to make the most of the huge potential of this park. A proactive approach to tapping the undeveloped biological, geological, palaeontological and cultural heritage of this great realm will give the park and adjacent lands more meaning as conservation areas.
In /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld, the history of geological processes lies exposed. The related palaeontological conditions promise significant fossil discoveries. The plants and animals here have adapted in unique ways to the distinctive environmental forces. Archaeological sites, scattered throughout the area, have revealed some truly spectacular finds – and whisper of more. And even today, local communities endure with traditions they have practised for the last 2,000 years. Such circumstances make for some of the most fascinating research opportunities imaginable …
A vast variety of research has been carried out in and around the transfrontier park over many years. Of the great range of interesting topics, geology, human history, plants and insects are amongst the most intriguing.
Much work has focused on the local Nama community and the formation of the Richtersveld National Park and adjacent World Heritage site. The interesting Nama culture has been studied in the context of current socioeconomic and environmental pressures, including benefits from the park and the sustainable use of grazing and firewood.
The geology of the region has received intermittent attention, but few results are publicly available. Palaeontological research has been sparse, although it’s expected that a wide variety of fossils could be found, including significant and vulnerable specimens.
Archaeological exploration has produced some of the most famous discoveries, even though in-depth research has been limited to a small number of sites. While the painted slabs of the Apollo 11 Cave have received extensive attention, including reanalysis of the material and new excavations, much more needs to be done at other sites.
Assessments of the flora of the Succulent Karoo and Nama Karoo have been carried out in some detail and new species continue to be discovered. The possibility of using particular plants as indicators of the overall biodiversity health of the region is being explored.
The word Mantophasmatodea might mean anything or nothing to the layperson, but it’s famous amongst entomologists. It is the scientific order of gladiator insects (which look similar to mantises). When they were described from Namibia in 2002 it was the first new order of insects described since 1914. A wave of scientific interest ensued – leading to the discovery of around 20 new species from southern and eastern Africa. At least four species of Mantophasmatodea have been described from the Richtersveld and, in 2005, schoolchildren on a science excursion found a gladiator along the Fish River. After much more research, the order Mantophasmatodea is today considered a suborder of the order Notoptera.
Great potential exists to incorporate this wonderful diversity of features into the visitor experience and expand on the current, relatively narrow focus on the Fish River Canyon, the Orange River and the four-by-four trails of the Richtersveld.
/Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld is an excellent example of the evolution of connectivity conservation. From the initial declaration of the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs and the Fish River Canyon as national monuments (rather than conservation areas) to the proclamation of a huge game park; through years of community consultations that led first to the establishment of the Richtersveld National Park and later the inscription of the adjoining Richtersveld Community Conservancy as a World Heritage site, to the creation of a transfrontier park and initiatives that reach beyond it – the concept keeps expanding …
The evolution of the transfrontier park parallels our growing appreciation for the importance of a healthy environment. Connectivity conservation is finally being recognised as a vital approach to counter massive global threats to biodiversity and to ensure healthy habitats – and with that, the availability of clean air and water, productive soils and other ecosystem services. The evolution of /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld did not end with the signing of the transfrontier treaty. The conservation cover continues to expand in all directions, and is being strengthened across the landscape.
In Namibia, the Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape (an initiative of the NAM-PLACE Project) reaches north, east and west, to include the Gondwana Canyon Park, the !Gawachab Conservancy, the Naute Game Park and numerous freehold farms. It embraces more than thirty active members who collaborate on conservation issues.
In South Africa, the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape World Heritage Site adjoins the southern border of the Richtersveld National Park, with joint management across the entire area. It’s been suggested that the World Heritage listing should be expanded to embrace the entire transfrontier park and all of its environmental and cultural wealth, which would strengthen its protection while also raising its tourism value.
The /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Game Park shares a border of around ten kilometres with Tsau //Khaeb National Park, with a few more kilometres of shared border along the Orange River between Tsau //Khaeb and the Richtersveld National Park. This has motivated the idea of integrating the parks into one overall transfrontier conservation area.
/Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld and the collaborating conservation areas abutting the park show that it is possible to strive for a balance between seemingly disparate land uses. Mining takes place in and around the park, as does livestock herding. The Orange River supports agricultural schemes such as the thriving table grape production on Farm Aussenkehr, where an estimated 10,000 people now live. Yet the hinterland of the farm is being developed as a private nature reserve, and Aussenkehr is part of the overall conservation landscape.
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