Wednesday, July 8, 2009

THREE IN ONE (Part three of a ten day sojourn to the Richtersveld, Sossusvlei and Kolmanskop)

THE RICHTERSVELD

The Richtersveld begins when you leave Steinkopf a little way north of Springbok and travel along the R382 towards Port Nolloth. It is worthwhile to take the first turn to the right and head up to Eksteenfontein, on of the four villages that can be found in this area and inhabited mainly by Bosluisbasters – descendents of European families who settled in the area in the early part of the 20th Century who were settled in Eksteenfontein and Lekkersing after being evicted from Crown lands in Bushmanland. From there the drive north to Kuboes wends through some really beautiful countryside, with the village set right at the feet of the mountains that make up the lAi-lAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Kuboes is the oldest village of all the communities in the Richtersveld, and the most attractive. The ancient Nama culture still prevails here. The missionary centre in the town is reminiscent of something out of an old Mexican western movie – all that is missing is Marlon Brando and a few Senoritas. From Kuboes the next stop of consequence is the main entrance to the park is at Sendelingsdrift.

We have been wanting to visit the Richtersveld for some years now, and due to the various movements of family members from one part of the world to another we had to find an alternative to our planned holiday this year. The Richtersveld was it – with an unplanned diversion to Sossusvlei as an optional extra. We spent one night at Sendelingsdrift before heading up to Sossusvlei ……… with the added bonus of a day trip to Kolmanskop and Luderitz on the return trip before crossing the Orange again for four days in the Richtersveld.

The new Pont at Sendelingsdrift is a welcome replacement for the old one which was last in service in 1988 and was wrecked in floods just prior to Namibia’s independence. With the re-opening of the border post whole sets of new travel opportunities become available – such as being able to do a quick hop, skip and jump up to Sossusvlei as part of a combined trip to the Richtersveld. Prior to the Pont’s reinstatement this would have required a 1000km detour and at least two extra days.

Crossing the river on the Pont – while entirely benign – is an experience in itself: one which provides a quiet little tinge of satisfaction at simply having done it – after all, in the bigger scheme of things not a hell of a lot of people actually choose to cross the Orange at Sendelingsdrift………….and the river itself, wherever one happens to come across it, is always beautiful.

Upon returning to SA we immediately made our way to De Hoop via Akkedis Pass. It gave us a foretaste of the mountains we were to see later, and the road was probably the trickiest of all that we drove while up there – but no more than a grade two 4 x 4 at its worst. After some of the articles we had read recommending two spare wheels etc., etc., we really had to wonder what all the fuss was about and kept expecting things to get worse – which they didn’t.

At first glance De Hoop is great, but the ablution blocks only service the first two camp sites, moving beyond them requires total self sufficiency in every respect – which also has its advantages. The river was great, the swimming great – there were plenty of birds and plenty of fish – but when that wind starts blowing you really want to be somewhere else. It starts up around mid-afternoon and only begins to abate at around 9.30 in the evening …….. after it has managed to make even the thought of a braai a bad idea. It brings dust from every direction as it swirls down through the gullies and valleys, and manages to engender very little other than annoyance – and after two days there – a huge desire to simply get out of the place. Whether or not this wind is a seasonable phenomenon I am not sure, but it sure as nuts is a January one!

Needless to say we were only too happy to move on out of De Hoop first thing on the third day, making our way along the only section actually “designated” as 4 x 4 trail in the Park ……. the river route to Richtersberg. Again, the trail was very benign and we hoped that the wind would be less problematic than before, the river being East/West orientated rather than North/South as at De Hoop. Again we decided to move away from the area with the ablutions as there was a huge troop of Vervet monkeys lying in wait for us when we arrived, and found a lovely spot a couple of km’s down the river. Thinking we were going to get lucky wind –wise we got a fire going in a little hollow, only to slammed with some really mean gusts within minutes of having got it started. Not a lot of fun – but we managed and it wasn’t too bad an evening all things considered, with a most amazing full moon rising over the mountains just after sunset.

Recent articles in a number of the 4 x 4 mags have drawn attention to the misleading signposting in the area. We have a little Garmin Gekko into which we punched all of the relevant waypoints before entering the park and then simply plotted routes based on where we wanted to go. Easy-peasy as they say, and where there was doubt as far as the signage was concerned the Gekko quickly confirmed whether or not we were going in the right direction.

We had planned to stay another night, but having been informed when in Sendelingsdrift that our new granddaughter was now due on the 13th rather than the 15th we decided to hit the road early to be sure that we would be back in time for her arrival.

The lAi-lAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is an awe-inspiring mountain desert with a huge diversity of arid plant species and is run as a contractual national park under the management of SANparks with full participation by the local community through elected members to preserve the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Nama people which is based on a fully nomadic to semi nomadic way of life. The establishment of the park as it now exists began in 1974 and was finally sealed in Windhoek on 1 August, 2003. At each stop we became aware of the extent of the various flocks of sheep and goats which one meets at these places. The owners of one flock told us that their sheep and goats numbered 500, and that they had six hundred head of cattle on the ‘island’ in the river. We did not see the cattle, but did hear them from time to time a Richtersberg………all in all, no mean asset!

The park is dominated by two main rivers, the !ariep River which is still known officially as the Orange, and the Fish River which flows through the lAi-lAis Hot Springs Game Park and unites with the Orange. The Orange is the biggest river in South Africa and has always been the lifeline to the Richtersveld’s inhabitants – from the earliest, some 3000 years ago, until now. The Orange was probably created about 100 million years ago, but the oldest rock formations in the Richtersveld are the 2000 million year old Orange River Group …….. somewhat mind-boggling from the point of view of our tiny little life spans.

As we made our way through a most amazing mountain landscape with views that simply stretched forever, on could not help but mull over these few facts, and as we approached the Helskloof Entrance gate the mountains suddenly turned into an absolute garden of succulents and fynbos for a distance of about 10 kilometres. There were vygies flowering everywhere – daubs of smiling paint on an otherwise generally dark grey canvas, but up near De Koei in the Helsberg the Hotnotsriem / Wolfstoon provided a display we are unlikely to ever forget.

The Richtersveld is not a place that I’ll hurry back to, as opposed to the other side – the Fish River Canyon – but we are pleased that we went there and had the opportunity to see and contemplate this extremely tough corner of our heritage. This is truly ‘hard’ country.


More about this trip and others can be seen at http://www.gearup4x4.co.za/

Monday, June 22, 2009

THREE IN ONE (Part two of a ten day sojourn to the Richtersveld, Sossusvlei and Kolmanskop)

After leaving Sossusvlei we headed back South and took a loop to the West along the D707 just South of Betta and along the Eastern edge of the Namib-Naukluft Park with the foothills of the Tirasberg all the time to our left. A worthwhile detour with wonderful landscapes and contrasts ………… the never-ending little tufts of yellow/beige/silver grass brought by the rain softening everything to the East and forming a crisp line of delineation along the contours of the black foothills.
As one approaches Luderitz from Aus in the east a group of very dreary looking buildings appear on a rise to the left of the road. They are the colour of the surrounding desert and seem merely to ‘sit’ within their sweltering environment, offering no enticement whatsoever to be visited. Only a small sign on the side of the road – ‘Kolmanskop’ – gives any indication that you are headed in the right direction to visit the legendary “ghost town” spawned by the diamond rush of the early 20th Century.

Suddenly you are at a gate, and someone is asking you for money: “Is this Kolmanskop?” I ask. “Ja,” the gatekeeper responds, “the tour starts at eleven. But you don’t have to take it – the entrance fee is still R42.00 per person.” What looms before us is the same collection of buildings we saw from the road, and I feel a bit disappointed after having raced to get here from Aus to make the tour …….. not what I expected at all. One seldom, if ever, sees pictures of the entire town …… rather a collection of vignettes comprising old door and window frames, rooms full of sand and zebra stripe shadows on walls and floors created by disappearing roof sheeting and left over trusses.

Through some perverse trick of the imagination that is what I expected – a series of highly artistic photographs magically converted to three dimensions and somehow parked Dali like amid pristine dunes where nobody had set foot for 50 years or more …….. unfortunately not! Instead we were directed to a parking area in front of a rather drab looking town hall type building where we stepped out into the searing heat and went to register for the tour, fully expecting to be disappointed.

Were we wrong? Seriously wrong!!! Our guide was a local fellow of huge enthusiasm for Kolmanskop and its history, and literally within minutes of starting the tour the town began to come alive as he etched images of a bygone era with a dialogue swathed in metaphor and a very real knowledge of his subject. We were fortunate to have a virtually windless day in a place where it regularly gets up to 150 km per hour – where no roads were ever built as it was impossible to keep them free of sand – and where a mule drawn train circulated through the town for the entire period of its existence, collecting the townsfolk from their homes and depositing them at their various places of work or pleasure before returning to its original point of departure and starting all over again.

How Kolmanskop came into existence is extremely well documented and reads much like a Conrad novel – except that it is all for real. In 1908 a railway worker, Zacharias Lewala found a sparkling stone amidst the sand he was shoveling away from the railway line. His supervisor, August Stauch, tried to convince the company he was working for that the area was diamond rich, but they were so obsessed with their search for other minerals that they never took him seriously – he in the mean time quietly went about staking claims everywhere – and when the rush started he became a very wealthy man in a very short time, Kolmanskop providing 20% of the world’s diamond supply in its first year of operation. It soon became a bustling centre with all the amenities of a European town: butcher, baker, furniture factory, soda water and lemonade plant, ice factory and a four skittle alley which is still in perfect condition today.

There is an order to the town – its layout, its construction and the way that the commercial centre allowed for a working interdependency between the various businesses, is in every respect, German. The town reached its pinnacle in the twenties – the lifestyles, modes of dress and social attitudes reflected those of Europeans during the same era, and despite (or perhaps because of), its isolation and the bleakness of the surrounding desert Kolmanskop grew into a microcosm of German culture which in almost every way fulfilled the requirements of the affluent colonialists.

The town was inhabited by approximately 300 German adults, 40 children and 800 Owambo contract workers. A number of large, elegant houses were built by and for the various professionals in the town, together with bachelor quarters, a number of homes for the married personnel, a quite magnificent hospital, and a school. The hospital boasted Southern Africa’s first X-Ray machine which it has been revealed was used more for detecting smuggled diamonds than for the usual ailments for which such a machine is required. A quiet walk through the school courtyard conjures up the sound of children in any such environment and leaves one wondering what ultimately became of all the souls that moved through this little institution. Everywhere in the houses and shops there are remnants of the original d├ęcor ……….. beautifully stenciled cornices and interesting choices of colour ……….. obviously a lot of pride was taken in their surroundings by the inhabitants, and fortunately the authorities stepped in in time to halt the looting and destruction before it totally annihilated this gem of South West African history.


In the late 40’s and early 50’s diamonds roughly six times the size of those being mined at Kolmanskop were found at Oranjemund and the entire population of Kolmanskop moved their operation further south. Within a span of just 40 years Kolmanskop had been established, lived, flourished and died, and today the ghost town’s crumbling ruins bear little resemblance to the grandeur of its former glory.

This is not a place to be hurried through. The desert has taken its toll, but in doing so has left a legacy of living art in the form of sand filled rooms, broken doors and window frames, rusted iron rails, pipes and roof sheets, slatted ceiling remains and jutting walls ……………. but most of all, if you stand quietly with your eyes closed - and on your own - amidst the ruins of a house, the school or the hospital, you will hear the sounds and whispers of the people who once inhabited this place ………. be they ghosts or simply memories left behind to inhabit a space where once they lived, their murmur is as tangible as the cloying heat and stinging sand – as definite and as inescapable.
After a delightful and informed morning we visited Luderitz for lunch. What a beautiful little town! I understand that we were fortunate the wind was not blowing, but on the surface of things it appears to be an ideal resort for a short sojourn, offering a wide variety of restaurants and places to stay, as well as a quite magnificently positioned campsite out on the point.

More about this trip and others can be seen at http://www.gearup4x4.co.za/

Saturday, June 20, 2009

THREE IN ONE (Part one of a ten day sojourn to the Richtersveld, Sossusvlei and Kolmanskop)

Saturday 3rd January 2009 was my wife’s birthday, and that night we camped at Sendelingsdrift after a leisurely drive up from Springbok where we had overnighted in a really nice little campsite on the outskirts of town opposite the race track. The owner had warned us that his pub tended to get busy quite late ……. not a problem – I mean, just how late would a pub in Springbok get going anyway? Very late. The noise woke us for the first time around 1.30am – then again around 3.00am – and for the last time at around 4.00am as the last cars left. We were glad they enjoyed themselves.
The drive up to Sendelingsdrift was a fairly leisurely one, having taken the first major dirt road turn North off the R382 between Steinkopf and Port Nolloth towards Eksteenfontein. The Richtersveld actually begins when you leave the tar and stretches from the N7 in the East to the coast in the West, and from the R382 in the South to the Orange River in the North. Eksteenfontein is one of the four villages that can be found in this area and is inhabited mainly by Bosluisbasters – descendents of European families who settled in the area in the early part of the 20th Century and who were deposited in Eksteenfontein and Lekkersing after being evicted from Crown lands in Bushmanland. From there the drive north to Kuboes wends through some really beautiful countryside until the village can be spotted set right at the feet of the mountains that make up the South-Western border of the lAi-lAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Kuboes is the oldest village of all the communities in the Richtersveld, and the most attractive. The ancient Nama culture still prevails here. The missionary centre in the town is reminiscent of something out of an old Mexican western movie, with only Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, some horses and a few Senoritas missing to complete the illusion. From Kuboes one has to backtrack a few kilometers in order to get back on track to the next stop of any consequence which is the main entrance to the park at Sendelingsdrift.

Here as mentioned, we camped, and the occasion being what it was dinner consisted of skottel fried piri-piri Tiger prawns in loads of lemon-butter and garlic, Basmati rice, and a very well chilled bottle of Pongracz. Who says that camping cuisine isn’t up to the same standard found in the more upmarket lodges?
We had to make a decision ….. to remain in the Richtersveld for a few days and head up to Sossusvlei later, or take advantage of the fact that we were already at the border crossing and return here later. It was a ‘no-brainer’, and the next morning started with a relaxed breakfast before trundling down to the new pont across the Orange River which constitutes the most recent South African/Namibian border crossing. The pont is a welcome replacement for the old one which was last in service in 1988 and was wrecked in floods just prior to Namibia’s independence, and with the re-opening of this border post whole sets of new travel opportunities become available – such as being able to do a quick hop, skip and jump up to Sossusvlei as part of a combined trip to the Richtersveld. Prior to the pont’s reinstatement this would have required a 1000km detour and at least two extra days.
Crossing the river on the pont – while entirely benign – is an experience in itself, one which provides a quiet little tinge of satisfaction at simply having done it; after all, in the bigger scheme of things not a hell of a lot of people actually choose to cross the Orange at Sendelingsdrift………….and the river itself, wherever one happens to come across it, is always beautiful. In addition, the personnel on both sides were pleasant, friendly – and most importantly – efficient.
Immediately upon entering Namibia something happens to the space that surrounds one …………. the sky immediately becomes somehow much bigger – and also much bluer, particularly as one approaches the desert. The landscape too is never boring or repetitive – offering a seemingly never-ending series of (always) stunning vistas, irrespective of the nature of the countryside through which you might be traveling, be it savannah, desert, mountains or weird and wonderful rocky outcrops. In January of 2009 we were particularly lucky to move through a variety of landscapes which had all experienced an obviously good period of rainfall. There was grass everywhere, framing mountains and sand dunes, heaps of rock and riverbeds which often still showed signs of damp, and in some cases even a little water here and there.
Traveling through the NamibRand, which is Southern Africa’s largest privately owned conservancy, we were lucky enough to see small herds of Springbok, Gemsbok, Zebra and Ostrich – all in magnificent condition – all set off by endless expanses of grass - and it crossed my mind that were conditions to always be so favourable we would instead probably be seeing vast herds of grazing cattle being bred for the meat markets of Europe and elsewhere ……………. in many ways we should be grateful for the desert - and the droughts!

Suddenly, alighting over a rise, one’s senses are assaulted by the quite surreal vision of a high band of “pink” stretching across the limits of the Northwest – from dark mountain to dark mountain – a mistake surely in an otherwise perfect watercolour! Then as the kilometers disappear in graveled perspective the wall of pink gradually changes hue and deepens - deepens to a rich red ochre – the colour of the Namib Desert sand, which, as it darkens seems also to take with it the blue of the sky until the two become inexorably linked in shades so rich and complimentary that they etch themselves forever in the gallery of one’s senses.
To reach Sossusvlei you have to go through Sesriem. There is no other way. While Sesriem appears on the map as a town or village, it is in fact a Namibian Parks establishment offering accommodation and camping at rates, which for South Africans, are pretty high. Considering that the Namibian economy appears to ‘piggy-back’ almost entirely on the back of South Africa’s – right down to their banks, shops, supermarkets and boutiques of various kinds – and that the South African Rand is legal tender in Namibia with the same value as the Namibian dollar, it is somewhat sad that South Africans are obliged to pay the same rates as tourists from Europe, USA and the Middle and Far East, the strength of all of whose currencies against the Rand and the Namibian dollar make holidaying in Namibia “fairly” reasonable for them, but close to out of reach for the rest of us from the southern tip of Africa.
The nearest alternative campsite to Sesriem is 42 kilometres away, and the powers that be have organized things in such away that only those camping or staying within their confines are allowed through the gate to Sossusvlei one hour before sunrise. People coming from outside are only permitted entry an hour later, which means that with 65 kilometres still to go to the vlei they have absolutely no chance whatsoever of being there for one of life’s “must do” things: watching the continuously changing palette of colours and contours that the dunes present during those first few precious minutes after the sun explodes in the east.
On very rare occasions, during exceptional rainy seasons, the Tsauchab River might flow as far as Sossusvlei ……… but once there it is prevented from going any further by a sea of sand which stretches some 60 kilometres or so to the coast. Strictly speaking the word Sossusvlei applies only to the hard circular pan where the Tsauchab is finally forced to stop flowing, but in more recent years the entire plain of the Tsauchab River together with the giant red dunes which rise to the south and west of the river plain have become known by this name.

One needs a 4 x 4 to tackle the last 5km sandy stretch to the vlei itself, before making an exhausting dash up the ridge of what must be the most photographed dune in the world in an effort to summit before sunrise. It is worthwhile – very worthwhile: there must be very few places on the planet within reach of the ordinary man able to offer an experience quite akin to this. The overwhelming sense of space, of shapes, of sand, and of colour – all working together in an assault on the senses – is quite stupefying.

Eventually the heat encourages one off the dune and new realizations enjoin closer attention: gnarled Camelthorn trees lend witness to their amazing ability to survive – grasses collect in packaged shades of existence along the leeward edges of bone dry dunes – small tufts of things that should have been dead long ago everywhere sprout tiny green shoots in affirmation of life – and there amidst billions and billions of grains of sand and nothing else beetles and lizards present themselves as a challenge to every preconception that nothing could possibly live here.

Back at the vehicle there is a buzz of Cape Sparrows (‘Mossies’ …….. dis ‘mos’ net ‘n voel!), around the old canvas water bag suspended from my front bumper: they have discovered the moisture bubbles forming on the corners, and in this “dryest” of all conceivable wildernesses, they have decided that this is quite considerably better than the second coming of Frank Sinatra and are having a party – which for the moment at least – had Sossusvlei very definitely at the ‘top of the heap’, well ahead of New York, Chicago and California.

A few hundred metres back towards Sesriem we found a Kameeldoring big enough to pull the truck under for some desperately needed shade and started the 1.5 kilometre hike across the dunes to Dead Pan. This pan once used to be a part of Sossusvlei, but in time found itself cut off from the flooding Tsauchab by (quite literally), the ‘sands of time’. Starved for water the trees all died, and in the absence of moisture of any kind in either the soil or the air, have dried to a dark hardness without ‘rot’, and remained standing where they once flourished. For how long? I don’t really know, but have read varying reports listing anything from a few hundred to around 4000 years ………… whichever, their skeletal starkness against the rich burnt sienna of the dunes, stunning blue of the sky and dry bone colour of the pan with here and there footprints trapped in the rock hard mud of time, puts this pan right up there with heaven as a ‘gotta visit’ place.

A late bacon and eggs with some bitterly cold juice after returning back to the truck wrapped up a very memorable morning, and the slow drive back to Sesriem between two endless mountains of ochre dunes which we had been unaware of in the dark of the early morning on our way out provided the perfect space in time to reflect on where we had been and what we had seen …………. and just how very lucky we are to have had this opportunity.
More about this trip and others can be seen at http://www.gearup4x4.co.za/