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Home > Libre expression > Carnets de voyage > Afrique du sud - Été-automne 2015 > South Africa travel diary, season 2, chapter 3: “Diamond’s misery, desert’s (...)

South Africa travel diary, season 2, chapter 3: “Diamond’s misery, desert’s silence”

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Sunday 13th of September

In the middle of the night, we woke up hot and sweaty, surprised that such a small electrical radiator managed to heat up such a large house, so poorly insulated with single glazing and door and window frames with an almost big enough space to insert your fingers through. As we open the window, a warm wind penetrates the room, as hot as the sirocco from the Sahara. In the morning, when we get up, the temperature has increased by 20°C during the night, with continuous gales, not cold ones from the ocean, but instead a hot wind from the desert. At 8 o’clock in the morning, we register 32°C.

We leave Port Nolloth by the dirt track towards Alexander Bay, the last coastal town before Namibia, in the direction of the Richtersveld, where we intend to spend a few days in the desert. This time it feels as if we were in the middle of a white sand storm in the Sahara. The sky seems to be enlightened by a pallid milky moon. It is a wonder how birds, mostly rooks nesting on telegraph poles survive in such conditions and manage to feed their little ones. All along this stretching straight road more evidence of closed mines. All the sites are wired up with warnings and threats against anyone who would dare penetrate inside, all diamonds being of course the property of…De Beers.

De Port Nolloth à Alexander Bay

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We have no intention of spending time in Alexander Bay but we do have to fill the tank up. The road leading to the petrol station is lined up with dying palm trees. And the weather is not helping the situation, creating an apocalyptic vision for us. After the station, the road is closed by a check-point as in Kleinsee. An enormous red ribbon made of concrete, looking a little obscene, probably paid for by de Beers signals the entry to the town as a commemoration to AIDS’ victims. The woman employee serving us is not particularly friendly, but given her working conditions, from a minute corrugated iron cabin smelling of oil and petrol, we can only be sympathetic.

Alexander Bay

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Not intending to breathe any more sand than necessary, we hurry up back to the car and set off. In this region, tracks are wide enough to allow for the passage of mining lorries. The road follows the Orange River (also known as Oranjerivier in Afrikaans, but also Gariep River or Groote River). It is the longest river of South Africa, its spring flowing from Lesotho,a small landlocked country in the middle of the country, before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The Orange River played the role of a natural border between Namibia and South Africa. In this dust bowl, it brings up a little coolness and greenery. Along its river banks farmers use water irrigation for some crops.

Le long de la rivière Orange

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The landscape unrolls itself with sand dunes and large mining dunes. Some workers in blue overalls can be seen trying to hitch a lift to work or go home. Some farmers have opened a B&B, a little incongruous in this isolated and not very hospitable area. We can see a herd of Gemsboks grazing peacefully. The track gets deeper into the desert, the wind cools down, the sun starts shining through now. It is not easy to find our way. The GPS does not seem to very sure where it is leading us to and we might drive several dozen kilometers without any signpost. And mines and more mines here and there, some in activity, most looking derelict.

Les mines

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After a while, we enter a nameless village. By scrutinizing GoogleMaps later on, we will discover its name to be Kuboes. In the middle of this barren land, one could describe it as an oasis. But what dominates here is a feeling of poverty. It is Sunday morning, lots of people are visibly coming back from mass, most of them dressed in T-shirts. A father or clergyman, all dressed up in black garments looking a little like Fernandel in the film Don Camillo, strolls about the dusty alleyways of the shantytown, despite the fact that the car indicates an outside temperature of 36°C, perhaps looking for his flock astray. Anyhow, there are lots of people about, mostly children or adolescents staring at our car, wondering what on earth we were fucking doing in this pit, turning around these dilapidated shacks.

Kuboes

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In the end, guided by a demented GPS, after going round circles, we end up in another « village », on a private road owned by the local mine. It is getting very hot and we are beginning to crave for fresh drinks and above all find the right direction. Fortunately we notice a little bit of animation around a windowless grocery store towards which a young white woman is heading for with her two kids, and two little dogs as if she were about to shop in a european capital’s supermarket.

She doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to go to Sendelingsdrif. Clearly she has never been there, and yet it is one of the rare place with a petrol station, the border crossing point with Namibia as well as being the entry point of the National Park. We make the deduction that she must be a member of the supervising personnel of the mine and little interested by tourist activities in such an inhospitable corner of the country. Fortunately a good-natured chubby looking man hurtles down the car park with an enormous 4x4 and saves the lady further embarrassment. Looking at the enormous bunch of keys he is carrying, one guesses he must be the owner of the shop. Afrikaner, he can only speak English very approximately, but using very complicated body language signs, enough to make an Italian jealous, where hands go up and down and then swirl around, punctuated his speech by the words « left » and « right », he explains how to reach the park. As a matter of fact we have to retrace our steps and above all, take a turn at a half-obliterated post, the one that will finally take us on the right track.

This is now a very sandy road that is forcing us to drive slowly as we have to watch for pot holes, isolated stones and avoid stirring up too much dust on the way or when we pass (rarely) other vehicles. On both sides of the track, the rocky mountains look more and more aggressive. Everywhere, panels advise us that the area will be rehabilitated in the future although these seem to be years old. Even more cheeky, we notice posts with these lovely words: « Mining area. we love and care for our environment. Do you? » Coming from companies that have destroyed landscapes for miles around, it is a bit much to take…

Entrée dans le parc du Richtersveld

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At the first gate of entry to the park, William, a friendly man comes to greet us, check our reservation, passports, etc. Past this first gate we resume driving on a less and less easy road until we reach the official entry to the park which benefits from sumptuous modern buildings with conference room, restaurant, dining-room, etc., seemingly deserted and devoid of any visible activity of any sort. The imposing several meters long reception is managed by a young black woman who seem totally overwhelmed with stress while we appear to be the only clients on sight. One can see through the window, of a nearby office, an employee half asleep on his computer’s keyboard.

The receptionist does not seem to be aware of the bookings we made with SANParks in Pretoria and the official pompous information about the facilities we would find here seen on their website do not correspond at all to reality: no cafe or restaurant for instance. The worst thing is that nobody has told us that the card machine is not operational, the telephone out of order, that there is no internet or mobile phone. The choice we are being given is either pay cash or spend the night here, in the hope that the card machine might work in the morning. The SANParks (South Africa National Parks) bureaucratie will never stop surprising us. We had booked for our accommodation by phone and had paid the entire fee in advance with a credit card. However an entry fee to the Park was required and that could not be done at the same time, we had to pay at the park’s entry. Although we had already paid for our four nights’ accommodation, this young woman wanted to stop us getting access to the park because her card machine was out of order. She looked very surprised we refused to stop at the gate till morning. Also there is a nearby mine still in activity and we did not think the sound of lorries and excavators was very romantic. Fortunately we had anticipated this kind of problem, often recurrent in South Africa and so were able to obey with a sufficient amount of cash money.

On the other hand, we were told they did not have maps or information about the park for hikes, other than booking for four days’ long treks in advance and for which a hefty supplement would have to be added. « And in any case, we would be very lucky to see even the smallest animal in this park as there was nothing, absolutely nothing to see in it » ; moreover we were « too early (despite the fact that it was already 1 p.m. and we had another 40 km to drive on a rutted track before night fall) to go the camp and that our room would not be ready ». So we could either wait for the guard (how long for she did not know) or go by ourselves. Exasperated with this welcome introduction, a classic with SANParks, and not being able to have any kind of food or even a coffee here, we decide to go ahead for our destination, Ganakouriep Wilderness Camp, with the help of a small sketchy map given by the receptionist but where at least is indicated tracks too dangerous to take not to get stuck in the sand. On this map and in situ, only the main track intersections are numbered, the tracks themselves are not. As it’s often the case different tracks can lead to the same place, one might go from « 15 » to « 17 » for instance not really knowing for sure it’s the way one has decided to take. And as if that wasn’t enough; there are errors, for instance, with n° 15 on the map, being signposted as n°17 on the ground, to be more precise, and therefore it’s a struggle.

Carte du parc du Richtersveld

After a good two hours of poorly signposted chaotic tracks, littered with rocks that make the car swirl left to right than right to left, or plunge forward, at last we reach our smartish looking camp, half stone built, half canvassed and reasonably well equipped: cold water, toilet, bedroom; kitchen with a small fridge and camping gas stove, not forgetting the outside barbecue facilities. Out of the car, the heat is overwhelming and Marc finds it hard to get used to it.

Ganakouriep wilderness camp

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When we arrive, two guards have already arrived and prepared our lodge except they have a problem with the mechanism for flushing the toilet which will be summarily repaired with a looped wire. And yes it is a promise, it will be repaired tomorrow, promise we don’t really believe. And rightly so!

But.who cares? And so we start unpacking with the same ritual, only unfolding what will be necessary for the next two days. For two people, the place is rather spacious, even though basic, with nets against mosquitos only on one side, which doesn’t allow draughts and crockery reduced to a strict minimum (2 forks, 2 knives, 2 plates etc…). But we are not here to cook cordon-bleu food and we feel it is perfect as it is.

As we have some time left before nightfall, we decide to sit at the terrasse with a cup of Rooibos tea. François proceeds to look at various maps in order to decide what we could do tomorrow while I start getting busy with the barbecue. It must already be around five or six o’clock in the afternoon, but if the sky appears to be overcast, a kind of yellowish blue, it is not so much because we are approaching night time but more due to a temperature above 30°C and a dusty and sandy atmosphere.

Because of the wind continuously blowing smoke towards us, we were unable to eat outside, especially as myriads of insects twirled above our heads around the sole outside lamp we had. We came out again after our meal for a quarter of an hour as it felt relatively cooler and listen to the silence of the desert. These camps such as the one we staid at, extremely isolated are supposed to be permanently supervised by a guard able to communicate by radio with the reception of the camp in case of a problem. As a matter of fact, both guards had left, leaving us all alone as the other lodges were empty. Indeed, we were all alone in this place, without telephone, without the web, without connection of any sort with the so-called civilised world, lit by a dim light.

Listening to the silence in the middle of the desert is a strange experience at night, as of course one can hear some noises, but these are unfamiliar, they don’t ressemble anything we know of in our own european countryside in summer, like the sound of crickets or the hooting of owls for instance. As a result a mere rustling can set off our imagination: could it be a scorpion, a snake, a cheetah about to jump on us? As if all these animals had nothing better to do! Far away we can hear some animal squawking…

It is now 9.30 p.m., we get into bed, watching carefully where we set afoot. The light coming off from the bedside lamps are so weak anyway that it is impossible to read. Let’s hope that the temperature will drop during the night…

Monday 14th of September

As a matter of fact, the stifling heat has continued all night till 4 in the morning and we did not sleep particularly well. For joints, hot spells are just as bad as cold and humidity. As a result, Marc starts tossing around, ruminating, mulling over, getting anxious between short moments of slumber and wonder how he is going to cope in this oven.

As a consequence, we take the decision to rise early, as it is still pitch-dark in order to take advantage of the relative morning coolness and go on a hike just as the moon gives way to the sun. And so, it is not yet 8 a.m. that we set off. Unfortunately, the hiking maps we were given yesterday by the young girl prove themselves of little use, unreadable, often inaccurate, the size of a packet of cigarettes. Having turned in circles with the car for 20 minutes in order to find the starting point, we decide to give up and rather than getting irritated and not walk at all, we decide to follow the car track as doing that at least we are sure not to get lost.

Walking on that kind of track is like walking on a widish path, nothing to do with walking on a road.The trail is relatively flat and in any case there are no 4x4 to get annoyed by. What we can see is something we don’t recall having seen anywhere else, an almost exclusively mineral landscape, with a color range completely different to the one seen on Pyrenean peaks, or the mountain needles of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Here we can see an extraordinary palette of brown, beige, ocre, burnt sienna, dominating but here and there these colours are enhanced by smaller shining stones in white or silver, sometimes a very dark shade of black, with sparkling bluish or pinkish markings like granit. Streaks of khaki colours on the mountain slopes create the illusion that it is clouds shading the mountain. But in fact these are rocks of a different nature.This a wonderful sight for a watercolourist or a photographer or someone passionate about stones and minerals.

Balade matinale autour de Ganakouriep

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As the sky is still veiled by clouds of sand dust, we are relatively protected from a full rise in temperature but after one hour’s walk, the reflexion of the sun rays on the mountain sides exposed to the light begin to have some effect. Once more, we notice the magnitude of the silence, only broken by the sound of our shoes, rasping on the gravel. Few insects are to be seen or heard, a few rare butterflies, flutter on meagre shrubs, with minute leaves in order to minimise water evaporation, some green, some blossoming, where one senses rivulets running through troughs and small valleys at some other periods of the year, between January and April generally, in other words the second half of the austral summer, sometimes never.

The Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfontier Park is a national park shared between South Africa and Namibia gathering together two former national parks, the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa and Ai-Ais park in Namibia. It is a vast mountain wilderness, jointly managed by the Namas and SANParks (South African National Parks), harboring the largest collection of succulent plants in the world and due to its volcanic origins some 1,000 millions years ago, the Richersveld benefits of a particularly rich geological formation, having lived through multiple transformations during its very long history, well before the constitution of continents. it stretches over 6,000 km2.

Round about 11 a.m., as the sun rays start to heat up the skin, we retrace our steps towards the car, making sure we follow the same trail as here and there other tracks just as engaging, attract our attention like a magnet. We need to be careful of mirages, from one summit to another, we could easily get lost, so much landforms, vegetation and colours are unfamiliar to us. In fact the park lacks experimented guides to accompany hikers, who either get discouraged, or are too shy or badly equipped to go on their hikes by themselves.

One needs several maps to be able to decipher paths, know to use the sun and a compass. As a result most tourists that venture into the park, 4x4 guided visits, that have to be booked well in advance, are costly, often uncomfortably squashed with other people and not necessarily very informative. Already last year, although we had very much enjoyed guided visits on foot, those organized with 4X4 had disappointed us for the reasons mentioned above.

Des ânes et des chevaux autour de Ganakouriep

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Having retrieved our car without mishap and given the fact that it is still early for lunch, instead of going back the same way, we decide on an alternative track. Very lucky, as we had while on foot noticed animal dung belonging to ruminants without doubt, we can see very far away a line of big ears looking at us with curiosity. Approaching very slowly, we have been able to take some startling photographs of a herd of donkeys in the desert! In fact, there are about fifteen donkeys, strongly resembling our donkeys in the Pyrenees, with a very dark brown coat, some with the extremity of their muzzle white coloured, and four white horses. Donkeys and horses have returned to a wild life and herds have adapted to this very arid environment. Today there would be 150 donkeys which is beginning to create problems for wild animals and farmers, fodder ressources being very scarce here. As we proceed on our way, we notice in this relatively more sandy and cool area some flowering bushes, some of them of a bright pink colour.

Back at the camp, it is now time to take and rapid lunch of chopped salads. We realise we have some logistics problem as we did not fill up before entering the park. Distances seem to be short, about 40 km between camps, but when one has to drive on first or second gear all the time, petrol consumption is rocketing, and we won’t have enough petrol for the duration of our stay here. As a result, François who does not suffer from back-ache, sacrifies himself for a return journey to the park entrance which nevertheless represents a four hours’ drive (no need to say before nightfall as it is dangerous and forbidden to drive at night). As for Marc, his afternoon will consist in writing postcards, doze on the bed sweating with the heat, drink water, read tourists guides, watch for the time and the sun, watch out for François’ return, getting worried: car breakdown, losing the right direction, tyre puncture, all the nice things one can imagine, neither of them being able to communicate by telephone. All this without thinking about what one used to do before mobile phones: drink water, use sun protection, rest until morning, wait for rescue services which would eventually arrive the next day…in other words use some common sense. In any case we need petrol in order to be able to stay in the park for the next three nights, we have no choice, let us live as South African do, without further stress.

Leaving Ganakouriep, there are two possible routes that one can take. I make the decision to take the trail that goes in a south-west direction. The first part of the route is relatively flat and runs at the bottom of valleys. Then it goes up sharply in order to reach Akkedis pass. Turnings and bends are very tight, gradient highland stones very big, my Limo does not like it very much. Plus the fact that there is some traffic at this time when newly arrived guests go back to their camps. These new people seem to all have enormous 4x4, customised to their needs, with bigger wheels and higher suspensions complete with huge water containers, jerrycans of petrol, 2 spare wheels, and often enough a 4x4 trailer caravan with two enormous wheels. But everybody is very friendly, when they see a small 4x4 like mine, they stop and let me pass.

Paysages et piste du Richtersveld

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The Akkedis pass is in fact a succession of extremely craggy passes. The sight changes at every bend. At long last, I reach Sendenlingsdrif. At reception it is a new employee. Much as yesterday’s young woman was grumpy and stressed, much as this one is good tempered and willing to help. As predictable, there is still no communication with the outside world. Just as well we did not stay there waiting for their card machine to function! But unlike her colleague, this situation doesn’t seem to perturb her. « It is only a question of waiting, one day it will work again… » I thought of mailing some politicians we know, well it will have to wait a little. Then the lady comes up with a several pages long guidebook, a much more detailed description than the pitiful card we were given the day before and half the price. And finally she tells me how to get served at the petrol station, using the hoot! And true enough, after waiting for a few minutes, a guard comes to the pumps, both padlocked so to avoid thefts.

Des pierres et des rochers…

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And there we go on my way back. The Kuba’s onboard computer is clearly disturbed, as when I started this morning it told me that I had 550 km of autonomy, now taking into account the driving conditions, it tells me I have only 300km of autonomy. We’ll have to make do…

God's hand

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Now that I have accomplished all I had imperatively do, I can take more time and stop and take some photographs. First of all I make a slight detour to see « God’s hand », in fact a big rock on which a look-alike hand seem to have be engraved. I am flabbergasted by the variety of plants. My eye is drawn to a bush looking like a japanese quince with its coral-coloured blossom. I also realize that some shrubs which look dried up, in fact carry diminutive yellow flowers at the branches extremities. Pink coloured succulents are adorned by some sort of finely cut white daisies. Of course Aloe pillansi (Bastard quiver tree) or aloe trees abound. But it is the same for Butter Trees (Tylecodon paniculatus), an arborescent succulent that can reach up to two meters.

Plantes du Richtersveld

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I even managed to take the wrong turning before I realise two or three kilometers later, as there are many intersections without indication, and maps are not accurate enough to be of great use. Often enough, one has to follow a track just to see if it is going into the right direction or not.

Un Grey rhebok

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At long last, round about 6 o’clock, whereas the sun had started going down and the temperature had as a miracle, dropped all over sudden by a good ten degrees centigrade, one can hear the noise of a car, the lights on, by another miracle, François is back, exhausted but pleased he had the opportunity to explore new roads and different landscapes for a whole load of beautiful pics.

Having eaten and drunk a little South African wine no stronger than 5.5 degrees as pleasant as a grape juice, planned tomorrow’s day, we regain our bedroom, tonight anticipating a better sleep given the drop in temperature.

Tuesday 15th of September

We get up very early this morning, even before sunrise to celebrate our 12th day in South Africa, having left behind our daily routine from Gers. And it is very pleasant.

Following a rapid breakfast, we leave for a warming up morning hike at 7:30 as we have to leave Ganakouriep by 10:00 am and take the car again to go to Tatasberg Wild Camp, our second booking in the park.

At this time, light is very special, almost artificial, on a sky where one can see mountain ridges emerging.opposite. In shape this morning after a good night’s rest, ready to go, we take the path starting at the back of our camp where we notice a guard must have arrived last night.

Seconde balade matinale autour de Ganakouriep

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We walk straight ahead of us, not departing too much either on the right or the left in order not to go astray, taking care of landmarks like mountain shapes, an isolated aloe, a scree of white stones, etc. As the sun has only just risen, it is still a bit chilly and there is a rather pleasant breeze.

Everything is silent this morning apart from some very rare birds we can hear but not see. And yet it must be busy as we can see a number of animals’ droppings of various shapes and sizes, but these animals are probably more active during the night than during the day.

Dotted on the sandy track, we also notice numerous holes of different sizes, signaling the presence of small rodents or insects and while we had stopped for a rest, taking care not to make any movement and holding our breath, we are lucky to witness a nice morning out by a scorpion, about six or seven centimeters long, in a pretty pinky-beige camouflage colour, exactly the same shade as the sand, with a big abdomen; but it goes back into its hole almost immediately, sensing our presence.

Scorpion rose ?

Unfortunately, despite keeping our eyes wide open on our steps, and the important number of holes in the sand, we won’t be lucky to see anything else. It would seem that these animals or insects can sense the slightest vibration on the ground as we walk along and chose to remain inside their shelter. Most probably they find more risky to come out during the day than at night. Although… we don’t really know, at night there may also be more predators they have to watch for?

Back at our base of Gannakouriep, at 9:45, we pack our luggage into the car preparing for our next very promising destination, the Tatasberg Wild Camp, by the Orange River, not forgetting to hand over our keys to the guard.

As we have plenty of time, we opt for the long route, instead of going up north directly towards Tatasberg, we veer off towards the east to have a look at Kokerboomkloof with its renowned spectacular rock formations. Not long after we left, a tree draws our attention, or more precisely the « mistletoe ball » attached to a branch. Of course this not mistletoe but a plant that seems to have adopted the same parasitic strategy, the long roots of the tree providing the sap for it.

Du "gui"

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Suddenly, at the bottom of some pinkish rocks’ scree, something has moved, these are four Pelea capreolus, Grey reeboks in English. They are incredibly agile and bounce and leap about from one rock to another as if it was a game. By the time we take a few photographs they have disappeared behind the other side of the mountain.

4 Grey rheboks bondissent sur les rochers

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The dirt track is long and cahotic. Even though the distance between our camp and the next one is not that great, we can only progress very slowly, at best 30 km an hour, 10 km an hour most of the time. In the Richtersveld, there are three types of tracks: sandy but compacted sections, on which most of the time it is possible to drive relatively fast, in exchange of incessant vibrations and a lot of concentration as holes and bumps are difficult to see in this light; tracks that aren’t really tracks, giving the impression of driving through rocky scree, where one can only progress on first gear and it is often necessary to get out of the car to weight out the best way forward especially as the ground clearance under the car is not huge; and finally tracks of shifting sands, and the Kuga does not like that at all, its automatic box ill-adapted for it.

Now the sun is blazing at the bottom of a vast dried up valley, and the sand is getting less and less compact. It is infuriating and stressing, as there is plenty of room, there are also numerous different tracks. These cross and cut across each others following previous day’s vehicles going through, looking for the safest passage or just taking fun at riding outside the track. Self-evidently, as it never rains, only the wind can rub away all these extra paths. The new maps that François had finally picked up on his second visit to the park’s entrance, prove to be relatively better, the photo of the park by satellite in particular, though it does not cover it in its entirety! However it is wiser nevertheless, to also use the mobile’s compass especially as the rare signposts are sometimes inaccurate! Besides one has to be extra careful as some tracks are no longer open because of shifting sands.

Vue sur la rivière Orange et Aussenkehr

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In the end, we end up at a place where entry is forbidden because it is a mining zone. Far away, we can see some green, and no it is not a mirage, it is the Orange River, the small Namibian town of Aussenkehr and its irrigated crops. The only visible sign-post sends us back to where we come from. The map indicates we should take a hair-pin on our left. We can only see tracks in parallel to ours, in the end we try for the one which is on our left and after a few hundred meters, it diverges in order to go back up another valley of sand. Our guide-book was right, the rock formations are gigantic with very special shapes, erosion having spared enormous rocks on the ridges. These are unforgettable sceneries where life is sparse, though a few aloes seem to like being here. Apparently they blossom with fiery-red flowers in the middle of the summer, a sight difficult to miss.

Autour de Kokerboomkloof

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We have now reached Kokerboomkloof and we opt for a break to nibble at some lunch and drink some water. This place, meant for campers, is completely empty but there is water to refresh our faces and it is nice to be able to do so. On the menu: irradiated tomatoes, fruit and cheese with some bread. On the shelter’s door, a written notice remind ing us to keep cars’ doors locked because of pilfering baboons and above all not leaving behind any garbage for the same reasons. We won’t see any baboons here but we just had enough time to catch the sight of two squirrels stealthily running behind the shelter but not lingering enough, waiting for us to take a photograph.

After our little break, we retrace our steps on the same track as that was a detour specifically made to see this majestic rock formations, before driving on the track leading us to the Tatasberg camp on the edge of the Orange River. After a while, we stop to admire the sight of a vast lowland that seen from the sky on the satellite map, ressembles a dried up delta.

De Kokerboomkloof à Tatasberg

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The dirt track is becoming more and more chaotic and its route more and more risky. François who is in charge manages rather well but one has to be vigilant when deciding between the pot-hole on the left and the heap of stones on the right or the flow of sand further along, as we have made some enquiries, in case of a snag we have to contact a number in Port Nolloth or at Springbok (providing the telephone works) in order to towed back! A little grey spot seem to be moving on a rock. Of course we have the wrong lens on the camera so we will have to make do with the compact one. It is a rock squirrel, with a grey-brown coat, with a superb tail, grey on one side and silver on the other. As we have got nearer withe car, it has flattened itself on a rock and has stopped moving. Our impression is that we are actually driving in a dried up mountain river bed. We would most probably go as fast on foot.

Écureuil des rochers

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At long last, the track widens itself, it becomes sandy, we can now see some green, and here we are driving alongside the Orange River. We use the track on the left bank, in the sand. Tracks go in different ways, difficult to say when making a choice, which is the least dangerous. On several occasions we narrowly miss sinking in the sand. Coming closer, we can distinguish, far away, some shelters and after some further epic navigation, hesitating between the sandy track along the river and the scree on the right, we arrive at long last to a camp comprising five or six huts on stilts. The guard who is here grinning in a friendly way does not seem to be aware of us coming today. This fact doesn’t seem to disturb him all that much, communications being very erratic with the park managers, not even mentioning the head office in Pretoria. So having looked summarily at our papers, he advises us to take the number 2 hut, pointing out the fact that water was not drinkable as it came from the river (we had guessed) and he could not be held responsible if there was no hot water, as it came from solar panels which he did not understand. Same with electricity. This being said in such friendly way and with such a big smile, in the middle of such a beautiful environment, we were not going to complain if we had problems and certainly not to him. And to conclude, we had the usual recommendations about dangerous and pilfering baboons, able to unlock doors and car doors when we are away.

Tatasberg wilderness camp

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We have been given a cottage, built on wooden stilt with a terrace with a view over the river, it is hot but in the shade, with draughts, it is quite bearable; The place is really magnificent. Just settled in, François decides to go for a little hike towards the Tatasberg mountain, where the track is well marked out but the sun is still blazing and I don’t have the guts to follow him and plump for a nap and writing a few notes for the travel diary.

Carte du monde à l’envers

This is François’s tale when he comes back:
The track climbs up towards a southern direction in the Tatas river valley. As usual, there’s not a drop of water on sight. The track meanders on the sandy path. Wearing sandals is nice but of course you get plenty of sand between your toes. Oddly enough it is often better to walk outside the track as the sand is more compacted. The valley rambles along between rocky slopes. A little head appears at the top of the ridge, it is a Grey Rhebok watching over. In this environment, it reminds me of indians watching cowboys in western films. As soon it realises he has been seen, it disappears. The sun is beginning to go down. Although it rises to the East and falls to the West, its trajectory looks quite different, on a more vertical course, because we are very near the tropic of Capricorn, therefore, a lot closer to the equator than in Europe.

Courte balade dans la rivière Tatas

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Round about 6 p.m., François is back, exhausted but beaming with content and… a little famished. As a result we proceed to start the barbecue, here more sophisticated with grill and frying pan options. On the menu: pre-cut lamb bought a few days ago at the Super Spar, rather tough with a lot of rind and bones but well… after today’s efforts, the beauty of the scenery, the fry-up of courgettes, onions, peppers, washed down with Cape wine, it is a real treat. Some fireflies attracted by the light bulb, swirl around above the table and sometimes drop on our plates.

The temperature has plummeted down and we have had to put on fleece jackets to contemplate the sunset over the Orange River with Namibia opposite. And as it is often the case during these privileged moments, we start fantasizing again about coming to live in South Africa…

Coucher de soleil sur la Namibie

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Tonight, we will stay under the quilt, draughts are numerous between the screening of reeds and the ill-fitting windows… Tomorrow, Orange River, here we are!

Wednesday 16th of September

Last night it was almost cold. Woken up at the blue hour, a moment with the reputation to be the best time to smell the scent of flowers and listen to the first birds’ songs, we swallow up a quick cup of Rooibos tea and leave while it is still cool walking along the river banks between sand and rocks, without bothering taking our walking sticks as the ground will be rather flat there. There is some greenery here, with bushes here and there, mostly spiny acacias while in the river we can guess, then hear, calls from nesting birds busy among the thick reeds. A bird-snake, African Anhiga (Anhiga ruff for latinists), as fine as a heron but black as cormoran with its white-streaked orange colour neck- it is therefore a male-, is busy getting drier on a rock. It gets its name from the fact that it swims just like a snake, only keeping his head off the water. A couple of ducks go up and down flying over the river. A bird of prey majestically surveys the scenery.
Anhinga d’Afrique

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And suddenly we can witness a scene from Ancient Greece: while the sky is of a beaming blue, sun rays start warming us up, flocks of birds get busy in the air and in the water, the warming sand on the path incites to take off our shoes for a while, bursting onto the scene is a herd of bleating goats, their coats of a pure white save for their heads and neck russet coloured, conducted by two shepherds drawing on a cigarette or most probably a joint, and a few dogs.

Deux bergers et leurs chêvres

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After the herd had gone, we realised that one of the goats with its kid had gone astray near the river, attracted by the fresh foliage of some thorny Acacia bush that were growing along there. We attempted to encourage them to return to the herd and it took a good ten minutes to make them leave the river bank and push them in the direction of the rest of the herd, now already quite far. You probably have read « La chèvre de Monsieur Seguin » by Alfonse Daudet in the Lettres de Mon Moulin, therefore you won’t be surprised, it is a very very stubborn animal!

Un petit chevreau qui n’en fait qu’à sa tête

Oiseaux survolant la rivière Orange

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Back on our path, walking up the river bank, we notice that all the bushes, acacias in particular have either been eaten at a hight of goat dressed on her back legs or been uprooted during winter floods, these must be quite violent as rocks and stones are literally hollowed by swirling water. Watching the water still rushing down with force in places is so beautiful and pleasant that we decide to sit down, to just sniff the atmosphere, look at the coming and going of birds in a never ending ballet, deep our feet in the icy water, once again valuing the fact that we are on our own in the landscape.

Le long de la rivière Orange

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Then we resume our walk between the acacias, more or less following the river flow, with sunburnt hills on our right. As we go along, one can’t avoid noticing more more signs of our « modern civilisation », bottles of coke, cans of soda of all sorts and various garbage heaps. That’s where we notice the rough camp belonging to our shepherds and the remnants of a fire still smouldering. We can evaluate the precarity of their lives; they don’t even have a tent, just an old mattress on a old springbed. Buckets, tools, clothes are left hanging on tree branches. All around the ground is literally covered by a carpet of goats’s droppings.

Campement des bergers

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As we approach 12 p.m. and as we don’t intend to follow the river up to Lesotho, we turn back the other way for a quick lunch as François wants to leave early to confront the Tatasberg this time up to the top. Lunching on the terrace is very pleasant especially as we take it being watched by a malicious mongoose, not particularly shy, thinking we may drop some crumbs…

Une mangouste

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Fully equipped with his walking sticks, camera, sun cream, water, some food to nibble at, etc., here he goes again his ears buzzing with cautioning advice and this is what he told me after his 16 km round trip under a blazing sun.

En montant vers le sommet du Tatasberg

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It is the same track followed the day before but this time right up the Tatas valley till the Tatas mountain. It is the hottest spot in South Africa, registering temperatures of more than 60 °C on the ground in summer. And even at the end of winter, it is beating down. The sun is not far away from being vertical, everything is mineral, rocks are boiling hot. At the start, you feel you are not going up, a hidden gradient… then the valley’s slopes increase more and more. I can see a disused shepherds’ wooden cabin, with all that remains is some palings and a paddock. Difficult to find words to describe the diversity of rocks, but this area is different from anything else we have seen so far. At the end, there is a big pile of rocks to scramble on in order to reach the top of the ridge. The panoramic view over the southern part of the park is dazzling. I can distinguishe, right at the bottom, the track we followed yesterday between Kokerboomkloof and the Tatasberg camp.

Vues du haut du Tatasberg

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A selfie, some dried mango for a reward and here we go again going back down.

François en haut du Tatasberg

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As usual, one can see different things on the way back. I am still surprised to see how plants have managed to adapt and get acclimatised to such extreme conditions.

En redescendant du Tatasberg

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In the evening we will settle for a frugal vegetarian meal as our provisions from the Super Spar have finally been exhausted, potato salad and vegetables. A Southern masked weaver is in observation perched on a tree. A Grey Tit-flycatcher now draws our attention, doing a show on one of the stakes of the terrace.

Tisserin à tête rousse et gobemouche-mésange

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On the Namibian side, it is mayhem, animals we can’t see, make a hell of a racket. It is very impressive, the noise feels the whole valley, for sure, they must be big animals and the don’t sound happy!

We know we will have to leave every early in the morning, cross over the park using the track that will take us, without too much trouble we hope, to an exit where we will be able to fill up the tank, in order to start the second part of our journey far away from here towards the Indian Ocean, on the Wild Coast, region we don’t know at all, where we are supposed to meet up with militants fighting to maintain their culture, fishermen fighting to be allowed to fish, tribes fighting pharaonic titanium mining projects on the coast. As we intend to stay there a rather long time, we will cross over the country from the West to the East, only stopping at night which nevertheless will still take us over three days much as distances are great and roads not always passable.

Thursday 17th of September

For these reasons, we are all set to leave at 8 a.m. this morning, for what feels like a big departure, almost regretful with the sensation this visit has not been complete, a feeling that we experience almost everywhere in South Africa whichever region we go through.

Big goodbyes to the guard to inform him we are leaving, greetings from him as one does here with a big smile and the positive gesture of keeping your fist shut with the thumb up which signifies here an all in one expression for « it works », « thank you », « take care », « safe journey » and many more like it…

Now is the time to concentrate so that going across the whole park does not take too long, without getting it all wrong with directions, being extra careful with the very difficult sections no doubt waiting for us, and find petrol as soon as we come out in order to take the road back to Springbok, as, by now you will have understood, in this region all the roads lead to Springbok.

We have no choice but to start off with the road we took on our way in; there is another track, along the Orange River but it is forbidden to use as the sand is too deep and most vehicles get stuck in it. On the way, as we progress very slowly, trying to avoid obstacles, or getting bogged down, there is a big temptation to stop again and again and take more photos of bushes or strange flowers or lizards lazying in the sun. As we were going downwards, we come across opposite, a cyclist on a mountain bike, going as fast as we do on this ground.

Quelques photos avant de quitter le parc du Richtersveld

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Above all, we are not going to leave the park without immortalising the half-men’s trees, these strange plants whose deciduous leaves are always turning towards a northern direction. This tree which is in reality a succulent plant growing above a stem can be seen in little groups or in isolation in the park and it can reach a hight of three meters.

According to legend, these trees are the ancestors of the Khoikhoi, a tribe pushed back to the south by bellicose northern populations. And whereas the Khoikhoi (called Hottentots by the colonisers) beat in retreat southwards, they turned their head back northwards with nostalgia in the direction of the land they had lost on the other side of the Senqu, in other words, the Orange River. It is at this moment that they were transformed into half-men staring in a northern direction for eternity. This legend is not without ring a bell about some versions of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Half men

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Still far away from the park’s exit, as we were climbing up through a difficult pass with glorious views over desertic mountains, a man appears making desperate signs for us to stop holding an empty jerrycan. His trousers ragged and looking haggard, he explains to us in very good English that he had not eaten or drunk for two days; that he had come to take over another shepherd and that his friend had not come to bring him some provisions as arranged and he did not want to leave his herd alone. We have no food left, but on the other hand, we’d bought several 5 liters cans of water at Port Nolloth and we had one unopened left. Very moved, we gave it to him. We had a couple of litres left which would well be sufficient for us as normally we would be out of the park at the beginning of the afternoon. What a pity we had no food left, that’s when we really understood how precarious life was for people trying to survive in these desertic lands.

At long last we are back for a new disappointing visit at the park’s reception. It takes several people to ask where to find the dustbin for our garbage, which is secured with wiring to protect it against pilfering monkeys. At the nearby petrol station, François now knows how to proceed, lots of hooting and finally a guard comes to unlock the pump and serve us. Fortunately we have a bottle of water left because, on the way to our next stop, of Eksteenfontein, at a distance of 145 km from Springbok, we won’t see any sign of a café or restaurant. There is indeed a superb restaurant room at the park’s reception, with a terrace and views over the Orange River and the ferry that links up South Africa to Namibia, but it is being used for storing things by employees of the park.

Bac sur la rivière Orange

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We are still surprised to see there are still mines in activity in a natural national park. But this a recent park, when it was created mining companies had permits that were still valid and one can imagine how unequal negotiations must have been between the people living there, the State and the mining companies… These are supposed to respect the environment and rehabilitate the sites as always, it is a big joke. The destructions caused by the mining activities are irretrievable, especially as we are talking about zones where extreme conditions prevail and where life is very fragile.

De Sendelingsdrif à Eksteenfontein

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We leave the Richtersveld park but continue in the Richtersveld region which covers a much larger area. After a few dozen kilometers in the sandy desert, the road gets near mountains and starts going up. This area is remarkably less inhospitable. Vegetation is scarce but well visible, these are mediterranean pastures as in the Karoo. Despite the fact that everything is dried up, several bushes, blossoming blue tell us about the presence of water rivulets. The track which followed the Holgat river becomes very rocky as we climb through a pass before going down towards Eksteenfontein.

The little town of Eksteenfontein now registered as World Heritage has had an uncommon history, but so typical of this country tormented by colonialism, forced displacement of populations, racism and apartheid.

Eksteenfontein

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Those that have ended up in this lost corner at the edge of the Richtersveld, cumulate in their history all the horrors that have left a stain on South African history. Most of the people living there, descend from the Baster (« bastard ») people, a hybrid population or mixed race in Afrikaans language, children of forced sexual acts between rich white farmers and Khoikhoi women. In 1945; the Baster were forced to leave, their departure towards a designated « coloured » area having been negotiated by a reverend of the name of Eksteen, known at the time as « Stinking Spring », a predestined name.

The elder in the village can still recall their journey, on foot conducting carts drawn by donkeys and oxen. There was no road and to drink only there was only brackish water which made many of them ill.

And to crown it all, when they arrived, they had to face up with the hostility of the native Nama people who had lived there for several centuries. Today, due to the fact that it is situated close to the Richtersveld park, the place, now renamed as Eksteenfontein, in honor of the one that « helped » these populations to find a new home, has seen its fortune changing with the development of traditional Nama crafts, some renewed interest for popular culture, the creation of a museum and encouragements for eco-tourism’s activities.

Unfortunately, because of lack of time, we won’t have the opportunity to find out more about the village. The place looked us rather sleepy and not breathing wealth. Looking for a café or for something to eat, we stopped at shop which in fact only sold alcohol and sodas and the man inside looking very surprised to see a foreign tourist in this location, explained in an apologetic way that he had nothing, absolutely nothing, not even peanuts to sell. He advised us to try and see a café at another intersection.

Nicky’s café

Now quite famished, it must be by now 14:30 or 15:00, we are ready to take anything in any case. Getting there, we found side by side two establishments. We go for Nicky’s café, where the owner almost hidden behind the counter her head covered up with multicoloured curlers, looks rather surprised to see some clients. As a matter of fact this « café » is a sort of corner shop where anything and everything might be sold, but a hot coffee. Rather disappointed we come out with an enormous pack of Monster Munch biscuits, of which I give you the recipe much I find it appetising, a coke in lieu of caffeine to keep awake on the road, and two enormous and incredibly sweet and sticky chocolate bars.

But we don’t have a choice, still 145 km away from Springbok. Coming out of Eksteenfontein, we come across some peasants on a cart drawn by donkeys. The track goes right down towards the south before rejoining the R 382 in the direction of Steinkopf, in order to take a tarmac road, the N 7 which goes directly to Springbok where we will finally arrive eyes full of flowered landscapes, mountains, but with stiff feet and legs and a killing back.

It is now 7 p.m. and in Springbok it is very cold when we start looking for accommodation. Not wishing to back to Cat-Nap, we follow several signposts leading us towards a number of B&B’s, but all these addresses are pretentious and expensive with security gates, cameras and interphones. In fact there is never a reception and nobody answer the interphone. The only means of communication is the mobile phone and they all prove to be full up anyway.

Kleinplasie Guesthouse

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Finally we go for a place called Kleinplasie Guesthouse that we had so far ignored as it was not even mentioned in guidebooks, situated near an intersection and looking from the outside modern and without much character. And it is very pleasantly surprised that we have found there a spacious bedroom, clean, well equipped, with all modern comfort, for an out of season small price of 550 rands for two. The hotel reception is extremely warm and friendly, informative and this all we needed for this night’s stopover. There is even a complimentary nice bottle of wine in the room to start off the evening! But as we already have explained, in this country one has to look further than the name of a place. This guest house offers the comfort of a three or four star hotel, modern, functional, well and tastefully decorated, an (optional) quality breakfast, a communal kitchen at our disposal, a private barbecue area and a parking place near the room.

At about 8 p.m., and this could become a habit, we head off for the Tauren Steak Ranch from where we leave as happy as on our first visit, oddly enough for a carnivorous restaurant, the greek salad is more of a success than the snails. For those who would wish to eat there, we recommend to book in advance as the place is full every night.

Back to the guesthouse, we take advantage of modern connections to read our mails and phone our close friends.

Tomorrow, we are off towards the Indian Ocean…

P.S.

For those who have missed a chapter :

  • chapter 1 “Lemons and oranges” is here
  • and chapter 2 “Flowers and diamonds galore” is there.

As for the next chapter “We leave the desert for the Indian Ocean”, it’s here.

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