At Namibia’s southernmost limit, the starkly beautiful, mountainous |Ai-|Ais/RICHTERSVELD TRANSFRONTIER PARK – commonly known as the Richtersveld – straddles the border with South Africa, covering an area around four times the size of Greater London. The park’s main attraction is the truly awe-inspiring Fish River Canyon, about half of which lies within the park boundaries. The canyon ends at |Ai-|Ais – meaning “burning water” in Nama – Namibia’s best-known sulphurous hot springs and a popular tourist attraction in itself. While the Fish River rarely flows, the Orange River (!Gariep, in Nama) – which demarcates the border between Namibia and South Africa and bisects the park – is a perennial water source, making it a bird lovers’ paradise and a popular place to indulge in a day or more of gentle canoeing or kayaking.
Importantly, the Richtersveld Park lies within the Succulent Karoo Biome, a biodiversity hotspot that has the greatest variety of succulents on the planet, harbouring a third of the world’s ten thousand species, 33 of which are endemic to the area. They are at their most impressive between June and October, when – provided there has been sufficient rain – their flowers burst forth in a stunning carpet of colour.
The two succulents most associated with the area are the critically endangered giant or bastard quiver tree (Aloe pillansii) – distinguishable from its more common sibling by its towering, pale and statuesque trunk and fewer rosettes – and the more numerous halfmens (meaning “semi-human” in Afrikaans; Pachypodium namaquanum). When outlined against the skyline, the spiny tapering trunk has been likened to a human trudging up the mountain, its head inclined slightly – always northwards, for some inexplicable reason – crowned with a single rosette resembling a mop of hair.
The succulents help nourish the animal life in this otherwise barren environment, including the park’s fifty species of mammal and just under two hundred bird species, most of which inhabit the terrain close to the river. Lizards and snakes abound, but large mammals such as zebra, klipspringer and springbok are also in evidence, while leopards and other cats remain characteristically shy.
Though most of this vast park lies in Namibia, opportunities for wilderness camping and hiking (excluding the Fish River Canyon) and admiring the succulent-rich landscape are better in the South African section, which is also home to a handful of Nama communities, who jointly manage the park south of the border. Here, they still practise their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving their livestock according to the season and living in rush-mat domed huts (|haru om).