Desert Honeymoon – Richtersveld and Kalahari

2 – 3 June 1999

Writing a journal isn’t very easy when you’re perched on a spiky piece of dolomite next to a smoky fire, with your only light coming from a paraffin lantern suspended from an acacia thorn.  A scuttling scorpion, seemingly pissed off to share a camping space with us, adds a certain edge to the mood at De Hoop.  We’re in the Richtersveld, the only mountain desert in South Africa and about as far away from everything as you can get on your honeymoon. Thank God my wife of four days does not do the tropical island thing.

We both knew at the time leading up to doing the deed was going to be hectic and therefore decided that for two or three weeks we needed to cut big city life completely out of our lives. The initial plan was to backpack Malawi, but an unfortunate incident involving my mountain bike and an Alsatian put an unscheduled stop to that – backpacking and a broken arm go together like a lynx among lambs.

I did however manage to rid myself of the cast a few days before the wedding and will, despite my frustrated GP’s remonstrations, feature in the wedding pics sans sling.  Back to the honeymoon, though.  Common sense prevailed and we decided to trek, a la double-cab, through the Richtersveld and Kalahari. Stopovers in Citrusdal (at the sumptuous mineral baths), at the slightly off-beat port Nolloth, eventually saw us reach Sendelingsdrift enveloped in clouds of dust and good karma.

To get to De Hoop we had to wend our way along more than 40 km of tortuous, shale-strewn jeep track, enduring the baleful stare of a variety of agamas, skinks, geckos and other reptiles.  From high up on rocky ridges kokerbooms and halfmense created a botanical wonderland through which we descended to our campsite where the might and muddy Orange River has surreptitiously snaked its way into the Richtersveld desert.  We listened for a long time, but could not hear a sound except for the water rushing along rocky rapids occasionally punctuated by the echo of a fish eagle’s call.

3 – 4 June 1999

Somewhere through all of this magma and igneous rock and tectonic plates runs some kind of ancestral faultline, linking present, past and future. A few times today I had to shake myself from a reverie induced by the timelessness of the Richtersveld.  It is as if I am all of evolution’s tuning fork, vibrating to the ebb and flow of ages, no aeons, of ideas and thoughts, sometimes so intense that the hair on my neck rises or that I turn around, eyes wide in anticipation of seeing a party of early stone-age man combing the plains in the distance.

I got up at about 4 am for the first time today to go and check on a time exposure of the night sky horizon.  As I walked to the camera, bats flitted like silent shadows against a sky hung heavy with stars.  Whorls of celestial fireworks sparked along the ridges of Richtersberg and the death of far-away starts inscribed bright arcs against the sky.  I stood there on that ancient plain, naked except for my hiking boots, until it felt as if I was slowly cart-wheeling away through a far-away space.  Back in the tent I closed my eyes but nebulae and andromedae lingered on, burning brightly on my retina.

We hiked for two hours after breakfast, carefully stepping in between shards of razor-sharp dolomite and shy conophytum hiding from the sun.  It is incredible how much there is to see in this minimalistic tableau.  Xerophytes and succulents eke out an existence in the lee of rocks, gnarled trees send down root systems through tens of metres of inhospitable earth and rock to tap into life-giving arteries of water;  klipspringers and dassie-rats seem to be able to go without water for weeks on end and reptiles wait for the !Huries mist to roll in so that they can lick the condensation from plants to slake their thirst.

Do not go to the Richtersveld without a good pair of binoculars and a bird identification book.  Mountain chats, pale-winged starlings and African pied wagtails settled in as soon as our tent was pitched and great squabbles erupted over red pepper hearts and avocado skins.  Darters, reed cormorants and herons waited like sentinels on rocks, pied kingfishers and hamerkop patrolled muddy pools and African warblers fluttered in the reeds.  We never saw fish eagle, but their resounding call constantly reminded us of their imposing presence.  Richtersveld National Parks list of birds approaches 200, so take note if you are a keen birder.

Into our third day is the desert.  Today was the first time I’ve spoken to anyone but Cathy.  Two 4x4s from Bellville shuddered past and stopped to exchange the necessary pleasantries.  Also spoke to a nomadic goat herder a bit later who came to see if we had some spare cigarettes and sugar.  After he left, his dog stayed on.  We christened him Bi Ji Bu for no reason in particular and fed him a litre of milk, half a bread, a packet of Smash, a Weigh-less cheddar and half an avo, in that order.  He looked happier, but still hungry and eventually ate the curry dough I would have used to catch those big geelvis teasing me with belly-flashing jumps in the pool just below our camp.

I started working the edges of the reed beds with a small brown dry-fly with little success.  I have to admit that the casting was quite erratic, with my arm still painful after the break.  A switch to a small nymph brought no change and it was only when I started floating a Mrs Simpson into the eddies that I managed to coax a rise or two out of those wily scaled creatures of the river.  Fishing the bottom with my spinning rod did little to improve my fortunes, but it did not really matter.  Across the river, the sun pointed the Namibian mountains in all shades of ochre and around me fork-tailed drongo’s dive bombed unwary insects.  A cardinal woodpecker tapped out an insistent little ditty in the straggly branches of a Scotia Afr. Tree close by, occasionally aided in its attempt at an African symphony by harsh croaks from a black headed heron.

5 June 1999

Bi Ji Bu left at some stage during the night, leaving Cathy and me to break down camp at 6 am with the moon still high up in the sky.  The route back to Sendelingsdrift saw sunrise drive back swirls of !Huries mist, allowing scores of halfmense to incline their thorny crowned heads to the North.  Legend has it that these xerophytic creatures are Kha ancestors re-incarnated by God to eternally look north to the fertile lands of their birth.  Scientists and other unbelievers maintain that this positioning was more to do with getting the maximum amount of sun.  I think I prefer the legend.

Again Port Nolloth featured on the route, this time in the direction of the Augrabies National Park. A craving for slap chips kicked in after three days of fat-free desert diet and I was obliged to stop at MareSol Espresso Bar.  All I can say is Obrigado de Dios for the adventurous spirit of the Portuguese – the coffee rated up there with the best, on par with a truly excellent cup I had at a street café in Maputo a few years ago.  And the frito’s were absolutely divine. Maybe not enough of a reason to visit Port Nolloth, but definitely good news if you’re passing through.

We pushed on to Springbok to find the population (or a large part of it anyway) in a truly transcendental state.  Somebody has evidently won the election in the Northern Cape and a lot of people seemed extremely chuffed with this.  Celebrations involved, in the inimitable South African way, the consumption of cheap liquor, a lot of swaggering and driving under the influence of alcohol.  After not speaking to people for three days in the Richtersveld, this proved to be a little freaky and we decided to push on.

The Augrabies Camp, as always, with its general sense of order and friendly staff, impressed me.  We managed a quick walk to the main falls after pitching the tent, had a good meal at the restaurant and even Isabelle Alende’s Eva Lung could not manage to keep me from slumber land for too long.

6 June 1999

Standing below the falls at 7 am with the temperature dropping to around 3˚C is an extremely effective way to wake up.  It also does not really help if you constantly need to take your hands out of your pockets in order to clean the mist off the lens, but I persevered.  Dawn wasn’t really that impressive, but I snapped a few wide angle shots and returned to camp to find Cathy in an intense but silent stand-off with a troop of vervet monkeys.  The troop leader, displaying a pair of impossibly blue balls, had designs on our muesli, it seemed and used his full repertoire of tricks to get at it.  We nearly fell for the cute baby playing in the grass stunt, but the Boer and the Brit make a good team and we managed to hang on to breakfast.

The Dassie Day Hike seemed a bit tame, so we decided to improvise, combining a walk to Arrow Point with a gentle meander that included the Moon Rock, the Potholes and a bit of bundu bashing.  We were rewarded with an excellent sitting of both Giant and Pygmy Kingfishers, as well as an exhibition of robust rock jumping by 2 sturdy little klipspringers.  The Moon Rock offered an excellent vantage point from which to scan the surrounding lunar landscape and to possibly spoilt the giraffes and eland or, if you’re really lucky, the elusive fish eagle.  Or if you’re really feeling lazy, you could just lie back on this massive mound of magma and imagine you are on an undiscovered planet and wait for Scotty to beam you up.

Activities continued into the afternoon, courtesy of Cathy’s decision to cycle to Echo corner, approximately 18 km from camp.  As a National Parks activity, mountain biking is a sadly neglected sport and Augrabies must be lauded for promoting this undulating off-road route.  Gentle ups and downs, with the occasional climb and downhill section, winds you along past arid koppies, punctuated by kokerbooms covered in yellow blooms.  And then you skid to a stop in a cloud of orange dust and disbelief – right in front of you a group of three giraffes are crossing the road in search of tall trees.  At Echo Corner you howl at the ysterklipkoppies and they oblige by reverberating in return, before you head your bike tack towards the camp.  By now the monkeys have called in reinforcements and our tent has been commandeered by a vervet troupe intent on using it as a slip ‘n slide. It is only through Cathy reading them an extremely boring passage from Elliot’s “Mill on the Floss” that we manage to reclaim our site.

7 June 1999

Today feels a bit like one of those never-ending tracking shots in a B-grade road movie.  Inside the car the atmosphere verges on Driving Miss Crazy. Shopping is the pits at the best of times, but Upington takes it down to new levels.  On top of that we need to cope with ever-reducing space and blizzard of dust inside the bakkie.

Once we get to Twee Rivieren, all is forgotten though.  We find a lovely green pepper tree under which to pitch camp and then head out towards Leeudril for a late afternoon game drive.  The big cats do not oblige, but the raptors are out in full force – goshawks glide about, jackal buzzard strut their stuff and tawny eagles perch contentedly.  At the Melkvlei waterhole we bump into two African wild cats in an amorous mood.  They watch us watching them for a while before disappearing for a roll in the tall grass.


8 June 1999

It’s just after 6 am and the sun rises brightly on our hangovers. We had bumped into friends from Cape Town the night before and fell to experimenting with certain substances supplied extremely cheaply by those good folk from the Oranjerivier Wynkelder.  Suffice to say that the wine producers in the Western Cape have very little to fear at this stage.  So we headed off into the sunrise with our heads and identified all sorts of birds, mammals and reptiles before it got too much and we had to return to camp.

Back at Twee Rivieren I was again surprised by a small diurnal visitor, this time a yellow mongoose.  After sniffing around at our tent for a few minutes, he trotted away and led me to his burrow under a straggly patch of scrub about 20 metres away.  When he reappeared it was in the company of his female friend and the two soon forgot about me during a rambunctious grooming session in the baking midday sands.  All the action soon had them panting with little pink tongues hanging out and they then retired to the shade where they fell asleep with their tails entwined.

After packing up camp we headed for Nassob, approximately 160 km north of Twee Rivieren at the park entrance.  We set a leisurely pace, stopping to admire herds of red hartebeest and statuesque gemsbok.  At Kasper se Draai, about 20 km from Nossob, the afternoon’s sedate pace abruptly came to an end.  The kill must have happened a few minutes before we turned the corner and the cheetah crouched over the prostrate body, fangs bared in a blood streaked grimace.  We watched as he started feeding on the young Springbok ewe, so close we could hear the skin and muscles tearing. I kept on taking photographs until the last rays lit the cheetah’s blood-smeared face and then pushed on to make the main gate at Nassob before closing time at six.

9 June 1999

The Kalahari reverberated with the full repertoire of the night with the lions booming out their deep base notes across the dunes.  A veritable chorus of jackal joined in with a ululation of howls and now and then a nightjar punctuated the concerto with a high-pitched shriek.   Outside the tent I could hear something ferreting around.  I have to admit, I do not miss DSTV at all!

Morning coffee took longer than planned with our water bottles completely frozen, but we managed to squeeze through the gate just as the sun rose against the thorn trees lining the edges of the Nossob River. The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park encompasses the flow of both the Nossob and the Auob rivers, with Twee Rivieren at the southern confluence of the rivers, Nossob camp towards Union’s End and Mata Mata camp situated on the Auob.  Both rivers are dry and only flow for short periods of time during exceptionally high rainfall.  On the Eastern side the park borders on the Botswana Gemsbok Park and recent years have seen the boundaries between the parks opened to create one of Africa’s biggest Peace Parks.

Less than 15 km out of the park we crossed the path of Panthera Leo, arguably the most perfect lion specimens found anywhere in the world.  Three lions, 2 females and a massive male, crossed the dry river bed and slowly made their way to the top of the ridge from where they imperiously surveyed their kingdom before disappearing into the shade.

After the lion sighting we decided to head north past Cubitje Quap and Kwang.  Raptors abounded yet again and we had excellent sightings of Wahlborg’s eagle, martial eagle and white-backed vulture.  Herds of oryx and springbok kicked u dust against the setting sun and we watched a jackal furtively lapping up water before calling it a day.

10 June 1999

Today started as the day of birds.  We sat for a long time watching a puffed-up bateleur drinking and cocking his head at his reflection in the water at Kaspersdraai.  Predators were scarce and we decided to stop for a coffee break at the Dikbaardskolk picnic site.  We had scarcely sat down when a crimson breasted shrike arrived in a flash of red, entertaining us with a surprisingly melodious song before engaging in a running battle with a pair of black crows.  Then we spotted two white faced owls roosting in a dense acacia tree, trying to remain aloof and uninterested in the hubbub of activity taking place under their perch.  Occasionally though, when the thought no one was watching them they would ruffle out their chest feathers, arch an eyebrow in an impossibly furry face and half-open a giant luminous orange eye to check on proceedings.

Bat eared foxes also seemed to be out in force and we observed three groups as we headed back up north towards Kwang, my favourite watering hole.  There seemed to be very little activity at Kwang, so we continued to Bedinkt where the plain was covered with wildebeest, springbok and some gemsbok.  In the shade of an acacia, right next to the watering hole, we readied ourselves to wait until the herds came to drink.

Two minutes later the whole plain exploded.  Wildebeest careened in our direction, springbok scattered and a cloud of dust billowed towards us.  We dashed off in order to get to the action and skidded to a stop just in time to see the cheetah’s second charge.  She was going for one of the wildebeest calves, but had to cope with determined interference by the frenzied adults.  After a half-hearted third attempt she had to admit defeat and, after a derisory glare at the snorting wildebeest, padded back in the direction where two younger cheetah, presumably her cubs, were reclining.

Later on at the camp I had a long slow beer while watching a couple of black-backed jackal skulking around just outside the light coming from the fire.  I could still feel the excitement tingling in my fingertips and wondered how the wildebeest felt.

11 June 1999

To me there is always a certain ambivalence when the last day in the park finally arrives.  It’s a bit like an old friendship where selective memory kicks in – no bad blues or body odour, just a series of good time snapshots of brothers in arms.  Same thing when you leave the Kalahari; you simply forget about the invasive dust billowing into the car, corrugated dirt roads that jar you from coccyx to skull and waiting for four and a half hours in a 36˚C car to get a shot of an African wild cat skulking in a bush and hearing later that you missed lions mating next to the road 5 km further along the road.

What you do remember is the first time you hear the deep Oomf of a desert lion rumbling across the dunes.  Or the late afternoon sun dappling orange, black and white off a rippling herd of springbok surging around Grootbrak waterhole.  Maybe you remember a lone ostrich sprinting across a dry pan, silhouetted against a rising sun with dust-puffs spurting from underneath its horny, three-toed feet.  And the silent rush of blood through your veins when you play your torch across the puny Nossob fence and seen tens of pairs of eyes glistening yellow and red against the inky black of the African night.

So it is with heavy hearts that we break down camp, but also with the reassuring knowledge that we will, as always, be back.  For a bit of a change we head the bakkie across the undulating, red dune road towards the Auob River to crest and dip through a sea of rough grass and arid scrub.  At the Auob junction we turn north towards Mata, a red tornado of dune dust in close pursuit.  It is just after midday when we reach Thirteenth Borehole where two bored gemsbok decide to impress us by staging a swaggering, horn-crashing duel.

When peace returned to the plain, I knew the time had come for the journey southwards to commence.  Our plan was to get to the gate by 3 pm and head on to Keimoes where we would find a place to bed down in before dark.  Those naughty Kalahari fairies had other ideas, however.  At Munro Dam, exactly 28 km from the gate, a black-maned, dagger-toothed, sonofa lion peered over one of the dunes right above the road, screaming “Photo Opportunity”. And so it came to be that we weasled our way past the stern looking gate guard at Twee Rivieren 10 minutes after closing time, only reaching Keimoes well into the night.  But as they say, always look a gift lion in the mouth.

12 June 1999

On the road. Again.

The road runs from Keimoes to Kenhardt to Brandvlei and then through Calvinia, nearly straight as dammit for 400 km.  Luckily an undesignated stop came up at the Kokerboom Forest just outside Kenhardt, giving us a chance to hike up a hillside aquiver with these aloe dichotoma.  With their sturdy, scaled trunks firmly anchored in between lumps of rose quarts and veldspar, their pudgy branches, covered in yellow flowers, etched against the blue Boesmanland sky in surrealistic wood-cut relief.  I shot way too much film before whispering a furtive goodbye to these magical tree people.

The “Something to Report” light remained off through Brandvlei and a few successive so-called dorpies, but began to emit a soft glow as we entered the Hantam district and approached Calvinia.  Slowly strange koppies and mountains began to rise up against the horizon and, as we left Calvinia behind, the Hantam ranges engulfed us in a craggy and earthy embrace.

We scooted off the tar road onto the R363 to slowly inch down the spectacular Botterkloof Pass, being watched over by diminutive Botterbooms and angels disguised as circling black eagles.  After crossing the Doring River, we began ascending the convoluted and contortionist Cedarberg Mountains via Pakhuis Pass.  The rocks were unbelievable red and the formations Tolkienesque in its intricacy, and every bend brought into view evermore incredible vistas – to me it remains one of the most difficult wilderness areas to photograph due to its sheer vastness and magnitude.

Green citrus orchards and orderly vineyards brought us down slowly into the Olifants River Valley and Clanwilliam.  After restocking our supply chest and filling up with fuel we went off in search of our next port of call – the Bulshoek Dam Leisure Resort.  We had negotiated an idyllic-sounding wooden cabin overlooking the water but ended up with a wendy house slap-bang in the centre of a caravan graveyard.  After dealing with the “people that time forgot: and deciphering their archaic dialect, we followed the one with the bad leg to our lodgings.  Shades of The Shining and Deliverance flashed through my mind, but I ad to admit that the setting was absolutely idyllic.

With flocks of Egyptian Geese whooshing in overhead to splash down in the clean lake, I had a beer and decided to make the best of it.

13 June 1999

We woke to honky-honk music drifting in over the water, courtesy of our neighbours, the geese.  The one other group sharing the secret caravan graveyard with us turned out to be really nice people, so this set my mind at rest.  After a sturdy breakfast and a hefty cup of coffee I headed off to the water with both my spinning and fly rod.

Two days of bliss in a wooden cabin. Fly-fishing for bass at dusk.  Satisfying sex.  The moonglow on the water.  Geese at sunrise walking like Egyptians.  With the water quietly lapping away at my sub-conscious, who wants to go back to the City?