The people and their culture
The early inhabitants
Early archaeological evidence tells us that the San inhabited the Richtersveld area thousands of years ago. They hunted game (mountain zebra and klipspringer) and gathered berries and herbs. Arrowheads made of stone and plant resin have been found around Eksteenfontein. Then the first Khoekhoen or pastoral people moved to these regions from Botswana some 2 000 years ago. Like the San, they were hunter-gatherers, and only slaughtered animals on rare ceremonial occasions. The Nama speaking herders in the Richtersveld, therefore, are said to be descendents from these first pastoralists and the San.
In tune with the harsh environment, many of the Richtersvelders today are transhumant pastoralists, moving their livestock between stock posts with the changing of seasons. The rotation of pastures has helped to preserve the land from overuse. This is the last place in the South Africa where pastoral people live on communal lands and one of the last remaining examples of the transhumant Nama way of living.
The struggle for land
The harsh environment of the Richtersveld has through the years witnessed a story of determined peoples with a strong attachment to the land. Early last century declared a 'Coloured Rural Reserve', the land's ownership moved in 2002 to the peoples of the Richtersveld. In this pristine land, devoid of mining scars and in harmony with transhumant pastoralists, an area of more than 160 000 ha has been put aside - first to create a Community Conservancy, now proclaimed a World Heritage Site.
The desert landscape, plants and animals
From a distance you can see rugged mountains, sweeping deserts, a giant blue sky and glimpses of the mighty Orange River creeping along to the sea. On closer investigation, you realize that you are standing in one of Africa's most diverse and rich ecosystems.
The Richtersveld World Heritage site sits in the heart of what is called the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot - an ecosystem with an astounding 4849 succulent plants, 40% of which are found nowhere else.
To be declared a hotspot, an area must have incredibly high species diversity and a high percentage of endemism. It is quite a unique distinction, as there are only 25 hotspots in the world. Even more unusual is that the Succulent Karoo is a desert and is the only arid biodiversity hotspot on Earth.
Some amazing features of Richtersveld Biodiversity:
- 2,700 species in this area alone & almost 600 exist nowhere else.
- The giant Baster Quiver Tree (Aloe pilansii), of which only a few hundred remain on the remote mountaintops in the Richtersveld.
- The "Halfmens" (Pachypodium namaquanum) - a bizarre plant which from a distance resemble faraway people, hence the name "Half man".
- The most lichen species of any area in the world - 29.
- Numerous species of lithops - tiny succulent plants which resemble small stones.
The mysterious spirit of the place
Near Cornellskop, you will find the Wondergat (Mystery Hole), known by the Nama as Heitsi Eibib, meaning 'spirit' or 'emptiness'. It is a limestone sinkhole (pothole) celebrated in the mythology of the local inhabitants. A deep shaft leading straight down, many connect the Wondergat to the 'Big Snake' and so it has inspired many stories and attracted intrepid explorers.
Some say the Big Snake can transform itself into a young maiden who lures men to the river to drown them, while the San believed the snake can kill with its breath alone. For hundreds of years, many who had spent significant time on or near the river have had a story like this to tell.
For literally thousands of years, explorers have wandered here. The San left traces of their early visits in petroglyphs on rock. More recently, prospectors for copper and gold left strange contraptions - now derelict and crumbling, their engineers vanished into landscape and time.
The Richtersveld is one of the least known regions in South Africa. Those who travel here find a world surprisingly diverse, often starkly beautiful. Beware..there is much in the Richtersveld that is still wild.. once the roaming bug takes, very few shake it free...