There are few places in the world where you can hit three national parks in one day but the Richtersveld in South Africa is one such place. I was excited although worried that perhaps we had bitten off more than we could chew as we were covering a few hundred kilometres in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. For years the only inhabitants were the San who used to joke that God gave them diamonds because he gave everyone else water. It’s not really a joke. The diamond mining industry in the area has produced some corkers! On the Orange River banks not far from where we were, the 83 carat Star of South Africa diamond was picked up by a fortunate shepherd boy who sold it for 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse – a bloody fortune in 1869. Sadly not all San were so lucky. It’s hot enough here to cook an egg on the rocks – I managed to get burn blisters on the undersides of my feet – and the oppressive blow torch heat from the sun above mean that surviving here is tough. Surplus water is a resource that can be shared, a diamond enriches very few. And let’s be honest, you can’t drink a bloody diamond when you’re facing heat stroke. With this in mind I slightly nervously I asked a few, what I thought were important, questions.
What if we get stuck?
But we have before.
Can you help with the tent?
Fine, but what if we get stuck?
Richard smiled a touch to evasively for my liking, in a manner that indicated he thought I was being slightly ridiculous and cute.
Have we got water? If we get stuck?
His back did not respond. With no one left to badger I had no excuse but to help pack up. Our host Neville wandered over to offer some helpful advice.
Watch out for scorpions under the tent. They’re bright green so you should see them.
Will they kill you?
Nah, but the one’s in the Richtersveld could.
Ah good. As you are oft advised not to I pondered the worse case scenarios which now included not only snakes and spiders but the odd scorpion. Perhaps the San were right, water wasn’t such a big deal.
Nababeep National Park, Richtersveld World Heritage Site and the Ais/Ais/! Richtersveld National Park are easy to confuse. The main difference between them is what’s allowed in terms of land use. It’s a clever trick that also means you have to pay three park entrance fees. Heading away from the river the lonely road winds back into the Martian landscape to the south towards the first of the three parks. Nababeeb would be famous for its petroglyphs, a form of ancient rock art, if fame related to importance of human history rather than arse size as is the case with Kim Kardashian. They are extraordinary for many reasons but none of these are pointed out on the tourism website which simply states that they are 23km from the next park. This is rather astounding as they are over 10000 years old and there are over 3000 of them. At least I think that’s right as there are very few places where you can actually find out. We stopped to ponder the wonder of the petroglyphs and a tribe who seemed to be writing some kind of ancient code, who was Michelle 09/14/2001 and Jaco 20/03/1998? How was it that they developed the ability to write using the Roman alphabet 10000 years ago? What did the numbers mean? Why did they occur on top of the ancient mystical shapes? I’m sure these writings have pissed off (sorry puzzled) many people visiting these historic sites.
I have to say what saddened me most was the sheer quantity of recent vandalism on the site. Michelle and Jaco were not alone. But with not a soul in sight there was no way to police the site. We drove on quietly, it was scorchingly hot and any time we stepped out the car our brains started more or less instantly melting. A little while on we came across a field of cairns so large that we were convinced it was an ancient burial site or some important sacred area. The guide book informed us that the cairns were left by travelers and suggested we might like to build our own? It didn’t really matter that it was not an ancient site. It was beautiful, eerie and silent. We decided not to build our own, mainly on account of the heat and headed toward Eksteenfontein, one of the largest San communities in South Africa.
Now I must confess I have been more or less obsessed with the San ever since I watched a San hunt on David Attenborough’s documentary Life of Mammals. The men ran all day in the scoring heat after a kudu. To say this impressed me is like saying DNA (to quote Watson and Crick) is of considerable biological interest. I watched it again and again. How could you run all day, how could they loose the kudu tracks and imagine the right path. For my young mind it was completely unfathomable. It still is. Anyway, since then my fascination with the San’s tracking skills has meant a continued interest in their community and culture. I half expected Eksteenfontein to have men walking around with bow and arrows whilst sniffing the air and saying things like a leopard passed here five days ago.