The strange looking half-mens plant, giant quiver trees, quartzite koppies, arid birding, the Orange River and extreme aridness all have the Richtesveld National Park in common and it was here that I was heading on the next leg of my journey into the Northern Cape of South Africa.
Leaving the flower town of Springbok early in the morning, the road took me northwards to Steinkopf and then westwards towards Port Nollith. It was along this road that the first choice of routes came along – should I take the well-defined tar road to Port Nollith and then up to the Richtesveld or take the lesser known dirt road via the interesting sounding town of Lekkersing? Being adventurous, the Lekkersing road beckoned and soon Jackal Buzzards provided regular views as they sat on sentry duty atop the telegraph poles. Greater Kestrel pairs were also quite common as they rested on their stick nests that had been usurped from Pied and Cape Crows, while the previous occupants of the nests flew scavenging patrols along the dusty road. Namaqua Sandgrouse could be heard and seen flying high as they missioned to water and at one point some excitement was caused when a Lanner Falcon tried to stoop after a small flock of sandgrouse.
1 of 12. Gravel roads through the Richtesveld National Park
Before I knew it, Lekkersing had come and gone without me even realizing that I had actually passed through the named spot on the map. From here on, the road became a bone-jarring test to my 4x4 bakkie and soon all loose items were rattling loudly – reminding me that a visit to the workshop would soon be necessary. As a result of the road, regular stops were called for and in the quartz flats, Pale Chanting Goshawks, Double-Banded Courser, Cape Long-Billed Larks, Ant-Eating Chat, Capped Wheatear and Yellow Canaries were added to a slowly growing bird list and at one point a small family of Suricates sprinted away at high speed, disturbing a resting Steenbok on the way.
2 of 12. Red-Eyed Bulbul
Finally reaching the entrance to the Richtesveld National Park, the road improved and my family and I were soon booked into our accommodation unit, situated along the banks of the green-grey colored Orange River. After unpacking and settling in and having grabbed a quick snack and drink, an orienteering walk through the camp grounds rapidly increased the bird list with Red-Eyed Bulbuls being plentiful amongst the Orange River White-Eye’s, African Hoopoe, Southern Grey-Headed Sparrow, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Laughing Doves, Long-Billed Crombec and Mountain Wheatears. In the skies above, flocks of European Bee-Eaters flashed color across the skies, together with Rock Martins, White-Rumped Swifts, Little Swifts and Brown-Throated Martins which flew closer and lower to the river. A closer inspection of the bushy thickets produced Pririt Batis, Karoo Thrush, Acacia Pied Barbet, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Francolin and Lesser Double-Collared Sunbird. Along the waters edge, Grey Herons stood motionless in wait for passing prey as Reed and White-Breasted Cormorants and Darters flew by and a pair of Cape Teals drifted past on the water. With patience Pied Kingfisher and the diminutive but brightly colored Malachite Kingfisher were also added to my sightings.
3of 12. A lone shepards tree provides the only shade for miles around.
As the heat of the day dissipated, a late afternoon exploration into the park was called for and after passing through long stretches where past and current diamond mining scarred the landscape, we where finally amongst the geologically interesting rugged hills and mountains with their scant vegetation. In the lowland areas Shepard’s Trees provided the only shade while giant quiver trees stood silent watch over the harsh but picturesque landscape. In the untidy bushy scrub around the Shepard’s Trees, Tractrac Chats perched together with the similar looking Familiar Chats as Black-Chested Prinia, Grey Tits and Dusky Sunbirds flittered between the bushes. An interesting sighting was the white-breasted Jackal Buzzards, which looked more like Augur Buzzard, than the normal red-breasted form of the Jackal Buzzard. The Richtesveld is apparently well known for these pale chested birds.
4 of 12. Male Mountain Chat
At one point a large Puff Adder slithered rapidly over the road before disappearing magically up into the rocky bank where its camouflaged colors blended perfectly. It was while watching the Puff Adder that I noticed a pair of Cape Crows walking through the open ground and panting from the heat. As the birds walked, they probed and dug into the sand with their razor sharp bills, pulling out fat, hairy and juicy solifuges which were quickly swallowed. As the afternoon wore into evening a flying-ant emergence attracted a small flock of glossy black-colored Pale-Winged Starlings with bright yellow eyes and a pair of African Pipits that quickly snapped up the ants. The birds were joined by blue-headed flat lizards that leapt into the air with small jumps after the flying-ants and then, as they landed, chewed in contentment with wide snapping jaws. Returning to the camp a quick search over the river showed walls of thousand upon thousand of small midges that hovered over the water and in the background the calls of Cape Turtle Doves and Cape Robin-Chat heralded the end of the day shift of birds as Fiery-Necked Nightjars and Water Thick-Knee in turn introduced the nocturnal birds.
5 of 12. The hand like print of the "Hand of God" within the rock wall of a koppie.
The following morning, I awoke to light rain and soon had the family up and in the vehicle ready to explore further and deeper into the fascinating and special landscape. A quick turn was made to the “Hand of God” which shows a massive “hand” sunken into the hard rock and obligatory family photos were taken. It was then off again through ‘Akadis Pass’ with an amazing and fascinating variety of succulent plants. In the dry riverbed, flocks of Cape Sparrow, White-Throated Canaries, Lark-Like Buntings and Grey-Backed Sparrowlarks rose up from the ground as we passed by. Further on, a pair of Large-Billed Larks perched on top of a small shrub as a Bokmakierie sang in the distance and a Red-Capped Lark searched for insects below on the ground. The sighting of a herd of 15 Gemsbok was a real treat, even though we were several hundred meters from them. We joined up with them a bit later as we rounded another bend and this time they were far more relaxed and had been joined by a lone male Ostrich.
6 of 12. Familiar Chat
One of my goals was to tick off the Barlow’s Lark for which the Richtesveld formed part of this bird’s extremely limited distribution. After a good couple of hours of searching, I finally managed to locate three of these drab looking birds. It appeared that two males were trying to out display one another to a rather uninterested and even drabber looking female. She took no notice of the intense effort of her suitors and instead busied herself with the far more important task of feeding herself.
7 of 12. Hoodia plant
With my mission having been accomplished, we returned to camp to have lunch on the veranda of our cottage. As we ate, we were soon joined by dozens of Southern Masked and Cape Weavers, Red-Eyed Bulbuls, Familiar Chats, Karoo Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Laughing and Cape Turtle Doves and the small Orange River White-Eyes. What a privilege indeed it was to be able to sit on the banks of one of South Africa’s iconic rivers while doing some easy and entertaining birding!
8 of 12. Larklike Bunting
Season and weather: This is a harsh and unpredictable land where water is scarce with less than 50mm falling per year. Temperatures in summer are extremely high while nights can be cold.
9 of 12. Akkedis Pass
Habitats: The Richtesveld is South Africa’s largest mountain desert park and comprises lava-mountains and sandy plains. Some 30% of all South African succulent plants can be found in the Richtesveld.
10 of 12. Male Southern Masked Weaver
Specials: Pale chested form of the Jackal Buzzard, Karoo Thrush, Barlow’s Lark, Orange-River White-Eye, Pririt Batis
11 of 12. Open gravel plains of the Richtesveld National Park
Accommodation & Facilities: Hutted accommodation and camping can be found at Sendelingsdrift while camping is also available at Pootjiespram and De Hoop. It is also possible to cross over into Namibia and the Ai Ai Park via the Sendelingsdrift Pont. Activities include Off-road driving, fly-fishing, river rafting and bird watching
12 of 12. Pale-Winged Starling
Getting There: The most commonly used access route is via Springbok on the N7 and then turning left at Steinkopf and onto Port Nollith. From here you head north to Alexander Bay. The tar road ends here and it is a further 90km’s to the park in an easterly direction.