Text and Photos by Ron Swilling
Text and Photos by Ron Swilling
Y ou know that a place is worth visiting when the official information manual contains these words, indicating that, in addition to maps and an accommodation guide, it will also provide background on the history, geology, flora, fauna and any particular features of interest in that place.
The late Dr Anton Rupert, Founder of the Peace Parks Foundation, once said: “I am of the opinion that a person who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” Reading through information leaflets on peace parks, I become equally inspired and hopeful. The text includes positive words such as ‘vision’, ‘peace’, ‘unification’, ‘partnership’ and ‘dream realised’.
We certainly do have miracles. Countries are opening their borders and linking up to create large conservation areas that benefit the wildlife and land, the countries involved and the local communities. This is creating a wealth of synergy. Peace Parks was the term coined by the World Conservation Union in the 1980s to describe a trans-frontier conservation area, a region that embraces the land of more than one nation, unifying fragmented ecological habitats and promoting environmental and political stability. The Peace Parks concept has been described as “A vision of peace for the subcontinent that sees the recreation of ancient wildlife paths, the unity of ecological and cultural territories and the sustainable development of rural areas.”
The Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park of Namibia and South Africa is just such a park. It incorporates Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, the second-largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the USA; the Ai-Ais Hot Springs at the southern section of the canyon; a large part of the Fish River; and the Huns Mountains west of the canyon with South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park. The Richtersveld is an arid mountainous region of rich plant diversity bordering on the Orange or !Gariep River, owned by the Richtersveld communities and managed jointly by them and South African National Parks.
The Peace Park covers an area of 6 045 km2, 73% of this being in Namibia and 27% in South Africa. The Richtersveld with its arid climate embraces one of the world’s richest succulent areas. The plant world here has adapted to the harsh environment with tenacity and grace. A testimony to this grace is the multitude of delicate vygie (mesembryathemaceae) flowers blooming in the dry soil at certain times of the year, creating fields of colour against mountain backdrops. Quiver trees and a variety of tree aloes adorn both sections of the park, reaching into the heavens with their rubbery leaves and creating striking features in exceptional scenery.
Here God’s hand has run riot, creating geological masterpieces over millions of years. The Richtersveld side even boasts a 2-metre high imprint of a hand on a rock-face that the local people believe is the ‘Hand of God.’ Whatever you believe, the geology of the region is spectacular. The Fish River Canyon, reaching a depth of up to 550 metres, takes your breath away as its rocky gorge walls drop to the Fish River below and extend for 160 kilometres with a strength and majesty that I do not feel embarrassed to call divine.
Visiting the Peace Park, I had a chance to savour this harsh and proud environment with its rugged beauty. As the words on the entrance sign of the southern section read: “Welcome. Treat your senses and soul in the majestic.”
The size of the canyon and the geological history that shaped its walls over many millennia always elicits a reaction of awe. Where the Fish River exits the canyon at the southern end of Ai-Ais, a dip in the hot spring water is an invigorating experience, even on the hottest of days. The hike through the canyon to this point is a 90-kilometre five-day walk and boulder hop. It is a time to sleep next to canyon walls under a heaven of stars, enjoying the silence and huge energy of a place that radiates the wisdom of eternity.
The Richtersveld Park in the South African section is more of a driving novelty than many of the gravel roads of Namibia. They provide a four-wheel-drive adventure that takes you to campsites along the Orange River, through mountainous terrain decorated with displays of succulent flowers and featuring the so-called halfmens, a curious plant shaped rather like an upturned elephant’s trunk with a tuft of leaves sprouting at the top. Artefacts in the area attest to its mining history, such as the remains of a glory hole that once held diamonds worth billions of Rands deposited there by the river. Here, as in other old mining areas, people’s hopes and dreams are staked to the earth with the pegs of their claims.
This Peace Park straddling two neighbouring countries reveals dramatically how a harsh environment can yield softness and beauty. Whether it is the flower fields of the Richtersveld or the spectacle of a canyon baring its history so purely and powerfully, a visit to the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park affords visitors the opportunity to experience a different kind of beauty. This is the beauty of an arid land. As a soft fruit holds a hard kernel, we realise that the harsh and the fragile are one if we look closely, and that all opposites hold each other in an embrace of possibility.
This article was first published in the Flamingo April 2007 issue.