From the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa, I crossed the Orange (or Gariep) River to Ai-Ais National Park in Namibia. Together, these two national parks form the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. One of several transfrontier parks across Southern Africa, this one was officially signed into legislation in 2003.
For visitors, the pont at Sendelingsdrif makes travel between the two parks – and countries – very easy. Before the pont service was created, visitors would have to drive a detour of 500 kilometres through the main border post at Noordoewer! Today, if you’re coming from Port Nolloth in South Africa, you can spend time in the Richtersveld National Park, then drive your car onto the pont at Sendelingsdrif and within seconds you are in Namibia’s Ai-Ais National Park. If you coming from Namibia, then you can either access the park through the town of Rosh Pinah in the west, or from Noordoewer border crossing in the east, then use the pont to cross into South Africa.
Together, both parks conserve about 6 000 square kilometres of spectacular desert mountain scenery – about 75% of the park is in Namibia, and 25% in South Africa.
(It’s important to know, however, that there are several mining operations on the South African side of the park – it’s a somewhat complicated situation. The South African National Park’s land is actually owned by the surrounding communities, and several mining concessions have operated for a few decades, stretching back before the proclamation of the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa. The Namibian side however, is free of mining, although the mining town of Rosh Pinah is adjacent to the park.)
The concept of transfrontier parks makes perfect sense in many ways. Ecologically, the two parks are almost identical, with similar species of plants and animals, and similar climates. From a conservation point of view, managing the area holistically contributes to its preservation in the long term. But the biggest benefit is to the visitor, who can now easily get the most out of the protected area, and see both the Namibian and South African side properly. Just remember your passport, because you will have to have it stamped at immigration on either side of the river.
Without doubt, the main attraction at Ai-Ais National Park is the second-biggest canyon in the world – the Fish River Canyon. A few years ago I hiked the five day trail through the canyon, and I’ll post some old photos soon. But the hike is only open during winter, because in summertime the temperatures are just too high.
Namibia Wildlife Resorts area manager Francois Snyders told me that the temperature at the bottom of the canyon can be ten degrees higher than at the top. While I was there, the temperatures at the top were into the 40s, so the bottom of the canyon could have touched the 60s. But the mornings and evenings are always cool, and the daytime heat is a “dry-heat”, because humidity is very low. I really don’t mind it…and it’s much more bearable than the summer heat on the eastern side of Southern Africa, where humidity is high. Evaporation rates here can reach 4 000 millimetres per year, while annual rainfall can be as low as 50mm! One definition of a desert is when evaporation rates exceed rainfall by three times…well here evaporation exceeds rainfall by almost 100 times! It’s certainly one of the most extreme places on Earth.
I stayed at NWR’s Ai-Ais camp for a few days, where hot springs bubble out from deep within the earth. (Ai-Ais means “very hot” in the Nama language, and the water is about 60 degrees Celsius). In summer, it’s not really a good idea to go swimming in the pools at Ai-Ais, because of the outside temperatures, but in winter, when it can get really cold, visitors come to enjoy the warm baths. (At the little town of Aus to the north of Ai-Ais, snow has been recorded several times during the past few decades!)
There are some fully equipped chalets at Ai-Ais, and a great restaurant and bar (which serves the coldest beers!). But I camped under a huge camel thorn tree, and my EeziAwn rooftop tent and Bat awning provided the additional shade. There’s a really nice feel to the campsite, if it’s not too busy, and it’s popular with self-drive 4x4ers and travellers from all over the world. You’re quite likely to be camping between a German family and a Spanish couple!
The best views of the canyon, however, are near Hobas camp, which is further north. This is a smaller, simpler NWR camp, but arguably more in keeping with the wilderness surroundings. Be sure to chat to camp manager Eric Gubula, who has been here for several years, and knows the area better than anyone.
From the camp at Hobas, it’s about ten kilometres to the main viewpoints into the canyon. The best times of day are early morning or late afternoon, when the sun casts shadows across the 300 million old geological formation, which is 550 metres deep in places, and meanders for about 90kms in length. The widest point is about 27kms, and from the main viewpoints, you really do feel dwarfed by the epic scale of the scene.
You don’t want to get lost in the canyon, especially in summer time! Ranger Wayne Handley told me how authorities have had to helicopter dead bodies from below. A dead Frenchman’s skin had been burnt so badly by a few days’ exposure to the intense sun and heat, that it had turned black.
One of the most famous sites in Ai-Ais National Park is Apollo 11 cave, where some of the oldest rock art in the world occurs. German archaeologist Wolfgang Wendt was studying the 27 000 year old paintings during the time of the Apollo 11 spacecraft mission in 1969, and so gave the same name to the cave. The site is currently offlimits to the public, but I hope to get special permission to visit it one day!
More photos and info on Ai-Ais to come in my next few blogs…
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Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.