/Ai /Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

Major Features

Cultural Importance

© 2009 Dr Peet van der Walt
© 2009 Dr Peet van der Walt
The traditional lifestyle of the Nama people of the Richtersveld is based on nomadic pastoralism. Archaeological evidence indicates that sheep and goats were present in Namaqualand about 2 000 years ago. Nomadic pastoralism has largely dwindled in southern Africa, the Richtersveld being one of the last regions where it has been preserved. It is a way of life particularly well adapted to arid regions. The herders and their flocks move over long distances following the sparse rainfall, thus avoiding the overgrazing that is often associated with a non-nomadic lifestyle.
There are a number of significant archaeological sites. The earliest evidence for human habitation within the Richtersveld National Park was discovered in a shelter at Die Toon near Tatasberg. This site has been dated back to 2 200 BC. Bones uncovered at Kokerboomkloof reveal that at least some of the species currently present in the region, such as springbok, zebra and klipspringer were also present over 4 000 years ago. The presence of fish bones indicates that the Orange River was an important source of food for the hunter-gatherers.
The rich cultural history is important for maintaining local traditions. The preservation of the Nama languages is one of the objectives of the Richtersveld National Park. This language has remained better preserved in the Richtersveld than in other part of Namaqualand, as have other forms of traditional knowledge such as the medicinal use of plants and the practice of nomadic pastoralism.

Geographic Description

The transfrontier park lies in a dry and remote area and the landscape is harsh and spectacular. The rugged topography was formed by intensive folding and fracturing and an active uplifting of landmasses, followed by periods of ever-intensifying erosion, resulting in a magnificently diverse mountain desert landscape. A 100 km arc of the Orange River and the Fish River Canyon intersects the mountainous semi-desert. Impressive mountain ranges composed of strikingly coloured rocks rise abruptly from sandy valleys. The rugged Huns mountains lie at the northern section of the transfrontier park and the highest peak is 1 652m. The highest mountain range in the southern part of the park is Vandersterreberg, which forms the southwestern boundary of the park and reaches 1 363m, rising over 1 000m above the plateau which lies at 300m above sea level.
The Orange River forms a border of exceptional beauty, with striking riparian bush. The Orange River mouth is a Ramsar site and the 350 million years old erosion-rich lower Orange gorge abounds with history, folklore and grandeur.
The impressive Fish River Canyon is situated on the lower reaches of the Fish River in southern Namibia. The broadest extent of the canyon is 27 km, but it is much narrower for most of its 161 km length. It meanders between spectacular steep cliffs that bisect the flat Namib plateau. In places the canyon floor is more than 550 m below the plateau and reveals rocks that are up to 2 600 million years old. The river flowing along the canyon floor usually forms placid pools between huge boulders, but sporadic flash floods are not uncommon during the rainy season.
The Ai-Ais Hot Springs are found in the south of the canyon and hot springs heat a permanent pool about 65 km upstream. Two extensive alluvia/colluvia plains, namely the Springbok and Koeroegab occur in the Richtersveld National Park.
The park lies between the warm temperate rainfall of the west and the non-seasonal rainfall found further east. The winter rainfall (May-September) has its origins in the anticyclone conditions off the coast and varies from 15 mm in the valleys and lowlands to 300mm on the mountain tops. Mists arising off the Atlantic Ocean's cold Benguela current to the west are common in winter. In the eastern non-seasonal zone the rainfall is low and is in the form of erratic thundershowers. In winter the temperature often plummets below 0°C, while in summer hot easterly mountain winds frequently occur and temperatures can rise to well over 40°C.

Biophysical Features

Underlying the area are mineral-rich metasedimentary and metavolcanic rocks of the Namaqualand metamorphic province. Rocks belonging to the Orange River group occur in the northeastern part of the Richtersveld. These include the Klipneus and Paradys formations, the Rosyntjieberg formations (which includes areas where cross bedding and ripple marks can be seen) and the De Hoop sub-group. The lava, tuff and medisedimentary rocks of this sub-group occupy a relatively narrow strip orientated in a northwest to southeast direction in the Richtersveld National Park. These rocks are bounded on both sides by intrusive rocks belonging to the Vioolsdrif suite. Granite, granite porphyry and syenite rocks of the Tatasberg complex (two plutons) are intrusive into rocks of the Orange River group and of the Vioolsdrift suite. Diamonds are mined in a small area of the transfrontier park.
The component rocks of the Stinkfontein formation of the Gariep complex form the highest mountain range in the South African section of the park in the south and southwest. In the southeastern part of the transfrontier park, tillite, sandstone and mudstone rocks of the Dwyka formation (Karoo sequence) are found.


The Richtersveld National Park lies in one of the most diverse parts of the species-rich Succulent Karoo biome. This diversity is partly the result of the influence of two different rainfall systems and climatic zones. The wetter, western parts have a flora characteristic of the Succulent Karoo, while the flora of the hotter and drier eastern side with non-seasonal rainfall has closer affinities with the Nama Karoo. The transition between these two very different floras of the Richtersveld runs along the eastern margin of the main mountain ranges and is very narrow, sometimes only 10 - 20 km wide. The Richtersveld thus forms a botanical microcosm for the more arid parts of southern Africa. Diverse topography further increases the number of species. As yet, there is no comprehensive checklist for the area.
The Succulent Karoo is well renowned for its mass display of flowers after good winter rains, a phenomenon that attracts many visitors. The main taxa responsible for this display are mesembryanthemaceae such as Mesembryanthemum, Opohytim, Ruschia, Leipoldtia, Lampranthus, Drosanthemum, Cheiridopsis and Cephalophyllum, as well as geophytes and annuals such as botterblom (Gazania tenulfolla), kougoed (G. Lichtensteinii), beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa), wit see (Dimorphoteca pluvalialis), stinkkruid (Pentzia pilulifers), knoppies-stinkkruid (Pentzia suffruticose), perdeblom (Didelta carnosa) and Osteospermum pinnatum. In general, this biome is characterised by a large number of succulent plant species, particularly in the families Mesembryanthemaceae, Crasulaceae, Ascelepiadaceae and Euphorbiaceae. Despite its aridity, only the fynbos and savannah biomes exceed the density of plant species per unit area in the Succulent Karoo biome.
Each of the floras found here in the Succulent and Nama Karoos have developed centres of diversity and endemism in the Richtersveld and a number of specially adapted life forms are present. For example, psammophorous plants fix a protective layer of sand to their surface to protect them from sandblasting. The list of Red Data Book and endemic species is impressive. The most famous Red Data Book plant associated with the northern Richtersveld is the stem of the succulent Pachypodium namaquanum, commonly known as “halfmens” or “near human”. One of the Asclepiadaceae,Notechidnopsis clumnaris, is completely restricted to the Richtersveld National Park and several others are highly localised, such as Pectinaria articulata subsp. Borealis, Hoodia gordonii, Tridentea umdausensis, T. longpipes, Lavrania felina, Stapeliopsis neronis and Stapella rubiginosa.
The southern boundary of the Richtersveld National Park on the slopes of the Rosyntjieberg is known to contain many endemic species, many of which are adapted to specific microclimates. These include species such as Tylecodon ellephieae, T. kritzingeri, Canophytum taylorianum subsp. rosynense, Gladiolus deserticolus, Odontophorus angustifolius subsp. toparcoides, Tritonia mariothii, Aloe meyeri and Spiloxene sp. Other endemic species occurring on the high Vandersterreberg areCheiridopsis pilosula and Cephalopyllum goodieae.
The vegetation along the banks of the Orange River is of particular conservation value as it is threatened by cultivation which occurs along much of the length of the river. Euclea pseudebenus(popular for firewood) and Rhus pendulina are commonly found here. In the Fish River Canyon reeds and rushes grow in the riverbed on slack stretches of the river. Camel thorn Acacia erioloba and karoo thorn trees Acacia karoo grow on the riverbanks and aloes such as Aloe gariepensis cling to the canyon walls.


Many of the species of fauna found in the area are adapted to withstand the harsh, arid climate. Species that would otherwise not be able to survive in such an arid region are concentrated in the denser vegetation near the Orange River. Fifty-six species of mammals are found in this area, including six species endemic to the southern African sub-region and eight Red Data Book species. Predators include leopard, caracal, brown hyena and black-backed jackal. The only ungulate that is common is the klipspringer. Other ungulates that occur in lower densities are Hartmann's mountain zebra, grey rhebok, duiker, steenbok, gemsbok and kudu. Baboons are found in some areas and smaller mammals include rock hyrax and mountain ground squirrel.
The dense riverine vegetation increases the number of birds to at least 194 species, 23 of which are endemic to southern Africa. The only breeding pair of augur buzzards in the region occurs here and the high cliffs are very good viewing sites for other raptors such as jackal buzzards and African fish eagle.
The area is noted for its herpetofauna. A large variety of lizards (35 species) and snakes (16 species) populate the diverse microhabitats of the area. A number of species such as the Namaqua day gecko and the paradise frog have restricted distributions and several other potential new species have been found.
The western sand snake is extremely rare and is restricted to this region. Many species such as the desert mountain adder is uniquely adapted to arid regions.
The arthropods of this region include tenebrionid beetles, the large spider hunting wasp, the roseate emperor moth and some of the world's most poisonous scorpions.

Global Importance

The /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park straddling southern Namibia and South Africa is one of the most species-rich arid zones in the world. It is part of the Succulent Karoo biome, which has the richest succulent flora in the world, harbouring about one-third of the world’s approximately 10 000 succulent species.

Measuring 5 920 km², this region spans some of the most spectacular desert scenery in Africa, with strikingly coloured mountain ranges rising abruptly from sandy valleys.

A 100 km arc takes in the Richtersveld National Park, Orange River valley and Fish River Canyon – Africa's largest canyon at 161 km long and up to 550 metres deep.

The 350 million year old lower Orange River gorge abounds with history and grandeur, while the Orange River mouth has been categorised as a Ramsar Site (a wetland of international importance).