Ai-Ais Richtersveld Nat. Park

/Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park                                           
The /Ai-/Ais and Fish River Canyon Park, was proclaimed in 1968. Subsequently, the Huns Mountain complex and several farms were added. In 2003, the park was amalgamated with South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park to form the /Ai-/Ais–Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, Namibia’s first cross-border park. The size of the park is 6 045 km2
The Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in the world after the famous grand canyon. In places this canyon is 550 m deep and overall it is some 160 km long. It is one of the main tourist attractions in the south of the country. The /Ai-/Ais Park now forms part of the /Ai-/Ais / Richtersveld transfrontier park, and visitors will soon be able to cross from South Africa to Namibia using the Sendelingsdrift border post within the park. Distances between towns and resorts in this area are long, and tourists should be well prepared to enjoy the scenery when travelling in this region.

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/Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Contradictions in the literature abound, so would you please settle the question – after the Grand Canyon in the USA, is the Fish River Canyon the second-largest canyon in the world? The answer is that it depends on how you define large. At about 1 000 metres deep, Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge is considered to be Africa’s largest canyon, but it is also narrower (about 20 km wide at its widest) than the Fish River Canyon, and probably shorter too. (The Fish River Canyon is 160 km long, up to 27 km wide, and almost 550 metres at its deepest.) So which is Africa’s largest canyon? Toss a coin, or visit both gorges, then you may be able to answer the question for yourself.

Discover the /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld
Transfrontier Park Experience wilderness on a scale unimaginable. Stand at the edge of the largest natural gorge in Africa, and the second-largest canyon in the world, the Fish River Canyon. Revel in the dramatic views from Hell’s Corner where it is almost possible to imagine the dramatic natural forces that shaped the canyon. Today the /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park protects a vast area that crosses the South African border to encompass one of the richest botanical hot spots in the world, the Succulent Karoo biome. Strewn with immense boulders, the bed of the Fish River is also home to one of the most exhilarating adventures in Southern Africa, the five-day, 90-kilometre Fish River Canyon hiking trail, for which you need a hiking permit. Begin the slow descent down steep cliffs until you reach the sandy banks of the Fish River, where you will be dwarfed by sheer canyon walls that tower more than
550 metres above. Klipspringer bound up the cliffs and mountain chats drink from pools left behind from when the river last flowed. Ancient rock formations and isolation add to the sense of timelessness and elation that mark this challenging hike. For 4x4 enthusiasts, drives along the rugged eastern rim of the canyon afford stunning views across the canyon from Hell’s Corner and Sulphur Springs vantage points. One hundred kilometres further south, another more leisurely route winds along the edge of the Orange River, where masses of water are framed by towering black mountains. Everywhere there are rare plants, including 100 endemic succulents and over 1 600 other plant species, illusive rare animals, spectacular scenery and thermal springs that delight the senses, leaving visitors ready to explore the fascinating wilderness that is the /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

Time travel
One hundred and sixty kilometres long, up to 27 kilometres wide,and with a depth of up to 550 metres, the Fish River Canyon is a spectacular natural phenomenon that took over 600 million years to evolve. Underground, eons ago, a major plate moved, a crack ran through the earth, and the first process in the formation of the Fish River Canyon began. With erosion and more faults, canyons within canyons were formed. Fifty million years ago, the mighty Fish River did the rest, gouging out layers of rock and creating the second-largest canyon in the world. Today, the Fish River flows intermittently, leaving behind a chain of long narrow pools on the sandy floor of the chasm, and perennial hot springs that gush out of the earth at /Ai-/Ais, a word in the Nama language that means ‘burning water’. Namibia’s oldest rock paintings are found at the Apollo 11 caves, while rock engravings, crafted by ancestors of the Khoi people who lived in the area 2 000 years ago, are scattered throughout the park.

Rugged adventure – the Fish River Hiking Trail
Comfortable boots, plenty of water and a thirst for adventure, these are a few of the key ingredients needed to take on one of Southern Africa’s major challenges, the 90-km Fish River Canyon hiking trail. There are no guided walks, no shelters and no provisions. But there is adventure galore. Clamber down the side of the canyon into a towering, isolated world. Climb over boulders, hike past gushing hot sulphur springs, and cool down in refreshing pools of river water. Camp under the stars and prepare for an early start in the morning to avoid hiking during the heat of the day. Be prepared for four to five days of rugged adventure. A five-day hiking permit must be obtained from Namibia Wildlife Resorts prior to arriving at Hobas. Hikers must supply a medical certificate as proof of good physical health. Groups (3–40 persons maximum) can undertake the hike between the months of May and September. Bookings must be made well in advance.

How to get there
From Keetmanshoop take the B4 for 35 km before turning left onto the D435, past the Naute Dam and onto the C12 which leads into the park. Alternatively, stay on the B4 and continue to Seeheim, a distance of 45 km, then turn left onto the C12. The Fish River Canyon is approximately 77 km from the C12 turnoff. The ferry across the Orange River at the Sendelingsdrift Tourist Access Facility in the Richtersveld transports vehicles weighing less than six tons directly between the two sides of the transfrontier park.

Twelve campsites, a field kitchen and ablution facilities are available at Hobas. Camping facilities are also available along the Orange River. Accommodation, a restaurant, spa and a swimming pool are found at the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Resort.

How could such a long, thin river create such an enormous gorge?
Local folklore tells of a giant snake that preyed on the livestock of ancient herders in the region. Finally subdued by the arrows of the tribe’s bravest warriors, the monster’s death throes tore giant furrows in the earth, creating the mightiest natural canyon in the southern hemisphere. This evocative answer is countered by a more basic one – massive geological shifts, and time, lots and lots of time. It began about 1 800 million years ago when shale, sandstone and lava were deposited on the floor of the Fish River Canyon. Between 300 and 800 million years later, these were heated and compressed to form a metamorphic rock complex, which includes granites and, later, the dolorite dykes. Then water played its role in this spectacular formation. After a period of erosion, a vast shallow sea covered the area and most of what is now southern Namibia. Sediments and limestones were deposited on the sea floor from about 650 to 500 million years ago. At this stage there was a major plate movement that created a natural crack in the earth, the first process in the formation of the Fish River Canyon. For millions of years, the process was compounded by faults and more erosion, creating canyons within canyons. Then, just 50 million years ago, the Fish River started to cut its meandering way along the floor of the most recent valley.

A biome. Sounds impressive, but what is it? 
A large, distinctive complex of plant communities created and maintained by climate. The /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is characterised by two biomes – the Nama Karoo, which is east of the Fish River, and the Succulent Karoo, which lies to the west of the river. The Succulent Karoo area extending to the Sperrgebiet National Park is recognised as one of the world’s biological ‘hot spots’ with the highest species-rich desert ecological system in the world (over 1 600 different plant species) and a high endemic rate (these are plants that occur here and nowhere else) and climates (extreme aridity, low winter rainfall) defining them. From the point of view of plant conservation, one of the greatest challenges is how climate change may affect Republic of Namibia /Ai-/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

So far we’ve seen lots of stunning landscapes, but few animals. What should we look out for?
In the park there are several species of mammals, including springbok, mountain zebra, gemsbok, kudu and steenbok. Klipspringer (Afrikaans for ‘rock jumper’) and a small relic population of grey rhebok are special sightings. Predators include leopard, brown hyaena, jackal and bat-eared fox. Reptiles and insects are in abundance and you may come across huge leguans or monitor lizards, and snakes such as the highly poisonous Cape cobra, black spitting cobra, puff adder and horned adder. The Nama padloper, a tortoise, occurs here and nowhere else in the world. In the natural pools of the Fish River there are fish, such as sharptoothed catfish and yellow fish. And don’t forget the birds. There is an interesting variety, including olive thrush, African black duck, Cape robin-chat, African fisheagle, hamerkop, martial eagle and rock kestrel.

This area seems a pretty tough place for anything to survive, including humans. What is its human history?
Fortunately, early man left behind evidence of his existence in the area, including ancient rock tools used by Homo erectus between 0.5 and 2 million years ago. People were also here during the Stone Ages. Numerous sites dating from as early as 50 000 years ago have been found within the park. Namibia’s oldest rock paintings are found at the Apollo 11 cave. Rock engravings, crafted by the ancestors of Khoi people, who lived in the area about 2 000 years ago, are found in the park. At the beginning of the century, German troops used the /Ai-/Ais area as a base during the war against the Namas. Today hikers pass by the grave of a German solider while following the Fish River Canyon hiking trail.

Treaty between Namibia and South Africa
South Africa and Namibia have signed a treaty establishing one of the largest conservation parks in Southern Africa. Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Mohammed Valli Moosa and his Namibian counterpart, Philemon Malima, signed the agreement establishing the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. The move virtually takes down the border fence between the two countries, and creates a massive tourism hotspot. The park spans about 5 086 km² of some of the most spectacular scenery of the arid and desert environments in southern Africa. It merges Namibia’s |Ai-|Ais Hot Springs Game Park, which incorporates the famous Fish River Canyon, with South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park, which is owned by the Richtersveld communities but contractually managed by South African National Parks.

Besides the Fish River Canyon - often likened to the Grand Canyon in the USA - and the |Ai-|Ais Hot Springs, the Richtersveld is situated in one of the most species-rich arid zones in the world, making the transfrontier park an undisputed biodiversity hotspot. The Richtersveld National Park is also regarded as a role model for a new approach to conservation, which incorporates local people into management. Because of these assets, South African National Parks will soon be applying for the Richtersveld National Park to be recognised as a World Heritage Site. Bisected by the Orange River, which forms the border between the two countries, the transfrontier park offers enormous potential for development as a viable conservation area. In particular, the Namibian section of the peace park could in future be expanded to include the entire Namibian coastline and to link up with the Iona National Park in Angola. An expansion on both sides along the Orange River, to link up with the Orange River Mouth Transfrontier Conservation Area to the west and the Augrabies Falls National Park in the east on the South African side, is also a possibility. Combining all these areas could lead eventually to the creation of the third-largest protected area in the world, spanning over 19 million hectares.

The Namibian and South African tourism authorities will encourage public and private investment in the park, and cross-border tourism is expected to grow from 660 000 to a million tourists per annum. Among the potential tourism projects are guided tours by vehicle, hiking trails and overnight camping, specialist botanical, geological, ornithological, photographic and cultural tours, and river rafting and canoeing.