Sunday, August 19, 2012

Richtersveld: Gannakouriep to Springbok

Packing up was a lot easier this time, with no need to pack up stretchers, tents, gazebo, and all the cooking paraphernalia.  We took the opportunity to put the 20l of fuel we were carrying into my car.  With all the low gear driving in the park, my fuel consumption indicator was showing a consumption rate inside the park 30% - 40% higher than normal road consumption.

Once more, a boost from Dave's trusty 'jump start booster' was required to get the Cruiser on its way (how many charges is this small booster battery going to manage??), and we headed west towards Helskloof Pass and the park exit. Stopping regularly along the way to explore the flowers, we reached Helskloof Pass with low cloud and mist, so unfortunately we weren't able to enjoy any of the views along the pass.  Once again the rough and rocky road of the pass gave the Forrester a solid bit of exercise, and once again I would have preferred a slightly lower gear range, but I was still very pleased to exit the pass with no knocks or bruises.  I've never been interested in driving 4x4 routes 'for the sake of it', but I bought this car to take me to photographic locations that I would not otherwise have been able to reach, and it's done exactly 'what it says on the box'. Never again will I be tempted by a 'German luxury sedan'!
Hint of sun
Richtersveld: Hint of sun
After a short pause at the main park entrance to sign out, we were pleased to once again be on the main gravel road heading back to Alexander Bay.  Quite heavily rutted at first (enough to shake the Cruiser's front left light fitting loose - but nothing that a pair of cable ties couldn't hold back in place!), it wasn't long before we came across a grader doing what a grader does best, opening up a channel for us to catch up on a bit of lost time.

Port Nolloth was our refueling spot, and a quick calculation showed that without the extra fuel, I would have been very borderline to have made it back to Alexander Bay.  Dave's huge tank was still half full, no problems there!

From here we split up, Dave heading for Upington (one more booster start required!), and then home the next day, and me heading back to Jakkalswater farm outside Springbok (camping this time) for two nights to look for more of the Namaqualand flowers. 

Lessons learned: the preparations / precautions were all worth it, and even though we didn't need all the back-ups, I would do them again. The Richtersveld is a very isolated place, and we were reminded that 'smaller' things going wrong could easily unravel your complete holiday.  Just because you don't claim on the insurance doesn't mean it's not important.  And I  have been incredibly impressed by the 'jump start booster' - at least 5 or 6 boosts without any recharge - I will certainly add one of these to my future trips, at least on any solo ones.  And increase the stock of cable ties....

Leaving Port Nolloth, and on the lookout for flowers, it was clear that although there were some flowers around, it was still early in the flower season, and it wouldn't be easy to find the big fields of flowers that one reads about.  But I was still pleased with some interesting finds along the roadside.

Namaqualand flowers, near Port Nolloth
Port Nolloth: Daisies in the sand
Namaqualand flowers, near Port Nolloth
Port Nolloth: Daises in the sand

Arriving at Jakkalswater farm, I was greeted by the chill wind of a new cold front blowing in, and rather tiringly set up the tent for the 4th, and what I hoped would be the final, time.

Richtersveld: Gannakouriep

Once again up well before dawn, we were disappointed to discover a solid bank of low cloud covering us, accompanied by a cold wind.  But knowing how stunning it can look if the sun breaks through and spotlights your target, we decided to walk in the direction of the mountain range, and find a candidate viewing location.  We dragged ourselves up and down a few koppies, first with head torches, and then the pre- dawn light, until we settled on a likely spot, to await a break in the clouds.

Marscape at Gannakouriep
Rictersveld: Gannakouriep in the mist

Sadly, after a hour or two, there was no hint of the clouds lifting, and it was time to pack up again to leave the park, so we returned empty handed. Clearly a place that will need another visit whenever I go back to the park one day.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Richtersveld: Richtersberg to Gannakouriep

Rolling out of our sleeping bags at an unearthly hour we gulped down some coffee, and headed off, about an hour and a half before sunrise. We had given ourselves about an hour to find the place in the dark (with no paths to walk on), and we planned to be there in time to catch the pre-dawn glow, and hopefully pink in the clouds just before sunrise, and then even more hopefully the strong pink / red glow of the mountain as the sun catches it for the first few minutes of the sunrise.

After 20 minutes of walking along the road in the dark, Dave asked ‘Isn't this where we are supposed to get off the road and head along the river bed?’ Checking the tracks from the previous day on my GPS I assured him we weren’t yet supposed to get off the road, it must be a bit further. 10 minutes later I had to concede I was following the wrong track, and we have to do a U-turn.  Once off the road, and with the first hints of light in the sky and a sunrise which waits for no man, I feared I may have messed this one up!  With headlamps on maximum brightness, we scrambled along the rocky river bed as quickly as we could (cursing the heavy camera pack even more).  

We arrived 20 minutes before sunrise, with the first glow of dawn already visible on the mountain. With patchy clouds in the sky, it will only be a few minutes before they get lit up, and the first 'prime opportunity' may be lost. After a rushed set-up, it was just a few moments before the clouds turned a magnificent pink, and the mountain glowed a very subtle pre-sunrise pink. Snap, snap, snap, and the colour in the clouds was gone. 

Morning pink
Richtersveld: Morning Pink at Richtersberg
 Now to wait the 10 or 15 minutes for sun to make an appearance and cast its first direct light on the top of the mountain. 10 minutes, 15, 20, and still no sun on the mountain top. Sadly, the bank of clouds that gave us our brilliant pre-dawn colours obviously extended a lot further than we could see, and was blocking the rising sun.  By the time it did make its appearance, the colour was gone, and the effect lost. As it happened, that pre-dawn image turned out to be in my 'top 5' of the trip, so worth the effort.

Packing up camp for the third time, we departed for a day's driving, with the eventual destination being the luxury of hot water and a bed at Gannakouriep Wilderness Camp.

Based on information we received when entering the park on Sunday that the best of the early flowers were in the south west of the park, we chose not to head to Gannakouriep directly, but rather first drive further west in the direction of Helskloof (through RT 17, RT 7, and on to RT14).  The information proved to be correct, and we started to see a lot more flowers and colour than we had seen at either Richtersberg or Kokerboomkloof.  Getting out of the car to explore the veld revealed an incredible variety of flowers. Looking closely at a small patch of yellow flowers showed 5 or 6 quite different shapes, sizes, and markings of yellow flowers. We were apparently a little bit early for the full flower season, but we still spent hours exploring a few patches of ground.

Variations in yellow
Richtersveld: Variations in Yellow
Variations in yellow
Richtersveld: Variations in Yellow
Variations in yellow
Richtersveld: Variations in Yellow
  Reaching junction RT 14 in reasonable time, we decided to head north (towards RT13) to continue enjoying the flowers. Not checking the main maps I was carrying, we didn't realize we were about to go into the Domorogh Pass, probably the roughest patch of road we were to encounter in the park.  Even with the Forresters's 'low range', to maintain enough momentum to climb the pass I was forced to tackle the rocks and holes a bit faster than I would have preferred (or overstress the clutch). But even with all the shaking around, I was impressed that there were no clunks or bangs from under the car, and we exited the pass completely unscathed.

Driving further north turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as the flowers had largely disappeared, and we were in a rather open, featureless, plain. We considered returning the long way around to avoid having to go down the Domorogh Pass, but it would be too far to get back to the camp in time, so, after exploring the variety of red, blue, orange, yellow and white flowers at the top of the pass, we crawled our way back down. Relief again once all four wheels were on stable ground.

Domrogh Pass gardening
Richtersveld: Domrogh Pass gardening
With one more stop at a small field of orange flowers to take a team photo, we then targeted the hot water showers of Gannakouriep Wilderness Camp.

Gannakouriep Wilderness Camp is a camp with four chalets ( two beds each), each with a solar geyser, solar panels for (limited) electricity, and gas for a fridge and cooking, but as with all the other places in the park, one has to bring in one's own drinking water.  What a pleasure! Located in the southern part of the park, Gannakouriep is in a completely different type of mountain range, which I hoped would yield some equally different looking photographs, compared to the rest of the park.

Looking south from the camp, we were facing a wide, flat mountain range in the distance, running approximately north-west to south-east, so much more a morning photograph than an afternoon one.  The soft light of late afternoon was instead ideal for exploring a few of the local plants

Little fat fingers
Richtersveld:Little Fat Fingers

Friday, August 17, 2012

Richtersveld: Richtersberg

Pottering around along the river on the first afternoon didn't reveal any obvious late afternoon / early morning locations, so it was a bit of a 'take what comes' situation. Not surprisingly, no 'wall hanging grade' images came from these times, even if we did have fantastic early morning clouds, giving beautiful colours to the sunrise and the river.  It was also quickly clear that the surrounding mountains would block the first rays of morning light from striking any of the peaks along the river, and we would have to look elsewhere for a 'red glowing mountain' sunrise picture. 

Sunrise at Richtersberg campsite
Richtersveld: Sunrise at Richtersberg Campsite
By mid-morning we set out to explore the environs, finding curious seams of pink quartz in the rocks and spiky green plants, as we kept an eye out for a candidate 'big mountain'. 

Rocky stripes
Richtersveld: Rocky Stripes
Green and Red
Richtersveld: Green and Red
After a bit of a walk south from the camp site, Dave spotted a strong candidate - the tallest peak within site - quite a way up a dry, rocky river bed. We gradually made our way across the boulders of the river bed, stopping regularly to inspect the rocks and curious plants, trying to get handheld macro shots of small puffy flowers, and climbing up the ridges to check the eye-line to our target. Several bends later, we eventually decided that we had hit the prime spot, with great leading lines of the river bed working themselves all the way up the target mountain.  Checking out the sunset and sunrise angles with the GPS compass we decided this would make an interesting afternoon and morning option.

But the mid-day light was very boring, so we headed back to camp for lunch, returning in mid-afternoon (grumbling about the ever increasing weight of my camera pack, as the lens collection grows over the years), when the shadows were starting to create some depth. The wind was back, but the good news was that it was blowing interesting cloud formations across us all the time - at one stage Dave remarked that perhaps we should rather concentrate on photographing the variety of clouds, rather than the less-than co-operative mountains.  The next hour and a half was spent observing the changing light and shadows, and taking occasional snaps as the mood changed.  With the mountains to the side again casting heavy shadows across the view well before sunset we slogged back to camp with only mediocre images in the bag. On return, Dave bemusedly remarked to Jan 'I've just sat around for an hour, watching a mountain'.

Late afternoon in the Richtersberg mountains
Richtersveld: late afternoon at Richtersberg

Without any better options, we decided that the same mountain remained our best candidate for dawn and sunrise, and planned a very early morning start.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Richtersveld: Kokerboomkloof to Richtersberg

Thursday morning came with almost completely clear blue skies, and an opportunity to catch the early morning light on the rocky outcrops.  With all the rain of the day before we hadn't prepared any great morning location, so it was mostly a case of wandering around the kloof, looking for spontaneous opportunities.  The colour of light on the koppies and kokerboom trees was beautiful, but the contrast of dead kokerboom trees against the blue sky highlighted the tragedy of the dying kokerboom of the Richtersveld.  I haven't seen a definitive explanation of what is causing them to die, but it is sad to see only a few remaining living trees. Soon the kloof will look far too much like Deadvlei in Namibia.

Red rock sunrise
Richtersveld: Red Rock Sunrise at Kokerboomkloof
The dying Kokerboom of Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: Dying Kokerboom at Kokerboomkloof
Photographically the day brought nervous moments. My first camera battery was nearly empty, so out came the second, spare, battery.  With no power in the park at all, recharging the gadgets can only be done using an inverter in the car while transiting between camps. With two batteries this should be no problem. Discovering that in the rush to pack, the second battery had not been charged, and was almost empty from the previous outing, doesn't make a good start to a remote photographic holiday morning! 

Not too surprisingly, when it came time to depart, the Cruiser engine remained stubbornly lifeless.  Out came the 'jump start booster' for a second time, and we were on our way towards the Richtersberg camp.  Taking the long route around (via RT10) we were greeted by wide open spaces and different coloured mountains in the distance, with low koppies in the foreground of a whole variety of textures and colours.  So there we were, two cars parked on the side of the road, engines running, while we wandered around taking pictures of strange plants and coloured hills. One vehicle running to get an emergency charge in the camera battery, one because it probably won't restart when required! 

Colours in Rock
Richtersveld: Colours in Rock
River in the desert
Richtersveld: Rivers in the Desert

Stopping at a couple of viewpoints along the route, we stuck with the 'engine running routine', and by the time we arrived at Richtersberg camp in mid afternoon, both my camera batteries were recharged, and I could relax again. The camp site was empty when we arrived, and we could pick a beautiful spot right on the river.  It wasn't long before we realised that being back near the river brought with it open competition with a gang of marauding monkeys, who are well practiced at stealing food off tables, out of cars when the doors are open, and even right out of your hands if you are not paying attention.

Richtersveld: Richtersberg Camp Site
Later that evening we were treated to the site of what looked like a biggish cat, with short legs, stripes on its back and rings on its tail, slink out of the dark and help itself to some pieces of fruit that were at the edge of the camp. Dave quickly got out his camera to try and capture it if it returned, but it was not to be. With only a brief view, it looked to us like an African Civet, but these are not listed in the SANParks list of park mammals, so we are not sure what it was.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Richtersveld: Kokerboomkloof

During the night we heard the first drops of rain coming in behind the cold front, and when the alarm went off well before dawn, a quick peek outside the tent showed the weather had closed in on us, with low cloud and steady rain, as well as distressing signs of water leakage into my tent. No dawn photography would be possible today, and with a chill wind swirling outside, the sleeping bag deserved my full attention again.

By 9 a.m. the rain had lifted enough for us to walk around and start exploring. With the wind swirling, the clouds were moving rapidly bringing sporadic rain, but occasionally a small gap would open, and let a beautiful shaft of light through to illuminate the boulders with an incredible glow. Seeing the incredible changes in the light, we quickly scrambled amongst the rocks to find a good spot where we hoped would reveal a great view if a gap in the clouds would oblige us by shining on a particular koppie. Fortunately I had a full waterproof suit with me, so it wasn't too much of a problem to hang around in the rain.  Dave, on the other hand, had only a waterproof jacket, and had a pretty cold and soggy time while waiting.

It wasn't very long before the rain lifted enough for us to quickly pull the cameras out of their bags, set them up on the tripods, and compose our images in anticipation of the light. Alas, the rain arrived heavily again before the light, and the cameras were quickly put away, to wait for the next gap. Our patience eventually paid off with the rain lifting just before a beautiful glow of warm light illuminated the koppie that we were 'aiming' at. With moisture still heavy in the air, a subtle rainbow shone across the width of the koppie, resulting in one of my favourite images of the trip. Printed as a large panorama, i think this image may well land up on my wall at home.

Kokerboomkloof: Rainbow on the kloof
Richtersveld: Rainbow on the kloof, at Kokerboomkloof
Over the next hour or two we had a great time exploring the kloof as the light changed minute by minute.

Streaky Koppie
Richtersveld: Streaky Koppie at Kokerboomkloof
Dying Kokerboom of Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: Dying Kokerboom at Kokerboomkloof
The rocks of Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: Multi-toned rocks of Kokerboomkloof
After an exploratory climb in the early afternoon, we decided that our late afternoon photo would be from the top of a koppie behind the camp site which had a particularly interesting tree growing out of a crack in the rock at the top of the koppie, and the changing light might make for an unusual image (you can see the small tree at the top of the koppie in the first of the three photos above). Having seen a sunrise photograph from Hougaard Malan which used that particular tree, I thought it made for a particularly compelling foreground.  Hougaard was kind enough to point us in the right direction, so we could locate it.  The last portion of the climb was particularly tricky, and with the rain still moving through, extra slippery. If I had been by myself, I would never had completed the last few meters to the tree, but fortunately Dave is a more adept climber than me, and kindly came back for my camera pack and tripod, so I only had to slither on my bum the last stretch and hoist myself over the edge to get to the tree.

The next hour was the same routine as the morning - waiting for a gap in the rain above our heads, to coincide with a gap in the clouds on the horizon to let the late afternoon sun shine through.  It was such a promising spot that even without the anticipated cross lighting, it was still worth a snap or two.

Kokerboomkloof: Singing in the rain
Richtersveld: Singing in the Rain at Kokerboomkloof
After a couple of mediocre photos, suddenly it all came together, with the rain moving off to one side, and the tree brilliantly lit in front of us.  This time an intense rainbow appeared, seemingly coming from right under our feet.  The light and rainbow were only there for a few seconds, but it was enough to capture probably my favourite image of the trip. 

Kokerboomkloof: Warmth and colour after the storm
Richtersveld: Warmth and Colour after the storm at Kokerboomkloof
A few minutes later, the kloof was clear, with mostly blue skies. 

All quiet after the storm
Richtersveld: All quiet after the storm at Kokerboomkloof

The three images above were all taken within a span of about 20 minutes, giving some idea of the variable nature of the weather.  As quickly as it had cleared, the rain returned by the bucketful, and it was time to call it a day, and slither back off the koppie.

Cooking dinner in the rain at Kokerboomkloof proved a rather miserable affair. For some reason (probably the strong wind on the first afternoon), we had not put up the gazebo, so the only cover we could find was just outside the 'ablutions' (Kokerboomkloof of course being a complete 'bring your own water' site). Essentially a reed covering to protect against the scorching summer heat, it was no match for the persistent rain. With water well entrenched in the gas cooker heads, as well as my gas bottle seemingly running out of gas (after only 4 days!), we had to haul out Dave's backup bottle and take turns with the pots. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Richtersveld: Potjiespram to Kokerboomkloof

After a less than memorable morning photo session, and then packing up the camp site, we headed off to Kokerboomkloof. The route would take us well into the park, away from the park entrance and still operating diamond mines, over Halfmen’s Pass, past the 'Hand of God', across the Akkedis Pass, through Maerspoort, and on to Kokerboomkloof. 

Stopping in the middle of Halfmen’s Pass, we had a first glimpse of the incredible variety of plants dotting the hillside. From the car it doesn't look too interesting, but once you are out in the veld, and looking around, an amazing wealth of different species becomes apparent. And then to our surprise, we turned around, and there driving along the road, in the middle of nowhere, was a Telkom van. Where he would have been going to we have no idea (possibly another mine somewhere?), but with Gauteng number plates, we were not convinced this was strictly business!

Halfmens tree, on Halfmens Pass
Richtersveld: Halfmens tree at Halfmens Pass
Flowers on Halfmens Pass
Richtersveld: Flowers at Halfmens Pass
Flowers on Halfmens Pass
Richtersveld: Flowers at Halfmens Pass
Flowers on Halfmens Pass
Richtersveld: Flowers at Halfmens Pass
Telkom van on Halfmens Pass
Richtersveld: Telkom van at Halfmens Pass
After the necessary tourist stop at the 'Hand of God', we drove on through Akkedis Pass. A narrow, winding, rocky road took us to the top of the pass, giving the Forester a bit of a warm up for rougher roads to come. Dave's Cruiser didn't even notice the rocks. At the top we stopped for lunch, to be greeted by a rather disdainful look by someone being ferried in a 'real' 4x4 tour vehicle. I could almost hear him say 'how can you come up here in a car like that while I had to pay big money for my space in a tour Cruiser?'. 

New kinds of flowers, different colours, all required more exploration with the camera.  Having consumed a bit too much time on the passes, we had to significantly lift our pace once we were on 'decent' dirt road.  A quick stop for a snap at the incredibly beautiful Maerspoort (this needs an 'early morning treatment' but its too far from any of our stops to be able to get back to) and its time to push on again.

Hand of God
Richtersveld: "Hand of God"
Akkedis Pass
Richtersveld: Akkedis Pass
Flowers on Akkedis Pass
Richtersveld: Flowers on Akkedis Pass
Maerpoort Pass
Richtersveld: Maerpoort Pass

Another photo stop along the way, really in the middle of nowhere, and the next 'sinking feeling' - Dave's car decided not to start. Out came the trusty 'jump start booster', and all was well, and we were soon on our way again. But I am reminded why the Richtersveld is not the place to travel with only one vehicle - it could be a few days before someone else comes along this route. For the last stop along this route (at the "Big Toe'') both car engines stayed running as a precaution, before finally arriving at Kokerboomkloof in the late afternoon. 

Big Toe, Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: "Big Toe" near Kokerboomkloof
A cold wind was blowing, so we selected campsite number 2 which we hoped (completely incorrectly, as it turned out) would give us the best protection from the wind.

With the basics of the camp set up, we walked around the kloof to look for a good late afternoon shot, as well as try and predict a suitable morning location. Not a huge success, as the shadows of the surrounding mountain encroached a lot earlier than expected, and well before the last light of the afternoon.  We took the opportunity of the soft diffuse light to try out the macro lens on some strange looking plants.

Flowers in Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: Otherworldly flowers at Kokerboomkloof
Flowers in Kokerboomkloof
Richtersveld: Otherworldly flowers at Kokerboomkloof