Islands in the Desert


Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.

Islands in the Desert

A desert island is one thing, but what exactly are islands in the desert? Our regular correspondent, Richard van Ryneveld, went along on a brand new tour in the Northern Cape to find out.

I met Johan de Waal and his wife Magda in Port Nolloth a number of years ago. The couple own Richtersveld tours, and, as the name suggests, they concentrate on taking visitors into this seemingly dry and barren piece of Africa. Last year, in the spring, I joined Johan as his handlanger (assistant) on one of their trips into the Richtersveld.

We were sitting around the campfire one night, staring into the flames, when Johan suddenly exclaimed, “Ja nee, it might sound mad; but you know, we are surrounded by islands here in the Richtersveld!” I remember thinking, “What has he been smoking?” before Johan expanded on his theory. He began by talking about the tiny rocky islands to the south of Port Nolloth, at McDougall’s Bay. “Only a couple of hundred metres from the shore – they’re home to numerous seabirds, including a group of flamingos….” He went on to broaden his concept of islands to include the endemic plants found in the small quartz islands, to the diamond mining area that had been closed to outsiders for decades, and to the Nama shepherds who graze their flocks of goats and sheep on the grassy banks of the wide Gariep River in the arid wastes of the Richtersveld National Park. This is, supposedly, the only National Park in the world where indigenous stock farmers have been allowed to continue their traditions in peace.

That night I became hooked on Johan’s concept. And as I am a landlubber, the idea of traversing the ‘seas’ with a 4×4 also appealed. I was sold – but would SA4x4 magazine take the bait too? Luckily for us, they said, ‘Set Sail!’ Johan de Waal had cast a much wider net for our trip, and had called in Maxi Compion who runs the Keimoes Information Centre. This town stands on the banks of the Orange River, the central town between Upington (the largest town in the Kalahari) and Kakamas. Surrounding these towns are the intertwining tributaries and arteries that make up the more than 100 true islands found in this area.

A silent partner on our trip of discovery was an NGO called Open Africa. Both Johan de Waal of Richtersveld Tours and Maxi are strong supporters of Open Africa. Let me give you a brief introduction to this fine non-profit organisation.

Founded by Noel de Villiers, Open Africa strives to help the marginalised and rural communities in Africa. Its vision is to offer travellers a network of authentic, life-enriching journeys across Africa. As when going on a wine route, one tailors one’s experience to one’s interests. The routes are based on the attractions and services, such as accommodation, craft, places of cultural interest, activities, and places to try the local food. You select what interests you on a route and make your own itinerary.

Well, our journey began in Keimoes at Maxi and Gerhaldo Compion’s farm Sandkop Eiland, some seven kilometres from town. Johan de Waal had driven down from Port Nolloth to meet us. I had stayed with Maxi and Gerhaldo before at their comfortable guest cottage on their island farm. Gerhaldo, a medical doctor, has returned to his roots and now farms sultanas on the family land. Before driving over the bridge joining the farm to the mainland, I picked a bunch of the small green grapes from the vines fringing the roadside. Munching on the sun-sweetened grapes, I couldn’t help noticing the height of the wide-slatted emergency suspension bridge running alongside the cement bridge. Later I would hear that in the recent floods the water had almost touched the slats of the cable suspension bridge. It was so high that it looked like the practice area for a flying trapeze!

We got to know the bridge and our island quite well in the next few days, as we explored the area. Hospitality is the name of the game in the green Kalahari! Local farmer Dirk Malan took us to one of the most beautiful places in the Northern Cape: the kokerboom forest at Blocuso. The ground is a parcel of three large farms run as a trust by local farmers. Even if you have only an hour to spare, arrange to collect the key from Camanthia Pieters at the Keimoes Info centre and fill your soul with the spirit of the Northern Cape. There’s a 4×4 challenge up the steep slope next to the reed-enclosed toilets and braai area that Dirk Malan built. The great thing is that the steep slope is pure red Kalahari sand, so your vehicle is pretty safe. Dirk had brought a bottle of chilled Oranje Rivier 2012 Colombar to savour while watching the sunset: if you get the chance, buy a couple of cases. This is a superb wine!

The central theme of this trip was islands, and there are roughly 120 of them here. They range from Kanoneiland, the largest, some 14 kilometres long and three kilometres wide, down to minute parcels of land only a few hectares in size. A unique culture has developed in these green oases on the banks of the Gariep River, and I found various stories about the origin of the name Kanon Island. The best was a quote from Mary Stadler- Altena, an author and journalist who grew up in Upington, who says, “The apocryphal story has it that Korana chief Klaas Lukas was holed up on this island, which the British then bombarded with canon fire… Lukas supposedly packed a hollow log with gunpowder, pot shards, horseshoes… lit the fuse. After the predictably disastrous explosion, the chief is then said to have inspired his wounded and bleeding men with the words, “If it looks like this here, just think what it did to them!”

This life-giving river, called the Great River by the early people, was named the Orange after the Dutch Prince in 1779. History aside, my abiding memory is driving in Maxi’s immaculate Isuzu Frontier down the narrow gravel road, hemmed in by vineyards filled with fruit. Here and there the scent of the small fields of newly-mowed lucerne added to the sensory richness. We passed over numerous small bridges, on many of which the fishermen had to swing their legs outwards over the river to let us pass. Small cottages dotted the higher ground.

We were on our way to the Potholes, or Spoelgate. This was my second visit to these huge cylindrical potholes, made over centuries by sand and rocks grinding into the bedrock. Maxi will give you the directions to the farmhouse nearest to the sculpted boulders. Here you need to ask for Willemiena. I suggest you pay her R20 and she or one of the kids will guide you to this incredible site. I would also advise taking plenty of water, and hiking boots or good non-slip shoes. The rocks are extremely smooth and slippery, so you need to be extremely careful.

Caution was the watchword the next day too, as Dirk Malan took us on the short 4×4 route at Kalahari Water. Dirk has a guest farm, neat as the proverbial pin, offering fishing, canoeing, swimming, tubing, and hiking. He also offers accommodation to suit every pocket. From the lookout point at the top of the first section, one has a good idea why this river is responsible for 10 percent of South Africa’s grapes. And you also note how this lush green waterartery is bordered by the dry red sands of the outlying Kalahari; a sight really worth seeing.

But I still had plenty to discover! The islands of the Richtersveld and the diamond area were beckoning. We left Keimoes early the next morning for the long drive to Poffadder and on to the N7 at Springbok. From Springbok it was a short push up the N7 before turning off at Steinkopf, heading west to Johan and Magda de Waal’s home in Port Nolloth.

This small town, established as a railhead and a shallow draft harbour for the copper trade back in the 1840s, is now the only tourist centre on the Diamond Coast. Johan had organised to work close to home for the next part of our journey, so we fired up his Cruiser with its 6.2-litre Detroit diesel and headed the short distance down to McDougall’s Bay.

At the beach, Brenda Demmer was keeping their small fishing boat, Kreefie, steady in the surf, while the ’88 Isuzu 4×4 was being parked by husband Basil; he left it next to the cottage on the beach which belongs to George Moyses, well-known local character and diamond diver. George now runs the local Port Nolloth Museum, which is well worth a visit. Basil and Brenda, who have been fishing and netting harder in the small, reef-enclosed beach for the last 11 years, kindly offered to take us out to view the bird life. Port Nolloth is rich in bird life, with some 80 species recorded.

On the bigger of the two rock outcrops you are likely to find the Bank Cormorant, the Cape Cormorant, the Crowned Cormorant, the African Black Oystercatcher, the Hartlaubs Gull and the delicate Damara Tern. But what fascinated me were the Flamingos that have recently made their home on the lee of this rocky island. Brenda noted: “You know, it’s funny, but the flamingos recognise our boat. In the summer we notice that when any other boat approaches them, they immediately fly off.” Johan and I were so fascinated by the netting of the harders that I managed to avoid my normal seasickness, as we watched Brenda and Basil work in union, like a well-oiled machine, to catch them. Brenda makes rollmops and Basil sells the fish in bundles of 20 to the local people. They cleaned and scaled a bunch for us, which Johan later grilled on the braai. Man, you have to ‘wrap your laughing gear around these,’ as my Irish mate Brendan would say, to get a real taste of west coast fish straight out of the sea.

The next day it was kus langs again as we met up with Boetieman Joseph, who’s the Project Manager of the Richtersveld Rehabilitation and Environmental Company. Boetieman is based in Alexander Bay. Accompanying Boetieman was Adrienne Cloete, the tourism officer for Alexander Bay and the Coastal Region. What a privilege to be permitted to enter the Alexkor diamond area at Muivlak, some seven kilometres from Port Nolloth, and drive all the way through the diamond area to Alexander Bay and the Orange River! This was a first, as this area has been closed to outsiders for decades. Johan at Richtersveld tours will be organising the trips in future.

We drove down to the sea from the gate opposite the Muisvlak mine. As we approached the rough coast, the smell was overpowering – I had no idea that a seal colony could smell so bad. I could see the adults seals basking on the rocks, but as I moved closer to the sea, every crack and cranny seemed to come alive with pitch-black baby seals. The pups couldn’t have been very old, and there were numerous dead pups and blood-stained rocks from the birthing process, hence the smell. But as a photographer I soon forgot the smell, as I had tripod up and shutter curtain working overtime.

If you have a camera, you had better make sure you have plenty of memory cards. Our next stop was unbelievable! Johan and Boetieman led us down to where the sand, the so-called overburden, had been removed for the miners to get down to the bedrock where diamonds are found. But the miners had found a priceless treasure of another sort: the fossilised skeleton of an ancient sea creature dating back perhaps 460 000 years. Luckily for the archaeologists and marine palaeontologists, the guys had the good sense to stop mining; and the find is waiting for further exploration by the relevant professionals. Another first for me was taking advantage of the fact that one can now camp in the mining area. There are two venues: one in the dry riverbed of the Holgat River, and the other consisting of twenty-five designated stands on the beach. The Holgat River Camp is situated under a large sandstone overhang. It’s treed, and boasts plenty of shade, water and toilets; and the route down the Holgat River gives you some good sanddriving experience.

A great place to chill out before heading down to the seaside camping sites. The sites are widely spread so there’s no need to throw naartjie peels at your neighbour. If fishing and crayfishing is your bag, this is the place to be. These campsites are open from 15 December to 7 January. The campsites are also open every weekend for fishing and crayfishing, from 15 December to, and including, the Easter weekend. Fishing and crayfishing permits are required, and these are available at the Post Office. In the campsites you have to be completely self-sufficient; you’ll need to bring everything from water, to firewood and Marie biscuits. We were so hungry after our day in the mining area that we stopped in for a couple of homemade pies, chips and salad at the small Oppie Stoep in Alexander Bay. At the eatery I bumped into a fascinating young man, Pieter van Wyk. Pieter, born and bred in Alexander Bay, is an amateur botanist who’s busy compiling a field guide of the plants of the Richtersveld. With no funding, he’s managed to identify 900 species in this arid semi-desert area of Namaqualand. Apparently his knowledge is encyclopaedic; and, as I understood it, he needs only about another 90 pictures to complete the project!

As we left Alexander Bay and were about to turn onto the tar road leading to Port Nolloth, Johan said, “I know it’s been a helluva long day, but can I show you just one more island for the day?” I am glad I said, “Yes,” because we drove into an area that seemed to be covered almost entirely in some strange orange fuzz. It was a lichen field, aptly named Lichen Hill. I had never seen anything like it. And Johan explained that there were 29 different species in that area alone! It was a fine ending to an exciting day, but I have to say I was glad to get to my small ‘island’ with its comfortable bed in Johan’s guest accommodation, late that afternoon!

The next day we set off for some more island-hopping in the Richtersveld. I grew to love the throaty roar of the big diesel V8 as we headed out from Port Nolloth for Eksteenfontein to discover more secrets in Johan’s armoury. Our first stop was at a small farm called Kalkfontein, owned by the appropriately named Mr Farmer – a common surname in the Richtersveld. This venue has very basic accommodation, including water and a toilet. Riaan Groenewald, with the help of a shepherd, runs the farm with its goats, sheep and cattle. If you are looking to experience the true peace and stillness of the Richtersveld, this is the place to find it.

We stopped numerous times on the way to Eksteenfontein to look at the ‘plant’ islands. Johan was trained as a mechanical engineer, but he has come to love botany and geology. He always carries his well-thumbed reference books on the plants of Namaqualand. I noticed he carried both an English and an Afrikaans copy in the Land Cruiser. He pointed out how the sun’s direction and the prevailing winds, for example, led to succulents being found only in certain places in the Richtersveld. I found I was missing my beloved, as she lives for plants; succulents in particular. We pushed on to Eksteenfontein, stopping first to chat to Liesel Fortuin who runs the Eksteenfontein Information Centre. It’s as neat as a pin and has an aircon; a godsend in the summer heat. We stopped at the small shop near Liesel’s office to buy cokes, bread, tomatoes and a couple of tins of bully beef. There’s a huge steel construction at the centre of the village that is supposed to become an old age home; it still has a long way to go, but luckily for us it provided shade as we tucked into our bully hunks. A tomato and bully sandwich is the best grub on earth when you’re starving. On the hillside above us you could hear the occasional bleat of the goats as they grazed in the shimmering heat.

Leaving the small village of Eksteenfontein we headed out for the 17 kilometre drive to the Rooiberg Guest House, from which you have views of Rooiberg. You only have to wait till sunset to realise why it’s called Red Mountain! Johan often uses this facility, run by Sophia and Bertie Strauss under the auspices of the Richtersveld Community Conservancy. It’s simple, self-catering, but extremely well run by this charming couple from Eksteenfontein, and it was the perfect base to set out for the hardest off-roading we did on this trip: from Rooiberg down to a place called Kani Kaip on the Orange River. Bertie told us that the last vehicle from Rooiberg had driven through some three months earlier.

I discovered only on the way down to Kani Kaip that Johan’s beast of a truck didn’t have power steering! He had to use some beef to negotiate his longerthan- normal Land Cruiser down through some of the narrow, steep rocky descents. In places the track opened up before winding around another headland. It was hot as hell down there among those sun-scorched rocks and I kept wishing we would reach the Orange. When we did finally reach it, we shucked our clobber and piled straight into the river. Kani Kaip had once been an established campsite. All that’s left of the campsite is two rather forlorn long-drop loos, one without a door; but if peace and solitude is what you are looking for, look no further. Unfortunately, we didn’t have more time to explore: I guess this drive from Rooiberg to Kani Kaip on the river could have been done in a couple of hours if we had just ground our way without stopping, but we had taken literally half a day to get down to the river, and the return journey had to be a lot quicker as I needed to get back to Cape Town to meet a deadline! It’s a long drive from Port Nolloth to Cape Town. It gives a man a bit of time to ruminate, and I had one phrase that kept bumping around inside my head – ‘no man is an island’. A bit of a cliché, perhaps, but I realised that the opening line from the John Donne poem summed up this trip – we aren’t islands. There are people like Johan de Waal, Maxie Compion and Open Africa who prove these lines to be true: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….”


Kalahari Water, Keimoes S28° 43.068 E20° 57.369
This farm and resort is located on one of the islands on the banks of the Orange River which form the community of Keimoes. The entire family is catered for, and there’s accommodation to suit every pocket: self-catering cottages, caravan- and camping sites, backpacker’s accommodation – and there’s the ‘Groot Lapa’ for youth camps, weddings or conferences. Adventures and activities include canoeing, tubing, hiking and fishing.
Contact them on 054 461 2404 /
054 461 1521 or 082 495 7999, or the website

Eiland Gaste Plaas/Island Guest Farm S28° 42.768 E 20° 55.119
I highly recommend Maxi Compion’s comfortable air-conditioned cottage, high up on a hill overlooking the vineyards of the Orange River. The cottage is set up for a couple and consists of a large sitting room/dining room, fully-equipped kitchen and large en-suite master bedroom. Island Guest farm is only seven kilometres from Keimoes and close to shops and local wine cellars. Its one of my favourite places to stay in the Kalahari.

Contact Maxi Compion on 082 743 1736

Richtersveld Tours, Port Nolloth S29° 14.899 E16° 52.328
The Richtersveld is a mountain desert wilderness with a large part declared a World Heritage Site; Johan and Magda de Waal of Richtersveld Tours are geared to offer personalised trips in these areas. They will show you the road less travelled, including highlights such as endangered plants, rock engravings, fossils and lunar landscapes. Special-interest tours are a cinch and they can put together an itinerary to suit you and your group.

Richtersveld Guest House offers simple yet comfortable accommodation in double rooms with shower facilities. This is where the tours begin and end and Johan and Magda manage all aspects of the trip – from setting up camps, to catering and preparing delicious meals. For a truly charming family experience, contact Johan & Magda de Waal 082 335 1399 and 083 928 3571, or visit
the website

Port Indigo, Port Nolloth S29° 17.041 E16° 52.812 Situated at McDougall’s Bay, Port Nolloth, this 4-star establishment is made up of an eclectic mix of selfcatering apartments from rustic to ultra-modern, with names such as Port d’Azur and Port Infinite. The fully licensed restaurant, Port Dump, is open for breakfast, and then again from 15h00 onwards for wonderful meals and memorable evenings.

Contact Port Indigo on 027 851 8012, 082 8926344 or or the website Port_Indigo.htm Rooiberg Guesthouse, Richtersveld Rooiberg is some 17 kilometres from the small Richtersveld town of Eksteensfontein. Guest accommodation consists of a large dining room / sitting room area, and there are two single bedrooms with two single beds in each, as well as another bedroom with a double bed and two single beds. There is another small cottage called the ‘Honeymoon Suite’. It has a double bed and two single beds, and its own toilet and shower facilities.

Important: Please bring all your own drinking water. The available water is only for the showers and toilets. Rooiberg has a number of remote campsites, accessible by 4×4 only. Please contact Vytie Strauss (071 556 0951 or 027 851 7520) or contact Liesel Fortuin at the Eksteenfontein Tourism office. Phone on 027 851 7108.

Kalkfontein Farm S29° 0.138 E17° 9.169
If you really want to experience the Richtersveld, stay over at this small Richtersveld farm on the road to Eksteenfontein from Port Nolloth. Extremely basic accommodation, but there’s water and a toilet. The farm is run by Riaan Groenewald. Contact: Pastor Groenewald on 076 820 3512.
Alexander Bay Tourism Information Tourism Office 027 831 1907,
076 984 6036, 086 231 6067
(fax), or Boetieman Joseph on 027 831 1907,
082 887 2705 or

Keimoes Information Centre Representing Open Africa’s Kokerboom Food and Wine Route, Maxi Compion and her staff can give you advice about accommodation, food, wine and places to visit in the Orange River area. Find them at in the old Church at 152 Main road. Or contact them at 054 461 0004, 082 743 1736 or http://www.openafrica. org/participant/Keimoes-Information- Centre

Fuel is readily available on the first part of this trip in Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas. For the Richtersveld part of the trip, fuel is available in Port Nolloth, Alexander Bay and Sendelingsdrif; but I recommend always filling your tank before going into the Richtersveld.

For the first leg of the trip, go to Upington, where there is a large variety of shops. Keimoes has a well-stocked Spar and Kakamas has an OK. The Kalahari Vleis Huis in Keimoes is famous for their Flip se Rib (ribs) and Flippen Boud (de-boned lamb shoulder). And don’t forget that this is a wine route, so try some of the local wines.

For the Orange River part of the route, solo is perfectly safe. For the second part, if you take one of the 4×4 routes in the Richtersveld, it would be much safer to be travelling in a convoy of at least two vehicles.

I use a Garmin GPS loaded with the Garmin software.

For the islands area around Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas, any vehicle with good clearance would be fine for most of the routes I have described; but a 4×4 or a soft-roader would open up places like Blocuso and the trail at Kalahari Water. For the Richtersveld part of the trip, a 4×4 with low-range would be essential.

You will spend many hours on the tar getting to the venue, and once off-road you will experience gravel, sand and rock, so this trip is best driven in a vehicle fitted with All Terrain (AT) tyres. Grabber ATs from Continental Tyre are the latest generation of 4×4 tyre: their compound and tread pattern were developed to provide maximum safety as well as strong grip and excellent handling, both offand on-road. Braking performance on wet roads has improved, and noise reduced. Their robust construction provides protection against damage to the tread pattern and sidewall area, plus high mileage potential. For more information, contact your nearest tyre dealer.

For the Upington, Keimoes, Kakamas section you can use both an off-road trailer and an off-road caravan. I would suggest that you choose a campsite alongside the river: Kalahari Water is perfect for this. and then do all your exploration without towing a trailer or caravan.

Johan de Waal tows a huge trailer in his tours into the Richtersveld and surrounds. Asked his opinion, he replied, “For the major gravel road, like Alexander Bay down to the Park, fine, but if you want to do the trail like the one we did, from Rooiberg to Kani Kaip, I would definitely say – only if you are expert.” After travelling extensively with Johan, I would heed his advice.

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