The Richtersveld World Heritage Site has become famous since it was declared in 2007. Less well known is the Richtersveld Community Conservancy that preceded it. The uniquely hardy plants in this arid region underpin an ancient tradition of transhumance. Nomadic livestock farmers depend on this delicately calibrated environment.

Did you know?

The Richtersveld boasts 29 lichen species - more than any other single place in the world.

The Richtersveld World Heritage Site is massive, sprawling over 162 000 hectares. But there are times when you can hardly move further than a few metres with your camera.

A tiny pelargonium in a little hollow, a group of indomitable yellow flowers, a few weirdly-shaped butter-trees, luminous pink mesembs and yellow oxalis conspire to attract your eye and your camera.

Strange little plants will intrigue you: Leaves that look like coins, leaves that look like stems, plants that move your soul because despite the harsh climate they seem so courageous, tenacious and carefree.

Shepherd’s trees frame the view. You may find the famous plant called the 'halfmens' (half-human) with its frilly mop of leaves on top – some with a spiky furze of red flowers in spring – always bending to the north.

Over it all is the buzzing of pollinators, and the plaintive call of birds, and a backdrop of rocky mountains that seem to change colour all the time.

Every now and then, you’ll come across friendly nomadic farmers with goats and sheep. This tradition of moving herds to different seasonal grazing grounds is centuries old.

This is the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, and it has so much to commend it in terms of human traditions and plant life that it became World Heritage Site in 2007, based on both its cultural and botanical importance.

But the path towards such an honour started with theft.

In the 1990s, the Richtersvelders started to see more tourists coming to visit their remote piece of flower-rich desert.

But they were troubled to see some going offroad into sensitive areas. There were even more perturbed when a few vehicles were seen carrying out loads of indigenous plants.

The destruction alerted the Richtersvelders to how precious and vulnerable their botanical heritage was. In 1997 and 1998, plans for a community conservancy were slowly drawn up. It gave the community control and management options.

Every Richtersveld stakeholder had input – farmers, tourism hosts, provincial and municipal authorities, South African National Parks, small diamond miners, and the councils and representatives from every town.

Turning this 162 000-hectare community conservancy into a World Heritage Site put the crown on a massive conservation effort.

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