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nn data-contrast="none">n South Africa, desert is generally taken to be the thirstlands of the Karoo (Nama and Succulent), and the dry, grassy Kalahari.
But in the past few years scientists have added another biome to South Africa's impressive ecosystem list: true desert. South African desert conservation occurs in the very far north-western part of the country, within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
On a vegetation map, you'll strain your eyes to see it. No more than a tiny button, this land is just a small tongue of Namib desert flickering across the Orange River.
Desert conservation in South Africa protects life pared down to its elements, a cryptic landscape of extremes, a place of rocks, heat and searing wind. But look closer. When the heavy sea mists come in, dozens of lichen species open up to the moisture, a strange bejewelled world that demands you be on your knees to really see it.
Over a year, there is less rain than an afternoon's thunder shower anywhere else, and some years are stingier than others. The rainfall comes during the searing summer. In a bad year, it seems so barren you'll wonder whether all life has passed forever.
But after a good rainfall, long-legged bushman grass springs up and covers the severe plains in an otherworldly sea of waving lemon yellow.
In South Africa's desert, plants and animals speak the language of rain, constantly expressing climate conditions in astounding ways. And it's this fragile life, this indomitable spirit, that burns itself as an incandescent after-image on your mind.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Tel: +27 (0)27 831 1506
How to get here
By vehicle, but normal sedans won't manage these rough roads. Come in a 4x4, or at least a vehicle with high clearance.
Best time to visit
Summers are extremely hot and dry. Winter, early spring and late autumn are the best. After good rains, there should be flowers in the spring.
Things to do
Abutting the desert is the far larger and magnificent Richtersveld area, part of the high biodiversity Succulent Karoo region.
What to pack
Desert nights can be very chilly, so bring warm clothes . A macro lens for your camera would capture the tiny world of lichens, so bring one if you have it.
Where to stay
There are a number of camping sites and self-catering chalets within the Richtersveld National Park.