The Northern Cape, home to diamond mining capital Kimberley and wilderness of the Kalahari Desert, remains South Africa’s least visited province. But it just doesn’t make sense, according to writer Meera Dattani. Here she tells us why it’s one of South Africa’s top destinations.
So why should I go?
If empty roads flanked by saltpans, sand dunes, rocky hillsides and quiver trees aren’t enough to tempt you into a road trip, perhaps you’ll be intrigued by the San hunter-gatherers and Khoi herders, or Bushmen, who once lived here and are now reviving lost customs.
Either way, the Northern Cape is a rich, sparsely-populated and under-visited region. So rent a car and enjoy the verdant landscapes along the Orange River as you drive towards Augrabies Falls National Park, get active in a National Park or taste wine in one of the many vineyards along your route.
Where should I go?
Covering one-third of the country, it’s impossible to see South Africa’s largest, least populated, region in its entirety.
Sand dunes and saltpans are the main sights along the Red Dune Route, north of Upington. Stay at lodges en route to small town Askham before the region’s holy grail of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where game drives weave in and out of Botswanan and South African territory. Lucky visitors will hear the roar of black-maned Kalahari lions and all can enjoy unpolluted, sparkling night sky.
Another highlight is the Green Kalahari area, between Namibia and Botswana, combining desert adventures with the Orange River and waterfall at Augrabies Falls National Park.
From Upington town, the Orange River flows west along the easily navigable Kokerboom Food & Wine Route through Keimoes, Kakamas and Marchand. Upington’s small-town charm is worth experiencing, with nearby vineyards and sunset sailing aboard Sakkie se Arkie.
From Tierberg Hill in Keimoes, see how the Orange River has irrigated an otherwise dry landscape by exploring one of the 120-odd islands; Kanoneiland is South Africa’s largest inhabited inland island.
What is there to do?
Spot wildebeest and klipspringer in rocky Augrabies Falls National Park, home to the 184ft-high Augrabies Falls, Khoi for 'place of the Great Noise'. The park offers opportunity for river-gorge walking, white-water rafting and canoeing.
The region is also home to 10 percent of South Africa’s vineyards. Visit Bezalel in Kanoneiland, De Mas Wine Cellars in Kakamas and Orange River Wine Cellars in Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas.
In Riemvasmaak, where apartheid policies scattered Xhosa, Nama and other communities who have since returned, there’s Nama cuisine, cultural tours, hot springs and hiking.
At Kalahari Trails on the Red Dune Route, Welsh-born Professor Anne Rosa takes visitors through her 8640-acre farm and interprets the night’s wildlife action, often accompanied by resident meerkats. Rooiduin Guest Farm offers sand-surfing and dune safaris or head to Zoutpanputs game farm, home to Cape birds, meerkats and the elusive pangolin. You can also see springbok and gemsbok lick salt off the pan, go camel riding or book floating salt pool sessions and salt work tours.
At Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, so-called from Tswana for ‘waterless place’, wildlife includes the Kalahari lion, ostrich, Cape fox, cheetah, aardwolf and spring hare. Double the size of Kruger, it’s run by Mier and San communities with South Africa National Parks.
Where can I stay?
Guesthouses, lodges and tented camps are how the Northern Cape rolls. In Upington, guesthouses include A La Fugue, Riverplace and Brown’s Manor. Along the Kokerboom Route, consider De Werf Lodge, Ou Skool Guesthouse and Ikaia B&B in Keimoes or, if feeling flush, a suite at African Vineyard in Kanoneisland, run by Elmarie de Bruin and photographer husband Theuns.
En route to Augrabies Fall National Park is Lake Grappa Guest Farm in Marchand. The national park’s cabins are excellent, or you could try Kalahari River & Safari Company and luxury Tutwa Lodge.
Heading north to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, guesthouses include Kalahari Guest House & Farm Stall, Rooipan Guest Farm in Askham and Loch Maree Guest Farm. For glampers, there’s Kalahari Info & Tented Camp Rietfontein near the Namibian border and safari-style Molopo Kalahari Lodge, one of four Northern Cape Famous Lodges, offers private dinners on a nearby pan.
In Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, community-run !Xaus Lodge offers rustic luxury overlooking a huge pan. Kalahari Tented Camp and Kielie Krankie come recommended while Kgalagadi Lodge just outside the park is outstanding.
How do I get around?
You drive. This is dream driving terrain. Stop at quirky padstals, roadside farm stalls, and forget GPS. Have a good map, local phone, keep petrol topped up and ask locals. Don’t be surprised if you’re told to turn left at the tenth quiver tree when there’s an obvious landmark in situ. Traffic is unlikely, bar speeding rock rabbits.
When should I go?
Optimum months are March and April, and the winter months of August and September when desert flowers explode in the westerly Namaqualand region, another astonishing sight in one of South Africa’s most unexpected regions. Avoid December to February when temperatures reach 40°C (104°F).