South Africa: The Northern Cape

Head to the Northern Cape — South Africa's largest province — and discover the Green Kalahari, from the desert terrain of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, to the fertile valleys of the Orange River and Augrabies Falls National Park.

By Meera Dattani
Published 30 May 2014, 12:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:36 BST

No noise, barely a breeze and the heat of the day at its peak. Ahead, miles of crater-like cracked earth and around us, rocky hills, or koppies. It's just me, my road trip companion and our not-quite-all-terrain car, all pausing for breath at the gate of an enormous Kalahari desert saltpan.

Those six miles of uninterrupted terrain provide one of the most exhilarating — and shortest — drives of my life, speeding across this unreal landscape. However, we weren't alone. At the other end, a group of camels stood with their heads held high, almost disdainfully, before shuffling off, aggrieved at this disruption to their afternoon lurking.

These few minutes sum up the Northern Cape. Vast, crowd-free, beautiful, surprising. It's South Africa's largest province, covering a third of the country, and also the most sparsely populated, one of the least visited, and yet one of the most rewarding.

It's the northern section between Namibia and Botswana, known as the Green Kalahari, which lures me here, to experience the contrast between the desert terrain of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the fertile valleys of the Orange River and Augrabies Falls National Park.

An explorer's dream, I'll discover endless stretches of road where rush hour consists of two cars passing by. Rock rabbits darting in and out of the bush, grassy red sand dunes rolling on for miles and signs proclaiming, 'Red Meat Country. Try It. Love It.' Driving doesn't get better than this. By night, the oversized sky transforms into an open-air planetarium — almost zero light pollution giving even the oldest stars a chance to shine. In the southern Kalahari, the Orange River creates a surprisingly verdant landscape, where grape farms thrive and quiver trees stand silhouetted on rocky hillsides.

This is also the land where San hunter-gatherers and Khoi herders once roamed, their heritage rocked by both early white settlers and apartheid dispersing communities and taking over land. In the 18th century, a permit could be sought to hunt them, as they were classified 'vermin'. Now, many lost traditions are being revived, slowly, by themselves through tourism, and also as a way to combat poverty and its attendant problems.

One initiative to encourage exploration of this heritage is the Red Dune Route. It's more than just a marketing tag, guiding you from the region's main hub, Upington, which is around 450 miles west of Johannesburg, northwards towards Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kgalagadi, which means 'land of thirst', is Africa's first official transfrontier park, partly in Botswana, partly in South Africa (formerly Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Gemsbok National Park, respectively). The park is now managed as one, with no visas required when you enter and exit from the same gate.

Jointly run by local the Mier and San communities along with South Africa National Parks as a way of addressing land lost by locals during apartheid, the boundary change in May 2000 also recognised something else: that ecosystems are not governed by political boundaries. Its size, at roughly 8.65 million acres, makes it about twice the size of Kruger.

Those creatures that survive here are hardy. The dry riverbeds of the Auob and Nossob Rivers run through the reserve, a meeting spot for springbok, gemsbok (oryx), eland, wildebeest and ostriches. Lucky visitors may see the black-maned Kalahari lions, cheetah and even leopard. By night, the Cape fox, African wild cat and spring hare, also called the Kalahari kangaroo, are frequently sighted.

Through the bushveld

Driving through the park is easy, with viewpoints and watering holes clearly marked as you weave in and out of Botswanan territory. Our destination is the unfenced !Xaus Lodge, on the edge of the reserve. We park up our own car (no match for the road ahead) and embark on a 45-minute dune 4WD safari at breakneck speed to reach this remote community lodge. 'Xaus' means 'heart' and the land it occupies is known as !Ae!Hai Kalarahi Heritage Park, shared by Mier and San communities. Consisting of 12 chalets, a plunge pool and restaurant deck overlooking a huge saltpan, it offers rustic, rather than opulent, luxury. In the distance, three ostriches settle on the pan for the afternoon, while on our private deck other creatures also decide to make themselves at home.

"Just corn crickets, totally harmless," reassures Richard, the lodge manager. "They love the heat." Harmless they may be, but they look indestructible. After two days of observation, it's also unclear what they eat, or what, if anything, eats them.

A morning wilderness walk through the bushveld introduces us to the Kalahari's plants. Kalai, one of the younger generation involved in relearning ancestral bushman skills, shows us shrubs used for everything from appetite suppressants to earache cures, and the tsamma melon, a flavourless watermelon loved by antelope for its hydrating qualities. We see the shade-giving shepherd's trees, camelthorn trees and gravity-defying 550lb sociable weaver nests, built precariously on branches, while above us, raptors soar high in search of breakfast.

By night, it's another world. Evening drives serve up everything from bat-eared foxes and spring hares to aardwolfs and jackals, while the night sky looks bejewelled, like glitter scattered across the Milky Way. During an evening of star-gazing, we take it in turns to admire Jupiter's rings and moons through a telescope while Richard relates ancient readings of the constellations and bushmen interpretations.

The Kalahari extends well beyond the park. There's no major town, but Askham is a virtually a city, with a supermarket, Diamond T Coffee and Gift Shop — located in a former bus stop for Diamond T buses — and two, yes two, petrol stations. A highlight is one of Professor Anne Rosa's Kalahari Nature Trails. Welsh-born and now smitten with the Kalahari, her ambition was always to 'own a piece of desert ruined by human thoughtlessness and give it back to nature', which is precisely what she's achieved with her 8,640 acres — part of what was once a cattle farm. Rosa is also passing on her knowledge to her assistant and protégé Andre. "I've learnt pretty much everything from the Prof," he tells us.

In the morning, during Rosa's now-famous nature walk — which she calls 'reading the Dune Newspaper' — the Prof unpicks last night's events, be it giant millipede action or dune art (the swirling patterns in the sand made by a blade of grass caught in the wind). In a first, for me, her adopted, once-abandoned, meerkats follow us, occasionally digging for breakfast (insects) before catching up with us.

Walking with meerkats seems impossible to top but something comes close. It turns out to be dinner at nearby Molopo Kalahari Lodge. We jump onto the back of its bakkie (pick-up truck) and head out to Koopan, a nearby saltpan. What lies ahead looks like a mirage but it's real. A table set for two, white linen, Champagne on ice, a fired-up braai (barbecue) with sizzling steaks, all on terrain that resembles the moon. In the distance are two camping chairs, where we're later to sip Champagne, watch the sunset and wait for the sky to start its nightly spectacle.

Saltpans are characteristic of this landscape. While some are mined for desert salt, there's another, Hakskeen Pan, close to the Namibian border — a petrolhead's dream. It's the site for the Bloodhound Project, a British attempt to break the world land speed record with the world's first 1,000mph car. Our land speed ambitions here are more modest: an afternoon of sandsurfing on the dunes in the back garden of Rooiduin Guest Farm, owned by Alida and Naas Mouton.

The idea that the Kalahari is just desert is quickly quashed. After our final night here, spent camping close to the Namibian border near Rietfontein at the Mier community-owned Kalahari Info and Tented Camp, we leave the red dunes and head south for the Orange River, once called the Great Gariep, or 'God's gift to the Southern African thirstland'. Flowing through the semi-desert of the southern Kalahari, it creates pockets of life en route. Upington, the main hub for miles around, might not exist were it not for this water. Here, between Upington and Augrabies, is the Kokerboom Food and Wine Route, making this once-tricky region easier to see. From the vantage point of Tierberg hill in the town of Keimoes, it's clear how the river has created a greenbelt along the bank, where vineyards and other agriculture flourish.

Keimoes is actually made up of about 120 islands. Water tunnels make many of these inhabitable, and historic water wheels, like the one in Keimoes, highlight how important water was, and is, to this region. Kanoneiland is one such island. In fact, it's South Africa's largest inhabited inland island and where Elmarie de Bruin runs African Vineyard Guest House with her photographer husband, Theuns. She prefers to think of it as 'sharing my home'. It's an impressive home, with six suites named after grape varieties (we're in Ruby Cabernet) and an al fresco table where guests wine and dine together.

On the vine

"Before dinner, there's a surprise," says Elmarie. A few miles away is Blocuso Trust, a community-owned piece of land that operates as a day camp for dune walking, cooking lunch on the braai and watching the sun go down. As the G&Ts made their daily appearance, we marvelled at an electrifying sunset; with just a lone quiver tree breaking up the colours.

G&Ts aside, this region also does wine. Maxi Compion, a co-founder of the Kokerboom Food and Wine Route, says, "We produce 140,000 tons of grapes — and 10% of South Africa's vineyards are in the Orange River valley and southern Kalahari." The vineyards grow grapes to eat — both fresh and as raisins — and, of course, for wine. Orange River Cellars is one of the largest vineyards in the world, comprising about 900 farmer-shareholders who farm 135sq miles of vineyards along the river, while smaller ones include the family-owned Bezalel Wine & Brandy Estate. The Pinotage wines here are particularly tasty and several bottles seem to have worked their way into the car.

Northern Cape cuisine may not yet have made its mark on global gastronomy, but what it does well is quality, locally produced food. Roadside padstals (farm stalls) sell honey, freshly baked biscuits, preserves and homemade bread. A favourite is Die Pienk Padstal, which, true to its name, is as pink as anything. Its quirky decor includes old car bonnets and number plates as well as flood markers, showing the water levels from the region's 1977 and 1988 floods, and photographs of the aftermath.

It's a welcome stop on the journey from Keimoes to Augrabies Falls National Park, although the high point is Tiaan Visser's small farmhouse, Vrouenspan Kaasmakery, where he hosts cheese tastings as well as private dinners. Tian's homemade cheeses are exquisite, in particular his version of Manchego. He believes beer is a better pairing than wine. That's up for debate, but it goes down well.

If Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the holy grail for the Red Dune Route, the 123,552-acre Augrabies Falls National Park is the trump card here. When the Orange River is at its maximum flow, the 184ft-high Augrabies Falls gush into an 11-mile-long gorge, and all around a mesmerising moon-like landscape is home to all manner of antelope, from klipspringer to eland, as well as hartebeest and wildebeest, which graze among the quiver trees. The national park's accommodation is at the top of its game, with chalets, a great restaurant, walking trails and a boardwalk joining several waterfall viewpoints.

Whitewater rafting is popular here, although one glimpse of Augrabies Falls makes this a daunting prospect, especially for a first-timer like me. Craig, of Kalahari Outventures, one of the area's longest-running adventure companies, reassures us with helmets, life jackets and a safety lesson. Picking up paddles, we get our bearings before negotiating our way through Grade 3 rapids in our two-person inflatable rafts. It's bracing, to say the least, and a lot of fun. A spin causes us to paddle in reverse and my companion slips into the water, briefly. On the more gentle stretches, we sit back and watch giant herons swoop across the water, and have time to catch our breath before the next rapid.

Back in Upington, this small town, with its new mall, feels like a metropolis after two weeks of wide-open spaces and few people. It's as hot as the desert, though: 38C in the shade. Thankfully, it's cooler by early evening as we board the Sakkie se Arkie, a cruise boat run by Sakkie's Adventures that departs most evenings for a sunset sail along the Orange River, to a soundtrack of birdsong, '80s pop and the clinking of cocktail hour.

We've covered over 930 miles, exploring a relatively small section of this vast province. As we bob along the river, I think about the Kalahari's grassy red dunes, the empty saltpans and the lunar terrain around Augrabies Falls. My advice? Take the scenic route and head to this unfamiliar corner of the Cape.


Getting there
British Airways and South African Airways fly daily between Heathrow and Johannesburg. SA Airlink/South African Airways flies daily between Johannesburg and Upington.
Average flight time: 11h.

Getting around
This region is best explored by car as public transport and taxis are limited. Buy a local SIM card and good maps. Always carry water and keep petrol topped up.

When to go
Temperatures are most comfortable in March-April (25C), with December-February often stiflingly hot. The winter months of August and September (around 20C) are popular for combining the Kalahari with western Namaqualand's desert flower season.

Need to know
Visas: None required.
Currency: Rand (ZAR). £1 = ZAR18.
International dial code: 00 27.
Time: GMT +2.

More info
The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland. RRP: £9.99.

How to do it
Aardvark Safaris offers a 12-day trip, including two nights in the Green Kalahari, three nights on the Kokerboom Food and Wine Route, three nights on the Red Dune Route and three nights at !Xaus Lodge, from £2,695 per person, including flights, car hire, accommodation and most meals. 

For DIY itineraries contact:

Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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