The Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest province making up over 30% of the country’s land. It was also the province we had spent the least time exploring, mainly because it seemed too far from Johannesburg. Besides Kimberley and Colesberg, we hadn’t seen much there. In an effort to remedy that, we planned a 2- week road trip that took us from Johannesburg to the Northern Cape then to Cape Town via the Cape West Coast , seeing some of the wonders of the region along the way.
Planning the trip was a bit of a mission. Because I deal with so many establishments, I prefer making arrangements on email, in order to maintain proper records. However, it seemed that most establishments in the Northern Cape that I contacted - apart from a few exceptions – which were the places we ended up stayed at – did not respond to e-mail queries. Social media pages were either non-existent or hadn’t been updated in years. I think that the province definitely needs more training in hospitality and tourism marketing. It has so much to offer.
At times, the Northern Cape felt like a different country with its diverse landscape. There were vast stretches of barren land similar to Namibia but there were also fertile green valleys, vineyards and citrus orchards. This unique landscape gives rise to rare vegetation, like the quiver tree. The closest we got to Namibia was Springbok which is an hour away from the Vioolsdrif border.
We drove for long periods without seeing any other people and we didn’t have any mobile connectivity for large stretches. Except in the large towns, most of the fuel stations we saw were brand names we hadn’t heard of before. The people speak mainly Afrikaans and the province also doesn’t have as many luxury hotels as some of the other wealthier provinces.
Nevertheless, it was fun passing through the quirky little towns with strange names that we’d heard about for so long - like Kakamas, Kuruman, Pofadder, Hotazel and Springbok - and I would Google the history of the town and the origin of its name when I had internet connectivity.
Known by the Khoi people as ‘Aukoerebis’, or “Place of Great Noise, from which the current name was derived, the falls are located in the Augrabies Falls National Park. The 56-metre high waterfall is unleashed from its rocky surroundings into the 18-km Orange River Gorge, and seeing this when the river is in full flood is mind-blowing. There are many viewpoints from where you can get close to the falls and experience it’s might. The landscape surrounding the falls is arid and rocky, with patches of green. It feels almost other-worldly. Besides the waterfalls, there are many more things to do at Augrabies Falls National Park, like hiking and game viewing.
Namaqua National Park is best known for its bright carpets of wildflowers in spring, when the valleys of Namaqualand are transformed into a floral wonderland with over 3 500 species of flowers, attracting local and international visitors. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have anything to offer during the rest of the year. You can go hiking, mountain biking, see wildlife or just relax in nature. It also has a coastal section with rocky shores, white beaches and dunes, where you can spot seals, whales and dolphins if you’re lucky.
The Big Hole of Kimberley is one of the world’s largest hand-dug excavations, comprising 580 feet of turquoise water filling a hole as wide as eight football fields. It is mind-boggling to imagine how a small hill, which is what it was initially, was turned into such a huge hole by hard labour during the diamond mining frenzy between the late 19th century and early 20th century.
A visit to this attraction usually begins with a video presentation, followed by a walk on the viewing platform to see the hole. One can then get a tour of the underground mine and the diamond vault before exploring The Old Town, an open-air museum with its buildings recreated in the style of the Diamond Rush period.
On the outskirts of Kimberley, you will find Kamfer Dam, a huge reservoir which is one of only four breeding sites for lesser flamingos in Africa and six in the world. The lesser flamingoes are listed as “Near Threatened” but you can see hundreds of them here, making this a valuable conservation site. Unfortunately, most people pass through Kimberley without knowing about this hidden gem. We were lucky to get a great view of them from our trip on the Rovos Rail.
Characterised by brilliant white sand dunes surrounded by red Kalahari sands, the Witsand Kalahari Nature Reserve spans around 3500 hectares, and is known for its “roaring” sands (Brulsand in Afrikaans). During hot, dry conditions, the dunes emit a strange roaring sound when disturbed, which can be heard up to 400 metres away. Another natural phenomenon that occurs here is the creation of fulgurites — tubes or crusts of glass formed by sand – during thunderstorms. Activities in the reserve include sandboarding, hiking, cycling, game viewing and bird-watching. Accommodation options include camping and chalets although we had a bit of a negative experience at the latter.
The Eye of Kuruman is one of the biggest natural springs in the southern hemisphere. It supplies around 20-million litres of fresh water daily to Kuruman. A natural source of potable water, it is a lifeline for animals, plants and people in the area. The surrounding park is neglected though, and a high crime area so take precautions if you plan to visit.
Almost twice the size of Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a national park in the southern Kalahari that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, with 27% lying in South Africa and the rest in Botswana. The name "Kgalagadi" means "land of thirst" in the local Tswana language, an apt name for this arid region.
The park is home to several large predators like lions (especially black maned Kalahari Lions), leopard, cheetahs and hyenas. You may also see wild dogs and other animals like the pangolin and the honey badger, as well as desert-adapted plains game like the gemsbok and springbok. There is a variety of accommodation in the park but the roads are not tarred, so ensure that you go with an appropriate vehicle.
Sutherland is a small town in the Karoo, world-renowned for its clear night skies and stargazing. The largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is situated on a mountain top 14 km out of the town and it attracts visitors from around the globe. Sutherland is also one of the coldest places in South Africa. Interestingly, the Northern Cape also lays claim to some of the hottest towns in South Africa, like Vioolsdrif and Upington.