Northern Cape
Close to the ground.

The arid Kalahari Desert and the grassy plains and mountains of the Great Karoo dominate the Northern Cape. Every so often, a herd of animals or burst of foliage feeding off the Orange River and its tributaries punctuates the harsh and dry terrain. Though the Northern Cape makes up nearly one-third of South Africa, it remains the country’s most sparsely populated province and is dominated by Afrikaner culture. There are only two large cities within the province and driving between any sizeable town can easily take the better half of a day.

The province’s capital, Kimberley, is best known for its history in the diamond industry and today boasts the largest manmade excavation in the world, aptly named the Big Hole. However, most visitors who are drawn to the Northern Cape stray far from its cities. It is in the region’s more rural lands where the Cape reveals its rich history of the Khoisan and Afrikaners, country hospitality, unique geology, millions of fossils dating back to the Triassic period, and a handful of beautifully rugged National Parks. It is a place for escaping into the wilderness to spend nights in the middle of nowhere under the stars of an impossibly clear sky.

The Northern Cape is home to some of South Africa’s last remaining indigenous populations in the country. Art by the area’s original inhabitants, the nomadic San, still adorn rock faces and caves throughout the province. The San were later joined by Khoikhoi pastoralists from the north; together they became jointly referred to as Khoisan. When Europeans settled in the Cape in the mid-1600s, many Khoisan retreated north of the Orange River into the arid and barren landscapes of the Karoo and the Kalahari Desert. Some Khoisan intermixed with renegade Europeans and runaway slaves and formed new clans such as the Griqua, Kora and Oorlams. By the mid-1700s, these mixed-race horseback hunters and traders became infamous for traversing the interior, raiding villages in search of booty and slaves to sell to the Cape Colony. Today, the Nama, who live along the western coast of Namaqualand around present-day Springbok, is one of the largest remaining Khoisan populations in the country.

The relative independence of these indigenous inhabitants was undermined quite literally in 1685, when an expedition from the Cape Colony led by Cape Governor Simon van der Stel, invaded Namaqualand to mine for copper. But it was the discovery of a shiny pebble near the convergence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers in the 1860s that triggered the great South African diamond rush and forever changed the course of Northern Cape history. Thousands of money-hungry prospectors from all corners of the globe flocked to South Africa and descended upon the dusty town of New Rush, transforming it into an overcrowded shantytown, rife with gambling and prostitutes.

The British were quick to ensure control of the wealth-filled region and persuaded the resident Griqua to request their protection against the advances of Boer settlers in the Orange Free State. In one fell swoop, the British established Griqualand West and brought the world’s largest diamond mine of the day within British control. The mining town was renamed Kimberley in 1873, after the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Kimberley, and soon became a thriving metropolis. Cecil Rhodes, future Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, made his fortune in the Kimberley diamond mines after buying up smaller claims and establishing De Beers Consolidated Mines Company in 1888, history’s greatest diamond monopoly. Kimberley’s opulent days came to an end during the South African War of 1899-1902. Within days of the declaration of war, the Boer army laid siege to Kimberley and trapped its citizens. For more than four months, British attempts to break the siege were frustrated by guerilla tactics of the Boer forces, but eventually the lines were broken and the town relieved. Throughout the remainder of the bloody war, the region was the stage for many of the major battles of the Western Campaign, the remnants of which have been meticulously preserved.

The lack of a large black African population in the region meant that the wide-open spaces of the Northern Cape did not suffer as much from apartheid as its neighbors. Afrikaner culture remains strong, and in the eastern region, small yet controversial Afrikaner-only settlements have been established to preserve the Afrikaner way of life in the post-apartheid era. In 1994, the Cape Province was split to officially create the Northern Cape and its southerly neighbors, the Western and Eastern Capes.

Kimberley

GPS: S 28 44.518 E 024 46.151 | pop. 170,000 | elevation 1,230 m/4,035 ft

The city of Kimberley was built on diamonds. Initially established as the rowdy mining town of New Rush, the area teemed with rough and tumble opportunists hoping to strike it big. But the vast diamond reefs eventually transformed the haphazard settlement into one of South Africa’s major cities. Cecil Rhodes made his early fortune here, buying up smaller mining claims and launching De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888. But all the glitz and glamour came at a price. Hordes of immigrants flocked to Kimberley with big dreams and empty pockets. De Beers employed thousands of migrant black laborers, who toiled years for pennies in the depths of the Big Hole, the world’s largest hand-dug excavation. But their story is often outshined by the 2,722 kilograms of diamonds that they extracted from the earth. Today, a visit to The Big Hole offers a glimpse into what life was like for these miners at the turn of the twentieth century.

Now officially part of the greater Sol Plaatje Municipality, named for one of South Africa’s greatest writers and the first Secretary-General of the African National Congress, Kimberley has more draw in its history than in its present. But if you look closely, you can still catch a glimpse of glamour from days gone by and the eerie depths of its mine cavities is an unforgettable sight. Central Kimberley is somewhat hard to navigate, with many winding and confusing one-way streets, no doubt a product of the city’s rushed development. Head southeast out of the city center on Du Toitspan Road and you’ll find most of the good eats, pubs and museums.

Witsand Nature Reserve

GPS: S 28 33.984 E 022 29.249 | elevation 1,200 m/3,937 ft

Witsand Nature Reserve is a beautiful isolated patch of white sand dunes surrounded by copper-red Kalahari sand. The dunes, which range from 20 to 60 meters high, are also known as the “Roaring Sands” because of the low roar produced when the wind blows across the hot dry sand.

Upington

GPS: S 28 27.434 E 021 14.630 | pop. 100,000 | elevation 804 m/2,638 ft

Upington is situated along the fertile banks of the Orange River, a stark contrast to the otherwise arid and dry landscape. The city is a good base from which to explore the surrounding area, which is host to an array of outdoor activities, the plunging waters of Augrabies Falls and the fine libations of the Orange River Wine Cellars, one of the largest wine consortiums in the country. The city itself has a small vibrant town center that is easily explored on foot.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

GPS: S 26 28.349 E 020 36.715 | elevation 879 m/2,884 ft

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an enormous wildlife preserve that covers 380 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert. The park spans across the South Africa and Botswana borders and runs along roughly 200 kilometers of the Namibian border.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was formed with the merger of the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa in 2000, although the two parks both date back to the 1930s and had previously been managed as one ecological unit.

The rough Kalahari Desert is dominated by copper-red sand dunes, and occasional scrub and trees line the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob rivers. Incredibly, a series of life-sustaining watering holes supplies populations of large predators including lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas that patrol the park and feed on the migratory herds of wildebeest, springbok, red hartebeest, gemsbok and eland. The park is also know for its more than 200 species of birds including migrating flamingos, pelicans and over 50 different birds of prey.

Temperatures within the park can vary drastically between day and night. Summer day temperatures frequently top 40 °C/104 °F and winter nights dip below freezing.

The Twee Rivieren gate (S 26 28.439 E 020 36.788) is the only entry and exit gate for the park in South Africa. On the Namibia side there is the Mata Mata gate and from Botswana there are the Two Rivers, Mabuasehube and Kaa gates. Passports are not required to enter the park and visitors are free to drive throughout regardless of which country they entered from. South Africa’s Twee Rivieren gate and Botswana’s Two Rivers entrance are the only gates with passport control, so all visitors transiting from one country to another will have to report to one of those two camps. Note that entry via the Mata Mata gate requires a two-day stay in the park.

All roads within the park are unpaved. If the conditions are good a 2x4 can be used within the South African section of the park, but a 4x4 is generally required within the Botswana area. Make sure to carry plenty of water in your vehicle as you will need to drink a lot to stay hydrated in the hot desert and if your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck you might have to wait a while. No cell phone reception is available within the park except at the Twee Rivieren camp. Allow ample time for driving, as traveling within the park after dark is not permitted and you can be fined for arriving at camps or gates after sunset.

Augrabies Falls NP

GPS: S 28 35.577 E 020 20.285 | elevation 623 m/2,044 ft

Augrabies Falls National Park was originally referred to as Aukoerebis or “the place of the great noise” by the Khoi people. This thundering comes from the thick current of the Orange River, which plunges down the 56-meter Augrabies Waterfall into a granite gorge. The falls are near the main rest camp, which has picnic and braai facilities, a swimming pool and a small shop and restaurant. The surrounding 55,000 hectares of the park is a dry and rocky desert spotted with trees and scrub suited for the harsh landscape. The most prevalent wildlife in the park is springbok, gemsbok and giraffe but there are numerous other small mammals, birds and reptiles including the colorful Augrabies flat lizard.

Springbok

GPS: S 29 39.990 E 017 52.987 | pop. 10,000 | elevation 942 m/3,091 ft

Springbok is a quiet former mining town in the heart of Namaqualand, the traditional home of the Nama people, who have lived in sparse settlements in the region for centuries. Just 120 kilometers from the Namibian border, Springbok is a convenient rest stop on your way in or out of the country. But between August and mid-October each year, the city bursts to life with botanical enthusiasts when the barren granite hills transform into a sea of vivid, colorful wildflowers. There is only one main drag, Voortrekker Street, which makes navigating the town pretty simple. If you come for the colors of spring, make sure to book lodging well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Around Springbok

|AI|AIS/RICHTERSVELD TRANSFRONTIER PARK

GPS: S 28 07.427 E 016 53.442 | elevation 39 m/128 ft

|Ai|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park (027-831-1506, www.sanparks.org/parks/richtersveld, 7am-6pm, adult R110, child R55) is a massive 6,045-kilometer transfrontier park formed in 2003 with the merger of the |Ai|Ais Hot Springs Game Park in Namibia and the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa. The vast majority of this beautiful but rugged desert park lies north of the Orange River within Namibia. The landscape is striking, with beautiful mountains and rugged rock formations. The few notable signs of life include the “half-human tree,” which is a colorful succulent that somewhat resembles a human figure. Nama people believe the trees embody their ancestors. These plants are able to survive on the heavy morning dew, as there is little rainfall in the desert.

This is true desert with tough, arid land, and should not be taken lightly. Take care when packing for sun protection and bring a sufficient water supply. Temperatures can vary drastically between day and night. Summer daytime temperatures can reach near 50 °C/122 °F and winter nights dip below freezing. Also note that there is no cell phone reception within the park.