The Northern Cape is one of South Africa’s lesser explored provinces, most international visitors to the country flock to Cape Town, the Garden Route and the safari destinations (Kruger, Madikwe and the Eastern Cape reserves).
The Northern Cape currently receives mostly domestic self-drive tourists, but this is very seasonal and concentrated in the South African school holiday months. There is a drive to promote the province as an alternative destination for foreign tourists to consider when coming to South Africa – especially for those looking for something unique and different or for second time visitors wanting to discover something new. There is much of interest to offer a variety of tourists.
We at Southern Africa 360 Luxury Holidays have taken a special interest in the province as one that is up-and-coming and as such will be hosting 10 travel agents from the Nordic countries in March this year in partnership with South African Tourism and Northern Cape Tourism. We did our research with much advice from Northern Cape Tourism and last week flew up to Upington from Cape Town to conduct a recce trip in the area. Not really knowing exactly what to expect having not visited the region for a number of years we were blown away by the warmth of the people (and weather!), the stark and contrasting landscapes and the wealth of different activities and things to see and do in the area.
Our focus was on what is known as the “Green Kalahari” and the “Kalahari Red Dune Route” which showcase the Kalahari through a wide range of activities and offers the opportunity to experience regional cultures and folklore. Upington is the gateway to this region and there are daily flights between Johannesburg and Upington and Cape Town and Upington on South African Airlink. Most of the major car hire companies are present at Upington Airport, including 4×4 rentals. It is also possible to drive to Upington, the city is approximately 800km from both Johannesburg and Cape Town on decent roads, passing through some interesting little towns along the way. However for those with more limited time and those who do not enjoy spending long hours on the road we rather recommend flying, at least one of the legs.
Being a desert, the Kalahari region experiences extremely high daytime temperatures in the summer months (September – May), with temperatures regularly reaching and exceeding 40 degrees during this time. In winter the nighttime temperatures can fall to below zero, but the days are usually warm and pleasant, making this a good time to visit. The rainy season is between November and April and thunderstorms are common during this time – usually short, heavy bursts of rainfall in the afternoons. However like many places in the world climate patterns are unpredictable and changing and the province is currently experiencing a severe drought.
The primary attractions along the Kalahari Red Dune Route are as follows:
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – a conservation area encompassing 2 countries, South Africa and Botswana and also bordering Namibia to the west. The political borders within the reserve between South Africa and Botswana are abolished and there are no physical barriers, allowing for free movement of animals. This was the first of South Africa’s “Peace Parks” and was formally launched in 2000.
The park is located largely within the southern Kalahari Desert and the terrain consists of red sand dunes, sparse vegetation, occasional trees, and the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers. The rivers are said to flow only about once per century. However, underground water gives life to grass and camelthorn trees growing in the river beds. The park is home to large mammalian predators such as lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas. Migratory herds of large herbivores such as blue wildebeest, springbok, eland, and red hartebeest also live and move seasonally within the park, providing sustenance for the predators. More than 200 species of bird can be found in the park, including vultures and raptors such as eagles, buzzards, and secretary birds. Three of the “Big Five” cannot be seen here as there is not enough water to sustain elephants, rhino and buffalo.
Coinciding with the park is the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape, declared South Africa’s 9th World Heritage Site in 2017. The large expanse of the sand contains evidence of human occupation from the Stone Age to the present and is associated with the culture of the formerly nomadic ǂKhomani San people and the strategies that allowed them to adapt to harsh desert conditions. They developed a specific ethnobotanical knowledge, cultural practices and a world view related to the geographical features of their environment. The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape bears testimony to the way of life that prevailed in the region and shaped the site over thousands of years.
In October 2002, the governments of the park set aside 580 km² for the use of the native peoples, the Khomani San and Mier communities. The settlement agreement also provided for the communities to receive funds for the specific purpose of constructing a tourism facility. The lodge constructed was named !Xaus Lodge (meaning ‘heart’ in the local language) and is managed commercially on behalf of the ‡Khomani San and Mier communities by Transfrontier Parks Destinations, a black-empowered Lodge Management Company. The ‡Khomani San (Bushman) and Mier communities are the owners of !Xaus Lodge and all its furnishings. In addition, the Community representative organisations receive a monthly rental from the operation of the lodge based on its turnover. Almost all the lodge employees are drawn from the local communities where unemployment is rife.
The Orange River is the other major natural feature of the area which brings life and paints the arid landscape with rich green belts and gives the name to the area – Green Kalahari. It also greatly contributes to the tourism product offerings of the area. An abundance of vineyards can be found on its banks including those providing grapes to the Orange River Cellars which is the largest wine co-operative in the Southern Hemisphere! Wine, brandy and gin tasting experiences are all offered at a number of different farms. The main adventure activity on the Orange River for tourists to enjoy is paddling (canoeing or rafting) and trips range from 1 hour to multi-day activities for people with varying levels of paddling experience – from beginners to advanced.
The Augrabies Falls is a striking feature found along the Orange River – a 56m high waterfall which gets its name from a Khoi word meaning “Place of Great Noise”. Surrounding the falls is the Augrabies Falls National Park, where a number of plant and animal species can be seen, from the very smallest succulents, birds and reptiles to Hartmann’s mountain zebra, springbok, klipspringer, gemsbok and giraffe. Picturesque names such as Moon Rock, Ararat and Echo Corner are descriptive of this rocky region where the kokerboom (quiver trees) stand in stark silhouette against the African sky.
Neighbouring this park is Riemvasmaak, an area originally settled in the early 1930s by people of Xhosa, Damara, Herero, Nama, and Coloured origin, but in the early 1970s the community was sent back to their ethnic homelands by the apartheid government.
Riemvasmaak became a military testing site until 1994, when a process of land restitution allowed the return of families and communities. Riemvasmaak offers tourists a variety of activities as well as breath-taking, rugged beauty. Hiking, 4×4 trails, mountain biking and birding are all available, but the most unique attraction here are the hot springs – the result of volcanic eruptions. Though these are no longer active, the underground activity still heats the waters of the spring and provides the most glorious warm water swimming pools surrounded by spectacular mountain cliffs.
This introductory article will be followed up by a series of additional short articles detailing our personal experiences visiting the above described attractions.