One of the undoubted highlights of any trip to the Northern Cape is AUGRABIES FALLS NATIONAL PARK, 120km west of Upington. Roaring out of the barren semi-desert, sending great plumes of spray up above the brown horizon, the falls – still known by their Khoikhoi name, Aukoerabis, “the place of great noise” – are the most spectacular moment in the two-thousand-kilometre progress of the Orange River. At peak flow, the huge volume of water plunging through the narrow channel actually compares with the more docile periods at Victoria Falls and Niagara, although Augrabies lacks both the height and the soul-wrenching grandeur of its larger rivals. But in its eerie desert setting under an azure evening sky, the falls provide a moving and absorbing experience. The sides of the canyon are shaped like a smooth parabola, and there are many tales of curious visitors venturing too far to peer at the falls and sliding helplessly into the seething maelstrom below. Despite the odd miraculous survival, several dozen people have died here since the national park was created in 1966.
The falls are viewed from behind a large fence, while a boardwalk allows wheelchair access to the viewpoint. To see more of the gorge, walk the short distance to Arrow Point or drive on the link roads round to Ararat or Echo Corner. The atmosphere is at its best near sunset, when the sun shines straight into the west-facing part of the gorge.
The fairly inhospitable northern section of the park covers 184 square kilometres on both sides of the river. The land is dry and harsh, with sparse plants typical of arid areas, such as kokerboom (quiver tree), camelthorn and Namaqua fig. The landscape is punctuated by various striking rock formations, notably Moon Rock, a huge dome of smooth, flaking granite rising out of the flat plains. If you drive on the (unsurfaced) roads in the park you’ll probably spot some of the resident fauna – including eland, klipspringer and springbok – while you’re likely to see dassie, mongoose and lizards around the falls and the camp.
The best time to visit Augrabies is from March to May, when the temperatures are slightly cooler and the river is at its maximum flow after summer rainfall up in the Lesotho catchment areas. With your own transport, the falls are easily visited as a day-trip from Upington, although there’s plenty of reasonable accommodation both in the park itself and nearby.