Discover South Africa’s Northern Cape off the beaten track

written by Joanne Owen
updated 10/6/2021
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The unique Northern Cape - South Africa’s largest and most dispersed province - is something of a lesser-visited region. It’s also South Africa’s least populated province, blessed with a landscape of dramatic red dunes, South Africa’s longest river, and a host of desert miracles - sweeping carpets of dazzling wildflowers blooming improbably from the dry earth; glittering diamonds dug from dirt; nature reserves that are as culturally important as they are ecologically significant.

All of which adds up to a destination that truly rewards travellers looking for off-the-beaten-track experiences of a lifetime. Indeed, given its sheer size and the scattered nature of its sites and settlements, it’s fair to say that not a whole lot is actually on the beaten track. From awe-inspiring adventure activities, to epic wildlife-watching opportunities; from lesser-visited cultural gems, to literal gems (this is, after all, diamond territory), the Northern Cape offers independent-minded travellers an abundance of bucket list-level things to see and do.

1. Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

Characterised by its vast, mountainous desert, Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is home to the UNESCO Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape. Tucked along a loop of the Orange River, it’s a place of rugged majesty and extremes, with temperatures ranging in excess of 50°C, to drops below freezing during star-bejewelled winter nights. It’s also a place of unique natural wonders.

Take Richtersveld’s flora, for example. The world’s only arid biodiversity hotspot, the park is home to almost 5000 plant species, a whopping 40% of which are endemic. Among its unique species are the halfmensboom (“half-man”) tree, so named for its resemblance to the human form, and kokerbooms, or quiver trees (their branches make excellent quivers for arrows). 

Richtersveld in South Africa's Northern Cape © Shutterstock

The park is also home to elegant klipspringer antelopes, elusive leopards, wild cats, and a number of rare bird species, with the land co-managed by local Nama communities as part of the Richtersveld Community Conservancy. And it’s these communities that make Richtersveld such an important cultural site, for the land here sustains semi-nomadic, pastoral practices that have been used in southern Africa for some two millennia.

Travellers interested in culture and history would also do well to visit the region’s ancient petroglyphs. Located on black dolomite rocks throughout the park, perhaps the best of these fascinating geometric engravings can be seen near the Senderlingsdrift border post with Namibia.

As for activities in Richtersveld, community tourism enterprises offer guided hikes along the park’s designated trails, while bird-lovers will want to explore the Orange River. Though not as rich in birdlife as other areas of South Africa, over 120 species have been sighted in the park, and leisurely canoe trips along the river afford satisfying views of many species in a surprisingly short distance.

At the mouth of the river, for example, you might see flamingos, spoonbills, little bitterns, white-backed night herons and Maccoa ducks, while the coastal plains afford thrilling opportunities to spot raptors, up to eight species of lark, and many more species besides.

2. Orange River

Staying with the Orange River, fear not if you’re more into extreme pursuits than serene bird-watching - this region has plenty to satisfy the cravings of even the most addicted adrenaline junkie. Rising near the border between South Africa and Lesotho, surging west towards the Atlantic Ocean, and flowing north to the border between Namibia and South Africa, the glistening Orange River is backed by green banks that strike a contrast with the surrounding burnished-orange plains and slopes.

Canoe drifting down the Orange River on the border between South Africa and Namibia © Andre Gie/Shutterstock

When it comes to Orange River activities, fun half-day canoeing trips will suit wild-water newbies, though at 15 km these also offer more experienced adventurers a pretty rewarding time. Talking of whom, for a full-on exploration of the river’s twists, turns and tumultuous thrills, five-and-six-day trips are available.

Taking in spectacular mountain scenery, fast-flowing channels and wild rapids, these typically combine rafting and hiking with the added thrill of camping and open-fire-cooking. That said, if you’re looking for more comfort, some trips involve staying at excellent eco camps. For the ultimate Orange River desert adventure experience, though, kayaking is king.

One of only two rivers in South Africa with a fishable population of largemouth yellowfish, the Orange River is also an excellent fishing destination. Often combined with rafting (there’s no better way to move from one site to the next), this has to be one of the world’s most scenic, off-the-beaten-track angling experiences. 

3. Augrabies Falls National Park

At once humbling and invigorating, visiting the mighty Aukoerebis waterfalls in the Augrabies Falls National Park is one of the most unforgettable experiences to be had in the Northern Cape. South Africa’s largest falls, these plummet some sixty metres, creating the ear-splitting, earth-shattering noise that gives them their name - Aukoerebis means ‘the place of great noise’ in the Khoisan language.

All the more uncanny for standing smack-bang in the middle of a semi-barren desert, the Aukoerebis exude a soul-stirring ambience that peaks around sunset, when rays beam into the gorge’s west-facing aspect. To experience the river at maximum flow, when the thundering thrills are at their mightiest, visit between March and May.

Augrabies Falls, Northern Cape, South Africa © Leon Marais/Shutterstock

Around the falls, the land is dry, and dappled with several striking rock formations, among them Moon Rock, a massive smooth dome that rises from the flat plains like an eerie, ancient space ship. The plains are also home to the likes of klipspringer, eland and springbok, and host some excellent adventure activities, too. The Gariep Trail experience, for example, combines a gorge-canoeing trip with hiking and an 11km mountain bike ride back to camp.

For a more leisurely time, walking the half-day Dassie nature trail comes recommended. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, the “Augrabies Rush” involves navigating the increasingly swift-flowing river above the falls for 8km on a small raft - unquestionably one of those experiences you’ll talk about for years.

4. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

In a word, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is epic. An arid, remote expanse of red sand dunes, it stretches across the Kalahari Desert and covers parts of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana across 37,000 square kilometres (almost twice the size of Kruger National Park). Though the South African section is the smallest, it still encompasses an immense 9500 square kilometres.

Even the shortest circular game drive here is over 100km. Talking of which, the park provides some of South Africa’s finest game-viewing experiences, both in terms of wildlife and setting - broad vistas, open skies, and stunning light that’ll be especially appreciated by photographers.

Black-maned Kalahari lion © JMx Images/Shutterstock

The highlight of most travellers’ visit to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will be sighting Kalahari lions. With their handsome black manes, these magnificent beasts are perfectly adapted to the region’s extreme temperatures. Gemsboks are another gem here.

With their distinct V-shaped horns, these native South African oryx cut an undeniably elegant figure on the plains. While the park’s leopards are notoriously elusive, you’ll almost certainly see plenty of antelopes, hyenas, jackals, bat-eared foxes and meerkat families. This is also one of the best places to see cheetahs.

Birders, meanwhile, will be wowed by the park’s resident bustards, ostrich, vultures and eagles, including the unmistakeable bateleur. Boasting distinctive scarlet facial skin, this short-tailed African eagle takes its name from the French word for an acrobatic tumbler.

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5. Namaqualand

As is often the case around the enigmatic Northern Cape, Namaqualand conjures a curious, compelling mix of desert desolation and enchantment. Located on the western side of the province, like Richtersveld, this is the land of Nama herders. For most of the year, the region exudes an eerie beauty - stark mineral-rich hills, bleak mountain deserts, and prickly succulents that defy droughts.

Then, come August and September, following the rains that run from May to July, the arid landscape becomes a vivid carpet of blooming wild flowers. The seeds of the breath-taking Namaqualand flowers - the daisies, lilies, aloes and gladioli - lie dormant under the dry earth through the summer droughts before blooming in (truly) spectacular style. Think of The Wizard of Oz when the austere black-and-white of Kansas transforms to the glorious technicolour of Oz. Quite simply, you’ll be floored by these fabulous flower carpets (pun entirely intended and fully warranted).

Namaqualand, South Africa © Marie-Anne AbersonM/Shutterstock

A word of warning though - viewing this splendid sight takes a lot of driving, simply due to the fact that the distances are so great. But the best things in life don’t always come easy, and this really is worth making the effort for. Most people tend to head to Namaqua National Park where, alongside seeing the flowers, you can camp by the sea, stay in a dune cottage, and explore a tonne of hiking and mountain bike routes. Alternatively, you can see the spectacle in Tankwa Karoo National Park, also a remarkable star-gazing site, and home to AfrikaBurn, South Africa’s inspired answer to America’s Burning Man festival.

When planning a trip-of-a-lifetime to see these blooms, it’s worth bearing in mind that they’re very particular about the conditions in which they make an appearance. They open only in sunshine in a minimum temperature of 18°C; they won’t open when it’s rainy or overcast; and they only open between 11am and 3pm.

6. Kimberley

The Northern Cape’s provincial capital, Kimberley, has a fascinating history that dates back to the country’s early diamond days. During the diamond rush, it was the southern hemisphere’s fastest-growing city, forever connected with Cecil Rhodes. Though the Kimberley mines closed in 2005, its diamond legacy gives it a unique ambience, with The Big Hole Mine Museum affording fascinating insights to diamond history, and (quite literally) into the Big Hole itself. 

The Big Hole in Kimberley, South Africa © Jennifer Sophie/Shutterstock

Just west of the city centre, this remarkable hand-dug crater takes up almost as much land as the city’s modern business district. At 500-metres-wide, the Big Hole isn’t even the biggest hole in Kimberley, though it remains the city’s main attraction.  The museum can either be accessed on foot or via a charmingly rickety tram that trundles back and forth from City Hall.

After watching an informative film and seeing the displays (including a recreated nineteenth-century mineshaft, and a vault shimmering with genuine diamonds), the Big Hole itself is viewed from a suspended platform. And what a view it is, made all the more remarkable when you remember it was constructed by hand.

For more Northern Cape news and inspiration, check out Experience Northern Cape and The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland - both are veritable mines of diamond information that’ll help you plan your trip and make the most of your time on the Northern Cape’s (very) open, lesser-travelled roads.

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 10/6/2021
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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