South Africa’s giant Northern Cape is a wild and sun-seared landscape of rugged lava mountains, rolling red desert, sandy plains – and acres of solitude, where huge skies explode with stars after sundown. See lions prowl in the Kalahari Desert and wildebeest gather on the plains. Tap into history at a 19th-century diamond mine, paddle the Orange river and hike to South Africa’s largest falls. There are so many things to see and do in South Africa’s largest and least populated region. Here are just 10 reasons to choose the Northern Cape for your South Africa holiday.
1. Animal safari
Number one on your wish list is probably an animal safari. You could visit the enormous Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles South Africa and Botswana. Or, perhaps choose the smaller Maloka National Park, or shell out for the private Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. Maybe even dip into all three. But you’ll almost certainly be able to cross this one off your list.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
When we say this park is enormous, imagine 37,000 square km – we’re talking almost twice the size of Kruger National Park – dominated by undulating red desert dunes, thornveld and salt pans. It’s an extraordinary landscape, all sweeping vistas and unbroken skies that dazzle at night with millions of stars. This, along with the wildlife, is why Kgalagadi provides one of South Africa’s best safari experiences.
Herds of blue wildebeest, gemsbok, giraffe, hyenas, springbok – and cute meerkats stealing the show, are just some of the animals at Kgalagadi. But the big draw here has got to be the big cats – the elusive leopard, the cheetah and the mighty black-maned Kalahari lion. But bird lovers will also be delighted. There are around 280 species of birdlife, including various eagles, owls, and goshawks. In summer look out for the willow and African marsh warbler and listen at night for the Rufous-cheeked Nightjar.
The park has various accommodation options, including wilderness camps and three fenced restcamps (peace of mind for parents, knowing no four-legged predator will suddenly appear). The restcamps also come with swimming pools – great for overheated and fractious kids (and adults).
The luxury !Xaus Lodge, owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities, also comes with a pool, as well as a cosy communal lounge to relax in before dinner. They offer guided game drives, as well as walks with Bushman trackers and the chance to see Bushman crafters at work making traditional goods.
Mokala National Park
The 48,000 acres of hills and open plains of Mokala National Park are home to many endangered animals. Take a game drive to see black rhino, white rhino, Burchell’s zebra, tsessebe, giraffe, and roan and sable antelope, among others. Mokala’s rocky outcrops also attract many species of birdlife, including the black-chested prinia, the lappetfaced vulture, and martial and tawny eagles.
There are also great fly-fishing opportunities at the river near the Lilydale restcamp – which is good news for anglers.
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
South Africa’s largest private wildlife reserve provides a haven for some of the big favourites, such as lions and cheetahs, giraffes and zebras. There’s a commitment to ecotourism and conservation, with breeding programmes contributing to the survival of indigenous species, such as the sable and roan antelope.
Staying at Tswalu is the ultimate in luxury safari. You’re given a personal guide and tracker for your expedition, while back at base are spa treatments, the use of a gym, and top-notch meals and accommodation.
2. Diamonds: Kimberley’s Big Hole and Mine Museum
Peering into the Big Hole at Kimberley is a glimpse into the city’s turbulent diamond mining history. In 1871, thousands of prospectors descended on Kimberley with picks and shovels, to dig for the glittering gems, after a shepherd found a whopper nearby, weighing a cool 83.5 carats. By the time the mine closed in 1914, it had become the world’s largest hand-dug excavation, yielding 2,722kg of precious stones.
There’s a viewing platform above the Big Hole, as well as a simulated mine shaft, the audio visuals effectively recreating the harsh conditions the miners must have faced. You can learn more about the history of diamond mining in the Exhibition Centre and see a vault containing genuine diamonds, including the Eureka, the first diamond discovered in South Africa.
The partly restored and preserved Old Town at the museum offers a fascinating step back in time to the diamond-rush era. It includes a church, a pub, boxing academy, tobacconist and miners’ sleeping quarters. Kids will love the old tram that trundles from the Old Town part of the way around the perimeter of the Big Hole.
3. History and culture in Kimberley
While you’re in Kimberley on your South Africa holiday, you must make time for some of the city’s best museums and galleries.
The McGregor Museum
The McGregor Museum houses a broad mix of displays covering, for example, the history of diamond mining in Kimberley, the Second South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), as well as the fraught struggle for democracy in South Africa. Not to be missed is the Ancestor’s Gallery, an absorbing exhibition investigating the ancestry of Northern Cape inhabitants going back millions of years.
Alfred Duggan-Cronin was nicknamed “Thandabantu”, meaning someone who loves people, in the language of the Matabele. The collection in the Duggan-Cronin Gallery gives you some indication why. The Irish amateur photographer began taking pictures of miners in1904 and then travelled all over South Africa, photographing the indigenous people of the country. There are more than 8,000 photographs on display, most of them taken by Duggan-Cronin. This is a must visit for anyone interested in art, photography, and the history and culture of South Africa.
William Humphreys Art Gallery
The William Humphreys Art Gallery is one of South Africa’s top art galleries. It houses a large collection of work by European Old Masters, but the main focus is on traditional and contemporary South African art. It was also one of the first galleries to recognise San rock paintings as works of art.
4. Augrabies Falls
As you approach South Africa’s largest falls you understand why the Khoikhoi people named them Ankoerebis, meaning “the place of great noise”. Colossal amounts of water from the Orange River thunder through a ravine and hurtle over a 56m drop – creating quite a din. The incredible scene is accentuated by the austere semi-desert backdrop, which is all the more striking at sunset. The falls are particularly impressive between February and April, when the river is at its fullest.
Although the falls are the big draw here, there’s way more to see in Augrabies National Park, either via a driving tour or by hiking. As a gentle introduction, the 5km Dassie nature trail is easy enough for even kids to tackle, while the three-day Klipspringer trail (open April–end of September) is a somewhat tougher adventure, taking you right into the gorge, and staying overnight in simple huts.
The hikes weave through a harsh, but striking, landscape of dusty brown desert, interspersed with the odd camel thorn tree and kokerboom (quiver tree), so named because the San people used the hollow branches as quivers for arrows. You’ll come across ‘potholes’ and other strange rock formations, including the striking Moon Rock, a giant dome rock rising up from the plains. Be on the lookout too for wildlife, such as the Hartmann’s mountain zebra, klipspringer, springbok and mongoose. You can reserve the Klipspringer trail through SANparks.
The Orange River also supplies much in the way of outdoor adventure. Rafting and canoeing activities include the thrilling “Augrabies Rush”, a 9km rafting trip on fast-moving water above the falls, which can be arranged with Kalahari Outventures. There’s also the more leisurely four-day Augrabies Canoe Trail, which provides the added excitement of camping overnight on the riverbank.
5. Dinosaur footprint
Children can be a tough crowd to please, but show them a real dinosaur footprint? Now you’re talking. At the Gansfontein farm palaeosurface, 5km from Fraserburg, you can see marks and trails embedded in the rock from numerous prehistoric creatures, including the star-in-show Bradysaurus footprint from around 255 million years ago. While you’re pondering the craziness of that, the tour guide will fill you in on what the Karoo landscape was like when these creatures roamed here.
6. Afloat on the Orange River: Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
This is harsh mountain desert wilderness at its rawest. Yet, it’s also eerily beautiful. Less than 50mm of rain falls here each year, but thanks to the morning mist that rolls in from the Atlantic, this sparse landscape of sun scorched mountains and rough plains, manages to nurture an incredible assortment of plant life, reptiles, mammals and birds.
In fact, it’s home to 30 percent of South Africa’s species of succulents, many unique to Richtersveld. Punctuating the desert landscape are quiver trees, giant aloes and halfmensboom (‘half-mens’ – so called because of their human-like form).
Fly-fishing and getting afloat on the Orange River are popular activities at Richtersveld. Going on a multiday canoe or rafting trip is a fantastic way to soak up the splendid stark scenery of the park, especially when they include overnight riverside camping under the stars. Several companies offer trips, including the reliable Bushwhacked Outdoor Adventure. These expeditions involve a gentle paddle along the water, making them suitable for even fairly young children.
There are several options for accommodation, including campsites, wilderness camps with dramatic views, and the Sendelingsdrift Rest Camp, which has chalets and swimming pool – a definite plus in the desert heat.
But no trip would be complete without staying with the Nama communities, who co-manage the land of Richtersveld. In fact, it’s their semi-nomadic and pastoral way of life, practised for some two thousand years, which contributed to the park’s UNESCO World Heritage status. Visit villages such as Lekkersing, Kuboes, and Eksteenfontein, and sample traditional food, such as dumplings cooked in goat’s milk.
7. Namaqualand flowers
When a landscape is mostly sparse mountain desert and granite rock, in various shades of brown and ochre, it’s all the more surprising to see it transformed into a riot of colour. Each year, Namaqualand’s hardy succulents burst into bloom, carpeting the earth in vibrant Kaleidoscopic shades of reds, pinks, oranges – and every shade in between.
The best places to see the phenomenal display are the Skilpad section of Namaqualand National Park, which often delivers even in years with low rainfall, and the Goegap Nature Reserve, near Springbok. As well as around 600 indigenous species of flowering plants, Goegap has a wonderful wildflower garden of unusual succulents. The park is also home to an assortment of wildlife, including the Namaqualand sandgrouse, the aardwolf, springbok, ostrich and black eagle. Keep a lookout as you drive the 17km loop around the park, or while walking one of the short hiking trails – easy enough for all the family to manage.
8. Star gazing
There’s nothing like looking up at a star-studded night sky to make you feel just a little bit insignificant – in the overall scheme of things. The huge, year-round clear skies of the Karoo offer perfect conditions for such mind-blowing contemplation, as well as simply providing a magical star-studded extravaganza.
At the Observatory at Sutherland, you can book a night sky tour and talk, and take a closer look at the cosmos through telescopes. There are also daytime tours to see the South African Large Telescope (SALT), although whoever named it rather played down its size – this is the largest biggest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.
There’s further star spotting at the more informal Sterland Sutherland. Local astronomy enthusiast Jurg Wagener gives fascinating talks most evenings, and there’s a series of telescopes pointing at the sky, so that you can marvel at the universe and pick out various constellations of stars. A sure winner for the whole family.
9. Wildebeest Kuil: Stone Age rock art
Thousands of years ago, people carved images into the rocks of the animals that roamed here. Incredibly, these 400 or so engravings of buffalo, elephants, antelopes and other creatures still remain. You can see the Late Stone Age artwork via one of the excellent tours given by the local !Xun and Khwe people, who own the site at Wildebeest Kuil, near Kimberley. There’s also a shop selling San art and crafts.
10. The Riemvasmaak Hot Springs,
It’s seems improbable: within a mountain desert landscape of jagged, rust-coloured rock formations, the odd camel thorn tree, and rough plains, you’ll find the Riemvasmaak Hot Springs. The remote and wild landscape provides a magnificent backdrop to a soothing soak in the wonderful warm waters of pools built into the rocks. Look out for pale winged starlings and fish eagles above.
Riemvasmaak is located north of Augrabies National Park, between the Orange River and the dry bed of the Molopo River, near the border with Namibia.
Find out more about holidaying in South Africa's Northern Cape and start planning your trip.
Top image: Hiking in the Augrabies Falls National Park © Great Stock/Shutterstock