Best routes on South Africa's Northern Cape

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 27.03.2024

Carpets of wildflowers blossoming from dry earth. Wild waterfalls that’ll take your breath away. Dramatic red dunes, South Africa’s longest river, and historic towns that seem frozen in time. It’s fair to say South Africa’s Northern Cape amounts to an undeniable gem of a destination, and not just because this is diamond territory. And in good news for indie travellers, several ready-made journeys are on hand to make discovering this glorious province a breeze. Read on to find out about six of the best routes on South Africa's Northern Cape, and the bucket list experiences you’ll enjoy along the way.

Canoe drifting down the Orange river which forms the border of South Africa and Namibia © Andre Gie/Shutterstock

Canoeing the Orange River on one of the best routes on South Africa's Northern Cape © Andre Gie/Shutterstock

1. Cape Namibia route

Stretching for over 1600 km from Cape Town to Windhoek, capital of Namibia, taking the Cape Namibia route along the N7 highway will see you experience a whopping variety of enriching experiences. 

First up, this route packs considerable cultural punch courtesy of several small towns that are steeped in Nama heritage. These include Garies, Kamieskroon, and Springbok — stop off for immersive insights into local culture and history.

Then there’s the route’s natural allures, especially in spring when Namakwa bursts into colours during its floral season.

Don’t miss: rafting the winding Orange River. Soaking up soul-stirring scenery while drifting beneath the golden sun is an irrefutable joy.

Namaqualand, South Africa © Marie-Anne AbersonM/Shutterstock

Namaqualand in bloom in early September © Marie-Anne AbersonM/Shutterstock

2. Namaqua Coastal route

Offering opportunities to blend adventure and one-of-a-kind natural attractions with uncovering history, the Namaqua Coastal route meanders South Africa’s Namaqualand province.

For most of the year, the landscape boasts an eerie beauty, with prickly succulents dappling the dry plains. Come early September, the scene is transformed into a spectacular kaleidoscope of colour as millions of flowers burst to life almost overnight. 

This remarkable phenomenon stretches from Springbok — a town well worth exploring for its mining history and connections to the Second Boer War — to the province’s dramatic coastline. 

On that subject, as you travel said coastline, be sure to stop at Namaqua National Park for thrilling hikes — and much more. 

For example, book a boat excursion to watch whales and dolphins, or tour the Namaqualand Diamond Coast in a 4x4.

Meanwhile, culture vultures will want to venture off the beaten track to Nourivier’s Nama cultural experience. From grinding grain with Oom Koos, to making roosterkoek with Auntie Lyza, it’s 100% immersive.

Into adventure? Along this route, Kamieskroon offers access to epic mountain bike trails, while bush camps set the stage for exceptional hikes and stargazing experiences. 

Don’t miss: stating the obvious here, but you really won’t want to miss the blooming of Namaqualand’s flower carpet in early September.

Quiver Tree in Richtersveld National Park © Geoff Sperring/Shutterstock

Iconic quiver tree in Richtersveld National Park © Geoff Sperring/Shutterstock

3. Richtersveld route

Located in the northwest corner of South Africa, with the mighty Atlantic to the west, and the Orange River meandering its northern edge, the Richtersveld route rewards travellers with unapparelled botanical beauty and cultural experiences.

In fact, the Richtersveld mountain desert region is home to the UNESCO-designated Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape.

When it comes to route highlights, exploring Richtersveld Transfrontier Park sits top of the tree. Hosting the world's biggest diversity of succulent plants — including iconic halfmensbooms, and kokerbooms that the San people have used to make quivers for centuries — it’s an incredible place to go mountain biking, river rafting and fly-fishing.

With community tourism guides offering hikes along trails, and the park being home to ancient petroglyphs, this route delivers adventure, culture and nature in equally astounding measure. As such, it's easy to see why this is one of the best routes on South Africa's Northern Cape.

We also suggest you take time out from taking in Richtersveld’s natural attractions by spending time in pretty towns like Eksteensfontein, Sendelingsdrift, Lekkersing, Kuboes and Sandrift. 

Don’t miss: spending a day in the company of a traditional goat herder to learn about Nama culture in authentic style.

One red hartebeest looking at the camera in the early morning sun in Mokala National Park in South Africa © LouisLotterPhotography/Shutterstock

Mokala National Park on the Karoo Oasis route © LouisLotterPhotography/Shutterstock

4. Karoo Oasis route

Delivering history, adventure, wildlife, culture and cuisine (sampling slow-cooked Karoo food is not to be missed), the Karoo Oasis route will reward every kind of traveller as it traverses semi-desert landscapes speckled with flat-topped hills.

For example, journey from the sheep-farming hub of Colesberg to historic Hopetown, where South Africa's first diamond was unearthed. 

Next up, you could opt to visit the unique Afrikaner enclave of Orania en route to Vanderkloof. Nestled near the vast Vanderkloof Dam, this resort town invites you to enjoy water sports, or unwind on its tranquil 100 km shoreline. 

Love wildlife? Go on a guided game drive in Mokala National Park. 70 km west of Kimberley, it boasts an abundance of wildlife, including rare roan antelopes. 

Visitors to the park can also canoe the Riet River, book fly-fishing excursions, or soak up the serenity of its vast grasslands, wooded valleys, and sandy plains. Showcasing South Africa's raw beauty, photographers will be in seventh heaven here. 

Meanwhile, those into history will want to visit Kimberley’s McGregor Museum, formerly the residence of Cecil Rhodes. 

If history’s your thing, look into driving the N12 to Hopetown. This encompasses well-signposted battlefield sites, among them Belmont, Graspan, Modder River and Magersfontein.

Don’t miss: travelling through Hanover en route to the Eastern Cape to visit Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, South Africa’s largest privately-owned Karoo nature reserve. A paradise for birders, its game drives and night skies are also out-of-this-world.

Black-maned lion in desert portrait, Kalahari, South Africa © JMx Images/Shutterstock

A magnificent black-maned lion © JMx Images/Shutterstock

5. Kalahari Red Dune Route

Presenting an astonishing landscape of ochre dunes and acacia trees, the Kalahari Red Dune route comes especially recommended for adventurous families. 

From dune-surfing thrills, to coming face-to-face with the adorable meerkats that call this region home, this route is a sure-fire winner for all ages.

Extending from Upington to the Namibian border, along the way you’ll pass charming villages like Askham, Klein Mier and Rietfontein, where lodges and bush camps offer cosy comfort after a day of exploration. 

Another highlight of this route is Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park — expect to see oryxes and Kalahari lions during game drives.

If that wasn’t enough, we suggest rising early to witness majestic martial eagles taking flight at dawn, and tracking elusive scorpions and wind spiders under the starry night sky — the park is one of only ten dark skies sanctuaries in the world. 

Don’t miss: visiting the Twee Rivieren Interpretation Centre to learn about Khomani San culture. In fact, the Khomani San Cultural Landscape is South Africa’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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

Augrabies Falls on the Northern Cape's Quiver Tree route © Leon Marais/Shutterstock

6. Quiver Tree route

From world-class wines and belly-warming brandies, to rejuvenating hot springs and one of the world's mightiest waterfalls, this route is sure to set your heart a-quivering!

Extending west from Upington through the fascinating towns of Kanoneiland, Keimoes and Kakamas, it leads to Augrabies Falls National Park, ultimately winding up in remote Riemvasmaak. 

Along the way, lush vineyards invite you to stop off to sample the region's celebrated wines, gins, and brandies.

Epicurean delights aside, the Quiver Tree Route also offers excellent opportunities to hike, bike, kayak, and go on fly-fishing expeditions.

Then, when you want to relax and recharge, enjoy a leisurely river cruise or soak in Riemvasmaak’s hot springs. This serene oasis is the perfect place to unwind in therapeutic waters, ahead of the next leg of your journey.

Don't miss: marvelling at the awe-inspiring Augrabies Falls, the world’s sixth largest waterfall. Elsewhere in Augrabies Falls National Park you can combine gorge-canoeing with hiking and mountain biking the Gariep Trail.       

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

Kimberley's Big Hole © Jennifer Sophie/Shutterstock

Find out more about South Africa's Northern Cape before packing your bags and counting down the days to an extraordinary adventure.

This article is brought to you in partnership with Northern Cape.

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 27.03.2024

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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