The unique Northern Cape - South Africa’s largest and most dispersed province - is something of a lesser-visited region. It’s also South Africa’sleast 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 this 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 spaceship. 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.