The vast Northern Cape, the largest and most dispersed of South Africa’s provinces, is not an easy region to tackle as a visitor. From the lonely Atlantic coast to Kimberley, the provincial capital on its eastern border with the Free State, it covers over one-third of the nation’s landmass, an area dominated by heat, aridity, empty spaces and huge travelling distances. The miracles of the desert are the main attraction – improbable swaths of flowers, diamonds dug from the dirt and wild animals roaming the dunes.
The most significant of these surprises is the Orange (or Oranje) River, flowing from the Lesotho Highlands to the Atlantic where it marks South Africa’s border with Namibia. The river separates theKalahari and the Great Karoo – the two sparsely populated semi-desert ecosystems that fill the interior of the Northern Cape. On its banks, the isolated northern centre of Upington is the main town in the Kalahari region, the gateway to the magnificent Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the smaller Augrabies Falls National Park.
In Namaqualand, on the western side of the province, the brief winter rains produce one of nature’s truly glorious transformations when in August and September the land is carpeted by a magnificent display of wild flowers. A similar display of blossoming succulents can be seen at the little-visited Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, a mountain desert tucked around a loop in the Orange River either side of the Namibian border.
Despite these impressive natural attractions, most of the traffic to the Northern Cape is in its southeastern corner, through which the two main roads between Johannesburg and Cape Town, the N1 and the N12, pass. A less obvious way to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town involves taking the N14 through Upington, passing the atmospheric old mission station at Kuruman, then driving on to Springbok and following the scenic N7 down the coast. This route is around 400km longer than the N1 or N12 but, while the N14 has more than its fair share of long, empty landscapes, the sights along the way are more interesting.
Getting around by public transport can be a pain. While the main towns of Kimberley, Springbok and Upington lie on Intercape’s bus routes (with connections to Windhoek in Namibia), many services arrive and depart at night and thus miss the scenery. Minibus taxis cover most destinations several times a day during the week, but are much reduced or nonexistent at weekends. Taxis don’t serve the national parks (take an organized tour instead).
The history of the Northern Cape area is intimately linked to the San, South Africa’s first people, whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle and remarkable adaptations to desert life exert a powerful fascination. Although no genuine vestiges of the San way of life can be found in South Africa (only tiny pockets remain in the Namibian and Botswanan sections of the Kalahari desert), their heritage is most visible in the countless examples of rock art across the province, and, to a lesser extent, in their ancient legends and place names. The movement of Africans from the north and east, and Europeans from the southwest, drove the San from their hunting grounds and eventually led to their extinction; yet for both sets of newcomers, the semi-desert of the Karoo and the Kalahari at first appeared to offer little more than hopelessness and heartbreaking horizons.
What it did provide – wealth under the dusty ground – the Europeans pursued without restraint, beginning in 1685, soon after the Dutch first established their settlement in the Cape, with an expedition into Namaqualand to mine for copper led by Governor Simon van der Stel. The other Europeans who made an early impression on the province were trekboers, Dutch burghers freed from the employment of the Dutch East India Company in the Cape who wanted to find new lands to farm away from the authoritarian company rule, and missionaries, who established a framework of settlement and communication used by all who came after.
Within a few years of the discovery of diamonds in the area, a settlement of unprecedented size had grown up around Kimberley. The town soon boasted more trappings of civilization than most of the southern hemisphere, with public libraries, electric streetlights and tramways, as well as South Africa’s first urban “location” for Africans and coloureds. The British authorities in the Cape were quick to annexe the new diamond fields – a move which didn’t endear them to either the Orange Free State or the mainly coloured Griqua people, who both claimed this ill-defined region. It was no surprise, therefore, that at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, rich and strategic Kimberley was one of the first towns besieged by the Boer armies. Many reminders of the war can still be seen in the area.
Top image © Jan Erasmus/Shutterstock