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.
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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).
Brief history of the Northern Cape area
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.
Diamonds are forever
Diamonds originate as carbon particles in the Earth’s mantle, which are subjected to such high pressure and temperature that they crystallize to form diamonds. Millions of years ago the molten rock, or magma, in the mantle burst through weak points in the Earth’s crust as volcanoes, and it is in the pipe of cooled magma – called kimberlite, after Kimberley – that diamonds are found. Finding kimberlite, however, isn’t necessarily a licence to print money – in every one hundred tonnes there will be about twenty carats (4g) of diamonds.
The word “carat” derives from the carob bean – dried beans were used as a measure of weight. (Carat has a different meaning in the context of gold, where it is a measure of purity.) De Beers estimates that fifty million pieces of diamond jewellery are bought each year – which represents a lot of marriage proposals.
NAMAQUALAND is another Northern Cape region whose name conjures up images of both desolation and magic. According to an oft-quoted saying about the area, in Namaqualand you weep twice: once when you first arrive and once when you have to leave. This is the land of Khoikhoi herders called the Nama: the Little Nama, who lived south of the Orange River, and the Great Nama, who lived north of the river in what is now Namibia. Sparsely populated, the region stretches south from the Orange to the empty Knersvlakte plains around Vanrhynsdorp, and from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the Great Karoo. Above all, Namaqualand is synonymous with the incredible annual display of brightly coloured wild flowers that carpet the landscape in August and September, one of South Africa’s most compelling spectacles. Even outside flower season, swathes of orange, purple and white daisies emerge, and there is a tenacious beauty about this dry, empty landscape of mountain deserts, mineral-bearing granite hills and drought-defiant succulents.
The N7 highway between Namibia and Cape Town cuts across Namaqualand, offering one of the most scenic drives in the country. At its northern end, at the junction with the dusty N14 from Upington and the Kalahari, lies the region’s capital, Springbok. This is the best base for flowers – the nearby Namaqua National Park provides reliable displays even in years of low rainfall, when displays elsewhere may be muted – and for visiting the Province’s remote northwestern corner: the Diamond Coast, stretching from Port Nolloth to the Namibian border. The harsh but spectacular Richtersveld Transfrontier Park stretches inland, bisected by the Orange River – rafting on which ranks high among the region’s attractions.
Viewing the flowers of Namaqualand
The seeds of the spectacular flowers of Namaqualand – daisies, aloes, gladioli and lilies – lie dormant under the soil through the droughts of summer, waiting for the rain that sometimes takes years to materialize. About four thousand floral species are found in the area, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Although it’s difficult to predict where the best displays will occur, for more or less guaranteed flowers you can head for the Skilpad section of Namaqua National Park or to the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, with its ocean-mist-fed succulents.
One indication of where the displays will occur is winter rainfall; flowers follow the rain, so early in the season they will be out near the coast, moving steadily inland. Temperature is also a factor, meaning that on cool or cloudy days displays are muted.
The west coast and the Richtersveld
North from St Helena Bay, the hook of land 100km north of Cape Town, the long, lonely west coast of South Africa has two simple components: the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean, and the dominant sandveld vegetation, hardy but infertile. There isn’t much more to the region: between the mouth of the Olifants River near Vanrhynsdorp, and the Orange River over 400km to the north, there is just one sealed road connecting the N7 highway to the coast. It leads to the only settlement of significance, Port Nolloth.
Namaqualand’s first diamonds were discovered in 1925, confirming that diamonds could be carried the length of the Orange, washed out into the ocean and then dispersed by currents and the processes of longshore drift. Although initial prospecting was carried out along the course of the Orange and in the coastal dunes, the diamonds lying offshore on the sea bed are now more eagerly chased, mostly by boats operating with huge underwater “vacuum cleaners” and divers working in often dangerous conditions. Whereas much of Namaqualand’s coast remains off-limits thanks to the presence of diamonds, the “Diamond Coast” from Port Nolloth to Alexander Bay, the mouth of the Orange River, is visitable. Springbok serves as a good access point.
During flower season, the rains fall first on the coastal areas, and you can often see displays beginning about 20km inland, making the few roads down to the coast from the N7 worthwhile detours. The dirt R355 road through the Spektakel Pass between Springbok and Kleinzee is one of the most spectacular drives in Namaqualand, and the Anenous Pass on the tarred R382 between Steinkopf and Port Nolloth is also impressive. Along this road you’ll also see wandering herds of goats belonging to the pastoral Nama people living in the area, as well as the peaks and valleys of the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, the mountain desert occupying the area immediately south of the Orange River. The area surrounding the park is home to several developing community tourism initiatives, providing an excellent introduction to the life of the Nama.
The AI-AIS RICHTERSVELD TRANSFRONTIER PARK in northwestern Namaqualand – commonly known as the Richtersveld – covers an area roughly bounded by the Orange River to the north, the N7 to the east, the R382 to Port Nolloth to the south and the Atlantic Ocean on its western side. Here, the starkly beautiful park was formed in 2003 by the merger of South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park (by which name the new park is still known in South Africa) and Namibia’s Ai-Ais Hot Springs Game Park. Tucked along either side of a loop in the Orange, the landscape is fierce and rugged; names such as Hellskloof, Skeleton Gorge, Devil’s Tooth and Gorgon’s Head indicate the austerity of the inhospitable brown mountainscape, tempered only by a broad range of hardy succulents, mighty rock formations, the magnificence of the light cast at dawn and dusk, and the glittering canopy of stars at night. Annual rainfall in parts of the park is under 50mm, making this the only true desert – and mountain desert at that – in South Africa. In summer the daytime heat can be unbearable – temperatures over 50°C have been recorded – while on winter nights temperatures drop below freezing.
The best time to visit is August and September, when the area’s succulents – representing almost one-third of South Africa’s species – burst into flower. There’s little fauna in the park other than lizards and klipspringers, although leopards are present, if characteristically shy.
Activities in the Richtersveld
Between April and September it’s possible to take guided hikes along designated trails and into the park with the help of the community tourism project at Kuboes (027 831 2013), although note that these trails are liable to closure if there are not enough qualified guides.
Along the Orange River you’ll find surprisingly rich birdlife, which is best enjoyed by taking a canoeing trip down the river – a gentle and relaxing jaunt rather than high-energy white-water rafting (by the time it reaches northern Namaqualand, the river is broad and the few rapids innocuous). Trips range from half-day tasters to full-on six-day expeditions, with camps set up by the riverbank en route; costs start at around R400 for a full day, or R800 overnight.
Top image © Jan Erasmus/Shutterstock