While the Northern Cape has no shortage of dry, endless expanses, the most emotive by far is the Kalahari. The very name holds a resonance of sun-bleached, faraway spaces and the unknown vastness of the African interior, both harsh and magical. The name derives from the word kgalagadi (saltpans, or thirsty land), and describes the semi-desert stretching north from the Orange River to the Okavango delta in northern Botswana, west into Namibia and east until the bushveld begins to dominate in the catchment areas of the Vaal and Limpopo rivers.
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The Kalahari in the Northern Cape is characterized by surprisingly high, thinly vegetated red or orange sand dunes, scored with dry river beds and large, shimmering saltpans. Although this is, strictly speaking, semi-desert, daytime temperatures are searingly hot in summer and nights are numbingly cold in winter. North of the Orange, South Africa’s largest river, the land is populated by tough, hard-working farmers and communities largely descended from the indigenous San hunter-gatherers and nomadic Khoi herders. For many land-users, there is an increasing realization that eco-tourism may be the only viable option on huge areas where stock farming and hunting provide at best a marginal living.
Upington, the main town in the area, stands on the northern bank of the Orange at the heart of an irrigated corridor of intensive wheat, cotton and, most prominently, grape farms. At the far end of the farming belt, about an hour’s drive west, the Orange picks up speed, frothing and tumbling into a huge granite gorge at Augrabies Falls, the focus of one of the area’s two national parks. The other is the undoubted highlight of this area, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. A vast desert sanctuary rich in game and boasting a magnificent landscape of red dunes and hardy vegetation, it’s well worth the long trek to get there.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Africa’s first official transfrontier park, named KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK after the ancient San name for the Kalahari (it’s pronounced "kha-la-khadi", the kh as in the Scottish "loch"), is the result of the formalization of a long-standing joint management arrangement between South Africa’s Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s neighbouring Gemsbok National Park. The local Mier and San communities have agreed that their land be jointly managed by themselves and South African National Parks, so that the land remains part of the wildlife sanctuary. In keeping with the agreement, tourism opportunities for the local community are being explored, including training people as trackers and rangers. The park is run as a single ecological unit and gate receipts are shared, although the tourist facilities in South Africa and Botswana are still run autonomously. Almost all visitors to the park will, however, encounter only the South African section, where all the established tourist facilities are found.
Kgalagadi covers an area of over 37,000 square kilometres – nearly twice the size of Kruger National Park – and although the South African side is by far the smaller section, it still encompasses a vast 9500 square kilometres. Be prepared to clock up some serious mileage here; the shortest circular game drive is over 100km long, not far short of the distance to Mata-Mata restcamp on the western edge of the reserve. The park is bounded on its western side by the Namibian border, and to the south by the dry Auob River and a strip of land running parallel to this. The national boundary with Botswana follows the dry Nossob river bed, as does one of the few roads in the park. No fences exist along this line, allowing game undisturbed access to the ancient migration routes so necessary for survival in the desert. The main roads follow the river beds, and this is where the game – and their predators – are most likely to be. Water flows very rarely in the two rivers, but frequent boreholes have been drilled to provide water for the game. Larger trees such as camelthorn and witgat (shepherd’s tree) offer a degree of shade and nutrition, and desert-adapted plants, including types of melon and cucumber, are a source of moisture for the animals.
Much of the park is dominated by red sand dunes, which, when seen from the air, lie strung out in long, wave-like bands. From a car, the perspective is different, as you are in the valley of the river bed, but this doesn’t prevent the path from offering one of the finest game-viewing experiences in South Africa – not only for the animals, but for the setting, with its broad landscapes, the crisp light of morning and the huge open skies. The clear viewing and wonderful light are ideal for photography, as shown by the exhibition at the visitor centre at Twee Rivieren Camp.
In a place where ground temperatures in the summer can reach a scorching 70¬∞C, timing your visit is everything. The best period to be in the park is between March and May, when there is still some greenery left from the summer rain and the sun is not so intense. Winter can be very cold at night, while spring, though dry, is a pleasant time before the searing heat of summer.
The game-viewing highlights in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are, inevitably, the predators, headed by the Kalahari lion and, enjoying rare status alongside the Big Five, gemsbok, the large, lolloping antelope with classically straight, V-shaped horns. You won’t find buffalo, elephant or rhino, but the other animals more than compensate. Of the remaining Big Five, leopards, as elsewhere, are not uncommon, but remain elusive. Kalahari lions commonly have much darker manes than those found in the bushveld, and studies have shown their behavioural and eating patterns to be distinctively well adapted to the semi-desert conditions here.
Beyond the Big Five, there are various species of antelope, hyena, jackal, bat-eared fox, cheetah and some extravagant birdlife, including vultures, eagles, the dramatic bateleur (which takes its name from the French word for an acrobatic tumbler), bustards and ostrich. There’s also a good chance you’ll see family groups of suricate, a relative of the mongoose and squirrel, striking their characteristic pose of standing tall on their hind legs, looking round nervously for signs of danger.
The best time to take your game drives is as early as possible in the morning, when you’re more likely to see animals out in the open. Drives normally take at least four to five hours, so an early start means you can avoid the desert sun at its zenith. The last couple of hours of light in the afternoon are also a good time for game (and for taking photographs), but it’s a lot more relaxing to go out for a little foray from your base than to be en route to a new camp, destined to arrive just as it’s getting dark. The middle of the day, especially during summer, is a necessarily inactive time for both animals and humans, so don’t plan too full a programme.
In late September, Die Eiland resort, across the river from Upington, plays host to the Kalahari Kuierfees (last Thursday to Saturday; kalahari-kuierfees.co.za). A chance for the local Afrikaner community to come together to celebrate their culture, language and food, the event combines flea markets and craft stalls with a triathlon, arts, live Afrikaner music and dance.
Around 265km east of Upington, lying near the border between the Northern Cape and North West Province, the historic settlement of KURUMAN is an important landmark along the main N14 route to and from Gauteng. The settlement grew up around The Eye ("Die Oog" in Afrikaans), a natural spring which, since time immemorial and through drought and flood, has consistently delivered twenty million litres a day of crystal-clear water. The Eye was the focal point for a rather unsettled Tswana clan called the Batlhaping, whose chief, Mothibi, first invited missionaries to live among his people in the early nineteenth century. It was a decision that led to the building of the famous Mission Station by Robert Moffat, and the establishment of Kuruman as the "Gateway to the Interior" of darkest Africa.
These days Kuruman’s centre is pretty scruffy, dominated by cut-price chain stores, faceless supermarkets and litter-strewn minibus-taxi ranks. You can visit The Eye, next to the tourist office, though there isn’t much to look at: a moss-covered slab of rock dribbling water and a lily-covered pond surrounded by a high green fence. More interesting is the Moffat Mission Station some 4km north of town.
The Moffats and their mission
Robert and Mary Moffat, newly married envoys of the London Missionary Society, arrived in the Kuruman area in 1820, initially at a place rather charmingly mistranslated by early explorers as Lattakoo about 14km from Kuruman. As a former market gardener, however, Moffat soon saw the advantages of irrigating the flow of The Eye of Kuruman, and began to build his mission on the closest land wide and flat enough to plough.
Moffat didn’t clock up too many converts – by the time he had built his eight-hundred-seater "Cathedral of the Kalahari", in 1838, he had just nine – but the challenge of preaching and establishing a school inspired him not only to learn the local language, which he did by living for a period in a remote Tswana village, but also to attempt the daunting task of translating the Bible into Tswana, which he then published on an imported iron printing press. The mission at Kuruman, meanwhile, carried on until the passing of the Group Areas Act of 1950, which brought about the end of the school and the church as a functioning place of (multiracial) worship.
Augrabies Falls National Park
One of the undoubted highlights of any trip to the Northern Cape is AUGRABIES FALLS NATIONAL PARK, 120km west of Upington. Roaring out of the barren semi-desert, sending great plumes of spray up above the brown horizon, the falls – still known by their Khoikhoi name, Aukoerabis, "the place of great noise" – are the most spectacular moment in the two-thousand-kilometre progress of the Orange River. At peak flow, the huge volume of water plunging through the narrow channel actually compares with the more docile periods at Victoria Falls and Niagara, although Augrabies lacks both the height and the soul-wrenching grandeur of its larger rivals. But in its eerie desert setting under an azure evening sky, the falls provide a moving and absorbing experience. The sides of the canyon are shaped like a smooth parabola, and there are many tales of curious visitors venturing too far to peer at the falls and sliding helplessly into the seething maelstrom below. Despite the odd miraculous survival, several dozen people have died here since the national park was created in 1966.
The falls are viewed from behind a large fence, while a boardwalk allows wheelchair access to the viewpoint. To see more of the gorge, walk the short distance to Arrow Point or drive on the link roads round to Ararat or Echo Corner. The atmosphere is at its best near sunset, when the sun shines straight into the west-facing part of the gorge.
The fairly inhospitable northern section of the park covers 184 square kilometres on both sides of the river. The land is dry and harsh, with sparse plants typical of arid areas, such as kokerboom (quiver tree), camelthorn and Namaqua fig. The landscape is punctuated by various striking rock formations, notably Moon Rock, a huge dome of smooth, flaking granite rising out of the flat plains. If you drive on the (unsurfaced) roads in the park you’ll probably spot some of the resident fauna – including eland, klipspringer and springbok – while you’re likely to see dassie, mongoose and lizards around the falls and the camp.
The best time to visit Augrabies is from March to May, when the temperatures are slightly cooler and the river is at its maximum flow after summer rainfall up in the Lesotho catchment areas. With your own transport, the falls are easily visited as a day-trip from Upington, although there’s plenty of reasonable accommodation both in the park itself and nearby.
Activities at Augrabies Falls
Various adventure activities are promoted within the park, though none really matches the adrenaline surge of the falls themselves. The half-day 3-in-1 Gariep trail (closed for maintenance at the time of writing) combines a short canoeing trip in the gorge with a walk and an eleven-kilometre mountain-bike ride back to the restcamp. The Dassie nature trail is a half-day hike out from the main restcamp, while the popular three-day Klipspringer trail (April–Sept only; R175) involves two overnight stops at simple huts; advance booking is essential. Night game drives are also on offer (R130), and there’s a 56-kilometre self-drive tourism route (4WD only) in the park’s northwestern section for viewing plains game.
Perhaps more instantly gratifying is the "Augrabies Rush", a half-day trip on small rafts down 8km of increasingly swift river immediately above the falls, run by Kalahari Outventures (R315 per person with a minimum of four). The same company also runs four-day rafting trails taking you deep into the empty country downriver of the falls (R2950), while another three-day trip surges down the exciting rapids of the Oneepkans Gorge near Pella (R2850).