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.
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.