The Northern Cape Travel Guide
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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 Northern Cape is the largest and most sparsely populated region of South Africa. This arid and rugged landscape is characterized by vast open spaces, dramatic rock formations, and unique wildlife, making it a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.
From the majestic Augrabies Falls and the red dunes of the Kalahari Desert to the historic towns of Kimberley and Kuruman, the Northern Cape offers an off the beaten track experience for visitors to explore. Whether you're seeking to reconnect with nature, learn about the local culture and history, or simply escape the hustle and bustle of city life, the Northern Cape has something to offer everyone.
The most significant surprise 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 the Kalahari and the Great Karoo. 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.
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.
Kimberley, Springbok and Upington lie on Intercape’s bus routes (with connections to Windhoek in Namibia), but services depart at night and miss the scenery.
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From exploring Augrabies Falls National Park to visiting the Kalahari, there's plenty to do and see in the Northern Cape. Here are the best things to do.
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. Although nothing really matches the adrenaline surge of the falls themselves, various adventure activities are promoted within the park, including hiking, mountainbiking, canoeing and a 56-kilometre self-drive tourism route (4WD only) in the park’s northwestern section for viewing plains game.
RoughGuides TIP - check our 10 reasons to visit the Norhtern Cape
Africa's first official transfrontier park, Kgalagadi, covers an area of over 37,000 square kilometres. The local Mier and San communities jointly manage their land with South African National Parks. Although the tourist facilities in South Africa and Botswana are run autonomously, the park is run as a single ecological unit and gate receipts are shared.
At nearly twice the size of Kruger National Park, be prepared to clock up some serious mileage here – the shortest circular game drive is over 100km long.
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, but this doesn’t prevent the path from offering one of the finest game-viewing experiences in South Africa..
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. 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, bustards and ostrich.
Kimberley's principal attraction is the Big Hole, a 500-meter-wide excavation just west of the city center. Although it is not the only, or even the largest hole, in the city, it is the most popular.
In 1871, workers known as the Red Cap Party were searching for diamonds at the base of Colesberg koppie, a small hill on the De Beers brothers' farm.
The story goes that they sent one of their cooks to the top of the hill as a punishment for being drunk, telling him not to return until he had found a diamond. The servant returned with a peace offering, and within two years, over fifty thousand people were frantically turning Colesberg koppie inside out.
Tens of thousands of miners swarmed over the mine in its heyday to work their ten-square-meter claim. A shaft was dug to allow further excavations beneath the surface to a depth of over 800 meters when mining from the surface was no longer feasible.
The hole was dug to a depth of 240 meters entirely by pick and shovel, and it remains one of the largest manmade excavations in the world. By 1914, when De Beers closed the mine, over 22.6 million tons of earth had been removed, yielding over 13.6 million carats (2722 kg) of diamonds. The only way to see the Big Hole officially is from inside the Kimberley Mine Museum, which you can reach on foot or via a rickety, open-sided tram that runs from the City Hall.
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. 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 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 which provides reliable displays of wildflowers even in years of low rainfall, when displays elsewhere may be muted.
The Kalahari is the most evocative of the Northern Cape's vast, dry expanses. Its name, derived from the word "kgalagadi" meaning "saltpans" or "thirsty land", refers to the semi-desert that stretches from the Orange River to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, into Namibia and to the east until the bushveld takes over.
The Northern Cape's Kalahari is characterized by high, thinly vegetated red or orange sand dunes, dry river beds, and large saltpans. Although it's a semi-desert, summer temperatures are scorching and winter nights are freezing. The area is home to farmers and communities largely descended from the indigenous San hunter-gatherers and Khoi herders. Eco-tourism is becoming increasingly important as stock farming and hunting provide only a marginal living.
Upington is the main town in the region, situated on the northern bank of the Orange River. It's surrounded by irrigated farmland producing wheat, cotton, and grapes. An hour's drive west is Augrabies Falls, where the Orange River rushes through a granite gorge. The area has two national parks: Augrabies Falls and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The latter is the highlight of the region, a vast desert sanctuary rich in game and boasting a magnificent landscape of red dunes and hardy vegetation. Though the journey to get there is long, it's well worth the effort.
Attractively hemmed in by hills, the N14 runs from the main commercial and administrative centre of Namaqualand, Springbok, to Pretoria in Gauteng. It offers one of the most scenic drives in the country.
At its northern end, this dusty national route cuts through Upington and the Kalahari. But with most of the traffic to the Northern Cape concentrated in the southeastern corner, through which the two main roads between Johannesburg and Cape Town, the N1 and the N12, pass, the N14 is a less obvious way to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
It not only takes drivers through Upington, passing the atmospheric old mission station at Kuruman, but it allows you to later join the scenic N7 down the coast. This route is around 400km longer, but the sights are more interesting.
From the diamond rush centre, Kimberly, to the main city of Springbok, these are the best cities to visit in the Northern Cape.
Although it’s a provincial capital and the historic centre of production of one of the world’s most valuable materials, Kimberley itself is neither large nor glamorous.
During the diamond rush, it was the fastest-growing city in the southern hemisphere and Cecil Rhodes held in his grip not only the fabulously wealthy diamond industry but the heart and mind of the British Empire; yet status and sophistication have been draining from Kimberley ever since.
Even the all-controlling De Beers Group closed its Kimberley mines in 2005 as part of a process to streamline the company, and the city lives in the chilly shadow of the day when the diamonds dry up altogether.
However, Kimberley’s legacy gives it an historic flavour few other cities in South Africa can match. It’s worth spending a few hours seeking out some of the many old buildings, not forgetting to peer into the depths of the Big Hole just west of the centre, the remarkable, hand-dug chasm that takes up almost as much land area as the city’s central business district.
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.
As an inevitable focus of trips to Kgalagadi and Augrabies, as well as those to and from Namaqualand and Namibia, Upington, just over 400km west of Kimberley, is a good place to stop for supplies, organize a park tour or onward accommodation, or simply draw breath.
Situated on the banks of the Orange River, central Upington is compact and easy to get around, with most of the activity on the three main streets running parallel to the riverbank. It can be a mellow spot, with plenty of greenery softening the arid landscape that surrounds it – a result of the irrigation that allows Upington to be surrounded by vineyards. However, the savage summer temperatures mean you probably won’t want to linger.
Upington’s obvious highlight is the Orange River, but unless you’re staying at one of the riverside guesthouses, it tends to be hidden from view. The terrace behind the Irish Pub is a good place to admire the river and its swans. Better still, take a cruise with Sakkie se Arkie on its strange two-tier barge; it’s based on the riverbank at the east end of Park Street.
The semi-arid expanse of northern Namaqualand is where the Karoo merges into the Kalahari, and both meet the ocean. If it weren’t for the discovery of copper in the 1600s, and more recently of alluvial and offshore diamonds washed down from the Kimberley area by the Orange River, the region might well not have acquired any towns at all. Fresh water is scarce, and its presence here ensured the survival of Springbok, the region’s capital, after its copper mines were exhausted.
Lying 400km southwest of Upington, and just over 100km south of the border with Namibia, it makes a pleasant base for visiting northern Namaqualand’s flower fields in August and September or a springboard for visiting the coast, and it’s a good place to arrange trips to the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.
Springbok’s main action is centred on the mound of granite boulders next to the taxi rank in the town centre. Called Klipkoppie ("rocky hill"), this was the site of a British fort blown up by General Jan Smuts’ commando during the Anglo-Boer War.
Nestled in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, Griekwastad is a charming town that sits along the N8 National Road with a fascinating history rooted in the leadership of Adam Kok II, a former slave who led his followers from Piketberg to the Griekwastad area in the early 1800s.
Kok was a skilled cook in the governor's kitchen in Cape Town, and it is from this position that he earned his surname, Kok. As settlers moved up into the midlands, Kok and his followers journeyed further upward to eventually settle in Griekwastad.
In 1802, the London Missionary Society established a missionary school at Leeuwenkuil, with the first missionaries being William Anderson and Cornelius Kramer. However, the station was moved to Klaarwater after the missionaries encountered lions using the fountain as a waterhole.
Today, Griekwastadis a cattle and sheep farming hub, with plenty of semi-precious stones to be found in the surrounding area, particularly tiger's eye. The region is also home to a number of Bushman drawings that can be found in various locations. For those interested in hunting, the various game farmers in the area offer a wide range of hunting packages.
The Northern Cape is intimately linked to the San, South Africa’s first people, whose heritage is visible in the countless examples of rock art across the province.
Driven from their hunting grounds by the movement of Africans from the north and east, and Europeans from the southwest, the San eventually became extinct.
Yet for the newcomers, the semi-desert of the Karoo and the Kalahari only appeared to bring hopelessness and heartbreaking horizons. Until wealth was found under the Cape's dusty ground – something the Europeans pursued without restraint.
In 1685, Governor Simon van der Stel led the first Dutch settlers into Namaqualand to mine for copper. Other Europeans who made an early impression here were trekboers, Dutch burghers freed from the employment of the Dutch East India Company who found new land to farm away from the authoritarian company rule, and missionaries.
When diamonds were discovered in the area, a settlement of unprecedented size grew up around Kimberley. The town soon boasted more trappings than most of the southern hemisphere, including public libraries, electric streetlights and tramways.
The British were quick to annexe the new diamond fields – a move which didn’t endear them to the Orange Free State or the 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. Reminders of the war can still be seen in the area.
Getting around the Northern Cape by public transport can be a pain.
The best way to get around the Northern Cape is by hiring a car. Between the seasonal flower routes, like the 7km-long Matjiesfontein route which is carpeted with vast numbers of daisies and vygies, and the limited public transport in the region, your own wheels will get you everywhere.
Consider hiring a 4WD for Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park and Goegap Nature Reserve.
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).
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As the largest, most dispersed and sparsely populated of South Africa’s provinces, the vast Northern Cape is not an easy region for a visitor to tackle, so give yourself at least a week here.
The travel distances can be vast. If you're interested in exploring Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park or Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park and experiencing outdoor activities like hiking, game drives, and birdwatching, you will want to plan for at least a week.
Add on another five days to explore towns Kimberley, Kuruman, Upington and Springbok. If you plan to cover any of the flower routes, these usually take an additional day as well.
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The best time to visit the Northern Cape is between August and September when the Namaqualand region is transformed into a beautiful carpet of colorful flowers. The cooler months of May to September are also when the wildlife here is more active and concentrated around water sources, meaning more chance of spotting Kalahari lions, gemsbok and antelope. This is also a good time for hiking and outdoor activities.
The region is generally dry with very hot summers and cold winters. If you are interested in stargazing, the Northern Cape has some of the clearest skies in the world, so the best time to visit for stargazing is during the dry winter months of May to September.
Whilst the best time to visit the Northern Cape depends on your interests, it's best to avoid visiting during the hot summer months of November to February when the average temperatures range between 36°C (97°F) and 38°C (101°F).
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