1. Augrabie Falls
At the Augrabies Falls you will be awed by the water thundering down the gorge. There are also plenty of other attractions to explore nearby, including a wide variety of flowers and animals, and the inimitable views from the Moon Rock. The Khoi call the Augrabies Falls Aukoerabis, ‘the place of noise’.
To understand why the Khoisan people referred to the Augrabies Falls as “the place of great noise”, you need to come and experience them for yourself. Particularly when there has been plenty of rain and the Orange River is overflowing, you will experience the full might of the water as it thunders down the 56m-high falls. The might of this natural wonder will stay with you long after you have left the falls. The Augrabies Falls are situated 120km to the west of Upington in the Northern Cape. They form part of the Augrabies Falls National Park, which is rich with endemic and indigenous plant and animal species. On the menu of plant species is the enigmatic Quiver tree or Kokerboom (Aloe dichotoma). Traditionally, the Khoisan hunters made their quivers from this tree which dates back thousands of years and which produces vivd yellow flowers in May and June. The Augrabies Falls National Park offers an ancient landscape that will take you back in time to the world of the first hunter-gatherers.
Just as they did thousands of years ago, if you sit silently you might be treated to the sight of a beautiful pair of klipspringers grazing – all the while keeping alert to the slightest sign of trouble from any of the predators, including leopards, jackals and the African wild cat. The klipspringers are not the only ones that are preyed upon. The park is the natural habitat for other antelope species such as steenbok, springbok, gemsbok, kudu and eland. You will hopefully see them all as you explore the park. Complete your visit with a bird’s eye view of the park from the top of the Moon Rock – a vast ‘whaleback’ dome which is a prominent landmark of Augrabies Falls. Walking to the summit will give one of the best views of the park and its surroundings.
2. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
If you think the desert is bland, you’ve obviously never been to the Kalahari. It’s a magical place where dry landscapes and red dunes provide the backdrop to a singularly unique experience, one that can only be found in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This is an excellent area to view birds of prey, especially tawny and snake eagles. The Kgalagadi Transfontier Park is a fusion of the former Kalahari Gemsbok National Park of South Africa, which was set up to protect migratory game such as Gemsbok, and the neighbouring Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. These two wild wonderlands were separated by nothing but an unmarked international border. They form an ecological unit of some 37 000 km² – a semi-desert wilderness of blonde grass, red dunes and enormous open spaces. All that was needed was to formalise the arrangement and co-ordinate ecology management. So in 2000, this became the first of South Africa’s transfrontier ventures.
Authorities on both sides learnt much from the union, but tourists were the real winners, being able to move between the two parks, and thus two countries, without a passport (unless exiting on the other side, of course). Managing the ecology of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as a single unit has been a great step forward for desert conservation. Plus, the opening of the border crossing at Mata Mata has opened more than just access between South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. This gateway has started talks about creating a corridor linking this giant park to nearby Augrabies National Park, due south, and from there the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Conservation Area in the west. Just north of that is Namibia’s 26 000km² Sperrgebiet National Park. That, in turn, abuts the Namib Naukluft National Park, one of the largest conservation areas in the world. If all goes to plan, they will all be linked in the near future.
Sustaining the spirit started by Kgalagadi may soon give rise to a mega-transfrontier park, protecting a desert storehouse of some of the most exquisitely adapted plants and animals on Earth. Proving that the African ethos of “Ubuntu” – sharing with your neighbours – really is the way forward.
3. Namaqua National Park
Picture an arid semi-desert landscape with mountains, roads, rocks and shrubs. Now picture the transfrmation of this landscape in the succulent Karoo as it is completely transformed by a blanket of beautiful flowers. Well, when Spring arrives in the Namaqua National Park, that’s exactly what happens. The word’s smallest tortoise, the speckled padloper (padloper means ‘path walker’), is found in Namaqualand.
From horizon to horizon, orange daisies take over the Namaqua National Park in Spring. It’s a sight so beautiful and unique, it’ll take your breath away. While the bees and butterflies keep themselves busy collecting pollen, the people who come to experience the magic often just sit in the shade and take it all in. That’s between making ‘daisy angels’ and taking photos both of which are irresistable activities in this surreal landscape. The timing of the flowers and how many will bloom changes every year but its guaranteed that sometime between August and the beginning of October the dusty land will spring to life and, for a few vibrant weeks, this low-rainfall desert is completely transformed. But Namaqualand, also known as the Succulent Karoo, isn’t only known for its daisies. It’s also rich in bulb flora and over 1000 of the estimated 3500 plant species that occur here are found nowhere else in the world. To experience the heart of the succulent Karoo, you can take the Caracal 4×4 eco-route, which is over 180km long and will take you deep into the park’s newest lands.
The sea of flowers literally ends at the sea, between the Groen and Spoeg rivers, where even the beaches are edged with flowers. Sit still for long enough and a sighting of a rare Heaviside dolphin may even add an extra sprinkling of magic to your trip.
4. Kimberly Diamond Fields
Delve into the diamond fields of the Northern Cape and relive the days of the great and terrible diamond rush, when lives were ruined and fortunes were made, with a tour of historic Kimberley. Then head off through the battlefields of the Anglo-Boer war and beyond, into the Kalahari sunset. Kamfersdam outside Kimberley hosts huge flocks of pink flamingos.
Blood, sweat, tears, triumph, murder and despair … such are the foundation stones of Kimberley, diamond capital of the world and gateway to the Kalahari and Diamond Fields of the Northern Cape. Diamonds were first discovered in 1871 on Colesberg Koppie. It triggered rush fever which led to frantic mass diggings, culminating in what is now the Big Hole, the largest artificial construction to be found anywhere in the world. Around this 365m-deep pit Kimberley sprang into being, impelled by the diamond rush that drew 30 000 miners to the diamond fields of South Africa. As time went by, prospectors’ tents and shacks were replaced by tree-lined avenues graced by Victorian mansions, as Kimberley developed into a modern city.
A good starting point to relive these times is the Big Hole and Kimberley Mine Museum. After watching an introductory film at the visitor’s centre, peer into the depths of the Big Hole from the Viewing Platform. Admire the 616, the world’s biggest diamond crystal, at the Real Diamond Display. See the old mining machines in the Pulsator Building. Experience the mining conditions of yesteryear in the Underground Mine Experience, a recreated mine shaft. Then head on down to the Old Town, with its preserved and restored period buildings. Round off a memorable day with a drink at the famous Diggers’ Tavern.
Thirsty for more? Kimberley has numerous other attractions. Walk through the historical city centre, take in the museums, monuments and art galleries in old stately homes, or explore the city’s haunted corners on the Kimberley ghost trail.
Then prepare yourself to experience the rest of the Diamond Fields region. The Vaal River diggings at Barkly West; old Boer War battlefields at Modder River and Magersfontein; the still operational Bultfontein mine; all this and more beckons to the diamond fields.
5. Sutherland to Calvinia
If you want to travel with the stars, drive on dusty back roads, visit an old-time country trading store, walk through a semi-desert with the waking sun, and go on a belly safari for a close-up of nature, then the upper Karoo in the Northern Cape is calling your name. South Africa’s largest telepscope is at Sutherland and is powerful enough to detect a candle flame on the moon.
You’re about to travel through a barren, ancient land where you can practically touch the stars at night, where the horizon stretches forever, and where you are welcome at many a farmer’s dinner table. This journey of starry skies begins in the small Northern Cape town of Sutherland, right outside the Art Deco farmers’ co-op, where we meet Sutherland’s primary champion, one Jurg Wagenaar. He tells us all about the upper Karoo region while he settles us into our rooms at the Kambrokind Guest House.
We’ve made an appointment for a night tour of the Southern African Large Telescope, which is on a hill outside Sutherland. It’s a fascinating 90-minute tour, during which we get to look at fascinating objects up in space through special telescopes dedicated for use by visitors. We don’t bother the busy astronomers, but our guide answers all our questions. Some time spent with the stars up on that hill is definitely one of the highlights of any trip to the Northern Cape, and a great way for us to start this journey. (Just a note, if you’re planning to do this tour, book well in advance, as they don’t run every day).
The next morning we take a winding dirt road through the Roggeveld mountains to the small settlement of Middelpos. At the Middelpos Trading Store, where the interior could be a movie set depicting the 1950s, we buy old-style boiled sweets wrapped in paper cones and walk around the kennels full of boerbul dogs – one of the main Karoo breeds. There’s a bit of a commotion down near the shop, and we wander past it, right into a sheep auction. We stay for a few minutes, drinking in the country atmosphere and having a look at the livestock on display. We’re booked into the nearby Tankwa Karoo National Park for the night, one of South Africa’s driest reserves. This is not a game park like, say, the Kruger National Park, which is all about the Big 5 and game drives. The Tankwa is where you use your ‘desert eyes’ and learn to spot the small things in life – and then look up and gasp at the wide-angle space around you.
At sunrise the next morning, after a great evening spent at our lodge, sitting on the porch outside and drinking in the heavens, we catch the early light. The succulents open first, and we record this with our cameras. Then the spiders finish their morning webs and trap breakfast for themselves, while a beetle leaves a drunken track in the sand. We go for a walk after coffee and rusks, and suddenly, amid all this solitude, we understand why the Tankwa is such a beloved place. You’re about as wonderfully far from home as you’ll ever be.
At mid-morning, we check out and head north on the R355 to Calvinia, a true Karoo town and one of its most hospitable. We meet up with Alta Coetsee of the Hantam Huis guest houses, where we check in, and she shows us her herd of fluffy lamas. At suppertime we are well wined and dined, with our memory banks full of the wide spaces and night skies of the starry Karoo.
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