29 October 2013 by Tara Turkington

Soul-searching in Namaqualand

Shipwrecks, strange plants and animals, and a deserted coastline are some of the delights that Namaqualand holds.

Wreck of the Border, near Kleinsee, Namaqualand

They say in the Northern Cape that when you fall in a river, you should get up and dust yourself off.

It is true this province has more sand than most countries in the Middle East – from the shifting red sands of the Kalahari to the stubborn mountain stoniness of the Richtersveld and the soft, thick powdery sea sand that runs along the West Coast from the Namibian border towards the Cape.

Leaves of a succulent Leaves of a succulent

Here, expect thaumaturgical landscapes and plant life – koppies plastered with giant red boulders and shiny specularite, strange plants like the halfmens ('half person'), covered in spines which, when you run your finger along them, click a little akin to the way an old Nama person speaks, in clicks and tricks of the tongue.

You’ll discover weird plants like the Medusa’s head (Euphorbia caput-medusae), which sprouts heads like the mythical classical creature and deserves a spot on a Star Trek set. This is the land of kokerbooms (quiver trees) and the mighty !Gariep River (more commonly recorded on maps as the Orange River), and of breathtakingly red sunsets and desert animals like the gemsbok, springbok and ostrich.

The Northern Cape covers about a third of South Africa and is sparsely populated. Those who do live there live mostly in the small cities of Kimberley and Upington.

The Northern Cape covers about a third of South Africa and is sparsely populated. Those who do live there live mostly in the small cities of Kimberley and Upington.

In the top left-hand corner of this rugged, desolate province, which many of the few who venture here would argue is South Africa’s most beautiful, you’ll find Namaqualand, named after the Nama people who have lived here for thousands of years, and a memorable destination on its own. 

The area is vast and fascinating, and you could spend weeks restoring your soul and sense of self here, but here are two highlights of the area to consider on any trip to Namaqualand.

Diamond Coast 4X4 Shipwreck Route (near Kleinsee)

Wreck of the Piratiny, Namaqualand Wreck of the Piratiny, Namaqualand

It was a bad time to develop engine trouble, that stormy winter’s day along the deserted coast of Namaqualand in 1943.

The ill-fated SS Piratiny, a 5 000-tonne Brazilian steamship, was headed for Cape Town with a cargo of shoes, clothing, rolls of material and tinned sardines when its engine spluttered and failed. The wind drove the steamer against the rocks on the edge of this harsh and lonely land, and the Piratiny broke in two. Luckily, all crew were able to scramble to land safely. They were picked up by the diamond police who patrolled the coastline regularly, and taken to the little outpost of Hondeklip Bay.

Old leather shoe from the wreck of the Piratiny Old leather shoe from the wreck of the Piratiny

Local salvage company Globe Engineering helped to recover about 75% of the cargo, but about six weeks after it was wrecked, a major storm blew up and smashed the ship, and the remaining cargo was strewn along the coastline – literally a windfall for the scattered communities of wartime Namaqualand, who helped themselves to whatever they could find.

In a little cove a few hundred metres away from the Piratiny, you’ll still find old leather shoes among the masses of mussel shells and fragile desert plants – 70 years later, this metal ghost is still revealing its secrets, little by little. Apparently for years after the wreck, children in Namaqualand villages had clothes all made from the same material – and some Namaqualand old-timers had so many tinned sardines in their youth, they refuse to eat them to this day…

Local legend has it that the Piratiny was torpedoed by a U-boat. However it met its end, today its rusting carcass is an evocative monument along the beautiful Diamond Coast Shipwreck Route, a 4x4 route along sandy, little-used roadways between the small towns of Kleinsee and Noup in the Northern Cape.

Flowers on a dune, Namaqualand Flowers on a dune, Namaqualand

The coastline you’ll travel along on the Shipwreck Route is owned by De Beers (our guide told us about 9% of all South Africa’s coastline is owned by De Beers), which is wrapping up diamond mining operations in the area. De Beers has extensively mined the seabed along the northern Namaqualand coast for decades, but has left the coastline pristine – a delight for travellers today.

The seabed here is rich in diamonds that have been swept down the riverbeds over millennia from the country’s interior, where they were once embedded in towering, hardened volcanic kimberlite pipes that weathered away over time, releasing the precious treasures.

Kimberley, the Northern Cape’s capital and 750km or so to the east as the jackal buzzard flies, is world-renowned for its diamonds. Here, there are five kimberlite pipes in close proximity (an unrivalled number), and no doubt some of the diamonds from these pipes ultimately made their way into the Namaqualand seabed.

Namaqua dwarf adder among mussel shells Namaqua dwarf adder among mussel shells

There are still diamond-dredging boats operating in this area – each morning, six boats operated by Benguela Concessions go out to pump up 'diamond gravel', which is brought back to shore by rubber dinghy for sorting. It’s a long, lonely coastline, though, and you’re more likely to see endangered black oystercatchers than you are diamond boats.

What you’ll also find is a world of extremes: life and death (extraordinary plant life and layers of death, from the rusting shipwrecks to piles of shells and whalebones, and stone tools used by the Khoi hunter-gatherers who once lived along this coast); heat and cold (the burning desert sun is tempered by the mist that rolls along the coastline); scarcity and abundance (there is almost no fresh water here, yet as part of the Succulent Karoo Biome this area is home to some of the richest plant diversity on Earth); and harshness and beauty (inspect the giant boulders down by the shoreline closely, for example, and you’ll find them beaded with red garnets, or delight in a tiny yellow flower, growing out of the sand).

Wreck of the Surveyor, near Kleinsee, Namaqualand Wreck of the Surveyor, near Kleinsee, Namaqualand

Along the Shipwreck Route you’ll also see the small diamond-recovery boat, the Surveyor, wrecked in 1994 in what may be the world’s most undramatic shipwreck – the crew didn’t tie up the boat properly after a day’s work, and it came loose in rough seas and was wrecked by the time they got to work the next morning.

More imposing is the Border, which was built in 1899 and wrecked in heavy mist on 1 April (yes, really) 1947. She was carrying a cargo of petrol and explosives for the Namaqualand mines, and although no human lives were lost in the wreck, nine donkeys were killed while rescue workers tried to salvage the cargo.

Her rusted frame still pokes skywards, while the floor of the wreck is covered in giant mussel shells. We even saw a tiny Namaqua dwarf adder beside the ship – one of many species endemic to the area. It was just one of many surprises on this wonderful trail.

How to do it:

Contact: local tour guide Dudley Wessels, tel: 083 286 7080/083 305 2569. Website: www.noup.co.za.
You’ll need: a 4x4
What to take on the tour: camera, walking shoes, your own food and drinks
Where to stay: Die Houthoop guest house, near Kleinsee. You’ll eat the best seafood you’ve ever tasted here. Tel: 083 236 2152

Video: The Shipwreck Route, Northern Cape

Explore the 4x4 Shipwreck Route near Kleinsee in Namaqualand – a photogenic journey along seldom-used sandy tracks.

Namaqua National Park

Flowers and road, Namaqua National Park Flowers and road, Namaqua National Park

South of Kleinsee and south-west of the main Namaqualand town of Springbok, you’ll find the Namaqua National Park, another Mecca for 4x4 enthusiasts, nature lovers or anyone looking for a digital detox and soul cleansing.

It’s a relatively new national park, proclaimed in 2001, and has little infrastructure – one of the aspects that makes it so appealing.

Of course, this park is most beautiful in the legendary 'flower time' in spring (anywhere from late July to mid-September), when billions of orange, yellow, pink, purple and white blooms carpet the landscape. Then it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime wonder to behold.

But out of flower season, the park is arguably just as alluring – and even lonelier. Look out for species like the Cape long-billed lark, strange, dark-coloured springbok among the ordinary ones, duikers, steenbok, hartebeest and the diminutive klipspringer. You’re also likely to see ostriches (no doubt with chicks of ranging sizes in spring and early summer) and Cape fur seals galore, and, if you’re lucky, the world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua speckled padloper.

Cape fur seal pup Cape fur seal pup

You can choose to camp along the seashore at simple campsites, not dissimilar to the way the Khoi people must have camped here thousands of years ago, or stay at the sprawling Eagle’s Nest guest house, located in the interior of the park, among the bushy succulents for which this area is famous.

Unlike many other national parks, you are welcome to walk here wherever takes your fancy. Like everywhere else in the marvellous Northern Cape, this is a land of contrasts: vast landscapes will hold your attention until a tiny succulent or beetle catches your eye. There are an estimated 3 500 plant species in this park, 1 000 of which are endemic to Namaqualand. Yes, it’s a place you really should stop and smell the daisies.

How to do it:

Contact: the Namaqua National Park directly on 027 672 1948, or for reservations enquiries, contact SANParks reservations on 012 428 9111, or visit www.sanparks.co.za
You’ll need: a 4x4 and camping gear (if not staying at Eagle’s Nest guest house in the park or elsewhere outside the park). If you don't have your own 4x4 or want to hire one, there are various tour guides and/or companies that specialise in the Namaqualand area, including The 4x4 Safari company, tel: 0861 333 127/073 806 9812, www.the4x4safari.co.za

  • This article originally appeared in South Africa's Sunday Independent newspaper.
Dark-coloured springbok (left) and ordinary springbok, Namaqua National Park Dark-coloured springbok (left) and ordinary springbok, Namaqua National Park
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