Did you know?
Upington Airport has the longest runway in Africa at 4 900m, and was a designated alternative landing spot for the US shuttle programme.
The drive between Upington and the Kgaladgadi Transfrontier National Park in the remote reaches of the Northern Cape province is the kind of South African outback road trip you do with some adventurous friends in a sturdy vehicle.
You could do the Upington-Askham drive on the R360 in about two hours – it’s an easy 200km trip north. But, in the spirit of back-roads adventure, we’re going to do the 'Kalahari Loop' between these two destinations – a distance of more than 500km.
The first day of our journey begins in the air and not on the road. We drive out to Upington Airport and hire a gyroplane and pilot for an hour of slowly meandering up and down the Orange River, taking soft-light, post-dawn photographs en route.
Once back on the ground, we take the N14 east to Kathu for about 200km, and then turn off on the R31 to the town of Vanzylsrus, our first overnight stop. The Vanzylsrus Hotel has a deep history, and the kind of outsider artist décor that looks awesome out here in the middle of a sandy nowhere.
It used to be called the Gemsbok Hotel, and one of the evergreen stories about the bar is that a couple of local farmers once brought in a prize sheep and ran a tab way beyond its value. That’s the kind of desert tourism story you hear in the dry heart of Australia or in a US state like New Mexico.
So we stop over at this amazing place and stage a little party in the bar, leaving no stone unturned in our quest for good times on this unusual loop.
The next morning, we head for Koppieskraal, where we ride camels on the red dunes, have a sunset braai (barbecue) with a grand old camelthorn log fire, and toast the road that brought us here.
The camels we ride are the descendants of the famous frontier police camels that used to traverse this vast area, chasing crooks and vagabonds. They used to be trained at a police base at Witdraai, not far from here.
Being on a rising camel is a singular experience. First you tip dramatically forwards, then dramatically backwards as the camel first straightens its hind legs and then its front legs – you can understand why camels are called the ships of the desert. Once they’re up, though, you suddenly have a lofty view of the landscape around you, and it’s fabulous.
The next day we arrive at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where we’re booked into chalets at Twee Rivieren Camp. We check in at reception and spot an entry in a guest book: ‘The Kalahari will reveal itself only to those who seek with a true heart.’ Do we qualify?
In the late afternoon we embark on our first game drive. The park is unusually green due to recent rainfall, and the air is fragrant. We see great numbers of gemsbok (oryx), jackals, blue wildebeest and even some cheetah, as well as too many raptor birds to mention.
In the early evening, we light up the braai fires and discuss wildlife and the pure joy of being up here in the Kalahari. It’s a good thing we booked some extra nights in advance...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Upington is almost equi-distant from Cape Town (approx. 820km) and Johannesburg (approx. 850km), at lease a 10-hour drive, and lies both on the N14 and the Orange River.
Best time to visit
This area is arguably loveliest in spring (August to September) or autumn (April to May).
Around the area
Visit a meerkat project near Vanzylsrus – it costs R250 per person, and is well worth it. Inquire at the Vanzylsrus Hotel.
Tours to do
Guided game drives organised in the morning and evenings at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Driving yourself is the best option in this part of the country. If possible, hire something sturdier than a regular sedan.
What will it cost
The transfrontier park chalets start at R900 per unit; the rates at the Vanzylsrus Hotel start at R450 pp for bed and breakfast.
Length of stay
Set aside at least five days and four nights for your trip, or even more if you can.
What to pack
Pack seasonally, informally and remember to throw in your sunblock, camera manual, extra memory cards and camera batteries. During the summer (November to April), the temperatures in this area can be searingly hot, though cool right down at night. In winter (May to August), nights can be bitterly cold, though days are usually warm and mild, so pack accordingly.
Where to stay
Recommended overnight stays include the Vanzylsrus Hotel, Koppieskraal Guest Farm and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. You may need to book long in advance to secure your accommodation in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
What to eat
This is red meat country, so stock up at butcher shops en route and barbecue (braai) under the wide Kalahari skies.
Check the listed websites for events happening in the area during the time of your visit.
You can buy delicious sultanas and sweet wines in one of the many Upington co-ops and general stores.