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NNorthern Cape province is the largest, least-populated and one of the most scenic of South Africa’s 9 provinces, in which the mighty Orange River provides a ribbon of life running through an arid landscape that stretches from the rocky semi-desert plains of the Great Karoo through to the red dunes of the Kalahari Desert and west to a remote stretch of coastline on the cold Atlantic Ocean.
It’s the vast, remote, rugged nature of this landscape that keeps bringing the tourists back. In August and September, the area of Namaqualand is magically transformed by spring showers into a brilliant carpet of wildflowers that draws botanists, photographers and nature-lovers from around the world.
The Great Karoo is famous for its wide-open plains and star-studded skies. A trip to Sutherland, home to the Southern African Large Telescope, is a must for those interested in astronomy. And the town of Carnarvon is the gateway to the Square Kilometre Array facility (as of 2019, still in Phase 1 of construction), a radio telescope that will form part of an international project to look deep into space to learn more about the universe.
Heading northwards, you’ll encounter the provincial capital of Kimberley, site of the biggest diamond rush ever seen in 1867, sparked by the discovery of the Eureka diamond near the Orange River in 1866. You can learn more about this history at the Big Hole Visitors’ Centre in Kimberley, which offers guided tours, and view the famous pit that was dug – by hand – by prospectors during the diamond rush. You can also see beautiful rock engravings, the work of the San people, at Wildebeestkuil outside Kimberley.
Even further north, around the town of Upington, you will encounter an area known as the Green Kalahari along the banks of the Orange River – improbably lined with lush, green vineyards on the edge of the desert, fed by the waters of the river that rises some 2 000km to the east.
Popular tourist activities here include multi-day paddling trips down the river allowing you to camp outdoors and enjoy the silence and majesty of the landscape in your own time. And while you’re on the Orange River, don’t miss the Augrabies Falls – not the highest waterfall in South Africa, but certainly the largest (and loudest!) in terms of the sheer volume of water that pours through the cataract. To get the full spectacle, the falls are best viewed at the end of summer after good rains in the eastern parts of the country.
A major drawcard in Northern Cape is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, one of the largest nature conservation areas in southern Africa and one of the largest protected natural ecosystems in the world. It surprises many visitors to the Kalahari Desert that this park has a wild population of lion, leopard and cheetah, but these hardy survivors obviously find enough prey in this dry world to stay alive, so you can expect to see some well-adapted herbivores too.
You’ll discover a landscape characterised by grassland and rolling red dunes here. The park covers more than 2-million hectares and spills over into neighbouring Botswana. Once you have experienced its sheer size, clear skies, flamboyant sunsets, brilliant starry nights and incredible silence, you will never forget it.
For entirely different terrain, visit the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, which is to be found in the north-west corner of the province, extending into Namibia. Here the rocky, mountainous, lunar landscape is home to unique succulent vegetation that still sustains the semi-nomadic Nama people, who have rights to graze their sheep and goats here. The Richtersveld is popular with 4-wheel drive enthusiasts and nature lovers who truly want to get away from it all.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Northern Cape Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)53 832 2657
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
Kimberley makes a great base from which to explore Northern Cape – the city has direct air links to Cape Town and Johannesburg. You can also self-drive from Cape Town (960km; about 10 hours’ drive on the N1 and N12) or Johannesburg (470km; about 5 hours on the N1 and R59).
Best time to visit
Northern Cape is a semi-arid region with little rainfall in summer. The weather conditions are extremely cold in winter (May to September) and extremely hot in summer (November to March). Factor this into your planning.
Around the area
Pella Mission is truly in the middle of nowhere. Approximately 150km from Springbok, Pella boasts a striking yellow cathedral that was built by French missionaries in the late 1880s.
To explore Northern Cape at your leisure, it is advisable to self-drive, so hire a car if you need to. Be prepared for long trips, though: this is a vast area, and it can take many hours to travel between destinations.
Length of stay
Given the distances that need to be covered exploring Northern Cape, you’ll want at least a week to take it all in and adjust to the rural rhythm.
What to pack
Lots of sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water.