Although this article, Northern Cape Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, mainly deals with 4×4 trails in the Northern Cape, it is one of a series of articles that very briefly describes the geography, climatic conditions, topography, must-do-and-see activities and places, scenic drives, and much else besides, of South Africa’s provinces, plus some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Northern Cape Tourism Content:
Being slightly bigger than Germany, the Northern Cape Province is by far the largest of the nine provinces, taking up nearly a third of South Africa’s surface area, but with a population of just more than one million people, it enjoys a population density of only one person for every three square kilometres.
The Namaqualand region on the west coast is hilly to mountainous, and falls mainly in the winter rainfall area, while the central parts is dominated by the Karroo, and is characterized by typical arid Karroo landscapes of huge plains, seemingly confused rock piles, isolated hills, large saltpans, sparse vegetation, and stunted acacia trees.
The south-eastern region around the Roggeveld and Nuweveld districts, form a sort of highland at elevations of between 1200m-1900m, while the northern parts consist mostly of the Kalahari Desert, which contrary to popular belief, is not just parallel red sand dunes; there are also large stretches of dry savannah punctuated by stands of acacia trees, of which the camel thorn tree is characteristic.
Apart from the generally cooler parts of the Namaqualand region in the west that falls in the winter rainfall area, the Northern Cape has by far the hottest climate in South Africa, with the highest temperatures (40°C+) in the summer months being experienced in the northern parts along the border with Namibia, where temperatures far in excess of 50ºC have been measured at the bottom of the Fish River canyon. Winter temperatures are generally cold to freezing in the south, with frequent sub-zero temperatures, especially during snowfalls.
Apart from the extreme western regions, rainfall occurs during the summer months, with the aver-age being 400 mm per year. However, large parts of the Northern Cape receive less than 100 mm of rain annually, while some parts only receive a few mm once every several years. The best time to visit the Northern Cape is during August and September, when the wild flowers are in bloom, and during which time there are no extreme temperatures.
The western Namaqualand region has become world famous for its spectacular annual, albeit brief, display of blooming wild flowers that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world, and for a province that is known for its scenic beauty, that is saying a lot. This area is also known for the fascinating elephant’s trunk plant, a tall, weirdly shaped plant that can take on a near human form when viewed from a distance. The Namaqualand coast is also unspoilt and near pristine, with no major developments to spoil the sight of blooming wild flowers nearly spilling into the Atlantic Ocean.
Starkly contrasting with the almost pastoral scenes of the west coast, is the harsh, almost lunar landscape of the Richtersveld, a dry, barren expanse of rock, crumbling mountains, and desolation that miraculously still sustains the small livestock of the nomadic Nama people with a huge variety of small, to miniscule succulents that grow between the rocks. Further afield to the east, is the green Kalahari, a vast agricultural region watered by an irrigation scheme, where green, growing crops form strangely incongruous intrusions into the greater bleakness of the Karoo landscape.
In the far northeastern regions, the red sand of the Kalahari Desert is offset by sparse savannah, interspersed with acacia stands, while to the southeast, typical, dramatic Karoo landscapes dominate the earth- and overwhelm the senses.
While the Northern Cape Province has few national parks and reserves relative to its vast surface area, what it lacks in numbers, it amply makes up for in the uniquely intimidating and dramatic scenery of its parks. Here is a park with no liquid water anywhere within its boundaries, except for the minute quantities of condensed fog that rolls in from the cold Atlantic Ocean in the early morn-ings- condensed fog that sustains the diverse plant and animal species that cannot live anywhere else. Here are the parks and reserves that offer the most elegant proof of the maxims that only the strongest survive, and that it takes a lot of strength to survive in the Northern Cape.
Straddling the border between South Africa and Namibia, this without doubt the most dramatic and spectacular park in all of Southern Africa, if not the entire African continent. Its geological features are older than two billion years – just under half the age of the earth- and the only way to explore it is with a proper 4×4. Hauntingly beautiful, this surreal landscape is the perfect reminder of the brevity of human life.
The park also contains the Fish River Canyon, at 100 kms long and 27 kms wide, the largest canyon in Africa, and the second largest in the world, as well as the Orange River mouth, which is a declared Ramsar site, and thus of international importance.
Dominated by large camel thorn trees, and of course the thundering Augrabies falls, the land-scape in this park alternates between koppies (hills), vast sweeping plains punctuated with solitary dolerite hills, and huge, sand flats in the northwestern parts. The Riet River bisects the park and inflatable canoes for trips down the waterway are available for hire.
Sometimes referred to as the “Land the Creator made when He was in a particularly good mood”, this park epitomizes contrasts and diversity. Caught between the cold Atlantic Ocean, and the hot, arid Karroo, this is a land of 4×4 trails through blooming wild flowers, gigantic gran-ite outcrops, wrinkled and crumbling mountains, huge stands of quiver trees, dry riverbeds, and nights so dark the starlight casts shadows.
With a surface area of 3.7 million hectares, this park is one of the biggest wildlife conservation areas on the planet. A near pristine ecosystem that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, the park consists mostly of typical, but beautiful Kalahari terrain: ancient fossil river valleys that are defined by drought-stunted trees and bushes, savannah-type grassland and magnificently coloured sand dunes with colours ranging from white, to amber, orange, and red, all the way to black in some spots. Abundant wildlife congregate around waterholes in the dry riverbeds, and large predators are often seen along the extensive 4×4 trails, on which only proper 4×4 vehicles should be used.
However, to preserve the park’s pure wilderness state, strict limits are in force as to the number of vehicles that can travel the wilderness trails at any one time, the number of nights a party may remain at any campsite –generally limited to a single night- as well as the number of people that may camp at any particular camp, all of which makes advance booking essential.
While South Africa is unmatched for the diversity of its landscapes, nowhere in Southern Africa are the landscapes so starkly severe and overwhelming, or the dividing lines between regions so sharply drawn as in the Northern Cape Province. The Northern Cape is not for everyone: to many it is barren, dry, devoid of life, and somewhat intimidating, but for those wanting solitude, silence, and above all, vast and exquisitely beautiful wide-open spaces, the almost total lack of major tourist developments leaves more room for the vast variety of fauna and flora that exist here, which makes tourism for the off-road traveler in the Northern Cape, a much pleasanter experience than traveling in the more developed provinces.
The Roaring Kalahari Route in the Green Kalahari, Kalahari, and Karoo Region
Emitting a haunting sound that falls between a soft hum and a roar that can sometimes be heard from as far 5km away, the 20- to 30m high sand dunes of Witsand Nature Reserve are a definite must-see destination on this route through some of the most desolate parts of the Northern Cape. The route starts in the oasis town of Kuruman, takes in Kathu, known as the Town of Trees, before heading north towards Dibeng and the mining towns of Hotazel and Black Rock. From there, the route leads to McCarthy’s Rest on the border with Botswana, then down to Van Zylsrus and to Askham in the west. Included is a detour to the magnificent Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Orange River Wine Route in the Green Kalahari Region
At least three days are required for this scenic drive through the vast patchwork quilt of vine-yards along the Orange River Valley that form the Orange River wine producing area, which is the largest in South Africa, measured by land surface area. This very scenic route takes in the wineries at Upington, Kakamas, Keimoes, Grootdrink, and Groblershoop, and the grape juice cellars at Kanoneiland, Kakamas, and Grootdrink.
The Flower Route in the Namakwa Region
Something magical happens in the Namakwa region every year: from July to September, the arid landscape is transformed in an artist’s palette of colour. Vast carpets of blooming wild flowers cover the landscape from horizon to horizon, in virtually all the colours the human eye can observe. While other semi desert regions in the world have annual wild flower displays, none can beat the display in the Namakwa region for its sheer enormity, diversity, with over 4000 species of which 1000 are endemic, range of colour, and the blue of the sky during this time of the year.
Several routes start from as close to Cape Town as a five-hour drive, but during this time the whole of Namaqualand is one huge scenic drive, so go where the roads take you.
In an area that is as diverse as the Northern Cape Province, it may sometimes be difficult to decide which attraction is more deserving of spending sometimes-limited time on. However, the Northern Cape is also a region of stark contrasts and excesses: where it is dry there is often no water at all, or where there is sand, there is an excess of it. The best way to experience the Northern Cape is to focus on its excesses and contrasts: lots of water among lots of sand, a huge perennial spring in the middle of the Kalahari or perhaps gigantic, high-tech astronomical telescopes in the middle of fossil beds that are ancient, even in geological terms.
This telescope is the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere, and count among the five largest in the world, with a compound mirror that measures 11.1 by 9.8 metres. Situated near Sutherland at an elevation of 1,798 metres, this dark site is internationally acknowledged as one of the few perfect sites for observational astronomy.
Situated at Nieuwoudtville on the Bokkeveld Plateau, and in the heart of the Hantam region, the delights of the Hantam National Botanical Garden are like fine wines, to be savoured slowly, revelling in each sip, always leaving you wanting more of the National Botanical Garden of South Africa, in which Sir David Attenborough filmed the BBC documentaries, “The Private Life of Plants” during 1991, and again in 1994.
Situated at Hopetown, the remains of a Boer concentration camp with its associated cemetery can be seen. Also visible on this site, and scattered around in the veld, are the remains of the camp hospital, military fortifications, artillery emplacements, a restored blockhouse, and thou-sands of war relics such as rusted cooking pots, children’s toys, uniform buttons, spent cartridges, empty bully-beef tins, and much else besides.
Also known as, “The Fountain of Christianity”, this perennial spring in the centre of the town of Kuruman delivers between 20 and 30 million litres of fresh water every day, even in the dry season. Over time, a large pool formed around the actual fountain, which now forms a beautiful oasis surrounded by palm and willow trees- in the dry Kalahari Desert.
Nowhere is the Orange River more impressive than at the Augrabies Falls, which at 56 metres high, is one of the world’s largest waterfalls. Downstream of the falls, the Orange River flows through a constricted, stark, but beautiful 18km long gorge in the bedrock. Once experienced, the sight, sound, and power of the Orange River water will never be forgotten.
Experience high adventure on a multi-day rafting trip down South Africa’s mightiest river. Negotiate several grade 1-2 rapids formed by more than two million years of geological activity, and sleep under the stars in riverside campsites.
The result of past volcanic activity, two admittedly small pools are fed with underground water heated by geothermal processes. About 60 kms from the small town of Kakamas, the spring site is surrounded by dramatic 80m high cliffs in the middle of the arid Karoo.
A hot air balloon flight at Augrabies is an exhilarating new adventure that follows the course of the lower Orange River Valley, offering a bird’s eye-view of extensive vineyards and the lifeblood of the area, the mighty Orange River. Go where the wind blows, but regardless of the eventual destination, the experience is always awe-inspiring.
A moderately difficult hiking trail, the Klipspringer Trail entails a 3-day hike through the Augra-bies Falls National Park. Each day’s hike is roughly 13 km long, taking around 6½ hours to com-plete. At 39km, this trail is by far the best way to experience some of the Northern Cape’s most dramatic scenery.
Few places in the world has such magnificent sunsets as the Kalahari Desert, so while in Up-ington, join the more than 100 000 people who have to date enjoyed a 2-hour sunset cruise on this weird and wonderful vessel, complete with a cash bar and relaxing music. No persons under 18 are allowed to use the bar though.
Out of the 43 mountain passes in the Northern Cape, only a few are really challenging. Much of the Northern Cape is relatively flat, and the passes seem to follow the general trend, but the few that are listed here definitely go against the trend, with one or two that can even be considered dangerous during and after snowfalls. However, what the Northern Cape passes lose in altitude gains, they more than make up for by their exquisite scenic beauty.
A substantial altitude-gaining pass located between Clanwilliam and Nieuwoudtville, this pass is the third of a trio on the R364 route, heading west to east. During rain or snowfalls, this pass can become tricky, and even dangerous, even in a proper 4WD vehicle.
Built between 1867 and 1869, this historical gravel pass offers exquisitely dramatic views of towering cliff faces, and a dry riverbed that is in view the entire time. Although the vertical alti-tude gain is only 121m, it is gained in only 8.6 kms, which produces an average gradient of 1:71, with a maximum gradient of 1:7. This pass is NOT suitable for anything but proper 4×4 vehicles.
A magnificent gravel pass that descends 548 vertical meters through the Roggeveld Mountains to the vast plains of the Tankwa Karoo. While this pass holds no records concerning altitude gains or loss, gradient or even length, it has an ethereal scenic beauty resulting from slow, graceful curves, unabashed mountain beauty, and a breadth view that seldom duplicated in any other pass in South Africa.
Perhaps the most unusual and dramatic Northern Cape gravel pass, this pass demands technical driving of a high order with several tight switchbacks, steep gradients, and hair-raising drop-offs to accentuate the sweeping, panoramic Karoo landscapes of this area. Descending 238 vertical metres in only 3.1 km that produces an average gradient of 1:13, with some sections at a very steep 1:5 gradient, this pass is not suitable for anything but proper 4×4’s, or at the very least, “bakkies” with exceptional ground clearance.
Because of its difficult conditions, this pass must be negotiated carefully, and very slowly, especially in wet conditions when this pass is positively dangerous. In addition, do not forget to close the many farm gates behind you when you have passed through them.
Located about 40 km to the south-west of Sutherland, this gravel pass gets very steep in some sections, with gradients of up to 1:5. In wet conditions, negotiating this pass requires a proper 4×4 vehicle, but avoid this pass altogether during heavy snowfalls, since the negative camber in some sections could result in a rollover.
Passing through the farm Thyskraal, after which it is named, this pass almost directly follows upon the Jukhoogte pass on the gravel R356 road linking Ceres and Sutherland. Similar to the Jukhoogte Pass, it hosts several nasty surprises with negative camber in several sections, some acute dips, tight corners, and one hairpin bend having the steepest gradient of the entire pass. In addition to all this, it also gets very slippery in wet conditions.
For its size, the Northern Cape has relatively few towns and cities, with Kimberley, De Aar, and Up-ington being the largest. However, almost all of the small, country “dorpies” have their origin be-cause of the establishment of mission stations by various religious organisations, the discovery of minerals and/or precious metals, or most famously, the idiosyncrasies of individuals. Few, if any, of the small country towns in the Northern Cape have any real historical significance, but their charm lies in their unpretentious character: they are not trying to be anything else but small, friendly, re-mote, but above all, beautiful Karoo towns.
Located to the north of Springbok, Nababeep’s name is a combination of two Nama words, naba, meaning ‘hump of an animal’, and bib, meaning ‘small spring’. Copper mining started during the late 1850s, and from 1876 copper ore was transported for export by a narrow gauge train to Port Nolloth. During the slump in the copper market of 1919, the mine ceased produc-tion, but reopened in 1937 to supply in the copper needs of WW2. It is the largest copper-mining town in the Northern Cape.
Derived from the Nama word ‘U-gieb’, meaning ‘the great, brackish spring’. Until production stopped in 1918, Okiep was by far the richest copper mine in the world: it is also the oldest mining town in South Africa, with copper first discovered and mined here in 1855.
Founded in 1843, and named after Queen Victoria of England, the town of Victoria West pin-points the start of the Diamond Way that lies on the route from Cape Town to Kimberley.
The modern town of Williston, which is named after Colonel Hampden Willis, started out as a mission station established in 1845, by Johann Heinrich Lutz, called “Amandelboom” (Almond Tree), on an oasis in the treeless Karree Mountains that grew out of the enormous almond tree that Johan Abraham Nel planted in honour of the birth of his son in 1768.
Located on the edge of a large saltpan, the residents of this town resolved to name it “Stryden-burg”, (Place of Strife), in the late 1890’s after they could not agree on a suitable name for the town after an unseemly, several-years long squabble.
Originally established in 1854 as a small-vessel harbour and railway junction for the copper-mining industry, Port Nolloth is today the hub of the off- shore diamond mining and crayfishing industries, as well as the only resort on the Diamond Coast.