Northern Cape: Into the big sky country
Paul Ash discovers the treasures of the Green Kalahari
The Kalahari Desert is a name that conjures up mysteries. Red sands, sunbaked mountains and forests of quiver trees. Big, blue skies and San hunters and their families wandering towards the beckoning horizons.
Those are good descriptions but they are not the whole truth about this part of the Northern Cape.
Those who live here call it the Green Kalahari, a surprisingly verdant stretch of land which encompasses the farms along the Orange River and reaches up into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where lions and cheetahs roam the vastness.
From the air, you can see the bright green discs of farms and the darker green of the vineyards which stretch for hundreds of kilometres along the life-giving river.
The region is one of the country’s unsung attractions. If you like road trips, you’ll love the journey from Kimberley to Upington then down to Augrabies where the Orange plunges with so much drama into the gorge.
It is the river that allows for so much plant and animal diversity in this part of the country, and which has watered the vineyards that have brought a measure of prosperity to the region.
Wine tourism is still new here but it offers an experience that you won’t get in the genteel surroundings of Franschhoek.
Start with a tasting session at the Orange River Cellars in Upington and then once you’ve stocked up on some cases — I recommend the crisp, “zesty” Colombard — head west along the river to see the vineyards themselves.
Stop in Keimoes to see the old irrigation waterwheel and marvel at the intricate canals that transformed the desert into a kind of garden of Eden.
Then, keeping the river on your right, head across the baking land to Pofadder and Springbok on roads straighter than arrows. Here you have a choice: if you like mountain deserts and adventure, the Richtersveld awaits; if you want a cool sea breeze on your skin, keep going west. One more mountain pass and you’re at Port Nolloth, which is pretty much as far as you can go.
DETAILS: Orange River Cellars, 158 Schröder St, Upington. Call 054-495-0040. Tasting from R25 for five wines.
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sub_head_start THE ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS sub_head_end
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
If you are serious about travelling in this hot, dry land, you need to get on the river. The river is where it all happens. It’s a fine green stripe that gives life to the birds and animals, brings water to the vineyards and adventure to those looking for a different point of view.
There are two ways to complete the embrace. You can do a long, quiet paddle down into the Richtersveld, where the rapids are small but the mountains big. The Nama Canyon, down in the Richtersveld, is a gift — a lush strip winding between sun-blasted rocks and mountains, a green so vivid against the brown rock and sand it’s probably visible from the moon.
It is best seen from a stable Mohawk canoe and best in summer when the current is strong enough to give you a gentle downstream shove and you’ll drift along at a couple of knots without having to paddle too hard.
That means you get to enjoy the scenery a bit more — the mountains rearing up into a blue, desert sky, crying fish eagles swooping from trees, red bishops and bee-eaters rustling in the reeds. At night you pitch your tent on some sandy river bank, cook supper on a driftwood fire and fall asleep under the stars with the river sighing past.
Or you can go whitewater rafting above the Augrabies Falls — a day trip on an inflatable “Croc” raft, which gives a nice spike of adrenaline as you ride into “Rhino” rapid — named for its “horn” halfway down. The scenery is less dramatic but no less beautiful. In between brief moments of excitement on burbling rapids, we saw fish eagles and African rock monitors sunning themselves, and watched kingfishers and weavers flitting through the riverside bush.
As we approached the falls, the scenery makes a dramatic switch from tree-shaded sandbanks to a jumble of rocks through which the river begins to twist and turn and we shot a final rapid a couple of hundred metres above the cataract. The thought that Augrabies was just around the corner was quite stirring: they don’t call this trip the “Augrabies Rush” for nothing. Try it.
Whitewater trips above the falls are run by Kalahari Adventures, Call 082-476-8213, e-mail email@example.com or see www.kalahari-adventures.co.za. Rates R450 per person for a half-day trip, R850 full day, with lunch.
KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK
The Kgalagadi has become famous for its black-maned lions, its cheetahs and the beautiful gemsbok, and for good reason — this is one of the last great wildernesses where you can see these animals roam free.
But the Kgalagadi isn’t only about big mammals — check out the meerkats and ground squirrels, watch the great raptors like Bateleur eagles hunting in skies the colour of cobalt and listen to the jackals yip-yip-yipping on those clear, crisp desert nights.
DETAILS: The camping is some of the best and wildest in the world — you can expect visits from lions, leopards and hyenas. Or you can stay in a chalet in one of the main rest camps — Twee Rivieren (R1,045-R1,635), Nossob (R920-R1,955) or Mata-Mata (from R875-R2,615). For information, see www.sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi.
THE HOT SPRINGS AT RIEMVASMAAK
Riemvasmaak, thousands of hectares of rocky desert mountain wilderness, is famous for two things: the fact that its community was the first to get its ancestral land back after a successful land claim, and its glorious hot springs.
While soaking in a hot spring in a place where daytime summer temperatures routinely top 45 degrees may seem counter-intuitive, remember it can get icy at night which is when the pools come into their own.
A steamy soak on a cold desert evening is a cure for all manner of ills. The road in is not easy; it’s better in a 4x4 or a bakkie with high clearance, but worth the trek. There’s community-run accommodation as well as camping under starlit skies.
DETAILS: Call Riemvasmaak Tourism on 073-383-8812 or 083-873-7715, or See greenkalahari.co.za.
THE SOL PLAATJE MUSEUM, KIMBERLEY
The museum occupies the house where Sol Plaatje lived during his final years and, legend has it, where he wrote ‘Mhudi’.
It covers the important points of Plaatje’s life, such as his voyage to England to protest the 1913 Native Land Act and the fact that he served as a court interpreter during the siege of Mahikeng during the Anglo-Boer war. Definitely worth a visit.
DETAILS: 2 Angel Street, or Call 053-833-2526.
AUGRABIES FALLS NATIONAL PARK
You will understand why this park is a national treasure the first time you gaze at the Orange River squeezing through a tiny gap and plunging into the smooth-sided granite canyon below.
Dawn is a great time to see the falls as the spray rises up in the cool air, and it is truly thunderous when the river is flooding. But the main cataract is not the only spectacle here: take a hike along the start of the Klipspringer Trail to Arrow Point from where you may gasp with surprise at the sight of Twin Falls, a slender waterfall dropping hundreds of feet from a fissure in the rock into a pool below.
The park is flush with animals including gemsbok, kudu, eland, the rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra and predators such as leopard, black-backed jackal, caracal and nocturnal bat-eared foxes. Stay in chalets or camp under the trees.
DETAILS: Various accommodation is available, from 2-bed self-catering chalets (from R875 per chalet per night) to family cottages (from R1,695). There is also a daily conservation fee (R40 adults, R20 children). For bookings Call 012-428-9111 or see www.sanparks.org/parks/augrabies.
KALAHARI-ORANJE MUSEUM, UPINGTON
This low-key museum, housed in a church built by Reverend Schröder in 1875, contains some surprises. One is the collection of manual printing presses; the other is an exhibit on the “Upington 26”, the group charged collectively for the murder of a community policeman in 1986.
It includes the superb ships built by Barry Bekebeke during his years in prison. And outside is the excellent life-sized bronze donkey sculpture which is dedicated to the animal that did so much work in the “green Kalahari”.
DETAILS: 4 Schröder St. Call 054-331-2640.
THE MCGREGOR MUSEUM, KIMBERLEY
Founded in 1907, “the McGregor’s” attractions cover botany, geology, ethnography, rock art and local history. Housed in the old sanatorium, it is a fascinating museum, perhaps one of SA’s best.
The dioramas are particularly realistic and well done, and it also has a rich archive of photographs, documents and voice recordings.
DETAILS: 5 Atlas Street. Call 053-839-2700. See www.museumsnc.co.za.
RICHTERSVELD NATIONAL PARK
The Ai-Ais/ Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, straddling the border between SA and Namibia, is a vast mountain desert with the most exquisite plant life — and silence. It’s a place of vast distances, isolation and prehistoric-looking plants and stones.
There’s no cellphone signal, no electricity, no running water. My favourite campsite is Kokerboom-kloof with its forest of quiver trees among the big rocks. The driving in the park is slow but not too technical, provided you have some clearance. The cooler winter months are a better time to go. Remember, you have to take all your own drinking water.
DETAILS: See www.sanparks.co.za.
BIG HOLE MUSEUM, KIMBERLEY
Kimberley has many hidden treasures, which is apt for a city which boomed on a rush for diamonds. One of its gems is the museum in the original mining village at the Big Hole. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved with proper funding.
Exhibits include geological displays, films, an “underground” working and a timeline on how diamonds are formed. Outside you can wander around the shops and streets of the mining village and take a ride on one of the restored electric tram cars on the first and only surviving electric tramway in Southern Africa.
DETAILS: Call 053-839-4600, See www.thebighole.co.za.
STARGAZING IN SUTHERLAND
Since the Southern African Large Telescope (S.A.L.T.) was built in 2002, Sutherland has developed a small but healthy astro-tourism industry. That’s because this is a magical place with something for every visitor who comes to the one-road town.
You can take a tour of the observatory and look at the stars through telescopes. The big telescope itself comprises more than 90 large mirrors that look up through the opening in the domed roof and into the skies.
You don’t need a telescope though: just lie on your back in the veld and be dazzled by the stars which look like pools of light flowing down from the banner of heaven.
DETAILS: See www.salt.ac.za.
They say that if you stand on top of Magersfontein Kop on a still, dark night, you can hear the skirl of a lone piper and see the bobbing lanterns of stretcher-bearers come to fetch the wounded and dying Highlanders from the battlefield.
The story is another of Kimberley’s many ghost stories and a small reminder that war really is hell. Magersfontein is one of half a dozen sites that make up the N12 Battlefields Route.
It is also one of the country’s most evocative battlefields, and is almost unchanged since that hot day in 1899. The visitor centre has excellent displays of pictures, maps, dioramas and artefacts, including a Krupp field gun, but the main attraction is a moving audiovisual presentation in a reconstructed trench, in front of which the battle plays out in photos and the sounds of soldiers’ voices, booming gunfire, rain and neighing horses.
DETAILS: Magersfontein is 30km south of Kimberley on the N12.
sub_head_start EATING ON THE RUN sub_head_end
Fast, greasy, garage food may be the stuff of legends on movie road trips, but there is no excuse to ever eat that badly, even in the Kalahari.
My food journey begins in Kimberley with lunch at the boutique Kimberley Anne Hotel, where I was wowed by a stuffed aubergine chickpea curry and what may be the best blue cheese, walnut and sweet pear salad I have ever tasted. Vast too, which is gratifying when so many places think a forkful of food is one course.
Dinner was in the Rhodes Dining Room at the Kimberley Club with its wood panels and London club décor, pictured below. I ate oxtail spring rolls and a perfectly grilled steak, chased with a single glass of velvety red. In the midst of all the dramatic history, the simplicity hit the right note, just as it was for one Philip Jourdan, who ate here often on his journeys: “One always fared well at the Kimberley Club,” he said. “Everyone was kind and everything was well done.”
Then on to lunch at the Protea By Marriott Kimberley at the edge of the Big Hole. It’s hard to better the hotel’s location — lunch was crumbed chicken schnitzels on the terrace overlooking the Big Hole itself, a moment enlivened by the tale of the dog that fell in the hole and lived to tell the tale.
Then it was across the red sands to Upington, where I based myself at the Protea Hotel By Marriott Upington (see Where We Stayed) and — because I believe if you find a good thing, you should stick to it — devoured the butter chicken and perfectly done popadums three nights in a row.
During a day trip on a freezing afternoon in the Green Kalahari, I ate calamari in front of a blazing log fire at Die Werf Lodge in Keimoes — who says you can’t eat seafood in the desert? — and the following day found myself having lunch at the camp restaurant at Augrabies National Park.
The wrap was good enough — I don’t see the point of sweet chilli sauce — but gazing from my table at the horizon and seeing the spray of the cataract a few hundred feet away, it was, in fact, a spectacular lunch.
DETAILS: The Kimberley Club, 72 Du Toitspan Road, 053-832-4224
• Kimberley Anne Small Luxury Hotel, 60 MacDougall Street, 053-492-0004
• Protea Hotel By Marriott Kimberley, West Circular Road, 053-802-8200
• Protea Hotel By Marriott Upington, 24 Schröder Street, 054-337-8400
• Die Werf Lodge, 1 Upington Road, Keimoes, 054-461-1635
• Augrabies National Park, 012-428-9111
sub_head_start WHERE WE STAYED sub_head_end
PROTEA HOTEL BY MARRIOTT KIMBERLEY
If you want to be close to Kimberley’s biggest attraction, it doesn’t get better than staying at the hotel that is right on the edge of the Big Hole itself. The hotel is only five years old, but was designed to blend in with its surroundings in Kimberley’s historic mine village.
Just in case you had forgotten you were at the edge of the Karoo, there is a proper working windpump which clanks and whirrs happily away next to the swimming pool that is built in the shape of a traditional farm reservoir.
The standard rooms are small but comfortable and the hotel has a decent restaurant. Given its location, it’s the perfect base from which to explore the city and its surrounds.
DETAILS: The Kimberley Big Hole, West Circular Road. Call 053-802-8200, or See www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/kimki-protea-hotel-kimberley
RATES: From R888 per night. Check the website for details.
PROTEA HOTEL BY MARRIOTT UPINGTON
They used to call this hotel the Oasis. After a long trek across the Kalahari — and it is a long trek from any direction to Upington — you can see exactly why the name stuck. The roomy establishment stands on the banks of the Orange River and, being one of the tallest buildings in town (in Upington three floors is a skyscraper), it offers lofty views of the waterway and the surrounding countryside.
I spent three days here, revelling in friendly service, lavish breakfasts and a butter chicken curry that I could not get enough of. The room was vast and comfortable, an attraction in its own right.
The hotel also makes a fine base to explore the region — Riemvasmaak, the vineyards of the Orange River and Augrabies National Park are easy day trips, and Upington is the logical jumping-off point for a trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
DETAILS: 24 Schröder Street. Call 054-337-8400 or See www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/utnup-protea-hotel-upington
RATES: Standard rates are from R1,354 per night (R1,283 for Marriott Rewards members).
This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.