This is adventure territory, a vast stretch of land full of surprises – like the way its dry plains miraculously blossom with millions of stunning flowers every year.
Don’t be misled by the name – the Northern Cape is a huge province that spans down into the south, as well as right into the centre of the country. It’s untouched, untamed territory, and the place to go if you’re looking for absolute isolation, not to find other people and a hectic social life. It has about three people for every square kilometer and you can drive for hours — in fact, you have to drive for hours — just to reach a small village with a general store and a petrol station. On the far west is the wild and desolate western coastline.
The capital is Kimberley, famous for the Big Hole that appeared in the diamond rush. Kimberley became the first city in the country to have electric street lamps and has more millionaires per square mile than any other city. The tour of the mine is fascinating and entertaining, with an old mining village to explore.
Nearby, Augrabies Falls is the sixth largest waterfall in the world, yet the Northern Cape sun can be so relentless and rain so scarce that sometimes there’s barely a trickle of water. The walkways give you magnificent views at any time.
The Orange River is responsible for most of the life here, as towns and villages grew up along the banks while the irrigation systems support large plantations of cotton, dates and grapes. They’ve been so successful that there are even a couple of vineyards in Upington.
The Northern Cape is at its most beautiful in August and September when the arid land suddenly blossom with millions of colourful flowers. Known as Namaqualand, the annual riot of colour in the area has become a horticulturalist’s pilgrimage. A series of drives based around the towns of Garies, Springbok, Kamieskroon and Port Nolloth let you see the best displays as a carpet of flowers stretch to the horizon. Seeds from about 3 500 different varieties of plant will germinate if the weather conditions are right, so it’s best to ask the local tourist information bureau where the prettiest blooms are. Hiking and cycling routes let you ditch the car and get a closer look at the flamboyant displays.
These vast and almost lunar landscapes are heaven for 4x4 adventures with mountains, challenging dunes and deep ditches. Tough routes include the 50km-long Egerton Trail, the 200km Nossob 4x4 Eco-trail in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, or De Postjes Trail – a gruelling route through the Nuweveld Mountains.
This is excellent stargazing territory too, with the town of Sutherland boasting cloudless, pollution-free skies and the South African Astronomical Observatory. The observatory houses a massive telescope and it’s open to the public.
Sparse vegetation means the animals in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park congregate around the riverbeds, making it easy and rewarding for game viewing, especially when the predators are hungry. There’s a good chance of spotting leopard cheetah, hyena and impressive black-maned lions.