More and more adventurous travellers are discovering the Northern Cape as a province of incredible scenic beauty, rich heritage and warm, hospitable people. But, like any must-see destination worth its salt, it’s also home to an assortment of quirky, offbeat and downright weird attractions.
Here’s a selection of the Northern Cape’s most unusual sights off the beaten track – yet more reasons to place the province of extremes (and extreme oddities) on your tourism bucket list ...
Stand up straight! The mystical halfmens tree
When seen from a distance, the Pachypodium namaquanum resembles a person, outlined against the Namaqualand and Richtersveld skyline, with its spiky crown usually bent to the north. This is where the fascinating legend of the halfmens tree – half human, half plant – arises.
Nama folklore has it that a tribe was once driven southwards by conflict and found itself in the arid, unforgiving Richtersveld desert landscape. Overcome by grief, some turned around to gaze north towards their more hospitable homeland for the last time. The gods, taking pity on these wretched refugees, are said to have turned them into halfmens plants to comfort them with a view of their lost homeland for eternity.
Known (less colourfully) as the elephant’s trunk in English, this succulent plant is found mainly in the dry, rocky parts of the Northern Cape’s Gariep/Orange River region. It can reach an age of up to 100 years and boasts a peculiar, otherworldly beauty.
Post a letter in Calvinia’s giant postbox
Calvinia is an interesting town in the middle of the Hantam Karoo, brimming with Victorian, Edwardian and Neo-Gothic architecture. But one of its more notable oddities is its giant red postbox, measuring 6.17m high and with a circumference of 9.43m.
Dubai may have the tallest building in the world (at the time of writing, at least) and Bathurst (probably) the largest artificial pineapple in the world, but Calvinia boasts the biggest post office box on the planet (we think)!
This giant postbox was converted from a water tower in 1995 and painted bright red, and today is a tourist attraction and a fun site for selfies on any road trip. Best news of all - there’s a human-height postbox in its side where you can actually post a letter!
(Source: Karoo South Africa)
Corbelled houses – the igloos of the Karoo
A standout feature of the Karoo is the distinctive corbelled houses that dot the landscape.
These igloo-like houses have their origins in the early 1800s, when the white trekboere (migrant farmers or herders) set up outposts in the Northern Cape.
Made out of sandstone and dolerite rocks because of the shortage of wood in this parched landscape, these unusual dwellings provide sturdy (and insulated) shelter from the elements and are perfect for the extremes of climate. The thick walls made of rocks retain the sun’s heat in the freezing winters, and provide a cool respite in the searing summer sun.
With no wooden trusses to support the roof, these farmers made use of an ancient construction method known as corbelling. Successive layers of flat stone, each one extending a little further inward than the last, are placed on top of the walls until they met at the apex. You can still spot some of them – either in ruins or lovingly restored as guest houses – in the Upper Karoo, particularly in Carnarvon, Williston and Fraserburg.
(Source: National Geographic)
Putsonderwater: the ghost town that time forgot
Like the far-away land of Timbuktu or the illusory city of Atlantis, many people have heard of Putsonderwater – but never believed it actually existed. Well, it does – it’s an abandoned ghost town in the heart of the Northern Cape.
And, similar to its Kolmanskop counterpart in Namibia, Putsonderwater is becoming a drawcard for offbeat photo opportunities. For instance, travel journalists have apparently started a tradition of taking “rail surfing” selfies on the railway line running through the deserted dorpie (village). Obviously, this is not advisable since the railway line is still in use. But there are plenty of derelict houses, an empty school and a burnt-out station to keep snappers happy - all with nature creeping through their ragged walls and cracks.
Apparently, the town’s name – which means “well without water” – arose after a man dug a pit there but whenever migrant farmers brought their thirsty herds there for a drink, he’d shrug and fib that although there was indeed a well, it was one without water.
(Source: Karoo Space)
Rewind to the roaring ‘20s at this Art Deco bioscope
The Apollo Theatre in Victoria West is said to be the last surviving Art Deco cinema in the country to still be standing in its original form. Beautifully restored to its original beauty, this Provincial Heritage Site is just one of the many old, historic buildings in the pretty Karoo town.
It’s said that in 1923 a Greek immigrant named Andrew Aristides Bassil came to Victoria West to manage the Good Hope Café. Soon afterwards, he built the Apollo Theatre behind the café, upgrading and extending it in the 1950s. At the time, the local press described the Apollo as “the most beautiful and efficient bioscope in the Great Karoo”, lavishing praise on its wide screen and grand, electrically operated curtains.
In recent years, the theatre became known for hosting the Apollo Film Festival.