The Northern Cape is a dry province defined by a number of geographical features: an arid plateau that gives way to the Great Escarpment in the south; the desert terrain of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to the north-west; and the Orange River crossing from east to west before dropping down the Augrabies Falls as it nears the Namibian border.
What South Africa’s largest but least populous province lacks in urban infrastructure, it more than makes up for in natural beauty, history and culture. Here’s one avid traveller's pick of five must-visit destinations in the Northern Cape.
Namaqualand: spring wildflowers
Winter rains in the west awaken the dormant plains of the Northern Cape’s Namaqua region, transforming arid ground into a kaleidoscope of colour in springtime as millions of wildflower seeds germinate and burst into bloom.
This miraculous floral explosion is the reason why tourists flock to this part of South Africa from all over the world in early- to mid-August – and why it’s this writer's first bucket-list item.
The best places to view the flowers are in the Goegap Nature Reserve near Springbok and the Namaqua National Park west of Kamieskroon. There are more than 3 500 plant species to be seen in the reserve and park, 1 000 of which are found nowhere else on Earth, meaning that Namaqualand can lay claim to having the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world.
To enjoy the flowers to their best advantage, opt for a self-drive or guided floral tour, or explore them on foot – and take your camera along to capture the magic!
Karoo: San rock art
South Africa has one of the richest collections of ancient rock art in the world. While numerous examples may be seen in the caves and overhangs of KwaZulu-Natal's Drakensberg mountains, the rock art of the Northern Cape lies scattered around the Karoo. In this part of the country, the nomadic San favoured black boulders that make up dolerite ridges for engraving their imagery.
It was once believed that their rock art was an expression of the daily life of the San, but it is now considered to be much more – a depiction of their spirit world through the eyes of San shamans.
At only 16km from Kimberley, the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre is a heritage site that protects more than 400 rock etchings, while Keurfontein near Vosburg and Thomas’s Farm near Hopetown are another two sites worth visiting to see San artworks. The Wonderwerk Cave, between Daniëlskuil and Kuruman, features 1 500-year-old finger paintings of eland and elephant. Try to visit all these rock art sites if you have the time to explore.
The Big Hole: mining history
The discovery of diamond deposits on the Colesbeg Kopje in 1871 led to the convergence of 30 000 fortune seekers who began working 3 600 claims that eventually covered 17ha. The result was what is considered to be the world’s largest hand-dug excavation, which became known as the Big Hole.
During its lifespan, the Big Hole, or Kimberley Mine to give it its proper name, yielded 2 722kg of diamonds and left behind a massive crater more than 200m deep. The mine was officially closed in 1914.
For a taste of the diamond rush days, the original "rush town" has been reconstructed adjacent to the Big Hole, and the Kimberley Mine Museum features old-time pubs, an underground mine experience, a transport hall with old vehicles and the De Beers Hall with its display of uncut diamonds, coloured diamonds and jewellery. It’s well worth a visit.
Richtersveld: botany and culture
The Richtersveld is a mountainous, desert terrain that boasts the highest diversity of succulents in the world – 4 849 species – and is home to the only remaining semi-nomadic Khoe Nama tribe.
Its three biomes – fynbos, succulent Karoo and desert – and the ancient lifestyle of the Nama pastoralists who live there saw the Richtersveld being accorded World Heritage Site status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2007. It is also recognised as one of only two arid biodiversity hotspots in the world.
Look out for two of the most intriguing plants found here: the kokerboom (quiver tree) and the halfmens boom (“half-human" tree).
The quiver tree, an aloe species, is so named because the San hollow out its branches for quivers to hold their arrows when on the hunt. The halfmens is a spiky, cactus-type tree with a crown of leaves topping its tall trunk. From afar the trees look like people at work, hence their name.
When visiting the Nama, ask for permission to look inside one of their traditional dome-shaped matjieshuise (reed huts). These unique dwellings, originally created to suit the nomadic Nama life of yesteryear, have been retained as an important element of Richtersvelders' lives today.
Orange River: rafting
A paddle down the Orange River is just the thing to put you in a relaxed frame of mind as you tick this last item off your bucket list. Whether it's a quick 3km paddle down a fast-flowing section, a day trip with a lunch stop or a three-day affair that includes overnight camping under the stars, mastering one of the country's largest rivers is an experience not easily forgotten.
Qualified and experienced guides lead the trips, which vary from flat sections requiring paddling to exciting rapids. It's an awesome way to enjoy the birdlife and get a sense of the stark landscape flanking the river.
The demands of a day on the water can be offset by a relaxing camp-style supper and well-earned rest in your tent, complete with bed. This adventure is a great balance of adventure and comfort, with tailored packages offering luxury lodge-stays and wine tasting thrown in for good measure.
There are a number of operators offering river rafting experiences at any time of year, such as Khamkiri, but check beforehand to find out about water levels and availability.