On my first visit to the Northern Cape, I bypassed almost the entire province. With a group of friends, I drove straight up the N7 from Cape Town, only stopping once – in Springbok for pies and petrol – before crossing the Namibian border at Vioolsdrif and climbing into a canoe to paddle down the Orange River for several days.
The trip delivered a special kind of off-grid magic: days of floating along beside the Richtersveld’s rippled sand dunes and craggy volcanic mountains and nights spent camping on the river banks, sleeping under a sky heavily laden with stars. With cellphones and watches left behind, time seemed to stretch in a surreal way, so that those few days felt like weeks.
I was in a more desert-centric state of mind as we headed homeward on the N7. The huge, empty landscapes that unfurled around us took on a magnetic energy and I longed to explore the Northern Cape that lay beyond the views from the highway. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I returned – this time with just one friend on a much slower road trip to see more of the country’s largest, yet most sparsely populated province.
We set off in search of the wildlife and wild landscapes of the Kalahari Desert, which spills over from Botswana and Namibia, 200km from Upington. Instead of stocking up on petrol and supplies and heading straight for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as all the other 4x4s on the road seemed to be doing, we took our time. We explored the surrounding area, which lies on the edge of the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape, which was declared South Africa’s ninth Unesco World Heritage Site last year. We discovered that the ǂKhomani, one of South Africa’s last surviving San groups, had lived in the southern Kalahari for centuries, but were systematically dispossessed of their land and scattered across the country, until a successful land claim in 1999 brought many community members back to the area. In recent years, ǂKhomani people have established enterprises to keep their history and heritage alive.
At Aunt Koera’s Farm Kitchen, we lunched on potjiekos, just-baked roosterbrood, tsamma melon and gemsbok cucumbers – the fruit of a wild plant, which tastes like a combination of cucumber and lemon – cooked by Tannie herself and served with a side dish of local tales. Just a few metres behind the kitchen, on Erin Game Ranch, a wildlife farm that was returned to the ǂKhomani in the land claim, we met Arrie Raats and Patat van Wyk, our guides for the Living Museum. Housed under an immense blue sky, the museum building was the great open Kalahari tableau of red sand dunes and bleached grass studded with shepherd and camelthorn trees, and its artefacts the hundreds of species of insects, birds and animals. Arrie and Patat led us on a walk through the veld, teaching us about the ǂKhomani’s deep connection to this land by decoding the hieroglyphics of gemsbok, wildebeest, and red-crested korhaan tracks in the sand to tell stories of the creatures’ behaviours as if we’d just seen them.
While he cut, us chunks of refreshing tsamma melon, an important source of hydration for the ǂKhomani when they lived as hunter-gatherers, Arrie recalled his education as a “wild child”. From an early age, he spent all his time in the veld, learning from his grandfathers how to track animals and understand the language and rhythms of nature. The restitution of land to the community has given him a chance to pass this knowledge on to younger ǂKhomani and people like us – Kalahari initiates.
Being introduced to this environment by the descendants of its first inhabitants seemed the best way to start off our time in the Kgalagadi, a 70km drive to the north, just beyond the Twee Rivieren gate. It was just before the Easter weekend, yet we passed only a handful of other cars as we made our way along the narrow valley cut by the dry Auob riverbed. Meerkats scouted, gemsbok struck graceful poses, kori bustards strode purposefully and a huge, black-maned lion took an afternoon siesta under the cool shade of a camelthorn, just a few metres from the road.
Leaving the public road behind, we ventured deeper into the park, turning onto a private sandy track for a bumpy ride over undulating dunes to the remote ǂKhomani and Mier community-owned !Xaus Lodge. Checking in at reception felt like checking out of the outside world. The setting of thatched chalets lining a ridge overlooking a gargantuan red pan surrounded by nothing by sand and grass, combined with the absence of wifi and cellphone signal, put me in an immediate state of meditative calm.
The Kgalagadi is not the reserve to visit if you’re after big game galore. While we crossed paths with gemsbok, black-backed jackals, red hartebeest and bat-eared foxes on game drives, the beauty of our stay at !Xaus lay in soaking up the elemental scenery and appreciating the macro and micro details of the desert. An early morning walk on sand dunes to examine tracks of nocturnal traffic, ground squirrels quizzically poking their heads out of their sand burrows, a flock of red-billed quelaea flying back and forth, the astonishing spray of stars in the dark sky. The memories that will remain etched in my mind are rising at dawn to a silvery band of mist floating above the pan, watching the languid sunsets burnishing the sand dunes gold, getting soaked in a bone-shattering afternoon thunderstorm and waking in the middle of the night to a silence so deep it almost reverberated.
We were entirely in thrall of the Kgalagadi by the time we left !Xaus a few days later. We received a final parting gift from the wild – a serendipitous sighting of a leopard crossing the road in front of us – before our phones started pinging with emails and messages as we re-entered the realm of 3G ahead of the Twee Rivieren Rest Camp.
Reluctant to return to city life, we decided to make a slight detour to Augrabies Falls National Park on our journey home. The Orange River was running low, which meant that the famous waterfall, which plummets down a narrow granite gorge, was not at its most spectacular. But by now, being used to our quiet solitude, we opted to spend our time away from the selfie-snappers near the waterfall, preferring to go on drives and hikes through the park’s rugged Mars-like terrain. It’s an arid world of black hills, mysterious rock formations and striking quiver trees, where spotting camouflaged klipspringers among the rocks feels as thrilling as an elephant sighting in Kruger.
On the last afternoon of the trip, we found the perfect sundowner spot in a peninsula above Arrow Point, where two gorges meet under 200m-high cliffs. We perched ourselves on warm boulders – a safe distance from the edge – to take in the setting sun casting a pink glow over the dramatic canyon below us. We had only wildlife for company. Nearby, a bucktoothed dassie luxuriated in the day’s rays, and colourful flat lizards scuttled about in our shadows. Swifts flew in and out of the gorge while baboons barked in the distance. Just another day in the Northern Cape.
Where to stay
- Askham is a good base from which to explore the area south of the Kgalagadi.
Stay in one of the comfortable self-catering cottages of the Kalahari Sands Guesthouse. Tel: 082 371 4549 or email: email@example.com
- For something different, spend a night in a traditional grass hut at Boesmansrus, a short drive from town. Tel: 078 328 0578 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- !Xaus Lodge. Visit: xauslodge.co.za or tel: 021 701 7860.
- Augrabies Falls National Park. Visit: sanparks.org or tel: 012 428 9111.
What to do
- Aunt Koera’s Farm Kitchen (booking essential). Tel: 083 588 8346
- Living Museum. Visit: khomanisan.com or tel: 078 328 0578.
Photographs by: Sarah Duff (@SarahDuff)