The Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest and least densely populated province. With its endless vistas, big skies, small towns and long distances, it can be a bit of a culture shock for the unwary. It’s not a good destination if you’re looking for instant gratification, constant entertainment and neatly packaged experiences. For tourism purposes, the Northern Cape is divided into five regions. If the Northern Cape is wild – and it is – then the Kalahari is really wild. The only developments here are huge manganese and iron mines, and the mission town of Kuruman with its fabulous freshwater spring. Other than these and a few settlements with names like Black Rock, or Hotazel, it’s miles and miles sand, grass and thorn trees.
Where the Orange River winds through the Kalahari, it forms a long, green oasis, and the region is aptly called the Green Kalahari. Here wine and table grapes grow under irrigation, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park shelters innumerable animals, plants and birds, and the Augrabies Falls thunder into their spectacular gorge.
The Diamond Fields is the smallest and most densely populated region. The northern part, around the Vaal-Harts Irrigation Scheme, is an agricultural area of note but, of course, it’s really all about diamonds. Kimberley is still an active diamond mining area. There are battlefields to visit, interesting small towns to explore, and amazing rock art to admire.
The Karoo Region is characterised by huge plains intersperse with flat-topped koppies, and small villages with typical and unmistakeable Karoo architecture. As well as the archetypical flat-roofed, stoep-fronted townhouses, there are also some interesting Victorian buildings and even a few Art Deco buildings, the most notable of which is the Apollo Theatre in Victoria West. The small but growing town of Sutherland, which is renowned for its clear skies and lack of light pollution, is home to SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope. The N1, the N10 and the N12 traverse this region.
The Namakwa region is a weird and wonderful expanse of moon-like landscapes, interesting mission towns, bizarre plants and acres of iridescent, jewel-like flowers carpeting the desert from horizon to horizon. The ocean here is cold and rough, and most of the coastal towns are small seaports inhabited by hardy fishing folk and tough macho diamond divers. The Orange River on the northern border is a great paddling destination with trips ranging from extreme to serene. Distances are huge but the roads, even most of the many dirt roads, are excellent. Guard against driver fatigue.