What you see are sand and stones, but scratch the surface and you will find so, so much more in this forgotten corner of our country.
Although this is not one of the top tourist destinations in SA, the Northern Cape is a rough and largely undiscovered diamond, writes Susan Erasmus after a recent 10-day road trip through this region.
Be prepared for surprises, such as finding far-out hippies in Calvinia, the best burger ever in Brandvlei, a leopard walking right past the car in the Kgalagadi, and unfenced picnic spots and toilets in the middle of a game reserve.
Also be prepared for roads disappearing onto the horizon, red sand and open spaces everywhere – and I mean everywhere – and 10 days of never having to queue anywhere for anything. People are extremely friendly and helpful and tourists are still a bit of a novelty.
We drove 3764km. Often for 40 or 50km we would not see another car. We were loaded with a gas bottle, 10 litres of water, clothing fit for an Arctic expedition, a spade, toilet rolls, food, in case there were no shops where we were and blankets, even though we were not camping (or even glamping – simply don’t have the equipment). You never know what can happen, and it is best to be prepared.
Did I mention the 6 bottles of Blaauwklippen Pony Express we got on a special the day before we left?
This is by no means a comprehensive rundown of what the Northern Cape offers (you can do sandsurfing, visit the meerkat sanctuary, go on an Orange River Adventure, do walking trails) as our time was limited and we wanted to spend 5 days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
But what we did find was enough to make us want to go back. Here are some of the highlights.
The Republic of Rustica in Calvinia
Meet Dirk and Sonja van Rensburg who run a guesthouse/bakery/display yard (read artistically arranged massive hoard) the likes of which I have never seen.
Farm implements, radios, plates, shoes, cameras, billboards, vintage cars, paintings, industrial equipment – all arranged to somehow form a bewildering but astonishingly cohesive whole.
In between this are well-appointed guest rooms with en-suite bathrooms as well as extremely friendly and accommodating hosts.
Dirk has the air of a young Keith Richards of the Hantam and Sonja an intriguing mix of businesswoman, painter, local philosopher and something approaching a fortune teller. Nothing I say could really prepare you for this experience – not even the photos.
They are everywhere, as water is super scarce. The company making them is called Climax. These pumps fill the farm dams, the drinking troughs, and even tanks in towns. There is nothing quite like the creaking sound of a windmill in the middle of nowhere.
Let me say that I had prepared my travelling companion for the lack of diversions in Brandvlei (sometimes petrol and a packet of chips is all a place can offer), so I was somewhat alarmed when he said he was hungry as we drove through this dusty town.
Surprise: the best burgers (both the chicken and the mutton) ever. See below. And if you pass through here on the 8th of January, the owner will do his annual Elvis impersonation. There’s nothing quite like a 50-year old in a white Lycra suit in 40 degree heat.
This could make up the whole article, and then some. How do you describe the wonder of a leopard walking right past your car? The sound of giraffes eating leaves from the trees? Gemsbok sparring next to the waterholes, ostriches taking a dust bath?
But it’s not just the big animals that were fascinating – it was the little ones too. The striped mouse who dragged the pineapple peel to its quarters when it fell off the picnic table, the huge birds’ nests everywhere in trees and telephone poles, the ground squirrels, and the meerkats – even the resident inquisitive emu and camels at the place where we stayed. Then there was the bleating of the goats 100 meters away from our chalet across the border in Botswana.
Roads and signs and place names
The phrase ‘the open road’ must have been coined with the Northern Cape in mind. The distance between between Upington and Askham is over 200km and there is nothing on this road except the occasional farmhouse in the far distance and a fence or two. The same goes for the road between Prieska and Groblershoop, Brandvlei and Kenhardt – the list goes on.
The roads are mostly tarred, but do check before you decide on a route. You don’t want to be stuck on a road where maybe two cars come past in a day. Picture the scene: a dark road, warning signs of jumping kudus, a full moon rising, no other cars, a light flashing in the distance, and then an unexpected partial moon eclipse. Anyone for a scary movie?
The delightful place names each tell their own story: Kameelsleep, Putsonderwater, Grootdrink, Breekbeenkolk.
And then the signs telling you that the gate is closed because there are dangerous animals about, and will you please open it yourself?
The biggest surprises of the trip? This is a tough one as there were so many:
The amazing plate of boerekos waiting for us at Rietpoort when we finally arrived on the farm outside Britstown at 9pm. (In fact, the food was outstanding everywhere – even the fish in Calvinia).
The gorgeous interiors of the Avonsrus Cottage in Augrabies.
The mechanic at Kgalagadi Lodge who welded the front bullbar back on and wouldn’t charge us. (He got a hefty tip).
The unfenced toilets and picnic spots in the Kgalagadi – why does no one get eaten?
The sequinned evening dress for sale in the only shop in Askham, which also sold irrigation piping, mouse traps and tinned foods.
The raptors in the Kgalagadi – in fact, all the animals. You get to appreciate them all the more, as the park is huge and there are not many people, compared to other game parks.
The silence. There is no suburban hum in the background. No cellphone reception. And you can drive for kilometers and see nobody.
Quick tips if you do decide to go:
Many toilets along the way charge R2 for entry. Make sure you have change, as it might be the first loo you see in 2 hours, and you might be desperate. Spend the money. You won’t regret it. (Keep loo paper in the car just in case.)
Take lots of bottled water – at least 10 litres.
Dress in layers as days are hot and nights can be freezing. May to mid-October is the best time.
Choose your travelling companions carefully as you will be seeing a lot of them.
Book all accommodation/camping spots in advance.
Always fill up with petrol – there may be no petrol stations for the next 250km.
Go on a guided night drive in the Kgalagadi – the guides are great.
Take a spade, a map, cash (the ATM in the Kgalagadi was empty when we arrived) and a 4 x 4 if you have one (optional).
Ask locals for advice as they are friendly and really do know best and love chatting.