What springs to your mind when I mention, the Northern Cape of South Africa? If you thought of desert, or better yet, nothing, I don’t blame you. But I will also tell you, you are wrong. The Northern Cape has its unique beauty. And I would know because I spent thirteen months living in the Namaqualand.
Be ready for the distance between … places
One August morning I boarded a flight to Upington International Airport, which was just over two hundred and fifty kilometres from my destination, Aggeneys. The forlorn little town of Aggeneys is one hundred kilometres from the nearest town, Springbok, a town I’d only seen on the weather channel with a fire over it. By road, Aggeneys is about a thousand kilometres from Johannesburg. Which might lead you to ask, why was I there?
To arrive safely there visit my post on how to travel safely in Africa.
After exiting the decent-sized Upington, and the vineyards of the Orange River. Who knew, but more on that later. What follows is about two hundred kilometres of one of the dead-straight roads I’ve ever been on. It was dusk, and I was settling myself for another two hours on the road. I was enjoying the breathtaking colours of the sunset, from purple to fiery orange. The flat plain seemed to go on to infinity. It could give the flat-earthers some hope. I was descending from a little hill outside of Kakamas, and in front of me laid what looked like fifty kilometres of the road. It was like a thin grey line split the red surface in half, and hills made of boulders lay scattered on each side. “This is like Mars!” was all I could think. One of the most breathtaking landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Come prepared or enjoy silence
I was enjoying my galactic journey down this straight road when the radio station suddenly went full static just after sunset. I fiddled with my rental’s radio dial which was on O-FM, which I was enjoying. At this point, even RSG, which earlier had been on multiple frequencies, was no longer getting picked up. There was no station getting picked up on the entire FM range. I gave up with the dial fiddling and drove in silence and pitch darkness for the rest of the journey. Note to future self: bring an AUX cable when you’re going to use a rental.
I took the job and two months later I was in my little red Figo, with my niece and our luggage. The furnisher had arrived two days before and set up in a brand new house on a neighbourhood straight out of Black Mirror’s Nosedive, a perk of the job. My niece went into a mini depression from day one. Had I been a used car saleswoman? Did I oversell its perks: a getaway from distraction; and perfect for me to finish my novel and thesis in one fell swoop, and for her to enrol and study; and undersell on the key cons: a tiny mining town over a thousand kilometres from home where all our family and friends live.
It took a while for me to get settled and start enjoying the surroundings. The distance between places was the biggest mental and logistical obstacle. Having lived in Gauteng, where things are concentrated within a small space makes driving an hour to Checkers Hyper seem absurd. Plus, the job did take quite a lot more time and energy than I had imagined. But, by autumn the following year, my curiosity was at its peak, it was time to explore.
Best places to stay in the Northern Cape
The best place to sleep in town is the Gamsberg Guest House. But good luck securing a room. Although open to the public, the mine’s business takes precedence. I only got to know its inside because my first trip was mine-related business. It has a restaurant, one of three in town. Order Indian food. It is fantastic since the mining company is Indian owned and has Indian chefs. The vegetarian meals from the mine’s cafeteria are still some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. But take care, they have lunch and supper times, so it’s not opened around the clock. Make sure you’re there before eight or you’ll find the kitchen closed, and the nearest KFC is one hundred kilometres away.
There are more accommodation options in the area, the most popular and value-for-money type being farm stays. The downside is that they are not all are listed on easy to find platforms like Google and Booking.com. I did a farm stay at Die Bult Plaas Guesthouse near Kakamas during a trip to the Augrabies Falls Nature Reserve, because driving two hundred kilometres one way then going back the same day seemed ludicrous. The accommodation is perfect for big groups, with its large sitting area on the patio, next to a huge fireplace for braaing or just enjoying the open fire. It has plenty of room for two couples in the unit I had booked and even a bigger group in the main house. An infinity pool facing the neighbour’s vineyard seals the deal.
Where to beach in the Northern Cape?
An hour’s drive west from Springbok leads you to Port Nolloth. It is a small domestic seaport which is great for weekend getaways. You can frequently spot the De Beers Marine boats parked at the harbour, although marine diamond has declined, a small processing plant is still operational. The port is big for crayfish; I was, however, not blown away by the seafood variety and quality during my stay there. The restaurants close early, so be seated before eight.
There is plenty of Dutch-style guesthouses and hotels to stay in. The Bedrock Lodge where I stayed, is across a quiet road from the powder-fine white beach sand. The water is a beautiful grey-blue shade but freezing. A wetsuit is a must if you want to spend more than three minutes in the water. Or you can enjoy a walk on the decked walkway along the beach. The Victorian bathtub and the view of the sunset over the ocean from my room were the highlights.
The hidden gems in the Namaqualand
A cultural gem in the region is a Catholic church in the village of Pella. The Pella Cathedral was built in 1875 and it is in great shape. It still holds weekly Sunday mass and hosts and interesting murals. The best time is around September where you can catch the annual Nama-Khaima cultural festival.
And just outside the settlement, there is a solo dune. Who said playing in the sand is for kids only. This place is perfect to sandboard, quad biking, or just silly tumbling around.
Northern Cape’s main attraction
Nature is the biggest star of the show. Therefore nature lovers have a wide range of activities to indulge in. There are hiking trails in the Augrabies, the Keogap, and the Namaqualand Nature Reserves. Canoeing along the Orange River. As a local, the best itinerary involves a 4×4 drive along the river bank looking for the best spot to set up for fishing and camping. You bring out the fishing lines, hook a few fish whilst enjoying a few cold ones with the sunset. Later you throw the catch of the day over the coals of the fire and enjoy your meal watching the dancing flames. Once the fire stories have died you can just quietly gaze at the most spectacular night sky. The Namaqualand is the best place to see our galaxy, it is no coincidence the biggest telescope is being built here.
The Augrabies Falls Nature Reserve is a worthy visit. There are 19 waterfalls along a twenty-kilometre stretch. The main waterfall, which is the central feature of the nature reserve, has a 184m drop. Around September, the Goegap Nature Reserves
has its bare granite outcrops covered with a layer of flowers. You can do a self-drive tour, the main day-visit route is suitable for sedans too. The rest of the year you can enjoy that stark landscape and the succulent vegetation distinctive to this region.
Wine of the Orange River
Wine freaks can get their tongues wet on the Orange River Wine Route. Four wineries comprising the Orange River Wine Route and they are Orange River Cellars, Bezalel, De Mas, and Landzicht. This is the greenest part of the Northern Cape. These sellers get their grapes from vineyards along 360km of the river with Upington as the epicentre. The Pink Padstall, close to the De Mas cellars, offers intrigue, wholesome handcrafted goods, and great coffee. The most delicious coffee I had in the Northern Cape.
Best Ways to get around the Northern Cape
Having your own car is the best way to get around; a 4×4 is even better. It is expensive to fly to Upington from Johannesburg. The costs are similar to an international flight and you will still need a car from the airport. Hiring a car is the next best thing, do not use airport-shuttle when staying outside of Upington. It will cost about half or more of that flight ticket.
Other options of transport?
I once got to the airport without arranged pick-up and boy did that turn into an adventure. Of the two groups of people I’d managed to solicit help from, one group was remaining in town for a conference the coming week, and the other guy was going to a solar plant about halfway to my destination. That was the first time I used the bus travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
InterCape and Eldo Coaches are the two operating long-distance bus companies, and they make stops along the way, including Aggeneys. This is how most of my colleagues used to travel to Cape Town on weekends. I’d give it a good 4 star for my four-hour journey. The bus was clean, had a USB charging point per seat. The seats can recline comfortably and there are curtains for privacy and sun screening. There is also plenty of overhead storage for medium-sized bags in addition to the storage haul below.
And the novel?
Thirteen months later the novel was still not written but I had made strides on the thesis. I guess quiet and isolated was not what I needed after all.