Exploring the national parks of the Northern Cape

By | Category: Travel destinations
springbok

springbok

The Northern Cape is a virtually undiscovered area of South Africa, and an ideal destination for anyone looking to get away from it all, and happy with a self-drive holiday.

I flew into Johannesburg with a short flight connection to Upington from where I,and my fellow travel companions were chauffeur driven throughout the trip. The pound at the moment is particularly strong with petrol around 0.70p a litre. The main roads are wide and, except in mountainous areas, straight, tarmac and in good condition.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, part of SAN Parks, (South African National Parks) borders with Botswana and Namibia and is one of the world’s biggest conservation areas covering 3.6 million hectares. As distances are so vast, visitors are obliged to stay a minimum of two days if sleeping in the park. Although there is accommodation near the entrance, anyone staying there is not able to drive into the depths of the park to enjoy early morning or night game rides. I was privileged to be staying at !Xaus, deep in the Kalahari desert, about 70km from the main gate an eco lodge owned by the Khomani San and Mier Communities.

Xaus Lodges

Xaus Lodges

We were driven into the park, stopping every so often to admire herds of springbok, oryx, and wildebeest. The highlight however was seeing, at a distance, a lion with her prey chasing off two blackback jackals. At a designated picnic area we transferred to a four by four for a very bumpy drive over enormous red sand dunes to the lodge. Accommodation is in wooden chalets, each with a veranda that looks out over an enormous saltpan (dry lake). My visit coincided with South Africa’s winter so, particularly because we were in the desert there is a wide range of temperature. This fluctuated from zero degrees at night when hot bottles were a necessity to dazzling blue skies during the day when the sun shone brightly, and sunglasses were a necessity. Electricity is only used a few hours a day although there are talks of installing solar power so there is virtually no pollution. There is no dawn or dusk but when the sun went down it did so in a burst of red colour. An excuse for a sundowner, a drink of choice sipped while watching the red and yellow ball disappear into the darkness. The night sky is littered with stars and the stillness is amazing, with the only noise likely to be that of a bird or animal.

Our guide Yohan, who took us out on game-drives was from the San community. Rather than seeing an abundance of animals, this area is for people who have already seen the ‘big five’, and are looking for a different experience. Yohan pointed out various footprints and showed us how to distinguish which animal they belonged to. He also explained what the various plants were. To me, they looked like scrub growing out of the desert but in reality had various uses, some medicinal. Trees dripping with what appeared to be enormous nests, we discovered, belonged to social weaver birds which we saw in abundance.

Near the lodge a small area has been devoted to maintaining the traditions of the San tribe. Several people demonstrated their artistic skills by showing visitors how they originally lived. We watched items such as engraved walking sticks, stones etched with rock art, and pieces of jewellery being crafted which we were then able to buy.

Leaving the Park, our route took us to the area near the Orange River where there are rows upon row of vineyards, some community and others privately owned. Harvesting is from December to the end of March, depending on the grape variety. Some vineyards are open for tastings. At the family-run Bezalel Estate for 80 rand each, just over £4.00, the owner who is passionate about his products gave us an escorted tour and tasting. As well as wine they also produce brandy, and although this wasn’t something I would normally drink he demonstrated how to appreciate it.

the Augrabies Falls

the Augrabies Falls

From there we continued on to Augrabies Falls National Park, known as the place of great noise. There is always an entrance fee to a national park so it’s worth purchasing their ‘Wild Card’ if visiting several. As the Orange River approaches this area it divides into numerous channels before cascading down a 56m waterfall. Thankfully we all had sun hats as there is no cover against the blazing sun on the path that leads to the head of the falls. Seeing the water cascading over black rocks and tumbling down into the Orange River is memorable, made even more so by the fact that there were few other tourists. We parked near their cafeteria, where we were warned that monkeys and baboons are likely to steal our food but only saw lots of dasies, rock hyrax. River rafting and hot air ballooning are popular activities in the area.

the land in flower

the land in flower

A good reason for visiting during their winter season, particularly from around the end of July to the beginning of September is to see the mass of brightly coloured flowers of the semi-desert, mountainous region of Namakwaland. South Africa has over 23,000 different plant species with 4,850 of them succulents. In this area too we spotted springbok, oryx, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and various birdlife. This is definitely a holiday for anyone who wants to go off the beaten track and get away from the usual tourist spots. Food is very cheap and venison, usually springbok, is often on the menu.

The word guesthouse can be misleading, as those that we stayed at are equal to stylish boutique hotels. Worth noting that South African plugs do not work with European adaptors, so it’s advisable to buy one at the airport if you have anything that requires charging.

By the way, it is important on a self- drive holiday to not leave anything in your car when it is unattended. It can be stolen which is what happened to a suitcase of mine!

I travelled on the Heathrow Express, which takes fifteen minutes from Paddington Station. Stopping at all stations on the way, the Piccadilly tube line goes all the way to Heathrow, takes longer but costs less.

For more about South Africa, click here.

 

 

 

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