Northern Cape – a country within a country

The Northern Cape is one of those destinations that has a certain allure and mystique about it attracting visitors that seek something ‘more’ from their trip to South Africa. In the words of one of our hosts, visitors to the Northern Cape can expect three things: Honest People, Honest Food & Honest Weather!

I’m very lucky to have visited South Africa on numerous occasions, but I was very keen to explore an area which is less visited and a little off the beaten track. Northern Cape certainly delivered! I tried and tested three nights at different properties in the Green Kalahari travelling by road before finishing at Tswalu and taking their private charter flight out. The Northern Cape is most definitely for a 2nd or 3rd time visitor to South Africa. Someone that has ticked off the Big 5 – not just in the sense of Big Game but also the Big 5 tourist attractions such as Cape Town, Winelands, Hermanus, The Garden Route and a Safari.

The Northern Cape is like a separate country within South Africa, a very arid yet mineral rich area that is very sparsely populated mostly by the warm and welcoming Afrikaans farming community. The main appeal is the stunning scenery offering sweeping wide vistas that contrast from deep red ochre of the Kalahari through to the lush green vineyards along the banks of the Orange River in an area known as the ‘Green Kalahari’. In addition if you travel further to the west you can experience the unique experience of a Desert in bloom in the Namaqua National Park, as well as the unique Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddling the border between South Africa and Botswana. As the largest province in South Africa there are vast distances to cover between attractions and points of interest so I chose to focus on just a few, Augrabies National Park and the falls that lie within, The Orange River and surrounding Vineyards, and finally the beautiful red sands and wildlife that lie within Tswalu.

Raft 2

I travelled out in the first week of December at the peak of summer where temperatures soar to over 40c in some parts. The Northern Cape is a year round destination with daytime temperatures ranging from 23C in winter up to 40c+ in summer. However if clients are interested in the Namaqualand Flower Route they need to look at travelling during the months of August and September (predominantly, but sometimes also into October).

I flew with South African Airways (SAA) departing from London Heathrow to Johannesburg and then took a connecting flight on to Upington. The international flight was very comfortable with ample leg room (and I’m 1m92!) along with great in-flight entertainment. Upington is a very small airport where you walk the short distance from the aircraft across the tarmac to the tiny airport building to collect your bags from the one luggage carousel. The airport has a number of facilities including but not limited to a cafe, small shop and an ATM. Whilst the Northern Cape is well suited to a self-drive, I decided to take a driver and guide, and my first stop for the night was at Dundi Lodge which was a 1.5hr drive west of Upington. I broke the journey for lunch at Vergelegen Guesthouse & Restaurant which was very pleasant.

Dundi lodge is a beautiful boutique guesthouse located in the heart of lush vineyards and only a short drive from Augrabies Falls and the National park. The area is very rural and agricultural but you get a real sense of tranquillity being there. There is the main building and the Manor house, a stand-alone old farmhouse that can accommodate up to 6 guests in 3 bedrooms. I was fortunate to stay in the Manor House which would be well suited to families or friends travelling together. This property has a rustic yet elegant charm about it and is the ideal location for visiting Augrabies Falls as well as other activities on the Orange River.

Tree

Whilst here, I enjoyed a fabulous rafting experience on the river, which was a welcome respite from the otherwise scorching surroundings. It really was quite unique having lush vineyards surround the Orange River in such an arid environment. Whilst not a wild water rafting experience it wasn’t without moments of adrenaline and fast water fun.

Augrabies National Park itself offers stunning views across the arid rocky landscape and the falls themselves are very impressive plunging deep into a stone gorge. I would definitely recommend a hat or to try to visit earlier or later in the day when the temperatures are cooler. There is a lovely little restaurant in the national park – a 5 min walk from the falls, and other facilities include a small gift shop, toilets, picnic areas as well as some SAN Parks accommodation. Relative levels of fitness are required not only for the rafting but the walk out of the river canyon is quite rocky and involves a bit of scrambling

Canyon

Following on from my rafting adventures and a visit to the Falls I travelled further north to Tutwa Desert Lodge right on the border with Namibia. This lodge is the sister property to Dundi Lodge yet very different as Tutwa really is a desert safari lodge. A stunning thatched lodge that sits in the shadow of a rocky ridge and surrounded by arid desert landscape punctuated with the iconic silhouette of quiver trees amongst the dry bush. It’s situated in 16,000 hectares of private game reserve including exclusive access to 24km of Orange River frontage, offering a diversity of experiences.

This lodge really epitomises the whole ‘Escape from it all’ concept. With no phone signal and no neighbours in sight you can truly switch off. The lodge offers a number of activities and we chose to take a ‘Game’ drive in the evening although they prefer to call them nature drives as the game is sparse due to the harsh environment – they haven’t had rain for several years! The drought situation is severe and because of this they do leave some feed (hay/grass) out near the waterhole to help support the animals. Although a desert landscape there is wildlife including leopard, giraffe, zebra, gemsbok, springbok and other antelope species; meerkat, klipspringers and spring hare, along with a diverse range of nocturnal animals: aardvark, aardwolf & porcupine and more. I was lucky enough to see the elusive Aardwolf, a shy nocturnal creature that none of the group had encountered before. What surprised me was the stark beauty of the landscape in such contrast to the lush river valley. This area is also very mineral rich and you see quartz rocks all over the desert floor and Tutwa has an abundance of natural Rose Quartz. I visited the location they used to mine it – amazing to see such huge pieces! This is a great product to offer clients that enjoy the safari experience but have seen the Big 5 and are interested in the Northern Cape and Kalahari. Superb hospitality combined with a unique landscape.

Antelope

The distance from Tutwa Desert Lodge through to Tswalu is Approx.460km/6hrs so with this in mind the decision was made to look at breaking the journey with an overnight stop near Upington. Following a recommendation from South Africa Tourism I got in touch with Elmarie at African Vineyard Guesthouse. The property is uniquely located on a working grape farm on Kanoneiland (Canon Island) just 25km West of Upington.

I made a stop at Bezalel Estate (www.bezalel.co.za), a local wine & brandy producer. The estate kindly hosted a tasting for us giving us a real insight into the local wines as well as a very in depth understanding of Brandy tasting. The owner’s son is also a Northern Cape Route Mentor and was able to give a really good understanding of the area, the reasons to visit and also the challenges they face.

African Vineyard Guesthouse really personifies the meaning of country hospitality from the moment you arrive. Two rooms are located in the original farmhouse with the remainder in converted outbuildings that ooze with character and charm. The property is completely surrounded by Grapevines and all the rooms and the main house are situated in beautiful lush gardens complete with a pool and wellness Spa. This property is a real retreat in lush verdant area of the Green Kalahari. Genuine Country Hospitality provided by the owner Elmarie and her team who truly make you feel at home. This is a Northern Cape Country Style oasis that is a good base for exploring the local wine route as well as Augrabies National Park. Fabulous Country Guesthouse that is perfect for the equivalent of a weekend getaway. I would recommend a minimum of two nights at the start or finish of a Northern Cape self-drive to allow guests to fully relax and make use of the spa.

The final stop of my trip was Tswalu Kalahari (Tarkuni Lodge) and the cherry on the top of what had already proved to be a fantastic trip. Tswalu Kalahari is generally sold as a fly in fly out product using private charter flights, but as I was already in the Northern Cape I arrived by road. 6hrs after setting out from Canon island my vehicle stops on a sand road the colour of deep ochre and waiting for us is my Ranger/Guide for the next few days.

On arrival my Tswalu experience began immediately as I climbed aboard a private open sided Safari Vehicle for what was to be my first game drive, although strictly speaking it was an arrival transfer. Tarkuni Lodge is a stand-alone 5 room property that can accommodate a maximum of 10 guests, perfect for families or groups of good friends. Beautifully designed with the local environment in mind you are welcomed on a stunning outside space shaded by a lattice of intertwined driftwood. Following a homestead design each of the 5 rooms leads off the central living/dining space with a large fireplace dividing the room – not something that was needed on this occasion with outside temperatures soaring to 40c+! The lodge has its own private chef, butler, host as well as your own Ranger & Tracker and personal Tarkuni Vehicle. Each room can be Double or Twin set up and comes complete with a simply huge bathroom and of course an outside shower. Large private terrace/deck on each room with outside seating and even a large day bed.

River

Tswalu really is about the experiences that you have whether that is the amazing food and wine at the lodge, or out in the reserve itself. Whilst talking to the chef I suddenly realised that something very special was happening…desert rain…so we ran out and danced in the rain in the Kalahari desert, but no sooner had it begun than it stopped. Tswalu isn’t a Big 5 reserve as there are no elephant but you certainly don’t feel you are missing out as you are afforded the luxury of time to spend with individual animals. I was blessed with wonderful Cheetah sightings two days in a row, Meerkat moments that will stay with me forever, Lioness and her cubs playing and suckling and the chance to see the Wild Dog that had recently been relocated to Tswalu to replace a pack that had sadly died from Canine Distemper.

Cheetah

Tswalu offers guests the chance to have a very unique experience in stunning yet harsh environment. The reserve itself is an amazing conservation project and one of the few places you can walk with Meerkats as they have become habituated to people. With the whole 150,000 hectare reserve (Motse x24 & Tarkuni x10) only accommodating 34 guests you really have an amazing one on one experience with the people, space & wildlife. Tswalu really is a year round destination with each season offering something different. If clients are particularly interested in seeing Aardvark & Pangolin then winter is better as the cooler conditions make it more likely to see them in daylight. 99% of guests will arrive by private charter at the Tswalu Airstrip with flights scheduled from Cape Town or Johannesburg, as the road journey is 6 hours from Upington.The standard aircraft they operate seats 4-8 passengers, and although it’s a short 1.5hr flight, the plane is very cosy and I would recommend motion sickness tablets to all guests. Luggage is restricted to 20kgs (44lbs) in total.

In all honesty I felt that the itinerary I did combining a self/guided drive with Tswalu isn’t how it would likely be sold. The distances are great and the 5-6 hour drive to Tswalu has the potential to undermine the quality of the product and therefore do it a disservice. This is not to say that the Northern Cape isn’t a self/guided drive destination simply that the two don’t combine that well, so it’s important to understand what a client wants from their experience.

Having now experienced the warm hospitality of the Northern Cape first hand, I am now better equipped to promote the destination with confidence and to manage expectations of clients. A fabulous experience I will never forget!

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