At first glance, it might seem like nothing much happens here. But the open and vast landscape – and its characters – are full of life. Here are some of our favourite escapes between the West Coast and Augrabies Falls.
‘The Kalahari is so vast that if you fight with your wife and she left, you could watch her walking away for three weeks,’ says Danie van Zyl of Keimoes. ‘Wake up each day to her turning into a speck of dust on the landscape.’
This is true. The openness of the sky makes big rocky mountains appear insignificant. Here, the sky steals the show with lots of quiver trees that seem to appear out of nowhere, adding texture and character to the landscape. The sighting of a body of water seems magical, a miracle. The people who live here share this unique beauty with visitors wholeheartedly. Their generosity, we discovered, is as big as the place they live in.
1. Art and cocktails in Hondeklipbaai
Villain and Mads’ Studio is the first place we came across in Hondeklipbaai – an indoor/outdoor gallery of landscape paintings. Villain (aka Deon Venter) is open and generous with his artistic space, and enthusiastic about visitors – we even toured his home, past the burnt curry in the kitchen, to see the painting hanging above his bed. Unapologetic about his space, his art and past, Villain started painting when he was in jail and says it helped him stay sane.
After a quirky encounter with Villain, we went next door to The Shack, run by Sunnette and Willem de Waal, for coffee and cheesecake. Willem’s a butcher and baker with a calm, comfortable demeanour about him, but steadfast in his evangelism of the superiority of German bread and meat, in which he specialises. After stocking up at The Shack, we popped in at K9 Pottery Studio down the road. It’s obvious this remote little village is brimming with creativity. After watching the activity at the harbour, we settled in for cocktails at Dop en Kreef (0276923095) – a beach bar with what must be some of the best sea views in South Africa – and a great selection of seafood on the menu at Die Rooi Spinnekop. Tel 0764308300, hondeklip.co.za
2. Northern Cape Wines at Bezalel Estate
Martiens Bezuidenhout from Bezalel Wines reckons that grapes grown in desert conditions are ideal because they’re much more resilient than the ‘fickle and spoilt grapes’ of the Cape Winelands. Here, near Keimoes, he’s experimental in his approach, bending the rules and producing unconventional blends of grape varietals and brandies in small batches – and you can only get them here in the Northern Cape.
He’s lately been trying his hand at beer and whisky, too. We chilled in the garden on this beautiful estate, enjoying the relaxed vibe and eating delicious food – the lunch was decent, light portions, leaving enough space for dessert. Wine and brandy tastings are available in the tasting room. Tel 0544911141, bezalel.co.za
Stay here: Vergelegen Guesthouse is a convenient and pretty luxe stay if you want to explore the Orange River and surrounding areas of Kakamas and Keimoes. We had delicious springbok carpaccio at its restaurant. Double room including breakfast R1,080. augrabiesfalls.co.za
3. Smell the fynbos at Naries Namakwa Retreat
Simeon Bok took a handful of wild thyme and crushed it in his hands, then held them open to my nose. This is the plant responsible for the region’s tasty lamb, he said. Simeon completed an internship programme with Open Africa before finding a job here at the lodge, sharing the rugged Namaqua beauty of the 6000-hectare reserve on game drives and guided walks. We came across wild thyme, the Bushman Candle, tiny confetti plants, the Bushman rabbit, the rabbit springy and succulent species.
The Kalahari boasts over 3,000 animal species and over 2,000 of them are small succulent species which Simeon pointed out. Go for one of their hikes, guided or unguided – the hikes lead to the vintage point that make this landscape look like a dragon’s playground.
Stay here: Naries Namakwa Retreat, nestled between mountains and open sky, has luxurious mountain suites (from R3,880 DBB), self-catering cottages (from R2,020 for four) and B&B rooms. The on-site fine-dining restaurant serves possibly the best lamb shank you’ll ever taste. naries.co.za
4. Local food and perfect pools at Riemvasmaak
Immersed in one of the springs here, zenned out by the deafening silence in the background (interrupted occasionally by the echo of starlings), you look up and see the surrounding canyons out the corner of your eye and birds flying across the wide, wide blue Kalahari sky. From the main pool, a ‘map of Africa’ takes shape in a gap between the rocks. These hot springs are an oasis reached via a scenic mountain road from the small settlement of Riemvasmaak. It has an interesting story.
On our way here we’d stopped at Berg en Dal Koffie en Kuierkos (0786162807), where owner Norbert Coetzee told us about how local families were evicted from this land during apartheid and relocated to Namibia and the Eastern Cape. Norbert was seven years old at the time. When Nelson Mandela became president, Riemvasmaak was the first community to return to their land. Norbert now runs his restaurant here, specialising in South African favourites; we had delicious curry mince vetkoek (R15) but he can arrange a truly local lunch such as a ‘smiley’ (sheep head). He also does guided walks of the village, and there is a day hiking trail at the pools. Entry to the hot springs R25 per person. Tel 0733838812.
Stay here: There are community-run guest cabins here (0838737715 or 0783145565) you can also stay at Kalahari River & Safari Company, an hour away.
Also read: The Insider’s Guide to Kakamas.
5. Paddle down the Orange River
Seeing the beauty and abundance of the Orange River amid the dryness of the landscape made my heart swell in excitement at the thought of being on that water. After getting onto the rafting boats, we calmly flowed along with minimal paddling. When we reached a spot where the water was shallow, we got out the boat and carried on floating downriver in our life jackets. Pure bliss. An easy afternoon Nature Paddle costs R200 per person. The company is owned by Danie van Zyl, who lives on prime riverside real estate near Kakamas. He and his wife Philippa take pride in their spot being family friendly. Both are so attentive towards guests we felt instantly at home.
Danie’s that guy you need to show you around; he’s funny, knows the secret spots and is happy to share the hidden treasures of places such as Keimoes, Riemvasmaak and Kakamas – home of Die Pienk Padstal, which is a great place to stop for coffee and to buy the famous dried fruit of this region (if you’re in luck, there may be dried kiwi fruit, 0833819272). Guests who stay at Danie’s camp can also go on an early game drive for morning coffee at the river viewpoint, plus there’s fishing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and kayaking.
Stay here: There are campsites (R350 for four people) and various chalets and tents along the river (from R450 for two in a river tent). kalahaririverandsafari.co.za
6. The rush of Augrabies Falls
You’ll find yourself hypnotised by the forceful and endless movement of gushing water. Standing at the main viewpoint, witnessing the Orange River in this form is an entirely different experience. The sight (and sound) of the mighty river dropping down the cliffs at Augrabies Falls is worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime. But after you’ve done that, drive downriver and witness the calmness of the river in the stunning Oranjekom Gorge.
This part of the park, which looks like a location straight out of Westworld, is not advertised so many people just see the falls and leave without seeing the entire spectrum of the Orange River. Driving between the various viewpoints, we spotted springbok and giraffe along the way (the night drives are highly recommended to spot specials such at bat-eared foxes).
Stay here: The spacious Oranjekom Gorge Cottage (sleeps two) is the newest addition to the park and built underneath the public lookout point. It’s off the grid, so it’ll get hot in summer without fans or air con, but the breathtaking view is yours alone for sunrise and sunset. From R1,940. sanparks.org
7. Tuck into Aunt Koera’s real roosterkoek
You’ll find Aunt Koera rolling and cutting up dough for fresh roosterkoek, best served alongside her lamb stew with sweet carrots and a salad made using the wild and tangy ‘gemsbok cucumbers’ grown in the Kalahari. Cooking was always Aunt Koera’s passion, so she decided to use a portion of the communal land on Erin Game Ranch, which is now owned by the local Khomani San community, to start feeding travellers. She especially enjoys cooking over the fire because it keeps with the traditions of Kalahari cuisine and, besides, true roosterkoek is not something one can make on a stove. Call ahead to book. Tel 0835888346, khomanisan.com
Stay here: Boesmansrus, also run by the community, has authentic, rustic grass huts with basic facilities – good if you’re just looking for a bed to lay your head down overnight. Tel 0783280578
Also read: The Kalahari’s green heart
8. Surf big red dune at Rooiduin Guest Farm
There’s no better way of immersing yourself in the beauty of the Kalahari’s big blue sky than by gazing up at it after landing in the sand while dune boarding at Rooiduin Guest House. Alida and Naas Mouton offer sandboarding near Askham at a really affordable price, and it’s great for any age. The dunes aren’t too big and you can wear any old sneakers. There’s no need to stand upright – it’s even more fun when seated. If you’re nervous of falling, don’t be – the red sand is soft and people say it has great exfoliating properties…
Do this: It’s best to book ahead and you can easily spend about an hour on the sand. There are also 4×4 activities if you’re keen to take your exploration of the red dunes a bit further. Tel 0825896659.