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Northern Cape

© SA Tourism© SA TourismThe Northern Cape is South Africa's biggest province and consists mostly of desert or semi-desert, and a long, quite austere, virtually deserted and utterly beautiful coastline. The water’s not too warm, which could partly explain the lack of frolicking bathers and sun tanners.

Much of the province is Karoo, which consists of low-growing shrubs and numerous species of succulent plants - many of which have splendid, if short-lived, flowers. The sheer size of the place, the clear skies, flamboyant sunsets, brilliant starry nights, the mystical quality of the light, and the overwhelming silence is quite intoxicating. To see its fairest face, though, you should visit in spring, when the desert bursts into exuberant bloom, and carpets of irridescent flowers stretch to the horizon.

This is the kind of place you want to take in slowly. A good starting point would be the Augrabies Falls National Park. Primarily a scenic park, there is some small game here and there are loads of birds. The highlight, though, has got to be the thundering Augrabies Falls. There is a multi-day hike in the park, as well as day walks, a mountain bike trail and two marvellous paddling trips nearby.

The northern part of the province is Kalahari thirstland - it's not really a desert as there is so much life here, but there is little or no standing water. Here you will find the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is a joint venture between South Africa and neighbouring Botswana. Game includes enormous black-maned lions and graceful gemsbok (or oryx).

The Northern Cape is really about wide, open spaces but the principal city of Kimberley is worth a visit. As well as many museums, monuments, art galleries and lovely old buildings, you may also see the largest hand-dug hole in the world - simply called "The Big Hole". It was the first opencast diamond mine in the area. Nearby are some stunning rock engravings, in quite abstract shapes, which could lend credibility to people who believe in UFOs. . The Orange River, which forms the Augrabies Falls, is a veritable linear oasis in this dry land. On its banks, tender young grapes grow sweet in the sun, and date palms sway in the breeze. The Orange River Wine Route, which is near Upington, concentrates mostly on fortified dessert wines. Further west, long after the river has recovered from its headlong rush into the Augrabies Gorge, there is another eminently paddle-worthy section of river, starting at Noordoewer.

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