South African Holidays in Namaqualand
North of the South African Riviera of Cape Town, hot, volcanic deserts march down to a cold Atlantic ocean. The barren hills and lava plains erupt with wildflowers for a few frivolous weeks in spring and the muddy largesse of the Orange River provides water year round. Namaqualand is the outback, a wilderness strewn with mines and mission stations, diamonds and lobster and flowers and dust. Special interest routes throughout the region feature all of the above, in mixed measure.
South Africa Monument Koppie, Springbok, Namaqualand
550 km north of Cape Town and over a hundred kilometres from the west coast, Springbok is the centre of the mining heartland of Namaqualand. These succulent-strewn drylands were the site of hostilities in the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) and the rocky remnants of an English fort can be seen on a hillock in the centre of town. It owes its crumbling condition as much to a man as to nature. General Jan Smuts, later to become the President of the Union of South Africa, attacked the English garrison here and finished it off by blowing up the fort with dynamite.
Namaqualand Museum, Springbok, Namaqualand
Despite such vigorous antagonism between the English and the Boers, the churches of Springbok tell a different tale. Every small town in the country has a distinctive spire atop its skyline. Springbok is no exception. However the inevitable Dutch Reformed Church is to be found in the unexpected location of Synagogue Street. Indeed, the church was used as a synagogue for many years and is now the site of the Namaqualand Museum. The English however, got there first. The Anglican church, next to the post office, is the second oldest church in Namaqualand, dating from 1861.
4x4, Springbok, Namaqualand
For an off-road adventure of a lifetime, the Namakwa 4x4 Route follows the Orange River for 642 kilometres to the sea. The route starts off demurely enough at the picturesque Pella Mission Station before thrusting the willing adventurer deep into the lonely heatlands of northern Namaqualand. Booking is essential for the 2-8 day journey through the diverse geology and vegetation of the Karoo, Sandveld and Namaqualand veld. The hardy ancestors of some of the earliest indigenous inhabitants of this region continue to live much as their forefathers before them. Their reed huts daub the arid terrain.
Goegap Nature Reserve, Springbok, Namaqualand
15 kilometres south-east of Springbok is the 15 000 hectare Hester Malan Wildflower Garden. Named after the wife of one of the apartheid era bureaucrats of the Cape, the reserve was extended in 1990 and also got a new name. Goegap is Nama for waterhole, an evocative name when summer temperatures can reach anywhere between 30 and 48C. In this semi-desert, it is the uncertain winter rainfall that determines the flowers. Spring begins somewhere between August and September and timing is everything.
For a few weeks each year, the red sand sprouts fields of wild flowers and on sunny days with the sun at your back, the resulting spectacle is positively psychedelic. Throw in a mountain zebra or an ostrich amongst the blooms and...happy snapping! The reserve's seventeen kilometre circular driving route is on good roads with ample picnic sites. Day-long biking and hiking trails beckon as well as a longer two day trail. Or, if you prefer the challenge of the open road to the allure of the beaten track, there are 4x4 routes through this succulent-studded African Arizona. Overnight facilities include a self-catering group chalet and a smaller cottage.
30 km east of Springbok is the oldest village in Namaqualand. The Methodists pipped the rest of the early missionaries to the starting post and Reverend Barnabas Shaw set up his mission here in 1816. Leliefontein is one of the villages on the Namaqualand mission route, a revealing exploration of the earliest beginnings of African colonial expansion. Surprisingly, given the unwelcoming terrain, Namaqualand and its surrounds were the first areas to be explored by seventeenth century adventurers and missionaries just three years after the Dutch East India Company sent Jan Van Riebeeck to set up a way-station at the Cape for its trading ships. Their imprint is stamped on the churches and schools and people of Namaqualand, to this day.
The Nama's ancestors were pastoral herdsmen from Namibia who arrived in these dusty lands some two thousand years ago. Unique among those older inhabitants of Southern Africa and unlike the San, the Nama of Namaqualand retain much of their cultural heritage. Early written records of nineteenth century explorers describe the distinctive, convex 'matjieshuise' or mat houses that the Nama still build today. Traditional Nama 'matjieshuise' can be seen at Nourivier, near the mission station of Leliefontein. Or, stay overnight in Nama huts at Namastat, 2 kilometres from the centre of Springbok.
Some eight kilometres north of Springbok, the dusty hamlet of Okiep is an unlikely candidate for world's richest copper mine but until 1919, prosperity seemed assured. One of the few reminders of this lost industry is the incongruous smoke-stack next to the Okiep Hotel. It is unclear whether they charge extra for rooms with this view. The old cemetery remembers other pieces of the past with its memorials to Anglo-Boer war casualties.
Hiking, Okiep, Namaqualand
Nearby, there is two day hike down a canyon. It's a 'Bring your own water and build your own cooking fire' kind of affair.
The rhythmically named town that is the largest of Namaqualand's copper mining towns is of little interest to the visitor unless you're a railway enthusiast. Then, be sure not to miss Clara, the marrow-gauge steam locomotive that is on display at the mining museum.
The Kamieskroon mountains form the backdrop to the dramatically situated village of Kamieskroon. Somewhat closer to Cape Town than the rest of the regions' flower routes, the so-called Garden Route of Namaqualand is cooler than the hinterland and you're more likely to find flowers here late in the season. A drive through the wild rock formations and wildflower displays of Kamieskroon, Leliefontein, and Garies via the Kamiesberg Pass offers history and scenery in equal measure. A well-regarded Namaqualand photographer lives in the Kamieskroon area and conducts photography workshops in September and October, March and April.
Kamieskroon Trail, Namaqualand
The wild rock formations and wildflower displays make this a popular hiking destination in the Kamieskroon mountains which form the backdrop to the dramatically situated village of the same name.
Skilpad Wildflower Reserve, Kamieskroon, Namaqualand
When the rains have been plentiful and the warm wind has yet to blow, the spring flowers in this small reserve are as good as they get in Namaqualand. Walk or ride a bicycle through the hilly reserve which is only open during the flower season.
Port Nolloth, Namaqualand
The intriguing title, 'Where the water took the old man away' was the original Nama name for Port Nolloth whose present name commemorates one Commander Nolloth. Unfortunately, 'the man who determined the depth of the bay' just doesn't have the same ring. The coastal town's main industry is rock lobster and this may have something to do with its status as the only holiday resort on the Diamond Coast. Good angling and fine beaches also play a part. And every self-respecting seaside resort has to have a lighthouse.
60 kilometres east of Port Nolloth in the north-western heart of the Richtersveld., this village was named for a small natural fountain that must have been music to the ears of thirsty adventurers. The village of 'Fine Singing' retain some of its age-old Nama heritage. There are also numerous outdoor activities on offer including horse-riding, hiking and guided tours to Skurwehoog cave.
Alexander Bay, Namaqualand
Named for Prince William of Orange rather than the colour of its silt-rich waters, the Orange, like an African Nile, cuts a green swathe through the desert, some two thousand kilometres long. It gathers diamonds in its surging wake and spits them into the sea at its mouth. Here, diamonds can be found on the barren surface along with a host of other minerals. The security fences around Alexander Bay surround a bird-rich estuary and a diamond-rich industry. Permits are needed to visit and the mine tour must be pre-booked.
Rafting and Canoeing on the lower Orange, Namaqualand
Several private operators in Cape Town run water adventures of varying duration on the lower Orange. Unlike the upper Orange at Augrabies, this stretch of the river is more docile. However, with some grade 2 and 3 rapids, you'll have a splash as well as a paddle whether by raft or canoe. Summer is usually a scorcher in the desert and the winter nights are correspondingly cold. Don't forget to pack the sunscreen, whatever the time of year. But, if you're looking for peace and quiet avoid the Christmas, Easter and Cape school holidays.
Richtersveld National Park, Namaqualand
Upriver and inland from the Orange River Mouth lies the Richtersveld National Park which borders on Namibia. Here the 'Great River' shoulders its way through mountain desert, occasionally stirring rapids to raise the pulse but not tip the ship. This wild and lonely park allows rafting, swimming, canoeing, and fishing in the Orange River. Mountain biking and bird-watching take up the slack out of flower season which falls sometime between June and October.
In these sparsely populated driftlands, the back roads wait to be explored. This is best done in a 4x4. These are wild and lonely backroads through the rumpled granite of the Richtersveld. Be warned, this is the great beyond. Accommodation runs to a self-catering guest cottage or Nama hut camps for the more adventurous. There's always camping but don't forget to make a list. There's a general shop at the park's headquarters at Sendelingsdrift but otherwise, you're on your own.