Mention the Northern Cape and what comes to mind? The biggest province in the country, empty, desert-like and maybe some flowers in spring.
And as part of a tour group I was going to spend a whole week there.
Seven days and 3 000km later – from Kimberley to Upington via Springbok and Port Nolloth – I discovered a new country.
The wide open spaces struck me immediately as we headed out of Kimberley towards Carnarvon. We passed hardly any cars on the N12 and started heading back down south. The landscape of low shrubs and rolling hills stretched for miles in every direction as we kept driving closer and closer to the middle of nowhere.
The Northern Cape is marketed as an extreme destination, or a flower destination, or a place where diamonds come from, but for me it is a place of hidden treasures.
Starting in Britstown, which is a small community with more sheep than people, I came across a small café that apart from selling hot chips and a plethora of bric-a-brac including rather freaky mannequins and dolls, also runs something special in the adjoining house.
The Gentlecare Care Facility caters for the sick who are homeless or who cannot receive proper care at home. Many of the people at Gentlecare are dying.
I met Ingrid Carter who has been living there for the past six months. She initially arrived with her husband who was terminally ill with cancer, and has died. Carter herself is wheelchair-bound after being paralysed after a back operation. Originally from Table View, she now calls Britstown home.
As I was leaving, Carter clasped my hand in both of hers, smiled up at me and said: “Send my love to Cape Town for me.”
Just outside Carnarvon, if you venture 40km down a gravel road (just past the middle of nowhere), is the site for one of the most exciting projects in South Africa, SKA, or the Square Kilometre Array.
Clouds of dust were being kicked up by trucks carting dirt around the Muisdam farm, readying the site for the next phase of the installation of the radio telescopes.
The giant KAT-7 dishes towered above me while I tried to remain focused on what was being described by one of the astronomers, but these astonishing dishes had my all my attention.
They danced along with perfect timing, swooping, and rotating as they scoured the skies. I have seen countless pictures of them but actually standing below them was breathtaking.
Taking a sharp turn and heading up the N7 to Springbok the landscape changed from the low shrubs and rolling hills to sheets of vivid spring flowers (that cover the rolling hills that stretch on for miles).
The area surrounding Springbok is scattered with forgotten or hidden treasures. In some cases the most amazing sights were hidden behind the bushes just off the highway.
One of these places is a small crude reservoir built by British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer war. A small rock pool was constructed to collect water and was cordoned off by the only steel they could spare for fence posts: old gun barrels.
These rusty relics are on private land and overlooked by a lot of the mainstream tour operators. Luckily we were in the company of Rita Nefdt of the Daisy Lodge, who has been living in Springbok for the last 19 years and has a passion for hunting out all the quirky things that make Namaqualand special.
A few kilometres down the road, over another barbed-wire fence and on another stretch of privately owned land is the grave of Charles James Darter. Darter was a lieutenant in the Namaqualand Border Scouts during the Boer War and was killed on that spot on March 19, 1902, during an ambush.
This small grave, once fenced in an area of 128 square metres before the construction of the N7, is the last remaining patch of land owned by the British in Namaqualand.
Our next stop was the ghost town of Bowesdorp. Located between two small peaks this area was the original Kamieskroon. In 1924 this small town, founded by Dr Bowes, had grown too big for its little valley and had to be uprooted and re-established 20km down the road. All that is left of this old community are a few ruins, including a church and old rusted cars dotting the mountain landscape.
Namaqualand’s little secrets are not only man-made. The local flora, apart from being beautiful in spring, also holds many secrets.
A pale yellow flower on a thorn-covered waxy bush provided a light and heat-source for the indigenous people for centuries. When set alight, the “Boesman Kers” burns for hours and with great ease, creating the perfect candle for anyone who makes the bush their home.
As we approached Upington we found ourselves heading into the Northern Cape wine country. Wine, we discovered, was not the sole prerogative of the Western Cape: rolling vineyards stretched beside the road as we headed for Kakamas.
Inside the Kalahari Gateway Hotel is a small sushi bar presided over by sushi chef Gerrit de Beer. Every two days fish is couriered from Cape Town to Kakamas for him. Gerrit also makes his own Kalahari Sushi from springbok carpaccio.
Later, after an Augrabies Falls stop, we followed our host for the evening off the tarred roads for dinner on-deck on the Orange River.
As I sat there, enjoying the last rays of the sun, I thought back over the journey we had taken. And my mind slipped from the past to what I’ll do on my next trip to the glorious Northern Cape.
l Matthew Jordaan was guest of the Northern Cape Tourism Authority. See www.northerncape.org.za; e-mail [email protected] or telephone 053 832 2657. - Weekend Argus