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Small-town museums have a special kind of allure that travellers can discover in hamlets throughout South Africa. The Kalahari-Oranje Museum is one such museum, where visitors can learn more about the resourcefulness and hardships of the people that have lived in the largely inhospitable expanses of the semi-desert that covers huge swaths of the Northern Cape.
More often than not, the buildings that house these surprising collections tell a story too. The Kalahari-Oranje Museum, for example, is housed in the buildings erected by the Reverend Schröder in 1875 as a church and mission station. On display are mostly items that once belonged to Schröder. The collection also includes artefacts from settlements in the Lower Orange River Valley during the pioneer days, while the main building of the museum, near the southwest end of the aptly named Schröder Street, also has a collection of local historical photographs and news articles on display.
History really comes to life though when you visit the Manse House, which is one of the most interesting buildings in Upington. You can explore each of the rooms in this authentically restored house dating from the late 19th century. The museum also features a donkey statue, in recognition of the enormous contribution this animal made to the development of the region.
Interestingly, the town of Upington was founded only in 1884, nine years after Schröder started his mission. It was named after Sir Thomas Upington, attorney-general and prime minister of the Cape. The landscape directly around Upington is arid but the fertile soil yields crops such as fruit, export-quality grapes, raisins and wines. The grapes are cultivated on the flood plains of the Orange River.
The Green Kalahari embraces a large tract of undulating red dunes, mountain desert, and grasslands in the far north of the Northern Cape Province bordering Namibia and Botswana. In the extreme north it is home to the popular Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park where the black-maned lion is king, while in the west lies the Augrabies Falls National Park.
Upington, which straddles the banks of the Orange River where the N10 and N14 intersect, is the region’s main town. Further down river the other important regional towns of Keimoes and Kakamas bask amongst the vineyards.
Many may consider ’green’ a little optimistic where the Kalahari is concerned. However, the ‘Green’, in this case, is in reference to the extensive vineyards that flank the Orange River as it curves through the region. In summer they trace a lush, verdant line against an otherwise arid backdrop of hills and plains cloaked in autumnal colours for most of the year. The vineyards follow the river for 350km and cover over 17 000 hectares making it one of the most intensively farmed areas in South Africa.
From here table grapes are exported to Europe, while some cultivars are turned into award-winning wines by Orange River Wine Cellars. This five-cellar co-operative, which produces around 30 different wines, is the largest in the country.
Paradoxically, for a region considered by many to be a desert, there are plenty of water-based activities, all of which are centred on the Orange River - at 2200km it’s South Africa’s longest River. Great river-rafting opportunities can be enjoyed along the stretch between Kakamas and the Augrabies falls.
There’s also fishing, ‘twitching’ along the banks, and in Upington, an evening cruise while supping a few cold beverages to watch the sunset.
Then there’s the varied desert wilderness to explore, from the rocky environs around Augrabies Falls and Riemvasmaak, through the rolling red sand dunes further north, to the vast flat pans in the Mier area. Amidst all this rugged scenery Camelthorn trees dot the landscapes and the large thatched nests of the busy sociable weavers crown both trees and telephone poles alike.
Game viewing in the Green Kalahari is somehow more rewarding than in areas more flush with rainfall. Perhaps it’s the amazement at the variety in an arid land.
The prime spot is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but there’s also Augrabies Falls National Park, isolated areas like Spitskop Nature Reserve near Upington, and a host of game farms.
Birdwatchers, and especially those into raptors, are likely to suffer whiplash from swinging the binos around at the variety, especially in the far north. From the mighty martial eagle to the diminutive pygmy falcon, the region is a birders’ paradise. Wine-tasting, recreation and adventure sports, game-viewing, and bird-watching… and the area is well-known for its dried-fruit production.
In essence a visit to the region is all about discovery, where visitors can shun the ordinary and expect the unusual. It’s not just an aimless wander through a barren desert, but rather an odyssey across a new frontier far removed from the tourist crowds. Above all, welcomes are as warm as the weather, the hospitality is superb, and the food – especially the meat – is excellent and plentiful.
Look out for
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - in the far north of the region is a vast wilderness of red dunes, dry savannah, and majestic camel thorn trees along the Auob and Nossob Rivers. It’s a birders’ paradise and there are plenty of antelope and their associated predators, including the black-maned Kalahari lion. The park has 264 bird species, including two thirds of the raptors found in South Africa, however, this list includes many vagrants so numbers vary throughout the year. There is an abundance of smaller wildlife, from mammals to rodents, reptiles, and insects that will keep nature-lovers enthralled for hours. The three traditional camps are Twee Rivieren, Nossob, and Mata Mata, which offer accommodation in both chalets and campsites, and they have shops and sell fuel. However, there are also a number of wilderness camps - some accessible only in a 4x4.
Augrabies Falls National Park - the principal attraction here is the 6th largest waterfall in the world. Other highlights include Moon Rock, a massive granite monolith, and Ararat viewpoint which overlooks some of the 18km gorge below the falls. Although it is primarily a scenic park, wildlife includes giraffe and several antelope species, and 180+ bird species have been recorded. A drive along the network of gravel roads or a walk on one of the trails will reveal some of the region’s sublime mountain desert scenery. Accommodation is in chalets, bungalows, or camp and caravan sites, and there’s a licensed à-la-carte restaurant, a coffee shop, and a shop with basic foodstuffs and curios. Day visitors are welcome.
Orange River Wine Cellars - the cellars at the towns of Upington, Kakamas, Keimoes, Groblershoop, and also at Grootdrink (alongside the N10 between Upington and Groblershoop) offer wine tastings and sales.
Riemvasmaak Hot Springs - 56km north-west of Kakamas, is situated in a deep ravine surrounded by a mountain desert landscape. The 75 000ha wilderness near Augrabies Falls offers visitors a chance to relax in the soothing waters of the hot springs, take up the challenge of three 4x4 trails, break out on foot along three hiking trails, or enjoy other adventure activities. They have basic self-catering accommodation.
River rafting on the Orange - for specialised 4-day canoe safaris and shorter river trips around the Augrabies Falls call Kalahari Outventures. They also do 5-day back road trips through the Kalahari. Khamkirri Private Game Reserve, 30km from Kakamas, is a one-stop activity centre, excellent for those who get bored of routine. They offer game drives, river rafting, angling, horse riding, abseiling, tours to local attractions, 4x4 routes, and bird watching. They also have a range of accommodation.
Dried Fruit - there’s an unbelievable variety of dried fruit that can be bought at farm stalls throughout the region.