When they say “off the beaten track” in South Africa, Northern Cape is what they mean. And why it’s not more beaten, we’re not sure. This is the sum of our short time there, including a surprising and deeply moving human encounter at the very end.
As we carved a path into the sunset along the Orange River border between South Africa and Namibia, it dawned on me (or would the appropriate phrase in this time context be dusked on me?) that we were far away with the trappings of something eye-catching and mind-wandering, wowing and calming, all without being contrived.
To get there, way up in the South Africa’s northwestern most province of Northern Cape, it took a serious road trip. It had to really. We were smack in the middle of far away and no plane could ever take us where we needed to go. Ed, our guide and a man whose age was indeterminable to us and whose leisure time was spent training for ultra-marathons (there’s a connection between the two), worked to build our expectations to the brink but not beyond. The captain of our vessel was a man named Happy, born on Christmas Day, a man who'd spent each day since collecting and slowly dispensing the wisdom of a genuinely expressed deep satisfaction in small things.
In just a couple very short days in the Northern Cape, we’d gone to another world and back it seemed, to a world flush with natural and human works of staggering beauty that we'd previously heard nary a peep about.
Augrabies Falls National Park
Like any good canyon and falls, Augrabies Falls National Park is the result of time wearing, of spits and splits. We were treated to heaving, roiling falls on one hand.
And gaping, winding canyons running the span of one’s field of vision on the other. When light plays as the afternoon comes to an end at the canyon's edge, it's difficult to pull away.
And we meet colors, contours and funny animals great (giraffe) and small (the dassie, for example) along the way.
Orange River Canoe
There’s nothing like setting down on top of the water with a canoe, particularly as the day wears on and the light softens. Our experience on the Orange River was no exception.
After a stunning and somewhat thrilling paddle — after all, we found ourselves on the border between South Africa and Namibia — we pull up on the Namibian side to appreciate the waning light and its affect on the open sky.
South African Braai
At the end of a long day, we settled down for a little rest and relaxation which included a bottle of Pinotage to go along with a signature South African barbecue called a braai. As we chatted up the owner of the camp along the Orange River where we stayed, we discovered that the woman in charge of the braai, Maudie Bleach, had also been a contestant on Ultimate Braai Masters, a South African reality cooking TV show. Not sure I've ever seen someone with such command of cooking over an open fire. The resulting meal was delicious, too.
When we awoke the following morning, it was to a proper braai breakfast (or would that be braaikfast?) and a sunrise view over the Orange River to Namibia, South Africa’s neighbor to the north.
Nama (Namaqua) Culture: A Lucky Break
Based on a tip Ed received, we headed in the direction of Nama Khoi and a little town nearby called Wolfkraal. This area was home to the ethnic Nama people (sometimes traditionally referred to as Namaqua). Good timing was in our favor, as the children at the local school just happened to be in their best duds and fresh off performing their traditional dance for a government-sponsored regional conference. They kindly offered us a private performance.
They were absolutely beautiful kids. And to us, they looked like the future.
Some of them even taught us a few of their dance moves. Or more correctly, they tried their best amidst my limited abilities to teach us.
A Personal Story in Upington
Upon our arrival in Upington, Northern Cape's provincial capital, our guide Ed asked if some close friends could join us for dinner.
Turns out that his friend, Zonga Mokgatle, was among a group of final prisoners whose release was negotiated just prior to the formal end of apartheid and the ultimate and final release of Nelson Mandela.
Mokgatle was one of the so-called “Upington 26”, a group of 26 people convicted on the principle of “common purpose” and accused of taking part in the murder of a policeman, when their only offense happened to be being near the scene of the crime. Fourteen of them, Mokgatle included, were sent to death row in Pretoria.
During his time in prison, Mokgatle was visited by a young NGO worker from the United Kingdom. He and that young woman, Kathi, sat with us. Between forkfuls of springbok carpaccio, they told bits of a death row love story in an apartheid era Pretoria prison. (The entire story for those interested can be found in Kathi's book, Love on Death Row.)
To say that they'd been through lot – hope and despair and a mixed race marriage in post-apartheid South Africa — is perhaps a gross understatement. Sitting at the table, we could see it, feel it. How does one even begin to tell and honor a story like this?
We had our questions, among them: How did Ed know them? As it happens, he'd been a prison warden in Upington.
A prison warden?
“But why?” we asked.
“Someone who cared” he said, “had to be on the inside. They needed a friend.“
South African Sunsets, A Northern Cape Close
Vast and remote, the Northern Cape is dry at its core and green at the edges of the Kalahari. There’s something special about this place. It's a region in South Africa we'd known almost nothing about and we'd heard virtually nothing of from other travelers.
In going, our only regret – if we have one at all — was that we didn't have more time to spend there, to go deeper into the Kalahari, to better understand this unknown province and get under its skin at bit more.
But sometimes it's good to leave a bit on the table. For South Africa’s Northern Cape, until next time…
A word of thanks: We'd like to thank Happy and Ed of Tata Ma Tata for sharing their Northern Cape with us and stoking our curiosity to return to experience more of their home. We'd also like to thank Adam and Maudie Bleach from Bushwhacked on the Orange River for taking great care of us on our river paddle and evening braai.