The warm and sparsely populated region of Upington and the downstream villages along the Orange River are among the lesser-travelled area of South Africa’s Northern Cape province. Yet, between the huge swathes of grape vineyards, shrub-dotted plains and rocky mountains lie many experiences to be enjoyed.
Upington is the largest town in the area and is connected to Cape Town and Johannesburg by daily flights (two hours). By road it will take 9-10 hours. The area is best explored with a vehicle – rent from the airport. Summer time (December to March) is sizzling, and vineyards are green and plump with grapes. Winters are cold at night, but more moderate during the day.
A visit to Upington and surrounds is usually combined with a safari to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but it is worthwhile to spend at least four nights in the area to fully experience this warm area’s nature, star-studded skies, vineyards and life-giving river.
The 2200km long Orange River is a major source of fun in this area. Long stretches of wide flat water, narrow stormy rapids and quietly flowing over rocks and through reeds, the river offers much to do for visitors and locals; sunset boat trips, kayaking and fishing. Join Sakkie se Arkie on the river in Upington –a floating double-decker bar to celebrate the sunset. The river is home to silvers, mudfish, carp and bream. Enormous barbel lurk in the wide stretches of quite water and yellowfish are often found as well. Some river-front guesthouses in Upington have direct access to the water for kayaking and fishing, while others offer fly-fishing and rowing excursions.
Like an oily brown snake, the Orange River lazily slides along granite boulders, through reeds and vineyards, until it reaches the rushing white waters of Augrabies Falls. Witness the thundering mass of water as it plunges 56m down into a 18km abyss. The Augrabies Falls National Park is about 100km west of Upington and is a relatively small park with interesting landscapes, a variety of desert adapted animals and hiking trails. Animals include Hartmann’s zebra, giraffes, rock hyraxes, leopards and aardwolves. The falls are easily access on wooden walkways with well-positioned viewing points for good photos. The park has a restaurant, air-conditioned chalets, camping sites and two pools, but more luxurious accommodation options are outside the park. The park can be explored as self-drive, but a worthwhile activity is to join a guided night drive to see nocturnal animals. Due the extreme day time temperatures, many animals have adapted to be more out and about at night.
Grapes, raisins, wine and brandy
The Upington-Augrabies area is grape country. The high-value export eating grapes are harvested in November and December and packed in ultra-modern air-conditioned pack stores. Some guesthouses can arrange tours to see the grapes being packed. Sultana grapes are also dried and exported as raisins – look out for the large cement drying courts. This region is also an important winemaking area with over 800 farmers producing wine grapes over 300km along the river. Wine tastings are possible at wine cellars in Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas as well as the Bezalel brandy cellar near Kanoneiland, 25km from Upington.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is about 250km north of Upington. Rent a 4×4 or join a guided safari to this arid park famous for its dunes, lions, cheetah and other predators. The Augrabies National Park can be visited to see granite rock formations, the Orange River’s ravine, giraffes and the Augrabies waterfalls. Tierberg Nature Reserve outside Keimoes might interest lovers of succulents and aloes while the Spitskop Nature Reserve 13km north of Upington is a private reserve with hiking trails. Tutwa Desert Lodge is an all-inclusive luxurious lodge on a private reserve and offers game drives.
Sleep and eat
The people of this warm area is especially warm and welcoming. Accommodation range from basic camp sites with a tap and braai grid to luxurious lodges on the Orange River and everything in between. Good options include Upington (river-front location), Kanoneiland, Keimoes (on the hill overlooking the vineyards), Vergelegen just outside Kakamas or one of the guesthouses near the Augrabies National Park. Try to stay for at least two nights at a lodge, it is easy to do day trips in the area and the roads are good.
Northern Cape cuisine is of a carnivorous nature – expect game, steak, ribs and lamb dishes – with some local red wines to accompany the meal. International recipes are adapted to give it a local flavor, while some restaurants will lean more toward traditional South African dishes such as chicken pie and bobotie.
Portions are as big as the river and served with friendliness and warmth. Much like the people of the area.