Although driving through most of the Northern Cape is a magnificent experience, there are many roads that take the province’s raw beauty to another level entirely. This sparsely populated region, bordering the cold Atlantic ocean on one side and the hot red sands of the Kalahari on another, is the perfect place to kick up some dust on an unpaved trail through fields of spring wildflowers or across ripples of crimson dunes. There are dozens upon dozens of places to go in the Northern Cape, which has more than 20 established 4WD trails alone. But if you don’t feel comfortable driving off road, there are many tamer choices that still reveal the province’s legendary scenery and wide-open spaces without requiring you to leave the pavement behind.
Whether you are an experienced back-roads driver, or simply looking for a beautiful spot to snap some pictures, South Africa’s outback doesn’t disappoint. Here are our picks for the best Northern Cape drives.
1. Diamond Coast Shipwreck Trail
You’ll need to book this 4WD trail in advance, as special permits are required to traverse this diamond mining area, which is owned by De Beers and closed to the general public. This 37-kilometer trail is a great 4WD starter ride as the sandy coastal route, which winds past empty stretches of misty shoreline and rocky outcroppings and stops at major shipwrecks along the way, is not difficult to navigate. If possible, book your trip between August and early October when the sandy path explodes in color thanks to blooming Namaqua wildflowers. Bird species are also plentiful along the route. You will need your own vehicle to do the drive, but you won’t be traveling solo, you will be in a convoy with a guide, which is another plus for beginner off-roaders as you’ll have assistance should you get stuck. Call ahead for costs and departure details.
2. Hondeklip Bay
If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, but still want to witness the wild beauty of the Skeleton Coast, then check out the local dirt roads around Hondeklip Bay. After climbing through rocky hills you drop onto the desert-like coastal plain, which is dotted with enormous diamond mines. The plant life is fascinating, and I’d suggest you pause to walk around a bit, even if it is just off the side of the road.
3. Ai Ais/Richtersveld National Park
South Africa’s only mountain desert park is a 4WD enthusiast’s playground. I love riding the rugged trails, past weird plants endemic to this remote area bordering Namibia. It feels like going to another planet. Trails range from sandy to craggy, with routes through the park mapped and graded from easy to very difficult. You’ll need to be prepared to ride here, however, as even the easier trails are still lengthy – the shortest is 240-kilometers and the longest, which takes five full days is 760-kilometers of intense driving. You will need to know wilderness survival skills and how to repair your vehicle in the bush before attempting to drive out here. If you aren’t at this level, don’t be afraid to join an organized tour. Many will let you rent a vehicle and drive, but come with a guide so you don’t have to worry about getting stranded and dying in the country’s most remote and harsh lands – you’ll be unlikely to pick up any cell service out here. If you do decide to drive on your own, you’ll still need to grab a permit and register at the park entrance.
4. Riemvasmaak 4X4 Trails
This is one of my favorite areas to ride. Located just outside of Kakamas, on the N14 heading towards Keimos, you can challenge your skills on three 4WD trails ranging from beginner to expert and help support a community driven tourism initiative in the process. In 1973 the government forcibly removed the area’s local inhabitants – Xhosa, Nama and Colored – to the Eastern Cape and Namibia, but following the 1994 transition to democracy, efforts to bring the local population back started. Riemvasmaak was one of South Africa’s first land restitution projects. It began in 2002, when the formerly displaced residents were given deeds to the plots they now live and ideas on how to attract tourism were planted. Today the initiative includes the 4X4 trails as well as a mountain bike route, hiking paths, a natural hot spring and accommodation in chalets.
5. Calvinia to Clanwilliam on Route 364
If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, try the Route 364 between Calvinia and Clanwilliam in the neighboring Western Cape province. The road is paved, but takes you through some hauntingly beautiful landscapes of alternating empty spaces and magnificent mountain passes. Wildflowers will be vibrant in early spring but even during other times of year this drive still manages to be captivating. Pause at the top of Botterkloof Pass – the views are great and there are a few flat rocks overlooking the gorge below that make for a great picnic point. The other pause-worthy pass is Pakhuis, which is towards the end of the journey, and takes you through an amazing jumble of multicoloured rocks. Allow at least two hours for the drive, but if you have more time detour off at the side road leading to Wuppertal. It is an old mission station and little has changed since it was established in 1830: think whitewashed thatched-roof cottages, cypress trees and wandering donkeys.
6. Route 27 between Calvinia and Vanrhynsdorp
Another fantastic Northern Cape drive that doesn’t require you to leave the pavement is Route 27 between Calvinia and Vanrhynsdorp to the south in the Western Cape province. The drive is stunning with magnificent views over the Knersvlakte Plain from Vanrhyns Pass. In spring look for a breathtaking contrast between the chartreuse and golden wheat fields and the multicolored fields of wildflowers at the top of the pass and making the desert below pop with vibrant color.
7. The Hantam Flower 4×4 Trail
If you do have a 4WD vehicle and are visiting during the spring wildflower season, however, it would be a crime to not drive the Hantam Flower Trail. Located on an escarpment above Calvinia (inquire at the tourism office for details) it takes you through dreamy fields of wildflowers that blanket the usually barren Karoo landscape. You’ll also drive through a dry riverbed where huge Namakwa Fig trees cling to rocky walls.
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