Off the Grid: The Northern Cape, South Africa

The Kalahari Desert

By Kara K. Murphy

I’ll admit, before traveling to the Northern Cape region of South Africa, I hardly knew anything about it. What did I know? That the Kalahari Desert, a vast region of red sand, was somewhere in the northern part of the country. A quick Google search showed that it is South Africa’s largest province and it borders Namibia and Botswana. That’s all I knew. But my lack of knowledge didn’t curb my excitement. It only intrigued me further, and I looked forward to touring the mystical region where my easygoing disposition would prove to be the most valuable thing I’d bring with me—and I wouldn’t even have to pack it in my suitcase.

Nelson Mandela Square

After a 16-hour, non-stop flight from New York on South African Airways we arrived in Johannesburg. We had a half-day layover before we were to board a domestic flight to Kimberley, which gave us just enough time to do a short driving tour of the city and have a quick lunch in Nelson Mandela Square. Fries dipped in peri-peri sauce, a flavorful chili-based concoction popular in South Africa, were the highlight of the meal. The sauce is commonly used on chicken, but I’m a pescatarian so I improvised. Delicious!

From there we headed back to the airport to catch our flight north to Kimberley, where we would meet our guide, Jaco Powell of Cape Fox Tours & Photography. Located in the Diamond Fields region, Kimberley is the capital of the Northern Cape and home to the De Beers headquarters and the Kimberley Mine, or The Big Hole. Sparked by a diamond deposit discovery on, Vooruitzicht, the De Beers brothers’ farm, mining began at the site in 1871.

The Big Hole

An extensive excavation would lead to the area becoming the world’s largest hand-dug hole (about 700 feet deep) and the center of South Africa’s diamond rush. Adjacent to the site is Old Town, a reconstruction of the mining town made to look as it did in the 19th century. The tour gave us a general historical overview of the New Rush and touched on some of the grueling conditions and struggles experienced by miners during that time period. One of the highlights of the tour was the vault, where we ogled glittering diamonds (jewels the Greeks believed were the tears of the gods) that had been excavated from the Big Hole.

After one night at the Protea Hotel Kimberley—it’s adjacent to the Big Hole so it couldn’t have been more convenient—we set out for Tswalu Kalahari right after breakfast. Owned by the Oppenheimers, a family dedicated to conservation, Tswalu is the largest private game reserve in South Africa and spans more than 100,000 hectares (that’s more than 2,470 acres). We made the trek by car since, unless you opt to make a grand entrance by helicopter or spring for a chartered flight, driving is the most economical way to reach the reserve. As we reached Tarkuni, the intimate lodge where we would be staying for the next two nights, I hardly noticed the heat radiating from the windows of the air-conditioned van. Maybe it’s because my Floridian blood is impervious to high temperatures, but I was captivated first by the sand. Not quite red, not quite orange, it’s more of a deep, vibrant, burnt orange color, almost like clay that’s been baking in the sun on a blistering summer day. The sand only made the vivid blue sky, spotted with cotton candy clouds, all the more dazzling. We had reached the famed Kalahari Desert.

The Kalahari is actually a semi-desert, which means it’s not as arid as a full-blown desert, making it suitable for more plants and animals to thrive there. Around 280,000 tourists visit the Kalahari each year, which sounds like a lot, but versus the more than one million who visit South Africa’s popular Kruger National Park, it’s not all that many. I felt incredibly lucky to be one of the 280,000.

Tarkuni at Tswalu Kalahari

The thatched roof of Tarkuni’s single building popped up on the horizon, an oasis that promised lunch, a swimming pool, and a cool shower. Heaven! Upon arriving we were greeted by the lodge’s friendly hostess. Outstretched in her hand was a sparkling silver platter piled high with five tightly rolled washcloths dampened with ice-cold water. I realized then, as I rubbed it against my neck, that I was sweating. I was hot.

As if part of a well-orchestrated plan to distract us from the heat, we walked up the steps to the open-air deck of the building to find a spread of delicious snacks prepared by the private chef who comes with the lodge (lucky us!).

Making a pit stop to get a closer look at rhinos on foot during a game drive

The next few days were filled with activities organized by the lodge’s knowledgeable guides and trackers—game drives to see an active pride of lions and the region’s rarest animals (tsessebe, roan, and sable), a horseback ride across a serene stretch of land, a trek on foot to see five white rhinos (including a calf!) up close, and sundowners with refreshing cocktails and spectacular views. Mixed in was a delightful massage by Corli Schoeman, manager of Tswalu’s award-winning spa, which was welcome after several days of bouncing around in the Land Rover!

Exploring the grounds at Tswalu provided a fantastic opportunity to work on my meager photography skills, and with our guide Jaco’s tips—he’s also a professional photographer—I even managed to get some great shots with the camera I’m learning on, a Sony Cyber-Shot RX100.

A meerkat at Tswalu Kalahari

One of the most memorable parts of the trip was our visit to the reserve’s meerkat colony, a family of 10 known as the Gosa Gang. Yes, they are just as comical (but less foreboding) as the meerkats in the movie “Life of Pi,” and they really do scurry skittishly on their hind legs. We arrived at sunrise to see them poke their heads up out of their network of underground burrows, cautious as they prepared to search for the day’s meals of scorpions and insects. A camera crew from WildEarth also arrived at the same time we did. It turns out they were documenting the meerkats for a series soon to be available for streaming on Netflix. Until the series is complete, videos of the lively bunch are available on WildEarth’s website.

Stay tuned for the next part of our journey, across 91 dunes of the Kalahari Desert to !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

The guest room at Tarkuni at Tswalu Kalahari

A lion in the Kalahari Desert

A meerkat colony prepares to search for the day's meals at Tswalu Kalahari

Sociable weaver nests are on display in the trees

Too soon after our stay at Tarkuni at Tswalu Kalahari, we set off for our next destination, !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with Jaco at the wheel. So far, things had gone smoothly. Sure, it was hot, but that was tempered by beautiful accommodations, massages, exciting animal sightings, and five-star food. We hadn’t yet gotten to the bulk of the driving, though. Thank goodness for my inflatable neck pillow and love of road trips!

As we made the drive to !Xaus, Jaco mentioned there were 91 dunes to drive over before we reached the lodge. I thought he was joking (as he was apt to do) so I hardly listened to what he was saying about it as I counted the enormous sociable weaver nests that engulfed trees alongside the road.

But Jaco wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t even off on the count. Ninety-one. We left the van underneath a makeshift tent and made the rest of the trip in a Land Rover. Up and down, up and down, we went. Head bobbing and my torso moving in unison with the pull of the tires, I had flashbacks of riding a camel up Mount Sinai in Egypt. Sweat rolled down my back, specks of sand collected in my contact lenses. Next time I’ll bring a handkerchief, I thought.

The buildings of !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

We arrived at !Xaus, an eco-friendly lodge cooperatively owned by the Transfrontier Parks and the indigenous Khomani San and Mier communities. Built on the edge of a large salt pan in a water scarce area of the Kalahari, it’s surrounded 360 degrees by miles of bush and burnt orange sand. Equipped with only one satellite phone, spotty Internet reserved for emergencies, and electricity used only a few hours each day, it’s truly off the grid.

After a cool drink, a rundown of the electricity schedule, and a safety briefing (beware of lions roaming the camp, shake out shoes to check for scorpions—you know, the usual), I couldn’t wait to take a shower. Eager to wash off all the sand, I slathered on the rooibos shampoo stocked in the bathroom of my rustic, private cabin on stilts. The salt-laden water bubbled, making squishy noises as it clung to my hair.

Trekking in the Kalahari Desert

The next day we went on a walking trek of the Kalahari with the lodge’s Bushmen guides. Indigenous to the region, Bushmen (also called San people) speak a native language marked by a series of distinctive clicks, the sounds differentiated by the positioning of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. The clicks aren’t as exaggerated as I had imagined them to be—they’re so effortlessly thrown in that it produces a melodic cadence.

On our trek we learned about the animals and plants that inhabit the land, information the guides said had been passed down to them by their fathers. It felt good to be out of the Land Rover and on foot. And when else could you hold animal poop in your hand? The animals in the water-scarce region retain all the moisture they can, leaving their waste feeling like balls of paper, weightless and completely dry.

A famous black mane lion we spotted during a game drive

While staying at !Xaus we took refreshing swims in the pool, played with the lodge keeper’s energetic daughter, went on game drives to see the famous black mane lions, spotted a rainbow, and visited a village set up to look like one the Bushmen inhabit. Even though it was staged (since the area is so isolated, the Bushmen in that area work for the lodge and stay in provided housing), it gave us an idea about how Bushmen typically live. Plus, we were able to buy memorable souvenirs, from jewelry and wall hangings to decorated ostrich eggs, all crafted by hand.

After two nights we set out west for Upington, our last stop before flying to Cape Town. While we enjoyed the unforgettable experience of staying at !Xaus, we were ready to go seek out cooler temperatures and air conditioning—our hottest day there reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. My Floridian blood had reached its boiling point. Even though I was hot, I left feeling exhilarated. I had seen a special, magical land few people have seen, and it was beautiful.

The trip from !Xaus to Upington would turn out to be our longest day in the car. We drove for most of the day and reached Dundi Lodge in Upington just before dinner—and just in time to avoid one more “are we there yet?” from the group. Dundi Lodge offers easy, close access to vineyards and Augrabies Falls National Park, the site to a thundering waterfall on the Orange River that’s 183 feet high. The next morning we went on a short hike to view the impressive waterfall.

View expansive vineyards and landmarks during a hot air balloon ride in Upington

Another highlight of our stay in Upington was a hot air balloon ride. As a first-timer, I was definitely excited! Our skilled operator pointed out expansive vineyards and landmarks, shouting over the wind and the roar of the fire that kept the balloon afloat. We braced ourselves for the landing and thudded to the ground near a now closed rose quartz mine. Scattered all around us were pieces of the pastel pink gems, striking against the rich burnt orange sand. I pocketed a few to take home as souvenirs.

After two nights at Dundi Lodge it was time to ditch the car for a plane. Next up, a short flight from Upington to Cape Town! Those who aren’t fans of road trips or don’t have a lot of time in the area take note: Do your research and consider planning your trip to the Northern Cape around the commercial airports in Kimberley and Upington. If you do decide to drive, carefully plan your route with the help of a knowledgeable guide. Also make sure your group is aware of the amount of time it will take to go from one destination to the next—it will help avert impatient rumblings and keep everyone in good spirits.

An ostrich mother and father walk with their babies between them, all in a row

Me, I didn’t mind the long trips in the car. It gave me a unique appreciation for the landscape, and I loved gazing up at huge sociable weaver nests, driving along the Auob River, munching on dried fruits from a store in Kakamas, and spotting an ostrich mother and father with their babies walking between them, all in a row.

An enormous sociable weaver nests engulf trees

Springbok antelope in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The guest room at !Xaus Lodge

Kalahari Bushmen sell handcrafted jewelry, wall hangings, and decorated ostrich eggs

Dundi Lodge offers access to vineyards and Augrabies Falls National Park

The view of Upington from a hot air balloon