Slightly larger than Germany, the Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest province and its least populated one. The Orange River flows through it, irrigating the mostly arid land and allowing the fields to yield cotton, grapes, and dates, and creating rich grazing grounds for sheep.
The capital, Kimberley, is known as ‘The Diamond Capital of the World’. The first diamonds to be found in the area were found in the Orange River’s banks.
The Northern Cape is dominated by the semi-arid semi-desert Karoo Basin. The south and southeast of the province is a high altitude area, particularly in the Roggeveld and Nuweveld districts. The west coast, or Namaqualand, is hilly to mountainous and particularly beautiful during its springtime ‘daisy season’, when its usually dry and barren-looking lands explode into a kaleidoscopic array of colours when the daisies and other flowers bloom. The central region is primarily flat. The north is mostly composed of Kalahari Desert, punctuated by dry savannah, red sand dunes, and acacia trees.
The Northern Cape’s immense landscape has much to offer. The spectacular Augrabies Waterfalls are found within the province, and are a short drive away from the pleasant town of Upington. Upington is a mostly agricultural town, but it is also the main commercial, educational and agricultural centre of the Green Kalahari and Gordonia regions. It’s actually quite the tourist destination, with lots of great hotels and other fine tourist amenities. Another nice town worth visiting is Kuruman, famous as the location of the Oog (‘Eye’), a real oasis that brings deep underground water to the surface of the Kalahari. The town was also the first mission post of Jonathan Livingstone, the great 19th century explorer and medical missionary, when he arrived in Africa in 1841. The Richtersveld in the Namaqualand region is also another interesting area, whose rugged, ‘martian’ desert landscape is a favourite among nature travelers.
Southwards and onto the rugged, vast plains of the Great Karoo, grass and acacia trees abound. Here is a land of small, far-off towns and villages, and sheep farms. The area is blanketed by sweet grasses and water-storing plants which serve to sustain the herds. This region is also the last refuge of few remaining nomadic Bushmen—a place where they can live a peaceful existence, undisturbed by the modern world.
Kimberley is Northern Cape’s largest and most modern city, though it is certainly steeped in history. It is one of the major sites of the African diamond trade; De Beers, the biggest player in the world’s diamond market, has its roots in Kimberley.
In 1866, Erasmus Jacob found a brilliant pebble along the banks of the Orange River; it turned out to be a 21.25-carat diamond. Five years later, an even larger diamond was found, leading to a diamond rush in the area that would last for decades. Thousands of miners streamed into the town, armed with picks and shovels.
From 1871 until 1914, 50,000 miners carved the hill away, yielding almost 3,000 kilograms’ worth of diamonds. The site of the extensive excavations has today become a testament to the glory days of Kimberley’s diamond rush. Known as the Big Hole, the 17-hectare long, 463-metre wide, and 240-metre deep gorge into the earth is one of Kimbereley’s most important landmarks.
By 1873, Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa, and the British monopolised it and named it capital of the Griqualand West colony. Of course this move incensed the Boers, who had been eyeing the area since it lay along the territory of the Orange Free State. The city continued to prosper under British control, and in 1881, South Africa’s first stock exchange was established in town. In 1882, Kimberley also became the first town in the southern hemisphere to install electrical street lighting.
The city continued gained a reputation as the Land of Opportunity, as thousands of African s came to Kimberley in search of work. Not even the damages the town suffered during the Second Boer War in 1899, when it was besieged by the Boers, halted Kimberley’s progress.
Kimberley’s main tourist attractions mostly centre on its diamond mining past, especially the Big Hole. The Kimberley Mine Museum and the McGregor Museum offer much insight into the city’s interesting, at times tumultuous, history. Another attraction worth a visit is the Kamfers Dam, a nature conservation zone and a major flamingo breeding ground.
Namaqualand is a rich source of alluvial diamonds, copper and semi-precious stones. But though the region may be wealthy in diamonds, locals still consider the proliferation of beautiful wildflowers as a most precious natural blessing. Namaqualand comes alive during spring, when it is carpeted with colourful flora. For those itching to commune with nature and wildlife, there are many major wildlife sanctuaries and smaller nature reserves here. Fine examples of Bushman art shouldn’t be missed as well.
Namaqualand also has one of the world’s most abundant fishing grounds, though at times, instead of fishermen, boats carry divers and suction pipes to claim diamonds that have settled on the seabed.