Drive time: from the Cape to the Kalahari

by Primaella

Leaving the buzz of Cape Town behind, we set out on a road trip to the Kalahari desert – passing through Cape Dutch villages, fields of wild flowers at Namaqualand and vineyards around Upington

Cape Town is a great place to be, but after two weeks we decided to go in search of the wilder side of South Africa. A friend once recommended the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which straddles the South African /Namibian/Botswana border. We duly hired a robust vehicle, or so we thought, and pointed it north.

Have you ever heard of Upington? I certainly hadn’t, but as the nearest town to the national park gates at Twee Rivieren, this was where we were heading. There is a direct flight from Cape Town into the town’s tiny airstrip, but my husband Brian would have none of it. In his student days he had often crossed the Karoo while travelling between his home in Zimbabwe and Cape Town, and he very much wanted to share that experience with me. I had heard all about the intense heat and  cold, as he and his friends crossed  vast landscapes in overloaded cars with dodgy engines. I readily agreed to join him. There was only one condition. Our air cooling system had to be considerably better than the wound-down windows of his student days

As we left the suburbs, it seemed the entire country’s population lived within that city’s boundaries. For the rest of the 1,000km journey, towns were few and far between and eerily empty. We spent our first night just two hours north of Cape Town at Clanwilliam in the Cederberg Mountains. This was my first experience of an old South African village with its wide main street and cluttered convenience stores. The Longhouse Guesthouse (+27 48 21240,, where we slept under a cool thatch roof in a pretty bedroom filled with Cape Dutch antiques, was just perfect.

If only we could have stayed longer, for there is much to do here. In spring (June-September) the flowers, which have lain dormant until the winter rains, burst into life in multi-coloured abundance. The most amazing displays of all can be seen in Namaqualand, a little further north.

There is something profoundly moving about viewing some of the world’s largest mammals in their natural environment. At nearby Lambert’s Bay on the Atlantic coast, you can watch Heaviside’s dolphins from the beach as they play alongside the visiting Southern right whales (August-November) or head out to sea on a chartered boat.

This area is rich in San (Bushman) rock paintings, some of them more than 10,000 years old. The ultimate place to stay while you are here is Bushman’s Kloof Hotel at Cederberg, in the Western Cape. This very fine hotel and nature reserve also offers private access to 133 Bushman rock art locations. Explore some of the caves with a guide and discover  some of the world's oldest  and  most deeply significant art work. This hotel offers a real touch of luxury in the middle of  a wild and dramatic landscape. By day relax by the pool, or be pampered in the spa before joining a small group on an evening game drive to see some of the reserve's 35 mammals or 150 species of bird life, including the endangered Cape Mountain zebra

With the main part of our journey ahead of us, we had to eschew  such luxury this time, and leave Clanwilliam early the next morning. Opting to quit the main National Route 7, we headed north-east via Calvinia, Brandvlei and Kenhardt, hoping to reach Upington by early evening. The road was long and straight and empty; and yes… it was hot. Telegraph poles stretched out into the distance, monotonously marking our passage. Occasionally, a colony of weaver birds had woven its communal nest around one of the wooden poles, and we watched their activity with some relief that we weren‘t the only living creatures left in this arid landscape. All we could hear was the thrum of the wheels against the tarmac and the car's rather noisy ventilator fan. We had hired the closest vehicle to a 4x4 that the rental company would permit. Clearly, off-roading was discouraged – but at least we had good clearance and excellent vision. That said, the lowering mountains reduced us to the size of a dinky toy.

There are only four main commercial outlets in the town of Brandvlei, and not much else. We visited all four: the garage; the post office store; the bank; and the quaint  Windpomp Restaurant and Guesthouse (+27 54 603011). We didn’t really want to, as all we had wanted was petrol – but we learned too late that garages here do not accept credit cards. Then we learned that withdrawing money in those parts isn't too easy either. Fortunately, after sampling the hospitality at the Windpomp, we were able to ask for some cash-back. I had the feeling that we weren’t the first people to request such a favour. The food was good too!

And so the journey continued… more mountain passes, more telegraph poles… and an increasingly noisy ventilator fan… but we kept our cool on this most memorable of journeys.

Upington at last , a green oasis at the gateway to the Kalahari. If you look at a map, you will understand why every other house in this spacious, well-kept town seems to offer b&b. Situated on the Orange River, halfway on the long arid drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg or Windhoek, this is the obvious place to break one’s journey. Every house seems to draw water from the long wide river to create a beautiful garden – and our guesthouse was no exception. Called Libby’s Lodge (+27 54 332 2661), it has lush green lawns and heavy blossomed shrubs and can be found at 140 Schroder Street, Upington. Our room opened out on to a lovely pool, and the welcome was so friendly, we stopped by on our return.

Upington is also a centre for the production of wine and table grapes, so of course we tried some of both that night. If time allows, visit the magnificent Augrabies Falls that lie 120km west of Upington in a deep gorge of the Orange River. Stand by to be deafened. The local Khoi name is Aukoerebis, which means "Place of Great Noise". Hire a SANparks lodge or chalet here ( or stay at the comfortable Vergelegen Guest House, which we can thoroughly recommend.

Sometimes distances are meaningless. We had reached Upington in little over a day… a journey of over 1,000km. The remaining 250km was going to be a different matter. The SANparks website warned of roads under reconstruction, and of other unmade areas where the going would be difficult. But the Kalahari sands were beckoning, as red as the warning flags waved at us by sweating yet cheerful construction workers. The wind began to stir up fine red dust, and my mouth tasted of copper pennies. Brian adjusted the air conditioning. The cranky ventilator fan complained noisily. “Pity we didn’t have that checked out before we left civilisation,“ he muttered.

The second part of our safari was to be as memorable as the first, and I shall describe it in my next guide.