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10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Northern Cape

Steeped in stark, semi-desert beauty, the Northern Cape province is the largest of all the South African provinces and the most sparsely populated. This is a place to find solitude in a land of big skies and bold hues. From the red earth and golden grasses of the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, one of the world's largest wilderness areas, to the kaleidoscopic wildflowers of Namaqualand and the deep blue, cloudless skies of Kimberley, once the diamond capital of the world, the region serves up striking vistas. At Augrabies Falls National Park, travelers can watch the Orange River plunge into a gaping gorge at the world's sixth largest waterfalls. In the desert, black-maned Kalahari lions and quirky quiver trees eke out a living on the scorching plains. And the province is also rich in history; visitors can tour historic battlefields as well as Victorian villas where mining magnates once mingled during the country's illustrious diamond rush days.

1 Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park

Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park
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In 2000, South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park merged, creating one of the largest wilderness areas in the world - more than 3.6 million hectares. Cornflower blue skies, russet red dunes, and golden grasslands provide a striking canvas for photographic safaris in this harsh, arid region. Wildlife is abundant and easily viewed thanks to the scant vegetation here. Beautiful black-maned Kalahari lions are the most iconic animal in this region, and the park also protects leopard, cheetah, gemsbok, meerkats, and many species of birds, including sociable weavers, with their giant nests, and birds of prey. Accommodation ranges from campsites to comfortable chalets. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for some of the rugged tracks here.

2 Goegap Nature Reserve, Namaqualand

Oryx in Namaqualand
Oryx in Namaqualand
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In the big-sky semi-desert of Namaqualand, Goegap Nature Reserve offers fun 4WD tracks and stunning displays of wildflowers in the spring. This 15,000-hectare reserve is worth visiting even when the wildflowers aren't in bloom. The vegetation is typical of Namaqualand, with succulents; shrubs; and bizarre quiver trees or kokerboom trees, a type of branched aloe. The park also protects animals that are specially adapted to the parched conditions, including antelopes, the endangered Hartmann's zebra, aardwolf, honey badger, and more than 94 species of birds. In the spring, the arid landscapes erupt in an impossible blaze of colorful blooms that delight avid photographers. Rainfall and temperature variations influence the types of flowers in bloom, surprising visitors with different color combinations each year. Besides photography, popular activities here include hiking on the varied trails, mountain biking, and stargazing at the crystal clear night skies. Campsites and basic accommodation is available within the park.

3 The Big Hole, Kimberley

The Big Hole, Kimberley
The Big Hole, Kimberley
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The capital of the Northern Cape and once the world's diamond capital, Kimberley lies on the boundary between the Northern Cape Province and the Orange Free State and is a convenient stopover on the road from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Kimberley is known as the Diamond City, as this is the place where the foundations of South Africa's wealth were laid during the heady diamond rush days of the 1870s. In 1871, prospectors struck it lucky on a farm belonging to the de Beer brothers and on a neighboring hill. Today, that area is known as The Big Hole. The size of eight football fields, this is the world's largest man-made hole and one of Kimberley's main tourist attractions. Between 1871 and 1914, 22.6 million tons of earth and rock were excavated from the mine for a yield of 14.5 million carats of diamonds. Visitors peer down from a viewing platform into the mine, now filled with water, and picture what it was like when thousands of men toiled here, hauling the rock up to the surface with cables. Afterwards, a visit to the Mine Museum takes visitors on a journey back through the heady diamond rush days.

4 The Kimberley Mine Museum

Kimberley tram
Kimberley tram bob walker / photo modified
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On the west side of the Big Hole is the open-air Kimberley Mine Museum, a village of almost 50 buildings, some original and some reproductions, representing Kimberley during the diamond rush days. Sightseers can tour some of the houses, which are furnished in the style of the time. The first church built in Kimberley was the German Lutheran church of St. Martin (1875). Kimberley's oldest house, however, dates only from 1877; it was built of prefabricated parts imported from Britain: a residence of extraordinary luxury at a time when everyone else was living in tents. Other houses, shops, and workshops line a cobbled street. The Mining Hall displays a collection of photographs and documents from diamond rush days. Opposite, is the Diamond Hall, with a 616-carat diamond, one of the largest uncut diamonds in the world, and the Eureka, the first diamond discovered in South Africa. A restored tramcar from 1913 carries visitors between the neoclassical City Hall (circa 1899) and the Big Hole and museum.

5 Augrabies Falls National Park

Augrabies Falls National Park
Augrabies Falls National Park
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The Augrabies Falls, near the frontier with Namibia, are one of the country's great natural wonders. Here, the Orange River plunges in a series of cascades almost 150 meters wide into an 18-kilometer granite gorge enclosed by soaring rock walls. In the language of the Hottentots, who held the falls in awe as a sacred place, the name Augrabies means "place of the great noise," and indeed the falls, which rank among the six largest in the world, justify their name.

The national park, established in 1967 to protect the falls, is a region of extreme aridity with sparse vegetation, consisting mainly of euphorbias and kokerboom or quiver trees. Among the animals living here are klipspringer, porcupines, leopards, baboons, vervet monkeys, and more than 140 species of birds, including Verreaux's eagle, which is frequently seen at the falls. The 26-kilometer-long Klipspringer Hiking Trail through the gorge takes about three days with overnight accommodation in huts. In summer, the trail is closed because of the heat, however this is the best time to see the falls - particularly in late summer when the river swells with water. Other highlights include Moon Rock, and the scenic viewpoints Oranjekom, Ararat, and Echo Corner. Accommodation is available in campsites and well-equipped chalets.

6 Mokala National Park

Mokala National Park
Mokala National Park
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About 70 kilometers south-southwest of Kimberley, Mokala National Park protects some of the country's most endangered species, including white and black rhino. Visitors can also see roan and sable antelope, tsessebe, black wildebeest, caracal, aardwolf, giraffe, kudu, oryx, zebra, and many species of birds. Named after the Setswana word for camel thorn, the park's red earth and golden grass-cloaked plains are dotted with these semi-desert trees, as well as dolerite hills, making a beautiful backdrop for photographs. Besides day and night game drives, visitors can enjoy horseback rides, hiking, and mountain biking here. Accommodation options include safari bungalows, self-catering cottages, and campsites.

7 Tankwa Karoo National Park

Tankwa Karoo National Park
Tankwa Karoo National Park
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Remote and rugged, Tankwa Karoo National Park is a land of haunting beauty. The national park lies near the border of the Northern Cape and Western Cape in one of the county's most arid regions with stark desert plains and glittering night skies. Satellite phones are handy here. Wildlife in the park includes red hartebeest, mongoose, oryx, and a diversity of reptiles. Birding is a popular activity, and visitors can take self-guided game drives on the rough and rutted roads. Besides wildlife watching, visitors come here to bounce around on the 4WD tracks, stargaze at the dazzling night skies, and photograph the stunning semi-desert landscapes from scenic viewpoints. A 4WD vehicle is highly recommended. Accommodation includes campsites, self-catering cottages, a lodge, and guesthouse.

8 Belgravia Historic Walk

Dunluce
Dunluce flowcomm / photo modified
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Graced by the grand homes of former mining merchants and magnates, Belgravia is the upscale residential area near Kimberley's old diamond mines. Today, visitors can step back in time and see some of these beautiful old Victorian villas on the Belgravia Historic Walk. The walk visits 30 historic sites and begins at the McGregor Museum, which offers a great overview of the area's history, and was the former temporary residence of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. Highlights along the walk include Dunluce, an outstanding example of Late Victorian architecture dating from 1897, and Rudd House, once the home of the mining magnate H. P. Rudd, whose father was a friend and business partner of Cecil Rhodes. Both of these houses are attached to the McGregor Museum and can be toured by appointment. In the 13-story Harry Oppenheimer Building (1974), designed by the German architect H. Hentrich, all diamonds found in South Africa are graded. Also on the tour, the Duggan Cronin Gallery contains a unique collection of photographs of the native people of South Africa, taken by A.M. Duggan Cronin between 1919 and 1939. Some of the traditional tribal rites depicted can never be photographed again. The William Humphreys Art Gallery opened in 1952 and displays works by Dutch, Flemish, British, and French masters as well as South African artists.

9 Quiver Tree Forest

Quiver tree
Quiver tree
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On Gannabos, a farm near the small towns of Loeriesfontein and Nieuwoudtville, the Quiver Tree Forest is the world's largest colony of these bizarre flowering aloes, also known as kokerboom, (aloe dichotoma). Photographers and budding botanists often stop here on the way to Augrabies Falls and the Kalahari to admire these giant aloes, which would look right at home on the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Able to store water in its trunk, the quiver tree can live up to 400 years and is perfectly adapted to the arid conditions. Its name comes from the practice of the San (Bushmen) who used to make quivers for their poison arrows from the dried-out hollow branches. Sociable weaver birds often build their huge multi-chambered nests from their branches. The best time to photograph these sculptural trees is when they produce their bright yellow flowers, usually during May, June, and July.

10 Magersfontein Battlefield & Museum

About 30 kilometers south of Kimberley, the battlefield of Magersfontein is the scene of a British defeat during "Black Week" in the Boer War, l. The site is well sign-posted, and visitors can view the battlefield and trenches from an observation point and explore the small museum, which screens an audio-visual presentation and displays a collection of weapons and uniforms. Near the museum, hilltop memorials honor the dead and provide beautiful views over the area. Guided tours provide fascinating details about these historic events and are highly recommended for history buffs.

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