Holfontein. The appropriately named little derelict town marked our second hasty stop on what had been a less than comfortable morning’s trip. One’s stomach does not always consider one’s travel itinerary. Bowel issues aside, we were on the great escape from 2020. With the continually locked-in, locked-down and locked-up Gauteng population using the relative freedom of summer holidays to escape to the more popular havens of rest, we chose the road less travelled – as usual. Being the country’s least populated province, the Northern Cape’s horizons seemed like a fitting choice for a road trip at the end of this year of social distancing. 

After a brief fuel stop in Kimberley, watching the shimmering pan of flamingos and attempting to convince the Engen car wax salesman that there really is no point in trying to brighten up the Cruiser’s façade at this point in our journey, we rolled into the nondescript entrance of the Mokala National Park. The Motswedi campsite provides welcoming exclusivity to people-shy travellers like us, and we set up our tent in the shade of one of the ubiquitous Mokala (Camel Thorn) trees before exploring this relatively new park.

Early worm / Mokala

Mokala is certainly no exception to our belief in ‘the more off the radar, the greater the reward’. The afternoon rewards us not only with beautiful landscapes of sweeping grasslands, thorn trees and rock-studded koppies, but also gives us glimpses of the rich biodiversity in the park. We quietly watch kudu at a waterhole hide, get close-up shots of roadside scaly-feathered weavers, and enjoy an embarrassed buffalo bull being startled by a starling. The golden hour of the day does not disappoint as a nervous francolin’s alarm call leads us to a well-camouflaged spotted (or was it a Cape?) eagle owl. We rush to get to the campsite on time, unceremonially dashing past a perplexed jackal pup, a rare pygmy falcon and a curious herd of gemsbok. 

After an evening drizzle the morning is fresh and minty, and we make our way through some promising 4×4-only trails where, disappointingly, no low-range is needed. A yellow-billed hornbill shows us his carefully constructed and uniquely slitted nest through which he feeds his wife and chick inside. A cheeky mob of meerkats crosses the road and greets the sun with their yoga poses. We slowly rattle down to an isolated valley through which the gin clear Riet River slowly cuts. This national park allows catch and release fly fishing, and it is difficult to pretend it is not one of the main drawcards for us being here in the first place.

We spend the late morning prospecting the various pools on offer, and both of us are rewarded for our efforts. Simoné lands a beautiful smallmouth yellowfish in a small side stream where no fish should even be, and I convince a cruising yellow submarine that my muishond fly is the real deal. As the fish move into the faster rapids later in the day, we get broken off multiple times and get reminded of just how strong these amazing endemic species can be. After taking a midday swim to finally land a “sterk vis” on an ambitious run, we call it a day and decide to test the air conditioning provided in Lilydale’s chalets. That evening, an unhealthily rich but wonderful mosselpotjie paired with a naughty King’s Meat sweet chilli knoffelbroodjie rounds off what can only be described as a remarkable time in a remarkable park.

As we head to our next destination via dusty backroads, we are struck by the unpretentious beauty and simplicity of the Northern Cape. Stately quiver trees quietly stand guard in the searing midday sun. Basking sun lizards scurry away as we leave a dust track by the side of the untravelled roads. A shop assistant makes dry jokes when we buy Grandpa headache sachets in Douglas. A concerned farmer stops where we make a pitstop to check if we are okay and if we need directions. This is definitely not the inward-facing big city anymore.

Khamkirri, a lovely Orange-river campsite near Kakamas and alleged Place of the Leopard, is our oasis for the next few days. We laze the hot days away by engaging in intrepid activities such as wrestling mudfish from the rapids on fly (“that rock is moving!”), getting shoulder spasms from kayaking upstream to those perfect fishing spots (sorry Simoné) and field testing our new hammock in the cool riverside shade. We also found that the grapevine rumours of dried vine being the ultimate braai wood, are indeed true. Now here is truly an untapped market in a country of meat-turning braai lovers. 

Just a few kilometres downstream we find our next stop, the Augrabies National Park, famous for its awe-inspiring waterfall and cheeky dassies. After a midday check-in, we explore parts of this beautiful arid park where it is so dry you can’t even drink it. With the ambient conditions being akin to an oven and we being unnervingly close to being the roast chicken in it, we abandon our ideas of hiking or fishing and, instead, join the local pale-winged starlings gasping in the shade of one of the only trees. As the sun lowers and starts draping the canyon in rich gold, we drive to Oranjekom, a lonely and dramatically beautiful view point over the Orange river canyon.

Elephant / Mapungubwe

Just as we take the obligatory self-timed photo, I even present a trick up my sleeve (or rather up my pocket) and ask my beautiful adventure-buddy best half if she would seem it fit to do this kind of thing with me for the rest of our lives. After producing profoundly high-pitched squeals, her affirmative reply is confirmed and the heat stroke experiences of the day are long forgotten. We celebrate this pinnacle in our lives with a perfectly roasted lamb flatty washed down with Cederberg Cabernet from last year’s trip.

Tomorrow we head to the Kgalagadi, and similarly to our road trip, this is not the end but merely the beginning of a lifetime adventure, or perhaps rather an adventure lifetime. As we overlook the imposing canyon and listen to the whispers of the valley breeze with desert stars watching over us, we decide we will always like the Northern Cape.