Upington seems far from everywhere, but not visiting the Kalahari at least once would be a mistake. Use this buzzing town as your base from which to explore quaint farm stalls and lush vineyards all the way to the Augrabies Falls National Park, or head north to experience the shimmering semi-desert red sands of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Bound by the Orange River and the Kalahari Desert, Upington is the principal town and commercial, educational and social centre of the Green Kalahari. If you plan on visiting the Augrabies Falls from here, you’re in for a day filled with some of the best flavours in the country. The Kokerboom Food and Wine Route stretches from Upington along the Gariep River and includes the towns of Kakamas, Keimoes, Augrabies, Marchand, Kanoneiland, Kenhardt and Riemvasmaak. The route is named after the quiver trees that are synonymous with the landscape.
Make the most of the day and stop at every padstal to sample and buy export-quality dates and pecan nuts. Die Pienk Padstal is an iconic stop for most tourists in the area – its quirky decor makes many an Instagram post over the holidays. You can also stop at Akkerboom Farm Stall, Heksie se Huisie and the Keimoes Information Centre and Padstal for delicious coffee, trinkets to take home and information about what to see and do in the area.
Keep an eye out for quiver trees along the route and stop to admire the variety at Koms Quiver Tree Nursery in Keimoes. They sell quiver trees of all ages – from seedlings to seven-year-olds of over a metre tall. The town is famous for its water wheels, and in a good year its raisin crops are exported globally. Along the road in Kakamas, you’ll find 11 water wheels that are still in use by farmers in the area to channel water through their vineyards and lucerne fields.
Plan your route to stop at Bezalel Estate Cellars for lunch. The wine tasting is on par with the Western Cape and the hearty lunch options will satisfy any hungry guest. Try an ice-cold glass of Colombard – a varietal you’ll likely only have come across in a blend. It is a crisp, fruity wine that will quickly change your perception of the ‘sweet’ wines of the Orange River.
En route you’ll also find Die Mas van Kakamas. They produce export table grapes, wine, raisins, brandy and gin. If there is enough water, a river boat cruise is a fun way to while away an afternoon – and take some of their Kalahari Truffle Brandy with you… The Augrabies Falls National Park, which has the sixth largest waterfall in the world, is astonishingly raucous close to the falls. The name is derived from the Khoi word Aukoerebis, which means ‘the place of the great noise’. The deafening fury of the water rushing over the boulders an plummeting 56m down a series of granite cataracts is a sight and sound to behold! There are many viewing decks, and some are so close that the spray will leave you drenched when the river is in full flood.
Upington itself has some delights to keep you occupied. The modern tasting room of the Orange River Cellars is located in town and you’ll find not only wines, but also Kalahari Craft Beer on sale. The Gemsbok Lager and Puff Adder Weiss are firm favourites and should be taken home to quench your desert thirst after your holiday is over. Café Zest, in the town centre, is a modern restaurant with old-world charm. Here you’ll find Kalahari flavours and portions, dressed up in a fine dining jacket. You’ll also want to stop by Upington Slaghuis for some real skaaptjops to take home.
After your exploration of the Green Kalahari, you’ll be surprised at the change of scenery when you head north from Upington to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Passing Rooiputs and Askham, you’ll wonder how the Khomani San survived in this wilderness. If you booked to have lunch with Ant Koera, she’ll tell you all about it while braaiing askoek and making you one of her special lamb potjies. If you’re lucky, you might even get some !Nabas (Kalahari truffles) to taste. These truffles are found by looking for a hairline crack on the surface of the soil – it’s the !Naba that makes the earth crack after the last rain and before the first frost. It’s not as easy as it sounds! Lunch at Ant Koera’s Country Kitchen is filled with stories of the Khomani San – where they come from and how they are fighting for the survival of their culture. Guests can also visit the living museum where some of the Khomani San (who are also called the ‘first people’) illustrate how they survive underneath the Kalahari sun.
Stop for lunch or a sleepover at Kgalagadi Lodge, where the Koortzen family has created a Kalahari haven for weary travellers. The food, Kalahari Craft Beer on tap and scenery will revive the family, and the proximity to the gate is great for day visitors to the almost 3.7 million hectares of Africa’s first transfrontier park. Expect sparsely vegetated, red sand dunes and dry riverbeds and more oryx sightings than you could ever dream of. It’s in the Kalahari that you feel the truth of the Bushman adage – ‘if you’ve had the sand of the Kalahari between your toes once, you’ll always come back’.