The Northern Cape’s riverside hub city offers inspiration for mind, body… and stomach
Arriving in Upington on a Sunday is like visiting the eighties. Even the casino closes early. If you’re staying at the Upington Inn, though, there is an inner, enclosed garden space with a pool, a bar and a large shaded patio where you can enjoy meals from the restaurant. Satisfying relaxation doesn’t need to involve going out.
If you do go out on a quieter day, there is more than just the normal tourism association to-do list to consider. Take an interesting historical detour through the Paballelo area. Ironically, the easiest place to find there is the G Spot. It’s a bar and restaurant opposite a wide sandy area. In 1985, a huge anti-apartheid protest took place on that open land, with the activists getting tear-gassed by police. Part of the fleeing crowd passed the home of municipal constable Jeta Sethwala, and for whatever reason, he opened fire on them. A group of them caught him, beat him up and set him alight, with 26 people being charged for their involvement in the incident, with many sentenced to death, though those sentences were later commuted to long-term imprisonment.
The ‘Upington 26’ became another symbol of the complexities of crime and punishment in an apartheid state, and a monument was built on the open ground to mark the historical significance of the protest and its outcomes. Like every outcome of apartheid, it evokes sadness, not least because the imposing structure – a tall obelisk in the centre of a semicircle of mosaic portraits on a curved wall – has bits of glass and some nyaope drug paraphernalia scattered around the fenced area it occupies. Some of the mosaic panels are blacked out, too – apparently the work of some of the now paroled prisoners themselves, in protest at the lack of progress in government provision for the area’s inhabitants all these years later.
Elsewhere, things not changing is not a bad thing. Sakkie Se Arkie (Sakkie’s Ark) is an Upington institution, a two-deck ferryboat with a bar and some tables that motors up and down the Orange River in front of the town, with locals and visitors alike enjoying the chance to enjoy the scenery with a tipple in hand. During my visit, a cruise is impossible because the river is in flood and, as powerful as the Arkie’s engines are, it can’t make its way into the flow – customers would get a free but wholly unwelcome ride to Alexander Bay, where the Orange meets the Atlantic, via the formidable speedbump of the Augrabies Falls. Still, with the boat lashed to a couple of willow trees now a few metres below the high water mark, sundowners on its decks are as popular as ever. Watching the roll and swell of the wide, powerful current has the same appeal as staring into a campfire and watching the colours dance. It’s mesmerising; a reminder of the forces that have formed this landscape for millennia. Another institution – newer but no less popular – is the Red Ox restaurant, a couple of hundred metres downstream from the Arkie and adjacent to the Kalahari-Oranje Museum and its famous donkey statue. It occupies a premium position high on the riverbank, matching the fantastic views with striking décor and sublime food, washed down with a bowlsized glass (they don’t mess around with food and drink in this part of the world) of Die Mas gin, distilled in nearby Kakamas.
Walking and wine
Staying close to the Upington Inn – perhaps as a constitutional after a great breakfast or lunch at the Badgers Grill at the hotel – a walk along a canal-side road (take that, Venice and St Petersburg!) is another perhaps unexpected pleasure, with the heat seen off by a lush treeline as you enjoy some tranquillity after some meetings or generally people-intensive activities. Also nearby – you can easily walk there and back to the hotel if you’re intending to make the most of a tasting – is the Orange River Tasting Room. The name is slightly misleading, as you’ll be there to taste wines from the region as opposed to the Orange River itself, but you’ll soon forgive the branding agency as you settle into a satisfying afternoon or evening. Again, the food – at the venue’s Kerkmuis Restaurant – is superb. Upington does not currently have a reputation as a culinary centre, but on the evidence of a couple of days in town, it should (though anyone who prefers their cuisine dainty and delicately plated would perhaps struggle a little). Recommended? Eat first, then have a look at the wine tasting menu and pick a favourite or three. The choice is pleasingly difficult because those who have put it together have made the experience about having fun and enjoying yourself regardless of your wine knowledge, rather than catering to established wine connoisseurs or those willing to place a sommelier’s opinion over what their own tongues and noses are telling them. Having enjoyed a ‘half-sized’ chicken schnitzel that could feed a Johannesburg family, dessert arrives in the form of a wine-and-nougat pairing. Two reds, two whites and a muscadel, all lined up opposite different types of locally made nougat – all delicious and pleasingly unique. And the pricing, for both the tastings and bottles or cases of wine, is refreshingly modest. Make sure you leave space in your luggage.