We’ve driven quite a distance in the last few days, crossing the Free State and the Northern Cape from Ladybrand near the border with Lesotho to Augrabies near the border with Namibia. Along the way, we’ve experienced big empty landscapes and scorchingly hot temperatures.
Overview: 5 days, 1133 km
From Ladybrand, we drove west through the Free State, passing through Bloemfontein on the way. Bloemfontein is the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, though they don’t make anything at all of it. OK, he only lived there until the age of three, but given the market for all things Lord of the Rings (and having the Lesothan scenery nearby, complete with ready-made Gandalfs – see previous post) you’d have thought they’d be running huge Tolkien conventions, Star Trek style…..
The next major town we passed through was Kimberley. Both Bloemfontein and Kimberley were pretty uninspiring kinds of places, characterised by low-rise sprawl and plenty of traffic. Kimberley does have one major tourist attraction, though, so we checked into the Riverside camp site a few kilometres south of town for two nights and went to take a look.
No, it’s not a big hole, it’s The Big Hole….
The on-site museum explained how diamonds are formed at high temperatures and pressures deep below the Earth’s surface. They are then carried to the surface by violent but brief volcanic eruptions originating deep below the oldest sections of the Earth’s crust (the last such eruption happened about 40 million years ago).
Diamonds were found in this part of the Northern Cape from the late 1860s and a diamond rush soon ensued. The site at Kimberley was discovered in 1871. Before this time, diamonds had just been found scattered at or near the surface along rivers, but Kimberley was the first known diamond-bearing magma pipe (this particular type of magma was named Kimberlite after Kimberley; there are over 6,000 known Kimberlite pipes in the world but only around 200 contain commercially viable quantities of diamonds). Claims were soon staked and prospectors started digging down into the underground carrot-shaped deposit:
Open cast mining techniques were used to a depth of 240 metres, then in the early 1890s they started underground mining, reaching a depth of over 1,000 metres.
We learned in the museum about the consolidation of mining interests in the 1880s (deemed necessary to control supply and hence keep prices high!) and the creation of De Beers Consolidated Mines. Mining ceased at the Big Hole with the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
Next to the Big Hole site is a large outdoor museum recreating the boom town of Kimberley as it would have been at its peak. It reminded us of the gold rush towns we’ve seen elsewhere:
The whole place was very very quiet, even though we visited on a Sunday. Perhaps a lack of visitors is why they don’t have real live people in the various establishments (I’m thinking of places like Beamish, where they have actors in period costume playing the parts of the various shopkeepers etc). Some of the dummies did make me think of 1970s department store displays!
One thing that doesn’t come through in the photos is just how hot it was. The temperature must’ve been in the high 30s. Although the car park had sun shades, these were too low for the NAVI-SOK so we’d had to park in the full glare of the sun. We really didn’t want to think how hot it might be inside the van, and we’d noticed that there was a functioning pub in the middle of the open air museum. The decision was made – it was time for one of our rare eating out experiences…..
Mark made the most of the opportunity:
Monday morning was time for another battlefield visit. This time, we’re in December 1899, during the Boer War. Kimberley was under siege by the Boers, but British forces were advancing north in an effort to relieve the town.
At Magersfontein, the British advance was surprised just before dawn by Boer forces entrenched at the base of a rocky hill: when they got within 400 yards, the Boers opened fire. There were 700 British casualties within the first five minutes of the encounter.
Looking down on the battlefield:
It didn’t end there. Many British troops ended up pinned down, lying flat in the dust for most of the day on the blazing heat. Any movement would draw the unwanted attention of the Boers on the hill above…..
The Boer trench lines are marked by white stones:
The Highland Brigade suffered particularly heavy casualties, and the Scandinavian Corps (fighting for the Boers) was all but obliterated.
There are lots of memorials on and around the battlefield. These are the memorials to the Highland Regiments and the Scandinavians:
It’s a long long way across the Northern Cape, and the landscape seems to get drier and emptier the further west you go. We found a lovely camp site for Tuesday night right by the Orange River (Kheis Riverside Lodge).
The Orange River is amazing: it flows from Lesotho all the way to the Atlantic coast (forming the border between South Africa and Namibia for the last part of its journey). Despite flowing such a long distance and supporting a bright green band of trees and plants along both banks in the most arid of regions (see photo below), it somehow manages to keep flowing all the way to the Atlantic all year round.
Another long day of travelling on Tuesday brought us to Augrabies Falls National Park, one of South Africa’s five arid national parks. We stopped at the town of Upington on the way for supplies – a few kilometres out of town we came across this intriguing sight:
We had to look it up online in the end. It’s the “Khi Solar One” solar thermal power plant, which produces enough energy to power 45,000 households. Mirrors focus solar energy on a boiler at the top of the tower to produce steam. The steam is then used to produce electricity – the advantage being that you can continue to produce electricity after it goes dark. Apparently, the design is based on that of a similar plant in Spain….
Anyway, back to Augrabies Falls National Park. Our first stop after arriving was the 56 metre high Augrabies Falls, within easy walking distance of the camp site, where the Orange River tumbles into the Orange River Gorge:
We spent Wednesday driving round the National Park:
“Moon Rock”, with Mark stood on top for scale (a much more impressive sight than Sibebe Rock in Swaziland!):
Another view of the gorge:
Mark with a quiver tree:
An oryx and a klipspringer:
The vervet monkeys were hard at work on this camp site too! Luckily, we weren’t the unlucky victims. Mark (with his encyclopaedic knowledge of biscuits!) identified their booty this time round as lemon cream biscuits:
Mind you, I did end up stuck in the van at one point with this cute but no doubt very naughty monkey looking up through the window and quite obviously waiting for me to open the door….
Augrabies was quite possibly the hottest place I have ever been. It was uncomfortably, unpleasantly hot right up until late in the evening. The rocks seem to absorb the heat and radiate it out at you from all directions. We were talking to a German on the camp site who had visited a wine cellar in Upington (apparently the second-biggest wine cooperative in the world) and reported that they’d said “if it’s forty degrees here, it’s fifty degrees at Augrabies”.
As lovely as it was at Augrabies Falls National Park, I was quite eager to leave on Thursday morning and head somewhere (hopefully) a bit cooler…..