Easter is the prime silly season on South Africa’s roads, so when we set off west out of Johannesburg on Easter Monday, it was in full anticipation of a long day of bumper-to-bumper idiocy in the company of agitated long-weekenders, psychotic minibus drivers and compulsive overtakers. Yet our fears proved to be unfounded. The N14 opened before us, blissfully free of traffic, fringed by fields of golden sunflowers and beds of purple cosmos, gradually giving way to a more austere cover of thorny acacia scrub and thinly clumped yellowing grass – the Kalahari.

Our plan was to spend a few weeks exploring the ‘alternative’ route from Johannesburg to Cape Town via the Northern Cape: the arid province that accounts for one-third of South Africa’s surface area yet supports a mere 2% of its population. Our first scheduled stop was Kuruman, a small town named after a nearby mission founded by Charles Moffat in 1821. It is here that the legendary explorer David Livingstone spent his first years in Africa. A plaque marks the tree below which Livingstone proposed to Moffat’s daughter Mary, and alongside it stands the 160-year-old church in which they were wed.

Kuruman is rich in the sort of low-key pickings that reward whimsical off-the-beaten-track travel – the ancient rock paintings that line the walls of Wonderwerk Cave, for instance, or the contrasting red and white dunes of Witsand Nature Reserve. But the travel lynchpin of the Northern Cape is situated half a day’s dusty drive further north, on the border with Botswana and Namibia: the vast Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the South African sector of which protects a wild but fragile dune ecosystem bounded by the dry beds of the Auob and Nossob Rivers.

Kgalagadi is a harsh and uncompromising environment, one in which the visitor becomes keenly aware of the precarious balance between life and death. Yet, paradoxically, it is also a reserve of singular beauty: the red dunes set against a constant blue sky are the equal of anything you’ll see along South Africa’s more celebrated coastline. If nothing else, the reserve offers some scintillating game viewing.

There is no better public reserve in South Africa for predators: all the big cats are likely to be seen over a few days’ sojourn, and black-backed jackal and bat-eared fox are abundant. Large herds of oryx and springbok frequent the river beds, while roadside bands of meerkat and ground squirrel captivate passing drivers with their bipedal posturing. Prominent, too, are the sociable weavers whose immense, labyrinthine communal nests look like scruffy tan lollipops perched precariously on the top of the Kalahari’s trees.

Heading south-west from Kgalagadi, you enter Upington, whose chain stores and defiantly well-groomed lawns stand in abrupt contrast to the dry surrounds. Like Kuruman, Upington started life as a mission station, and its subsequent growth can be attributed to the ambitious Orange River irrigation scheme, which feeds the second-largest wine co-op in the world – admittedly, you’re talking top-notch plonk rather than connoisseur vintages, but who’s complaining when you can stock your boot with a mixed lot of three reds and three whites for less than a tenner?

It is one of nature’s little ironies that South Africa’s largest waterway should run through this most arid part of the country and, not surprisingly, the Orange River provided the common thread through a varied week of travel that followed.

Highlights? There is the Rockery Route, running south of the river between Keimos and Kakamas, an other-worldly landscape of dark black boulders studded with South Africa’s largest concentration of kokerbooms, which grow up to 5m and live to be thousands of years old. There is the remote Riemvasmaak 4×4 trail, which is based out of a rustic camp near a hot spring in a dramatic ravine, and passes through a landscape of almost impossible bleakness before it reaches the green ribbon of cultivation lining the Orange.

Best of all is the highly accessible Augrabies Falls National Park, where the Orange River tumbles 56m into a spectacular 18km-long canyon populated by giraffe, springbok, gemsbok, kudu, eland and a variety of small nocturnal predators. And if your limbs need a workout, the perfect antidote is the Augrabies Rush, an exciting rafting trip along the grade one to three rapids that lie upstream of Augrabies Falls. Unlike the larger and more tempestuous rapids of, say, the Zambezi Gorge, this stretch of the Orange is sufficiently tame that novices can safely propel themselves through even the largest rapids in two-person canoes, yet challenging enough to be a genuine adventure.

The N14 terminates at Springbok, the capital of Namaqualand and a veritable hive of travel activity during the region’s peerless spring wildflower season. Out of season, however, Springbok is the sort of small South African everytown that bids tourists ‘drive right through’, a suggestion to which we succumbed after a short refuelling stop. We followed the N7 south to Lambert’s Bay, a delightful fishing harbour with few pretensions to conventional resort status. Lambert’s Bay is linked by a breakwater to perhaps the most accessible avian breeding colony on the South African coast. From a raised hide, you can spend hours watching the thousands of resident Cape gannets bicker and squawk, as well as the breeding colonies of Cape cormorant, jackass penguin and Cape fur seal. The waters offshore are arguably the best place to see the endangered heavysided dolphin – in a two-hour boat charter ride we came across four schools of this rare marine mammal.

You know what they say about the journey and the destination? Well, at the risk of alienating the entire population of South Africa’s second largest city, our arrival in Cape Town was somewhat of an anticlimax. It was wonderful, as ever, to drive past Bloubergstrand with Table Mountain in clear view, and to ride the cable car to the top of the great mountain. But our hearts were still stuck somewhere along the long empty roads that had led us there. What city, after all, could evoke the natural magnitude of the Kalahari, the implacable sense of emptiness that broods over its red dunes and rocky moonscapes, and a night sky so vast and bright it burns into your soul forever?

The Northern Cape
The South African tourism industry is in something approaching collective denial where the Northern Cape is concerned. Yet this vast province forms an ideal self-drive destination, especially for those who want to get right off the beaten track. Main roads are surfaced and a saloon car is adequate to reach most places of interest, including Kgalagadi and Augrabies Falls, though a realistic minimum of eight days is required to make such side trips, and two weeks would be better. Local tourist offices in this part of the country tend to be immensely helpful, and it’s worth checking out the Green Kalahari Tourism Association website – www.greenkalahari.co.za.