On our recent road trip to the Northern Cape, we decided to include Augrabies National Park, simply because it is one of those places that you include in an itinerary, if you are in the area anyway. How wrong could I have been, to think that the falls was all this park has to offer? Its ever-changing scenery is mesmerising and awe-inspiringly beautiful.
The Khoi people called Augrabies Falls, Aukoerebis – the place of great noise. Some years ago I visited Victoria Falls and ever since I have unfairly compared any water feature I have come across to the dramatic location of the World’s largest waterfall. Although Augrabies Falls are relatively small in comparison, the gorge is one of the most dramatic geological features I have ever seen. After gently meandering for about 2,000 km from its source in Lesotho, the Orange River comes upon a rocky channel, where it plummets 90 m into a narrow gorge that has been created over roughly 1.8 million years by high energy water slowly cutting into a fault in the pink gneiss. The impressive modern board walk near the SANParks Rest Camp offers a gorgeous walk between six viewing decks overlooking the falls and the gorge from different angles.
The best time to visit the falls is March to May, when the river is at its maximum flow after the summer rainfalls in Lesotho. These catchment areas have an average annual rainfall of around 2,000 mm, which is nearly 40 times more than the annual rainfall figures of the Northern Cape, giving the Orange River its much higher flow rates than expected in a semi-arid region. As you drive from Upington to Kakamas through the fertile Orange River valley with fruit farms, wineries, and quirky padstalls on either side of the road, you could be forgiven for believing you were hundreds of kilometres further south in the Cape Winelands.
Some of the most striking views of the gorge and its surrounding moonscape can be found to the west of the falls in the nature area. Here, you can enjoy the landscape and its inhabitants away from the day trippers, on foot, by mountain bike, or by car. Some of the most spectacular features are the large rock domes of reconstituted sedimentary rocks, transformed under high pressure and temperature into mostly igneous rock, called granite gneiss. These massive domes, like Ararat and Moon Rock, are scattered in an otherwise relatively low-lying landscape. We were lucky to be visiting the area on a day when the sun was slowly swallowed by a developing thunderstorm. As the clouds grew and the overhead light faded, the rocks slowly changed colour, giving a further edge to the tension in the air, as the storm built up. And oh my, did we get an almighty thunderstorm later that evening.
The ever-changing landscape and harsh arid climate hold the true appeal of this park. Here, I rediscovered my roots in the Earth sciences. This landscape challenged me to dive into the backwaters of distant memories, retrieving knowledge of geology and geomorphology that I thought I had lost altogether. As I recalled the rock formations and geological processes that I had learnt many years before, the wildlife became an added bonus. However, the archetypical arid land species, such as gemsbok and jackal, as well as Klipspringers are in abundance amongst the rocks. Most surprisingly of all are the giraffe that find some Acacia trees to nibble on amongst the dry rocks. Overall, it was a perfect combination of my past geographical training and my current African lifestyle.
Words and pictures: Louise de Waal