The magical Kalahari desert

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A voyage to the Kalahari is akin to catapulting into a parallel universe. It’s a surreal Alice-through-the-looking-glass experience where you feel really small and everything around you looms larger than life. Timeless and magical, solitary stretches of space spin on into infinity; and shapes distort under a blanket of scorching desert heat.

A mystifying collage of fiery sunsets and shifting crimson sands, of lush green fields and gushing waterfalls, magnificent wildlife reserves and tidy vineyards, this region will enchant long after you depart. Make sure you check out these highlights.

The Northern Cape’s rugged northwest is a land of immense sky and stark countryside, and it’s a long, hot jostle down dusty crimson roads to reach magical Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, located largely within the southern Kalahari desert, and one of the world’s last great, unspoiled ecosystems. But once you step foot inside Africa’s first multinational park, tucked away between Botswana and Namibia in the country’s extreme north, you’ll understand why journeying to the end of the earth is well worth the effort. The Kgalagadi is a wild land of harsh extremes and frequent droughts, where shifting red-and-white sands meet thorn trees and dry riverbeds.

Yet despite the desolate landscape, it’s teeming with wildlife. From prides of black-maned lions to packs of howling spotted hyenas, there are more than 1100 predators here, including around 200 cheetahs, 450 lions and 150 leopards. Add in those giant orange-ball sunsets the continent is famous for, and black-velvet skies studded with millions of twinkling stars, and you’ll feel like you’ve entered the Africa of storybooks.

It’s another long, hard drive down a corrugated road to reach the remote village of Riemvasmaak, but for adventure junkies searching for a soul-soothing retreat, the journey is worth every bump. The light in this magical mountain desert wilderness is otherworldly and intense, capable of shifting shapes and changing colours. Donkey-carts remain the main mode of transport across the cracked expanse of frosted orange rock and sand in Riemvasmaak, and semi-nomadic locals herd sheep and goats the same way they have for centuries.

Related article: Top 5 wildlife parks in South Africa

Traversing its terrain ranges in a 4WD can be anywhere from easy to super challenging – be ready for deep sand, rough tracks and rocky plateaus. Besides four-wheeling, there are three hiking trails and a sand-and-rock mountain-bike trail. Just beyond the village is the Molopo River gorge, a spectacular rough-and-rocky canyon home to a pair of rare black eagles and a very cool, totally solitary hot mineral pool (your party will likely be the only soakers) on the dry riverbed’s floor. You can camp right by the hot springs.

This area also hosts Namakwa, the kind of vast, empty place where the roads stretch on forever, the stars seem bigger and brighter than anywhere else and you can tumble off the map without anyone noticing. From exploring the misty ship-wrecked diamond coastline on the country’s far western edge to four-wheeling through an otherworldly mountain desert, experiences pile up fast here.

Namakwa is also a proficient magician, who performs her favourite trick each spring. That’s when she shakes off winter’s bite with an explosion of colour, covering her sunbaked desert in a multi-hued wildflower blanket so spectacular you’ll leave believing miracles do happen.

A further 200 kms east, the Witsand Nature Reserve is based upon a white sand dune which stands out in stark contrast to the typical red Kalahari sands surrounding it. Bizarrely, this one also comes with a soundtrack - when the wind blows here the sand sings. Known as 'roaring sands' the effect is created by the movement of air across the dunes and creates a bass, organ-like sound; walking on the sands produces a muted groan.

One of the coolest things to do here is rent a sandboard (a snowboard for the sand), hike up a dune and ride down. You can also fly through the sand on a cycle. Wannabe astronomers will want to check out the night sky – this is one of Africa’s finest stargazing spots.

Also known for its great noise is the Augrabies Falls National Park, whose waterfall has a thunderous roar nothing short of spectacular. You won’t find any big predators here, but this is the world’s sixth-tallest waterfall, which gets fat with rainy-season run-off.

Once you’ve finished the hard work exploring the region, taste the wines of the Senqu (Orange) River, which belong to the irrigated, fertile banks of the 'Green Kalahari'. Still, there are plenty more wide open spaces in which to get lost, should you choose.