The Green Kalahari South Africa Walks


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The Green Kalahari

Julia Bradbury's walk takes her to the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Far away from the tourist draws, it is an insight into a true African world.


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South Africa is a country that always creates an impression.

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We know of its diverse population.

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The troubled history of apartheid,

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and its rebirth as a global travel destination.

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I've been a fan of this country for many years,

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but this is my chance to go beyond the obvious South Africa. To explore on foot

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and take time to see how life and stunning landscape work today in the new South Africa.

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A country that's now keen to invite the world.

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Hello and welcome to my final South African walk.

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This is the village of Riemvasmaak.

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Now, it may not look like much, but this settlement is a significant settlement

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on the edge of the awesome and inhospitable Kalahari desert,

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and for me it's the beginning of by far and away my most remote adventure yet.

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Tucked away at the top end of the Northern Cape,

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Riemvasmaak is in a quiet corner of South Africa's emptiest province.

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But despite appearances, there's plenty of life here and walking routes to be explored.

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The landscape enjoys one massive natural lifeline, the Orange River.

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At over 2,000km, it's South Africa's longest.

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Its vital water sustains a remarkable human population and a surprising agricultural industry.

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One river has single-handedly created what's known as the Green Kalahari.

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But my starting point is anything but green.

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This is true frontier country.

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That way is Namibia.

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And there, well, desert emptiness.

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Luckily for me, the Orange River has sculpted a wild and fascinating walking route.

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I'm here to explore the life, industry and surprising human activity that exists out here.

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It's going to be dry, dusty, it's going to be challenging.

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But this is about getting a bite of Africa that most visitors never get to taste.

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My final South African walk lies over 600km north of Cape Town,

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in a part of the country where few international visitors ever reach.

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But amongst the wild terrain there is one major natural attraction -

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the Augrabies Falls National Park.

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My two-day walk starts from Riemvasmaak, before heading west

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along the dry Molopo River to meet the mighty Orange.

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I then follow the river into the National Park, walking beside the famous granite gorge

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all the way to the Orange River's highlight -

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the massive Augrabies Falls.

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They call that the Kalahari Ferrari!

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When it comes to walking in Riemvasmaak, you can't just

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park your car and expect to pick up a guidebook.

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But with Namibia and the Kalahari becoming more popular,

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and with a National Park round the corner,

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there are private operators to help with accommodation and transport.

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This village is more accessible than you might think.

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Very little has come easily to the villagers of Riemvasmaak, though.

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The Nama people settled amongst these red rocks, as their traditional lands became

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consumed by a European diamond rush. Even here, their solitude was broken

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when the apartheid government forced the Namas to leave their homes,

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enabling the South African army to move in

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and train for operations in Namibia.

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But today Riemvasmaak is fully restored. An unlikely settlement with a famous past,

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and quite possibly a future full of visitors like me.

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But before I head out into the Green Kalahari,

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let's take an aerial look at the route I've prepared.

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From the centre of Riemvasmaak, I'll be heading west towards the Orange valley,

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over undulating ground until the way literally disappears beneath my feet.

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This is the Molopo Gorge,

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the dramatic path of a river that hasn't flowed here for generations.

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The cliffs eventually shorten, and the valley widens as the river bed

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makes its way downhill to join the consistent waters of the Orange.

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Here is the lifeblood of the Green Kalahari.

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And this is where one of South Africa's least heralded fruit industries resides.

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The vineyards here produce masses of grapes, more even than the famous vineyards of the Western Cape.

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But the grapes give way to untouched wilderness

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as my walk enters the National Park and follows one of Africa's most remarkable stretches of river.

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The Orange has created an 18km gorge that gets ever deeper as it gets nearer to my walk's conclusion -

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the tumbling waters of Augrabies Falls.

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This is very peculiar. The tourist office is locked tight.

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It doesn't look as if it's been open for business

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for a very long time, if ever.

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There's a feeling that Riemvasmaak doesn't quite fire on all cylinders.

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They advertise walking trails, four-wheel drive routes

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and abseiling, but nothing seems very organised.

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Hello Norbert, good to see you.

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-Come and have a seat.

-Oh, thank you.

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'Before I leave the village, I'm meeting one true Nama character,

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'now enthusiastically involved in developing the future of the area.'

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This must be a very challenging place to live.

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The environment is tough on human beings.

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Yes, very, very tough people, really tough.

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The water supply is the biggest problem in Riemvasmaak.

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In summer, December, goes up to 40 degrees.

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And you must wash, you must wash your clothes, and sometimes our people stay in Cape Town or in Namibia

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and come for holiday so you have more people

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to use water and that time, no water sometimes.

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Riemvasmaak enjoys some genuine celebrity in South Africa.

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Immediately following the first open elections in 1994,

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the area was a pioneering example of land restitution,

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with the Namas returning from 20 years enforced exile in their native land of Namibia.

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'Norbert witnessed it all.' How many people?

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It was 200 households.

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And you, your family were one of those?

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I was going with my grandmother. You see, that time my mother was in Cape Town, she worked there.

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And I was staying with my grandmother. And my grandmother take me to Namibia. It was...

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Oh yes, I was nine years old at that time. I remember, nine years.

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In 1994, when land was given back to the South Africans,

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this village was the first bit of land to be returned.

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-That's correct.

-Your village?

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My village! Yes, and I'm very proud.

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When the government tell us that, the army they moved from Riemvasmaak, and the Riemvasmaakers can come back.

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I was the first one, I said, "Go to Riemvasmaak".

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Now as an adult? Does it make you angry?

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No.

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It's not my problem. It's not your problem.

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It was this time. It's gone.

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Let's me take hinds and go forward.

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What's the future for here?

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Oh, we are still but a growing seed but I can say our income for the community is the tourism.

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-The potential?

-The potential, yeah!

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Because I went to the tourist office here.

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I looked in.

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-Over there.

-It was closed!

-Oh, that's why!

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There's no electricity! Boxes you can see there, but it's not working yet.

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Needs to be plugged in.

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Plugged in - you see? This is our problem.

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There's no doubting that Riemvasmaak has a hunger for change.

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Norbert and others are keen to attract visitors

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in the way that many other parts of South Africa have already managed.

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-Hello!

-Hello.

-Hello.

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Just outside town, on the route of my walk, lies the newest tourist development yet.

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The hot springs project lies close to Norbert's heart.

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He remembers his own grandmother bathing in the natural warm waters

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and was keen to help turn the site into a proper spa attraction.

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Well, there it is,

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Molopo Gorge.

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And that has got to be Norbert's little project tucked away.

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The Hot Springs were largely funded by a private benefactor,

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and designed to draw all Green Kalahari visitors to Riemvasmaak.

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Ironically, the town with inconsistent water

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can now boast bathing as its number one attraction.

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The setting is undeniably jaw-dropping.

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150m cliffs that glow red in the afternoon sun.

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This place is a bit of a ghost town.

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I can see why it's not quite fulfilling Norbert's expectations and dreams.

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I mean, it would make a brilliant base camp for hiking or climbing.

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But it seems to be a victim of mismanagement, or no management,

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which is a shame.

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Rather like the tourist office,

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the stunning springs lack the support and infrastructure to match the ambition.

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They lie largely unused, unmanned, and alarmingly inaccessible,

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some 30km from the nearest tarmac road.

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But the springs do mark the point where my walk joins the Molopo River.

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For those of us from greener and wetter climes,

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the idea of a waterway with no water is a little odd.

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But thousands of years ago, this was one of southern Africa's great rivers,

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running for 960km from its origins on the Botswana border.

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The river hasn't flowed here for at least a century.

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Lands upstream are simply too arid, and plant life clings to what moisture remains on the riverbed.

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I've been with enough experts to know that that

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is a leopard print.

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And this is known as leopard country, so it's not completely unfeasible.

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But having seen prints like these in the Garden Route and the Kruger,

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I know it's one thing to see some tracks, quite another to actually see the elusive leopard.

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I've just come across some friends en route - a troop of baboons up there.

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And they're making that warning noise.

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Don't worry, I'm not coming to join you.

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I don't want to be alarmist, but there are leopard tracks all around here.

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And they're quite close to the monkeys.

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So where do I fit in the food chain?

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In reality, this is probably one territorial leopard patrolling the gorge at night.

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By day, you'd be better advised to watch for any basking snakes.

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The Molopo Trail is perfectly carved out for the walker - a fascinating geological adventure,

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but, like most attractions connected with Riemvasmaak, it's quite beautifully under-sold.

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As day one of my walk draws to a close, the deep-sided Molopo Canyon gives way to the Orange Valley.

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In winter, the sun may still burn, but the wind is cool, helping to sculpt the shapely sand dunes.

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And finally there's the point at which one mighty river meets an even mightier one.

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At last - the Orange River!

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The famous Orange River.

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And it's nice to see one with water in it.

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It is looking a bit low, though.

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After the bare rock and sand of my first day,

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the Green Kalahari finally begins to live up to its name.

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But the Molopo River mouth isn't renowned for places to stay, and so

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I've arranged to be picked up - an overnight just upstream.

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Distances here, though, are rarely short.

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The new day means a return to the lush banks of the Orange

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and it's an opportunity to learn about what the Green Kalahari is really capable of.

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Gawie here is helping me plot my walk, but I found out last night, he's also a grape farmer.

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Grapes are big business along this stretch of the Orange River,

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and the ideal place to see the industry in action is looking down on where I left off last night.

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There can't be a lot you don't know about this river, Gawie?

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This river is the life of this area.

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Without this river there's nothing here.

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This is the lifeline and supports all the economic activity around this area.

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It's an incredible landscape, isn't it?

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When you look behind us here at these really arid, dry rocks,

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it seems incredible that a grape can grow here.

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This is ideal for them. You can't get better.

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There's very good soil, very low rainfall, so you have

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a desert climate with a lot of water, which is ideal for growing grapes, fresh grapes specifically.

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This is not to be mistaken for the wine that we enjoy - that's not where they go.

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No, this area very famous for table grapes, and exporting grapes.

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So grapes that we might eat back in the UK?

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Yes, indeed. I think 50% of all these grapes will go to the UK.

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And you can buy that around Christmas time in Tesco and Sainsbury's.

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My dad started with the grapes.

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And he's actually the first guy that started the export grape business in this area.

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In the beginning of the '80s there was a big movement

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from the consumer side from seeded grapes to seedless grapes.

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The UK only takes seedless grapes.

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What are we like as grape eaters, are we fussy grape eaters?

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Yeah, I think you're a bit too fussy!

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-Why, why?

-In the UK, you like big berries, but green, you don't like yellow on it.

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So it's normally a bit sour in our opinion.

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When in Europe, they can have a smaller berry, bit more yellow on the skin.

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And it's a better taste - it's sweeter.

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-But yeah, the consumer is obviously always right.

-Of course, of course!

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Now, we're going to the national park next. How we getting there?

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We got a boat waiting for you at the bottom.

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And we're going to paddle across and have a gander into the park.

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I was frightened we were swimming.

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OK, crocodiles, hippos?

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No crocodiles or hippos.

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Legend has it that there's a big river snake in this part of the river.

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Snakes I do not do.

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Well, if you leave the diamonds alone it probably won't be a problem for you.

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Diamonds? What diamonds?

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This river takes all the diamonds down to the Atlantic coast,

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which is very rich in diamonds.

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So if I had a little paddle in here

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I might find some diamonds?

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Well, this is the first time I've resorted to canoeing on one of my walks.

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But bridges on this part of the Orange, like tourists, are few and far between,

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so with people like Gawie to assist, there's an opportunity to fashion your own walk.

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My route now crosses the Orange and enters the Augrabies Falls National Park through the back door.

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Bizarrely for such a remote area, this was the location for

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South Africa's very first conservation area.

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But in 1893, it wasn't the river or the geology that was to be protected,

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rather the local antelope herds.

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Policing methods proved inadequate, though.

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Hunting remained widespread and the antelope population remains a fraction of what it once was.

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Today, the entire park is named after its central feature -

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the massive and thundering waterfall, which the indigenous people had named Augrabies.

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Augrabies might mean, "Place of Great Noise" but this spot is deliciously quiet.

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Some 12km from the falls, birdsong and a gentle breeze

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are all that accompany me along this sedate river walk.

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After wandering through swaying grasses, bleached white by the sun,

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the river slowly winds its way round a bend known as Echo Corner.

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Right, let's test out the name of "Echo Corner".

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SHE SHOUTS: Hello!

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HER VOICE ECHOES

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Not bad.

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Echo Corner is where the Augrabies Gorge starts in earnest.

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Upstream towards the Falls, the valley tightens and the cliffs rise up.

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So this might be the last chance to see the Orange River in such a peaceful state.

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Long before this was a National Park it held the fascination

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of the man who wrote this rather lovely old book, Mr GA Farini.

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And he fell in love with this place when it was undiscovered, wild frontier-land.

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The Great Farini, otherwise known as William Hunt,

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was a famous Canadian showman, best known for crossing Niagara Falls on a high-wire in 1860.

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Having retired from acrobatics, the intriguing Farini continued his waterfall interests by coming here,

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an adventure that probably made him the first white man to cross the Kalahari.

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"My expedition has completely disproved the long-prevailing notion

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"that the Kalahari is a barren wilderness."

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Well, I completely agree.

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Now, there's the just the small matter of finding those falls,

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and I think its going to get a bit tougher.

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Farini's drive to explore the Kalahari on foot was revolutionary.

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Today walkers come here all the time,

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but the area still has to be respected.

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The National Park's designated three-day trail isn't for the faint-hearted.

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You need to carry all your own equipment, food and water

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and there's no electricity or showers on hand.

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This walk is closed for five months of the year because of the heat -

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and today I can understand why.

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And the further you climb away from the only water in the park,

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the more you realize how little shelter there really is.

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But the climb leads me to a high point called Ararat - the best possible view of the Orange River.

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What a gorgeous gorge!

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She's a beauty!

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Definitely worth all that hard work to get up here.

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The canyon has a power and attraction, compelling the visitor to gaze into its depths.

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This view points to a time when rainfall here would have been significantly greater

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and the river ever more able to carve its channel through the granite landscape.

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This volcanic rock would have been formed many kilometres underground

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and pushed to the surface by the movements of Earth's crust.

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In geological terms, the weird and wonderful rock forms

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are the recent results of searing temperatures, shattering frosts, eroding winds and flash floods.

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Hello.

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Most distinctive are the park's prominent domes of granite.

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Weather and chemicals erode the domes in layers,

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like the skin of an onion, making ideal retreats for the park's local rock dassie residents.

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The biggest dome of all is called Moon Rock.

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So I've come from all the way over there, beyond those mountains,

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and then followed the river, snaking through here to Moon Rock.

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And what you can make out just there is the rim of the gorge, which goes all the way to that point.

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Everything on the south, those flashes of green

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are the grape farms.

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And everything there,

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is the national park.

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Quite a walk.

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After a beautifully isolated walk, the rock cairn on top of Moon Rock

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is the first clear sign that others have enjoyed my route before me.

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And before all of us, a certain G Farini was here in 1886.

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His aim was to track down and photograph the massive falls.

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Local white farmers spoke of the great mist that could be seen from a distance,

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but warned that previous visitors had failed to even get close to the cause of the spray.

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But the Falls are an awful lot easier to witness today than they were for Farini.

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For those of us who've walked a fair way, it's a little bit galling

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to find so many national park chalets just metres from the plunging gorge.

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I can hear them.

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There they are at last!

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The thunderous falls.

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When Farini was here, in 1886, it was clearly wet season. Look at that!

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It's quite piddly by comparison today.

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On days like Farini's, Augrabies can become a broad horseshoe of water.

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But this is the height of dry season,

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and the Falls are a well-contained torrent.

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It's been over 20 years since Augrabies last flooded,

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when enough water passed over here to dramatically fill

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the 100 metre-deep canyon and engulf most of the chalets.

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But such events are becoming more unlikely, as, far upstream,

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numerous dams and irrigation systems have appeared.

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The force of nature that carved out this gorge,

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has to a certain extent, been brought under control.

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So there it is, the Orange River resplendent in all its glory.

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It journeyed all the way across South Africa

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before making this dramatic plunge.

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The lifeblood of the area.

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This has been my most remote walk so far,

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and we've crossed some pretty harsh terrain.

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In Mussel Bay on Walk 1 I said I'd always wanted to make a series here,

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I didn't think it would be a walking series.

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But actually, what better way to explore the geography, the colour,

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the history of South Africa, than on foot, under your own steam?

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My walks in this country have taken me on an evolutionary curve.

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From the rich history and bustling tourism of the Garden Route,

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to the colourful majesty of the Drakensberg,

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the wonderful isolation and wilderness of the Kruger Park,

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and now, on my final walk, this wild, desert adventure.

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I've seen just why South Africa really is "a world in one country".

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I thought I knew this place pretty well, but each of my four adventures

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has taught me and shown me something completely new.

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They have an expression here,

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"Don't tickle the lion's beard, otherwise you might get bitten."

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It's too late for me.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:28:320:28:35

Having tackled treks across the UK, Julia Bradbury embarks on a grand adventure in South Africa, setting out on four very different walks that explore its claim to be 'a world-in-one country'.

Julia is a regular visitor to the Rainbow Nation, but this is her chance to go beyond the normal tourist destinations to a series of increasingly remote locations. However, these are all walks that any reasonably adventurous walker could embark on, offering a fresh and personal perspective on a friendly and fascinating country that is so often misunderstood.

Julia's final walk takes her to the remote north-west corner of South Africa. This is the edge of the Kalahari Desert and the setting for Julia's most adventurous undertaking yet. Far away from the major tourist draws of the country, it is an insight into a true African world. Set against the stunning red geology of Augrabies Falls National Park, it's a stark but beautiful walk, encountering simple rural lives and remarkable agriculture, utterly reliant on the broad waters of the Orange River.