Lying between the Cederberg Mountains and the Great Karoo escarpment, it incorporates three distinct ecosystems - pure desert in the west, open grasslands in the centre and the Roggeveld Mountains in the east. The Roggeveld range is the start of the escarpment and a vital contributor to the park's water supply. The true meaning of the word "Tankwa" is unknown, but it is said to be "Turbid water", "Place of the San" or "Thirst land", all of which fits this arid yet picturesque park so well.
The veld had been severely degraded by livestock overgrazing, and for the first few years it was not open to the public. Humans have lived in the region for at least 10 000 years - first the Bushmen and then the Khoe pastoralists, who moved their livestock with the migration of the wild animals. Then, in the 1700s, the trekboer farmers started using the Tankwa to graze their dropper and merino sheep while moving from the summer heat of the Cederberg to the cooler temperatures on the Karoo escarpment.