The Karoo conjures up a vista of wide open spaces, dusty back roads, historical churches and the endless overhead dome of the sky. It is South Africa’s heart, occupying huge tracts of the country’s inner, and more arid, land; often described as unforgiving.
Once simply a vast area through which to travel en route somewhere else, today the Karoo is a series of little historic towns and various geological and botanical anomalies that attract visitors in their own right.
It is difficult to find a Karoo town that does not boast something of historical note. Our third in a series on the Karoo towns of South Africa, brings you 10 of the Karoo’s most historically iconic towns…
Little Aberdeen lies 50 km south of Graaff-Reinet, its streets awash with Victorian, Gothic, Georgian and Karoo architectural style buildings. It’s been declared an architectural conservation town and various domes, gables, plaster motifs and turrets make historical walking tours a must.
There is a post office that should have been the Magistrate’s court in Grahamstown, a ‘leaning tower of Aberdeen’, a huge olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemane, and ‘royal’ graves (a long but interesting story about an elicit affair of King George III, the resulting son and their descendants).
Sleepy Bethulie, near the Gariep Dam, started life as a Mission Station. But its history reveals more than a little blood shed. Here 5 000 Boer women and children were interned in a concentration camp where over 20 lost their lives daily, whilst a particularly bloody battle meant the town changed its name (it was to have seven)to that of Moordernaarspoort.
Route 62’s Calitzdorp drips with historical buildings, and is so geared towards tourism that you can download a walking tour off the town’s website with an accompanying in-depth historical description of each of the town’s prominent Karoo cottages, Victorian style buildings, Cape-style cottages, Edwardian features and Georgian style buildings (start early as there is a lot to see).
End your tour on one of Calitzdorp’s verandas to sample the town’s characteristic port wines. Book accommodation in Calitzdorp here.
Colesberg lies off the N1 surrounded by little hills, the most famous of which is Coleskop, known as Towerberg by early travellers. Its history hails all the way back to the /Xam who lived in the area. The walking tour encompasses all the classic Karoo and Cape Dutch architecture that survived the Victorian settlers, particularly the Mother Church and the old courthouse.
Stop first at the local museum, which also organises tours of local farms and find your accommodation in Colesberg here.
Graaff-Reinet is one of the most historically rich towns of the Karoo. To not mention it would be like leaving the Windsors off a list of noteworthy royal families. The town is the fourth oldest settlement in the country and you have only to head to Parsonage Street to drink in period cottages.
But there are many other restored historical buildings throughout town (over 200 of them are national monuments) and you cannot ignore the Victorian Gothic Dutch Reformed church at the town’s centre. Find accommodation in Graaff-Reinet.
If you didn’t know already, Kimberley is all about diamonds. There is even a BIG hole to prove it (interesting how far man is prepared to go in search of diamonds; this hole was once a, admittedly flat, hill and the hole was created with picks and shovels). But it is not the Big Hole alone that attracts visitors.
This tiny town on the north-western skirts of South Africa might not look like much, but it used to be the site of the world’s richest copper mine, attracting copper miners from Cornwall. But Okiep’s history does not start and end with copper, there was also a siege of the village by General Jan Smuts during the South African War.
The town was to feature as the heart of the British resistance. Now it’s at the heart of the annual Namaqua flower season.
Vanrhynsdorp is typically Victorian. Originally known as Troe-Troe, it is the oldest southern town of the Namaqualand. It is also the home of a major succulent nursery on Voortrekker Road (closed on Sundays).
Stop in town though and you will soon discover that, far from being all about succulents and spring daisies, Vanrhynsdorp has a wealth of historical buildings (for a small town) that date back to the late 1800s. The Troe-Troe Zending Hetgesticht, the oldest building in the district, dates back to 1751, has served as an inn, a public school, a church, a court house and Jan Smut’s headquarters. Find and book accommodation in Vanrhynsdorp here.
Originally named Victoria, after Queen Victoria (the ‘west’ bit was added in 1855 to avoid confusion with the Eastern Cape’s Victoria district), this historical town not only suffered the effects of a disastrous flash flood in 1871 but the discovery of diamonds in Hopetown in 1886 placed the town, which was on the wagon trail between Cape Town and Hopetown, firmly on the map, hence the wealth of Victorian buildings in town today.
Find and book accommodation in Victoria West here.
Willowmore was once known as Willow-Moore and began its life as a trading centre on a farm, The Willows. Today the little town is peppered with history, although you have to know where to find it. Several historic buildings include the town hall, the Rabbi’s house, the Jewish Synagogue and the Old Dutch Reformed Church rectory, now a guest house.
The old Boer graveyard is a feast of restored grave stones with a gunpowder chamber used to store dynamite during the South African War. And the Jewish cemetery is testimony to the thriving Jewish community in Willowmore until the 1960s. Find accommodation in Willowmore here.