What the Outback is to Australia, the Karoo is to South Africa.
It occupies 400 000 km²- practically one-third of the country’s total area; a vast, semi-arid region in the heart of the country, bounded by mountains in the south and west, and the huge Senqu, or Orange River, on its eastern and northern flanks.
This area of little rainfall, blue and cloudless skies, and extreme temperatures may have acted as a barrier to the interior from Cape Town for early settlers, but today it has come out of isolation to become a major tourist attraction – its immense spaces, incredible mountains, idiosyncratic towns and promise of escape the reason for its popularity.
These 10 top natural attractions are only a taste of what the Karoo holds in store for you.
10 top natural attractions in the Karoo…
The Karoo Desert Botanical Garden, just outside Worcester, is a feast of succulents at the foot of the Hex River Mountain range. The unique garden focuses on desert and semi-desert plant, its 154 hectares (only 11 hectares of which are cultivated, the rest is left to natural vegetation) awash with 400 naturally occurring plants, and a further 300 protected species propagated in the garden.
There is a plant maze, hiking trails, small mammals, a Braille trail and a nursery stocked with indigenous species.
This wildlife reserve lies in the midst of the Great Karoo, just outside Beaufort West; 750 square kilometres that serves as a perfect halfway stop between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The national park is a sanctuary for antelope, Cape mountain zebra, buffalo, black rhino, bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackal and more recently, lions.
It is also home to the most number of tortoise of any park in the world, and a large number of Verreaux’s eagles nest in the cliffs of the escarpment. When it comes to big, star-studded skies, rugged mountains, complete silence and downtime, this close to a major highway, it is difficult to beat the Karoo National Park. The campsite and chalets are excellent.
North of Ceres, to the east of the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, and south of the Cederberg, lies a ridge known as the Koue Bokkeveld. Its name suggests: the cold, a ridge, buck and the hinterland.Off the beaten track (it is on an alternative route R303), one has to scale two mountain passes to reach it – Mitchell’s Pass and then the Gydo Pass- to scale 1050 metres above sea level.
Winters are not warm, and summers are brief and intensely hot. Which is why, on the plateau, farmers prolifically produce apples, pears and vegetables. Some of the oldest farms in the country lie here.
Now as sought after as the Big Five, meerkats are found predominantly in the Kalahari Desert. Strictly speaking the Kalahari is not part of the Karoo, but to reach it one needs to venture through the Karoo, as the Kalahari is on its northernmost boundary.
This home to the dwindling Cape mountain zebra population, just outside Cradock, is 28 000 hectares of spectacular scenery, peace and quiet, and plenty of game – lion, rhino, aardwolf, cheetah, buffalo, antelope, blue crane and Denham’s bustard as well as over 700 zebra.
Set on the northern slopes of the Bankberg range, the park is one of the most underrated in the country and well worth a stopover – visitors rate it the best national park in the Eastern Cape. Tip: stay in one of the secluded mountain huts or the recently restored historic farmhouse.
The area known as the Succulent Karoo is an annual riot of colour for a few weeks between August and October. Exactly when each year is anybody’s guess and fiendishly dependent on winter rain.
When conditions are just right the area south of Springbok, known as the Namaqualand, puts on a display of flowers that covers almost every available surface with a nature-woven tapestry of vivid colour. Nature reserves in the area, such as the Goegap, Richtersveld National Park and Namaqua National Park are a treat to visit.
The world’s longest wine route winds almost predominantly through the Klein Karoo, a 300 km strip of semi-desert between Worcester and George on the Garden Route. On its way it journeys through spectacular mountain passes, lush wine-producing valleys, and quirky Karoo towns.
The prime section of the route is, without doubt, between Montagu and George, taking in towns like Barrydale, Ladismith, Zoar, Amalienstein, Oudtshoorn, Prince Albert, De Rust and Uniondale. Stop en route for wine tasting and to overnight in villages each with a rich history, and a story to tell.
Often confused with the Karoo National Park, the Tankwa Karoo National Park is 70 km west of the Karoo town of Sutherland in one of the hottest and most arid parts of the country.
It protects an area of Succulent Karoo that has been declared a Biodiversity Hotspot by Conservation International, one of only two parks that protect this particular biome (the other is the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve; also worth a visit). But the draw card is the complete serenity, raw beauty and a stillness that is rarely experienced elsewhere.
The region known as the Camdeboo stretches from the Sneeuberge in the north to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness in the south, from the Koup Karoo in the west, to the old Transkei in the east.
It is a huge area that morphs from one immense flat plain in the south to slowly rise as it heads north where a giant ring of mountains acts as a bulwark to the escarpment and the mountains north of the Camdeboo. At the heart of the Camdeboo lies the town of Graaff-Reinet and the Camdeboo National Park.
The Karoo’s star-studded skies are one of its major attractions, so much so that the drive between Sutherland and Calvinia has been renamed the ‘starry Karoo route’. Taking the dust R354 between the towns through semi-desert, far from the lights of a city, is one way to experience the vast skies.
Or you can visit Sutherland’s Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) centre for a night tour. On a hill just outside Sutherland, the 90-minute tour is fascinating (the observatory houses the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere).