Karoo National Park – a little piece of heaven
The Karoo National Park must be one of the most visible national parks in the country. If you travel on the N1 at all between Cape Town and Johannesburg, then you’ve whizzed past it at 120 kilometres an hour.
I say this assuredly, as just ahead is the town of Beaufort West, when travelling from Cape Town, and the ballyhoo of a fine, a requisite part of any trip between the two major cities issued by traffic officers unseen, is why you will have taken more notice of the speed limit than any sign indicating the park, and is possibly why the park remains so underrated …
If you have managed to slow to the requisite speed limit in time to register the park, then you will know what I’m talking about. It’s roughly two kilometres outside Beaufort West and is a spell binding place to overnight. Yes, you can stay in a B&B in Beaufort West – there are a number of really good ones – but you won’t get to see night skies of the Karoo quite like these, experience a night drive through the park, or see the views available to you from your chalet.
You notice that I didn’t make any promises about seeing black rhino or sighting the riverine rabbit, who is obviously so elusive that not even our night driver knew they were present in the park. Marketing material promises the black rhino, but you will have to be fairly patient and quiet to see them (I imagine, as we certainly didn’t) and on a hike into the interior of the park – they’re unlikely to be where humans are.
But this doesn’t make an iota of difference to your experience here. The quiet, the expansive skies, the typical splendour of the Karoo, thorn trees, thatched chalets that in no way intrude on the landscape and views that go on forever make this an escape worth making. And only kilometres from the main road, which you fortunately do not hear at all from the park. Our first night was punctuated only by the cries of jackals.
Cape Dutch-style chalets, their roofs thatched, balconies providing shade from the scorching heat of the Karoo offer quiet downtime away from the road, whilst their woodens shutters keep out the wind and the light of the moon. There is also a caravan and camp site is just a little further into the park. These are self-catering facilities, or you can dine in the only restaurant in the park, about which I cannot wax lyrical, so will choose to say nothing at all…
There are two interesting titbits of information with regards to the animals in the park. One is that you’ll find the quagga or plains zebra here. Said to be extinct and last seen in a zoo in Amsterdam in 1883, the quagga was genetically recreated from genetic code taken from a mounted specimen in a museum.
Well, that’s not quite the whole story. Actually, by analysing this fragment of DNA scientists were able to discover that the quagga DNA very closely matched plains zebra, which made it easy to breed quaggas from plains zebras. The difference between them is that quaggas have limited striping in their hind quarters and an overall brownish colour. Now in their third generation, some of the zebras look a lot like quaggas, which, the scientists adamantly argue, makes them quaggas.
The other impressive news is that the park intends introducing lion in the near future, bringing back an historically occurring species to the Great Karoo. This goes some way to explaining the electric fences that now line the walkways to and from the reception area, and will certainly up the number of visitors to the park. On the other hand, the self-guided walking trails through the park that are so popular with hikers will now become guided, and the herbivores that seem relatively tame, in the sense that they’re not used to predators, are in for a nasty shock!
Our chalet lay really close to the Karoo Fossil Braille Trail, a 400 metre long walk that details the geology and palaeontology of the Great Karoo. Whilst a little shuffle along this well-trod pathway was enough to entertain me for the duration of our stay – the other day was spent reading on the verandah – there is plenty to keep people occupied.
There are two swimming pools, two gorgeous nature trails that are really well signposted – the Bossie Trail and the Fonteintjieskloof – there is a very pretty bird hide at the dam, a drive that one of the other residents, over breakfast, suggested I take along the Klipspringer Pass to the viewpoint at Rooivalle, and of course, game viewing in your own car, which kept our little one perfectly entertained for a morning, whilst he tried to spot zebra.
The highlight of our trip though was a guided night drive through the park. We joined another couple of families in a 9-seater off-road vehicle at around 7.30pm and followed a circular path through the park that uncovered a number of animals we would not have seen driving through the park during the day, including an owl, a couple of jackals, numerous rabbits (although not the riverine rabbit!) and plenty of red hartebeest, kudu and springbuck.
On our last night the wind came up and ripped through the valley as if intent on damage. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the wind blows at such a rate in Beaufort West that they intend setting up a 80MW wind farm out here. But this wind was hot, almost like the berg winds of my childhood in Durban, and it gusted and blew to such an extent that even packing the car to leave was an ordeal.
Yet nothing could detract from my experience in the veld at night, in my chair from the verandah, out under a myriad stars, my feet drawn up to my chest just in case, whilst bats whizzed around over my head. The sky was awash with stars, the milky way no longer a smudge but a visible net as if cast by the hands of a celestial fisherman intent on reeling in the spheres of light.