It must’ve been when I reached my late 30s that the Karoo, in all its forms, assumed for me the position of the quintessential South African road trip. Once the literal stomping ground of dinosaurs and later, vast herds of a million springbok, today the big-sky, star-struck, semi-arid landscape is a photographic treat, sprinkled with guest houses to suit all tastes.
Prior to that personal revelation, driving between Joburg and Grahamstown as a student in the late 1980s, the only thing on the collective minds of my companions and I was to get through the flat, dry landscape as quickly as possible. Those inner, curled and maybe coffee-stained pages of the road atlas that detailed routes through the Karoo landscape were stark in their emptiness; the road starting at one side of the page and disappearing into the next, with very few side roads leading to anywhere of interest for a student.
It’s over 30 years down my particular road now, and the Karoo road trip, which I can’t do slowly enough these days, is a sought-after delight on my iPhone’s GPS. Padstals (aka road stalls), quirky Cape Karoo guest houses, nature reserves, amazing history, and landscapes to die for, the Karoo is a road tripper’s dream.
But here’s the thing, there is no definition of the Karoo, and nor is it restricted to a particular province. For the traveller and romantic, the Karoo is a feeling, covering the western, northern and eastern Cape provinces, and according to a farm-cum-guesthouse owner outside hilly Bethulie in the Free State, it edges into that province too.
Here are five of my favourite lesser-known places that you really shouldn’t miss.
Swartberg pass-before entering PA, turn left to Welbedacht fig farm
This is a padstal on steroids, somewhere between Richmond and Hanover in what they call the Upper Karoo. It’s so stylish that it’s almost obscene, with everything being just wonderful: fabulous decor and cuisine, a wine selection and a bookstore. Trendy and completely unexpected, it’s a bit like Woolies in the Karoo. It was here, in the wine room, that I had my first-ever staring competition with a rooster.
Not everyone pops through this quiet little town, which is on the N12, as it’s the alternative main route linking Cape Town to Joburg and Pretoria via Kimberley. But the food is so very good, and the coffee… oh the coffee.
I’d struggled to find coffee heading south-west from Johannesburg. I had a decent plunger heading towards Potchefstroom, but after that all I remember was paying R30 for a cup of Ricoffy in a dismal little place called Groblershoop. So the discovery of the Old Mill was such a relief, and the owner and the building’s old sandstone architecture are delightful. It’s also home to delicious pies.
We discovered this gem just outside Richmond, and soon after checking in discovered that this was also the Karoo-Gariep Conservancy. A second- or third-generation farmer, PC Cronje is pursuing his dream of creating a 450,000-hectare nature reserve in this relatively central part of South Africa.
It all started when he discovered that early colonial hunters had shot up to 25 hippos a day on the Seekoei River that runs past his farmhouse. He’s got a hippo in the river today, waiting for some companions to be relocated from the Kruger, with plenty of antelope, birdlife and even rhino. Cronje is rewilding the Karoo, while pursuing a socio-economic project that involves stimulating the dying towns of this portion of the Greater Karoo.
This 3,500-hectare nature reserve is in the Northern Cape, a Kalahari stone’s throw from the Karoo. It is such a remarkable landscape, and so close to the Karoo, that’s its certainly worth a detour. The rutted sand road between Kathu and Upington leading off the N14 to the reserve (from the Johannesburg side) will rattle older vehicles. But it’s worth it.
This is the home of the famous roaring sands (brulsand) of the Kalahari, with over 150 bird species and plenty of plains game, gemsbok, red hartebeest, springbok, duiker and steenbok among them. There’s a handful of wonderful, thatched cottages and a swimming pool, and even a 3.2-km Botanical Meander, with 43 plant species (sign-posted in five languages). Visitors are free to explore any part of the reserve on foot.
This is far to the south, in the historic, architecturally beautiful little Karoo village of Prince Albert, at the foot of the breath-taking Swartberg Pass. You can learn all about the town in its excellent museum.
The Lazy Lizard is owned by a Chilean who has employed local people, empowering them with new skills. We were served by two fully trained baristas during our stay, which was a treat. The staff are fabulous, with a real sense of belonging, and it’s clear that they love their work. The breakfast and coffee are excellent and this became our go-to spot every morning.
This wonderful little town is located at high altitude about three to four hours from Cape Town, showing off a different Karoo landscape. It’s good to visit in any season because of its temperate climate, and in winter there’s almost always snow.
The South African Large Telescope (SALT) complex is housed on a hill a short drive out of town, and if you want to see the stars (and there’s no better place in the country), Jurg Wagenaar gives tours of the sky using his handful of large telescopes. Sutherland Dark Sky Reserve is South Africa’s first and largest Dark Sky Reserve, aiming “to preserve the Karoo night sky darkness”.
While in the area, another impressive experience you shouldn’t miss is Rita Wagenaar’s network of walking trails, during which she incorporates both her encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and her passion for the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
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