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The Karoo is a vast semi-arid desert in South Africa. It stretches 400,000 km and is as big as Germany. The bushman or the original aborigines, who were the first settlers there called it the dry place, fittingly so.
With temperatures dropping to a freezing -15°C in the winter, to sweltering heat in the summer up to 40°C. South Karoo can have a different feel depending on what time of the year you go there.
The vastness of it attracts the adventurous spirit as one could drive the length of it while exploring town after town. They are thus experiencing tranquility and charm like no other place. There are plenty of reasons you should visit the Karoo. Below are the top 4 reasons you should make it your next destination.
It’s The Perfect Destination For Adventure Seekers
You’ll get to the Karoo driving from Cape Town to Johannesburg, using the N1 road. Driving on the Karoo, you’ll notice the landscape, and it’s mostly open spaces. With hills and mountains looming in the distance. Australia has the Outback, and South Africa has the Karoo.
People from all walks of life, from the creative artists to young farmers, make the Karoo their home. You’ll come to appreciate the distinctive settlements you’ll encounter in the community with each town never quite the same, each offering its own set of idiosyncrasies.
The Karoo is not just an empty desert. It has natural attractions for every type of adventure traveler. From a desert botanical garden to a 750 square kilometers national park. You can see some amazing animals there like the large Verreaux’s eagles.
Even an activity as simple as stargazing is something people do on the starry Karoo route. And if you’re only seen stars from the city, you need to see it here as it’s a hundred times more beautiful in the desert.
The Karoo may not be for everyone. But for those who seek it, the eccentrics, hipsters, outsider artists and those who enjoy the outdoors and great open plains, they will feel right at home here.
The Karoo even attracts archaeologists as fascinating archeological discoveries are being made there.
There have been records from stone tools found in the area that dates back 100,000 years ago — suggesting that modern humans have inhabited the area for quite a while.
It’s for adventurers who love a good road trip across the desert. Visiting idyllic towns, exploring natural wonders, tasting good food, and observing exquisite panorama. They all leave the Karoo with fond memories etched in their minds and soul.
It has been compared to the great outback in Australia. The sheer silence you can experience at the dead of night. The solitude and tranquility that adds to the mystery of being in the arid desert.
It has mountains and vast spaces. Its attractiveness lies in people wanting a different travel experience than the norm.
You’ll observe a raw beauty coming from the place and people who live there. With its untouched environment, the aura of the Karoo feeds the curious adventure seeker.
The Karoo Is Huge
The Karoo is not a small place. It’s about the size of Germany. Although not everyone who travels to South Africa has heard of it, it is an exciting journey to make. Forty percent of the land surface in South Africa is part of the Karoo.
It touches the four provinces in South Africa, namely the Western Cape, Eastern Cape Northern Cape, and Free State. The population in the Karoo is estimated to be around 71,000 people.
It’s a continuous journey of mountains and eternal space. In fact, you’ll be driving through the Karoo journeying from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
And it’s not just the same place throughout either. The South Karoo or Klein Karoo has mountains and small deserts and are near Worcester and George. Worcester is also where tourists go to visit it’s beautiful, colorful desert garden.
Whereas the Great Karoo is part of South Africa’s heartlands. A place with charming, to be discovered dorpies, monuments, arts, and museums.
It’s north of the Swartberg, an old pass which is built by the prolific road engineer Thomas Bain. It also happens to be a national monument and offers incredible views throughout its one-hour journey drive.
Then there’s Namaqualand, which is an ecological area and is part of the Succulent Karoo. This place is special as it’s teeming with biodiversity. There have been 615 species that are documented thus far.
In truth, the Karoo is not precisely defined, and the actual size is subjective. But what you’ll find is that each area will have its charm, and you’ll experience hospitality at its best. The small towns and open plains are part of what gives The Karoo it’s distinctive attraction to visitors.
There Are Plenty To See On A Road Trip Through The Karoo
There’s nothing like driving a 4×4 through the Karoo once in your life. Going on long miles on the dirt roads with just the sky and the desert on the horizon. And there’s a couple of ways to do it.
From the popular Route 62 to driving the roads of Koup. No matter how you plan your journey, there are a couple of notable stops you should make on your journey.
Tanqua Karoo National Park
Located between Ceres, Sutherland, and Calvina. This beautiful swathe of wilderness is a worthwhile destination for those looking for peace and tranquility. The scenery is just spectacular.
A journey here would take four hours from Cape Town. You can relax here at the campsite at Elandsberg wilderness camp. There’s no cell phone reception here. So you’re getting away from it all while enjoying the sunset from rustic cottages. If you’re more the thrill enthusiast, go off-road and explore as there are two major tracks available here.
Game viewing isn’t a significant activity here. Although you can spot a few animals like mountain zebras, hartebeest, gemsbok, and springbok. And bird watching is something to do as well, with over 170 species native to the area.
Valley Of Desolation
This “Cathedral Of Mountains” or as some call it the mini Grand Canyon of South Africa has breathtaking views across the plains of Camdeboo.
Located in Graaff-Reinet, this well-kept trail has lots of picnic spots across its hiking trails. A very magical place among nature and it’s a geological phenomenon.
If all you need is nothing else but distant and magnificent views as far as the eye can see, this is the place to go to.
The Various Towns In Karoo
The Karoo has no shortage of towns to visit along its various routes. Taking a break between the scenery of the open plains and resting in between the dorpies is a great experience for travelers.
And it’s not just B&B’s or small hotels in these small towns either. There’s plenty to see and do.
There’s the disturbing yet alluring Owl museum in Nieu Bethesda. The museum was the home of Helen Martins, South Africa’s most well-known outsider artist. The town of Nieu Bethesda was her hometown. And it’s also where her life tragically ended in 1976.
But it’s not all just about oddities and dark tales; the town has a few guest houses and a deli that makes some of the best cheeses in the country.
It is said that everyone traveling the Karoo should stay at the town of Prince Albert at least once. It’s at the foot of the Swartberg Pass, which itself is an attraction. Here is where you would want to take in a show at The Showroom Theatre. And visit the various art galleries in town.
There are so many interesting towns to visit in the Karoo; you’re going to want to make time to see most of it.
From the busy and bustling Oudtshoorn, Barberton with its excellent views, the waterfalls, and caves at De Rust Klein, historical Little Aberdeen and the beach at Paternoster.
And the towns mentioned above are only a handful of the whole list. You can spend months traveling each one, and experiencing a different gem each time.
Karoo National Park
Another national park that people visit between a journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Karoo National Park is a stark, barren but ultimately beautiful park that is located 500 km from Cape Town.
There are over 300 species of animals here. So there’s plenty of opportunities for game viewing. You can view the majestic Verreaux’s eagle along the Klipspringer pass.
Some roads for viewing animals are 45 km long, like the Potlekkerjie Loop. It takes 2 and a half hours to drive up the peak. Other animals in the park that can be seen are lions and zebras, the large antelope Gemsbok and the wild cat Caracal to name a few.
It’s not just animals that you can discover more of at the park. For the paleontologist, botanist or if you’re just curious, there’s the Bossie trail to explore the various plants. The path includes the Grasslands and Nama Karoo biomes.
Then there’s the Fossil trail, where you’ll understand how life would have been like 250 million years ago.
At the park, temperatures tend to go to extremes. With summer months being sweltering, and clear snow on top of the Nuweveld Mountains during winter.
The Swartberg pass is a challenging, 27 km dirt road that is 1583 above sea level at the peak. It’s not for the faint of heart, as the road is steep and has sharp turns. But it offers fantastic views of the mountains and has a few historical sites to visit on your way to the top.
The pass can be seen as a backdrop from the town of Prince Albert. And you can plan your excursion there after spending the previous night in town. As the road is quite long, it’s best to start early the next day. The pass is 4 km from Prince Albert and can be reached from the R407 pass.
If long stretches of wildflowers, beautifully laid for miles long is something you’d like to see, then The Namaqualand Flower Route is the one you should go to.
During springtime, after the rainfalls, the area transforms from barren land to a beautiful flower carpet. You can gaze and marvel at the sea of colors and be captivated by it.
Some of the wildflowers you could see are daisies, lilies, aloes, and other species as well. You should go when the weather is sunny. As not only will the colors appear more vivid, it’s the only time the flowers will open up.
Between the late mornings to early evenings are also the best times to visit the Namaqualand Route. If you feel you want to know more about the area intimately, there are walking tours available during springtime.
You can come here from Springbok, which is the largest town in the area. Also known as the Namaqualand Flower Capital.
Do Some Stargazing At Sutherland
People do come to The Karoo for the stars. And unlike movie stars which can be difficult to spot. These celestial bodies can easily be seen in places like Sutherland on any clear night sky.
It’s in Sutherland where you can visit SALT, which stands for South African Large Telescope. It prides itself as being one of the few astro-viewing research centers in existence.
Although while you’re there, you’re not going actually to view the heavenly bodies on the telescope. But instead, view the clusters of stars and planets on the various monitors in the facility.
To have a real stargazing experience, you can stay at one of the cottages or guest farms in Sutherland that provides it. A popular one is at Sterland Annex, a comfortable cottage for two with a double bed, shower, and bath. They host stargazing events almost every night, and you can reserve your slot while you’re there.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of awe watching the sky from a 6 x 11-inch telescope on a beautiful quiet night. Admiring and learning more of our cosmos and appreciating how we’re a part of such a vast universe.
See The Festivals
Festivals are special as they bring people together. It’s an interesting way for locals to celebrate an important occasion, and for tourists to learn more about the culture.
The Karoo has a lot of festivals throughout the year. You can find traditional events like the Williston Winter Festival. You can hear some nice rhythms while hearing the story of the hunters of old and their ways of wooing their women.
The Nama Riel Dance as it’s called is performed on the sand, and it’s a spectacle to see the rieldancers perform their talents on the sand, dancing and kicking while dust fills the air. It’s a crowd-attracting event in the Northern Cape.
Then there’s the somewhat unique pastime of the kids of Philipstown. You can’t help but feel the ingenuity of the event they hold each year, which is the Wire Car Grand Prix.
Taking something mundane and turning it into something fascinating to watch. A place like Philipstown will not have children playing ipads or have their hands attached to their mobile phones like an extra appendage.
Instead, they play cops and robbers their style, with draadkarretjies or cars made from wires.
Every year on October on November, the wire car craftsmen of Philipstown get busy making these for the kids to race. It’s the many shapes and sizes of these cars, and the adrenaline of seeing these kids try to win, make the event worth watching.
If you’re into feature films, documentaries and short films, there’s the Karoo Film Festival. Or maybe you’d like to tour at the Garden Festival at Bedford, visiting open gardens with breathtaking scenery.
There’s also wine and food festivals, a writer’s’ festival, a Festival Of Lights in Nieu Bethesda, a national arts festival celebrating Afrikaans culture and music.
Then there’s South Africa’s version of the Burning Man celebration, which is held in Tankwa instead of the Nevada desert. The list goes on and on for festivals on a road trip through the Karoo. So there’s always something to look forward to on the calendar.
The Deliciousness Of The Food (Namely Lamb)
There’s something really good about the food in the Karoo, and the reason thousands of people visit the region. It’s basic, unpretentious yet amazingly delicious. Consisting of mostly succulent meat dishes. This farm style food will you make you longing for more.
The Karoo is not a place to avoid eating meat. That is if you intend to sample some of the best dishes the region has to offer. With sheep outnumbering people 4:1, you can bet the animals are put to good use. There are 7 million sheep and one million goats. Plus the meat is cheap, costing less than 15 dollars for a 400g steak.
And the Karoo is famous for its lamb meat. The lamb here is something special. For one they’re as organic as you can get. No antibiotics or hormones are used for the lamb meat here.
The lamb meat is something of pride and joy in the region. As it’s recognized worldwide for its distinct flavor. Which you can only get from the area of Karoo. Even famous chefs in South Africa will proudly tell you their lamb is sourced from the Karoo.
The reason being is, the lamb here feed on a specific range of plants and vegetation. They are not grass fed like some animals are.
As the Karoo region is mostly dry, the lamb can’t eat grass most of the time. Instead, they eat a bunch of plants that thrive all year long. The indigenous shrubs and herbs that is.
You can smell the herbs in the plain open fields. It’s almost like being at a spice market.
Shrubbery like rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, and eucalyptus that are consumed by the sheep, subsequently gives the meat it’s special flavor. You don’t even have to use much seasoning to cook it.
And only from this region do they gain this flavor. You may think that all lamb tastes the same. That the only difference is the way it’s cooked, or the ingredients used to prepare it. But eating lamb from the Karoo region will change your opinion.
How the animals fed, and where it comes from plays a big role in its flavor. The herbal taste comes from the fact that what these animals have been eating from this specific region.
A study done by Sarah Erasmus, a student from Stellenbosch University, confirms this. The researcher conducted a study that found the food consumed by the lamb in the Karoo contributed towards its different taste.
Nicolette Hall, a researcher from the University of Pretoria came to the same conclusion as well.
Comparable to a bottle of champagne from France, Jasmine Rice in China or Parma ham in Italy, a true Karoo lamb, will have its official seal which is the sign of a windmill.
Some of the delicious lamb dishes you can try are crispy roasted lamb belly, lamb tripe, roasted lamb rump, and lamb curry potjie. But the traditional and some would say is the best way to experience lamb, is to have a braai (barbecue) to enjoy the meat. Which is something South Africans do every weekend.
With Karoo food, there’s no waste. Everything is used when cooking. You don’t just keep the prime cuts and leave out the rest. The recipe for various Karoo dishes uses everything from the head to tail. Have you ever tried mutton neck stew or grilled lamb tails? If you haven’t, you’ll find it in the Karoo.
So where do you go to experience the local Karoo food? With over 100 charming towns to explore, there’s a dish or restaurant in some town that’s bound to satisfy your craving. For example, you can try lamb tripe at A Palhota Taverna in Williston. For the best lamb shank you ever tasted, Cluster d’Hote in Sutherland is the place to go.
Of course, the Karoo doesn’t just have lamb, even though that is the main specialty. There’s Bobotie, the South African version of a British shepherd’s pie. The dish was brought over by the Dutch and was integrated with the Cape Malay community in South Africa.
The exotic flavors of the dish come from dried fruits and nuts, that are mixed into the recipe along with minced meat, and topped with egg and milk.
If you happen to come to the Karoo during food festivals, you’re in luck to try all the best dishes in one place. Learn to make milk tarts, and try them as well of course. Or have a spiced sausage called droëwor. One such place to experience this is at the meat festival of Hantam Vleisfees.
Karoo food festivals are a kind of street party, with people eating beside high-tables, drinking beer and listening to live music.
The tradition of hunting by the many African tribes brought with it Biltong, a delicious meat treat. Biltong is a way to preserve meat for the tribes. The meat is spiced, cured and air-dried to provide sustenance during low hunting seasons. Today you can find it as a snack along the many stops in the Karoo.
South Africa is still pretty much a hunting destination. With local men and women participating in the sport. As a result, pretty much game meats of all kinds of animals are available for you to try. Maybe even animals you never heard of like the Blesbok.
Some other meats to taste are springbok, kudu, zebra, crocodile, and warthog. Some relatively less exotic meats to eat would be venison, rich but has less fat than beef. Or try Ostrich, which is delicious when served with cream sauce.
If you find yourself craving something that doesn’t have meat in it, have a roosterkoek, which means grilled cake. Although it’s texture is more like bread, warm and soft with a light crust on the outside. It’s mostly eaten in a braai, but you can skip the meat and eat it just on its own.
The Karoo is a fascinating place. There’s nothing quite like it. You can escape it all, and at the same time feel right at home.
The reasons for visiting the Karoo are numerous. And you can count yourself lucky if you’ve already done so.
You can spend months traveling the road, or a few days spent in between the towns. Whatever itinerary you make for a trip at the Karoo, you’ll be sure to experience something special.