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The Karoo, meaning place of thirst in the Nama language, aptly describes this vast inland region of South Africa. It’s a land of contrasts, where barren fields are instantly transformed into carpets of colourful flowers after rains and eternal springs are found near to lakes that remain dry for years.
The Karoo is geologically divided into the Great and Little Karoo, the Swartberg Mountain range splitting the two regions. The Little Karoo lies in a valley and is more fertile and mountainous than the Great Karoo. Combined, this arid area is roughly 500000km² in size.
Dig a little deeper and you will find a living desert filled with interesting creatures and nocturnal animals, diverse succulents, copper-infused rocks, old farmsteads and the occasional reclusive artist selling creative gems from home. Stare in awe at the big blue skies in the day and celestial showcase by night.
In the Karoo, visitors are able to appreciate the wide open spaces and the silence, broken only by the sound of a sheep bell. Being in a vast land where human contact is irregular, the warm and friendly locals welcome visitors and make every effort to ensure their return.
Travel a dirt road here and you will greeted by every passing vehicle driver, cyclist and pedestrian.
Top 8 reasons to visit the Karoo
1. The Little Karoo is mostly ostrich and fruit country, visit the ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn to learn more about this large bird, travel to Barrydale to sample the region’s wines and deciduous fruits, and take a break at the hot springs resort in Calitzdorp.
2. From Oudtshoorn, head over the Swartberg Pass – into the Great Karoo – to reach the pretty town of Prince Albert with its 19 national monuments and tasty olives. Further on is Beaufort West, a well-known fossil bearing area with good hiking and 4x4 trails.
3. Sutherland is officially the coldest town in South Africa. It’s also where the astronomical observatory is located due to the absence of light pollution and regular clear skies. Check out the observatory while there, the largest in the southern hemisphere.
4. To the east is Graaff-Reinet, one of the country’s best preserved towns. Visit the starkly beautiful Valley of Desolation in the nearby Camdeboo National Park.
5. The Tankwa Karoo National Park is located in the country’s driest region yet over 120 bird species and a surprising amount of mammals are found here, including bat eared fox, baboon, leopard, porcupine and honey badger.
6. The large town of Kimberley was established following the discovery of diamonds in the 1800s. Tour the Big Hole, the deepest manmade hole that resulted in the scramble for diamonds, and have a drink at the world’s only drive-in bar.
7. Port Nolloth on the west coast of South Africa was once used as a harbour to transport copper via sea to Cape Town. Wagons loaded with copper would arrive until a train line was established further up the coast. The bay serves a small fishing community where rock lobster attracts hungry tourists.
8. The Augrabies falls at the Augrabies Falls National Park is a spectacular sight following rains when the Orange River is forced through a tiny ravine and the gushing waters cascade down into a pool 56m below. There are 48 mammal species recorded here and exciting hiking and mountain bike trails crisscross the park.
Depending on your location, the international airports are OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to the north and Cape Town International in the south. Kimberley has a domestic airport. Several towns such as Beaufort West, Springbok and Upington have small airports for chartered flights. Car rentals can be ordered at the airports and a few major towns. Use a hired car to travel the Karoo and opt for a 4x4 vehicle to best experience the region. The Trans-Karoo train stops off in Kimberley and Matjiesfontein on its route between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Did you know?
Expect to taste authentic lamb and mutton dishes in the Karoo, after all, this is sheep country. Karoo lamb is certified according to the Karoo Meat of Origin label and is similar to the protection given to other products such as Parma ham.
Following the Karoo Ice Age of between 260 and 360 million years ago, higher oxygen levels produced large insects such as a millipede 1.8m long and scorpions reaching 70cm in length. Fortunately for us, they all died out.