The Central Karoo falls within the Western Cape Province and embraces the south-western region of the vast and semi-arid Great Karoo. In keeping with the typical character of the Karoo the area is sparsely populated, with just a few towns scattered across the plains amongst large sheep and game farms.
Beaufort West is the main town of the region, with the nearby Karoo National Park being a big visitor draw card to the area. The region is home to two popular villages - Matjiesfontein, alongside the N1, and Prince Albert, tucked snugly at the base of the Swartberg Mountains.
In the north of the region the landscape has a prehistoric appearance, with conical hills and flat-topped ridges peppering the encircling horizon. A slight surge of the imagination could spark images of smoke and ash and oozing lava, with dinosaurs stomping along the valleys and gorges - a scene, perhaps, from the region eons ago.
Further south the countryside loses altitude rapidly, tumbling more than 1 000m down the slopes of the rugged Nuweveld Mountains. It then levels out onto a vast plain that sweeps towards its southern boundary at the Swartberg Mountains, over 100km away.
Many travellers only pass through the region along the thin line of the N1. The Nuweveld Mountains north of Beaufort West may look interesting, but the plains to the south are more or less featureless. However, this perception should be tempered by the fact that the area contains more species of flora than the entire United Kingdom.
As with much of the Karoo, one has to get out on foot and explore to discover its true appeal. The region has a good choice of guest farms offering a range of Karoo experiences. Beaufort West, the northern ‘gateway’ to the Western Cape, is a busy town and one where many travellers stop in to refuel and have a bite to eat. Recently it has seen an increase in the number and quality of its guesthouses as tourism in South Africa’s platteland catches on.
The Central Karoo is more suited to the explorer than the tourist - to those who enjoy seeking the less obvious joys and novelties, and who enjoy the experience of the journey as much as the destination.
Look out for
The Karoo National Park- On the outskirts of Beaufort West this 88 000ha park conserves the habitats and wildlife typical of the plains and mountains of the semi-arid Karoo. It is ostensibly a scenic park but there are a number of creatures to look out for during a game drive. Plains game includes gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest and plains zebra in the low-lying areas, while klipspringer and Cape mountain zebra can be seen in the mountains. Top species to spot are the desert black rhino and the recently introduced pride of lions. For birdwatchers the list of around 200 species is quite impressive for the region. The road network has been upgraded to allow access to some of the mountains as well as the plains, and for the adventurous there are two easy 4x4 trails heading into the western reaches of the park. Day visitors are welcome. Accommodation is in chalets and caravan and camping sites.
Matjiesfontein - On the N1, 240km from Cape Town, there is a unique Victorian village which has changed little since its establishment in the late 19th century. The Lord Milner Hotel and other buildings seem to send one into a time warp. For those who enjoy antiques and Victoriana, the Marie Rawdon Museum is fascinating.
Prince Albert - This charming Karoo village at the base of the Swartberg Mountains has a large following of avid fans. It is situated on the R407, 45km south of the N1.
Meiringspoort - This scenically spectacular road is situated on the N12 as it meanders through the Swartberg Mountains. Once in the poort (narrow pass between precipitous mountains), the serpentine road winds around sheer cliffs of orange rock and across the mostly serene waters of the Groot Rivier (Great River), which it crosses 25 times. It falls within the Swartberg Nature Reserve and there are numerous well-maintained picnic sites along the way, some with braai facilities. It is easy to spend half a day exploring the pass. Make a point of stopping at Waterfall Drift picnic site and taking the short stairway to view the waterfall with its 60m drop.
The Swartberg Pass - This sinuous gravel road climbs and dips between Prince Albert and Matjiesrivier valley near the Cango Caves in the Klein Karoo. It is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular mountain roads in the world.