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The Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn is famous for its ostrich industry. Today, the focus on the large flightless bird with the long neck is its value as a tourist attraction at ostrich farms such as Highgate Ostrich Farm and the Cango Ostrich Show Farm.
In former times, it was the ostriches' luxuriant plumage that put the small town on the map. The period, known as the "feather boom", happened during the 1880s and the early 1900s and international demand for ostrich feathers made a number of entrepreneurs very wealthy.
Architecture lovers visiting Oudtshoorn can see fine examples of the so-called "feather palaces", extravagant homes built in the art nouveau, Victorian and neo-Renaissance revival styles. The J.H.J Le Roux house located at the CP Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn gives insight into the opulent lifestyles the feather barons lived during the heyday of the feather boom.
Oudtshoorn also has a number of well-preserved sandstone buildings that date back to the 1860s and the arrival of Scottish stonemasons to build churches and schools in the district. The best examples of the Oudtshoorn style can be seen on Baron van Rheede Street and include the Le Roux Townhouse Museum and the home of C.J. Langenhoven. Also visit the St Jude's Anglican Church (the oldest stone building in Oudtshoorn), the Oudtshoorn Synagogue and the CP Nel Museum.
Corner of Voortrekker Street and Baron van Reede Street.
The name ‘Karoo’ is synonymous with vast semi-arid landscapes, small rural towns, large farms, and few people, and here it is no different, except for that small word ’Klein’ (meaning little). There’s really nothing small about it, and only its modest title differentiates it from its big brother to the north, the Great Karoo.
The reason the Klein Karoo is dry is because it lies in the rain shadow between two long ridges of the Cape Fold mountains - these are made up of the Swartberg and Little Swartberg ranges in the north and the Outeniqua and Langeberg in the south.
The 125 000ha Swartberg Nature Reserve, which includes the lost valley of Gamkaskloof, embraces most of the Swartberg range from De Rust in the east, past Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp, and on towards Ladismith. It achieved World Heritage Site status in 2004. A section of the popular tourist ‘Route 62’ passes through the Klein Karoo from east to west, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘mountain route’ because the visitor is never out of sight of the impressive ridges.
Getting to and from the region, the traveller has a choice of interesting options through or over the mountains.
In the north, the amazing natural gateways of Meiringspoort and Seweweekspoort wind beneath the plunging cliffs, while the high altitude route is via the Swartberg Pass. In the south the Outeniqua and Robertson passes are no less sublime.
Big, bold scenery aside, the Klein Karoo has lots of smaller natural wonders that make it interesting, one of these being its wealth of plant species - the region is part of the succulent Karoo biome.
Plant lovers will be happy to know the region takes a healthy third place in the succulent diversity rankings in South Africa. Many of these unusual plants are tiny and finding them requires the donning of hiking boots and a sun hat and stepping out into the veld. Other outdoor pursuits are plentiful with hiking trails, mountain bike routes and bird watching being popular.
The Klein Karoo also has a wealth of tourist attractions, many of which are centred around the region’s biggest town, Oudtshoorn. The fascinating Cango Caves, for example, attract around 250 000 visitors a year.
However, every town along the route has something unique on offer.
As part of the longest wine route in the world, each town has either wine estates or a wine co-operative. Running parallel with this viticulture, but not as well known, is the R62 Brandy Route. This should bring a gleam to the eyes of many a South African, as Brandy is amongst the nation’s favoured spirits. Producers include Mons Ruber near De Rust, Kango Wine Cellar and Grundheim in Oudtshoorn, and Boplaas in Calitzdorp.
As a destination the Klein Karoo is generous in its offerings which, like all good things in life, should be enjoyed slowly.
Look out for
The Cango caves are situated at the end of the R328, about 40km north of Oudtshoorn. Of the 5.3km of caves, 1.2km is open to the public and the Standard Tour is an easy walk through the first six largest and most spectacular halls to the ‘African Drum Room’. The Adventure Tour lasts 90 minutes and takes one deeper into the caves, but is strictly for lean, fit people who are definitely not claustrophobic because adventurers have to squeeze through narrow fissures. There’s an interpretive centre offering a short film, a museum, gift shop, bureau de change, bar and coffee shop, and a photographic Fantasy Theatre; plus a restaurant specialising in ostrich dishes. Open 363 days a year, but closed on Christmas Day.
Wine, Port, and Brandy tasting - each town has at least one cellar where visitors can sample some of their produce, from Mons Ruber in De Rust, through to Kango Wine Cellar and Gundheim in Oudtshoorn, Boplaas, De Krans, and Calitzdorp cellars in Calitzdorp and Ladismith Wine Cellar in Ladismith.
Swartberg pass - This sinuous road, which climbs and dips between Prince Albert in the north to Matjiesrivier valley near the Cango Caves is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular mountain roads in the world.
Gamkaskloof, or Die Hel, as it is more commonly known – this lost valley, which was only connected to the outside world in the 1960’s, was once home to a remote group of people for over a century. At the time, they were described as ‘the most isolated community within a community of their own kind in the world’. The valley is now a nature reserve and offers overnight accommodation in some of the restored houses from that amazing era, as well as camping. Getting there is half the experience. It takes more than two hours along the narrow gravel road from the top of the Swartberg Pass to cover the 50km to the end of the valley.
Meiringspoort - is the eastern gateway into the region and once in the poort the serpentine road winds around sheer cliffs of orange rock and across the mostly serene waters of the Grootrivier (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, and it’s easy to spend half a day exploring from one end to the next. Make a point of stopping at Waterfall Drift picnic site and taking the short stairway to view the waterfall with its 60m drop culminating in a deep pool.
Seweweekspoort - This spectacular gateway through the Swartberg Mountains is situated 24km west of Calitzdorp and winds below the imposing 2 325m Seweweekspoort peak - the highest in the Swartberg. In many ways it’s similar to Meiringspoort, except here the road is gravel and the atmosphere is more primitive. Visitors can also picnic in the poort itself, and one spot that’s perfect to break out the sandwiches is at the thatched umbrella below the cliffs.