Karoo Back Roads
Words and pics Romi Boom
On a three-night breakaway to Karoo National Park, you’ll be able to explore its furthest reaches. Game is plentiful and birding is rewarding, but it’s the vastness that will leave you giddy on atmosphere and beauty.
From the stoep of Embizweni cottage, at sunset, the flat-topped Nuweveld Mountains gradually turned pink, then lilac, then violet. A universe away from city life, the Karoo National Park had been a non-stop visual feast since I’d arrived in the early afternoon. Within minutes I’d spotted Verreaux’s eagles gliding on the thermals, one of the 17 active breeding pairs in the front section of the park.
Venturing deeper into the park towards the Nuweveld 4x4 route, the landscape becomes surprisingly rocky. Ideal terrain for the nimble klipspringers who watched from up close in the pass, but what about the large herds of plains game? How do the red hartebeest, gemsbok, kudu, eland, springbok and zebra manage to tread as carefully as ostriches among the boulders and rocks? The 90km can be driven in a day, but do overnight halfway at Embizwen to relished the isolation, the 180º views across deserted countryside, the grandeur of the mountain cliffs and crags.
If you do the eco trail in an anti-clockwise direction, the roughest section is negotiated on the first day. It’s relatively gentle, grade two, the only real challenge is embedded and shattered stone under your tyres. Although there are a few steep inclines, dips and rock shelves at water crossings, the scenery is more rugged than the track. On day two there’s plenty of time to descend the steep gradients of the mountain and cross the flat plains covered in grassy shrubland. I stopped a lot, enjoyed the spectacle of Karoo korhaan and South African shelduck, and tried, unsuccessfully, to photograph a pale chanting goshawk in flight with a snake dangling from its beak.
From the Nuweveld Loop, the trail diverts into Afsaal Loop and eventually joins up with the Potlekkertjie Loop, a popular drive from the main rest camp. To get in synch with the relaxed pace at Afsaal cottage, I recommend a stay of at least two nights. The waterhole is barely 30 metres from the cottage and the viewing deck is the perfect spot to read, quench your thirst, and wait. First to appear was an ancient leopard tortoise, next two kudus, then four gemsbok. Landing at arm’s length, then flitting to and fro, the cottage’s resident mountain wheatear. Sunsets at Afsaal were quite unlike those at Embizweni. On the open plains, twilight lasted forever, the sky aglow in burnt copper, picking up the flickers of the braai flames.
For serious and amateur birders alike, a few hours with Japie and Ralie Claassen, the gurus from Karoo Birding Safaris who have been birding for 35 years, will enrich your visit to the park. September to November is a good time to enlist their help to identify the seven or eight types of larks then very active in the veld. “The Karoo long-billed lark, when it is displaying, has to be one of my favourites,” Ralie confessed. “When you whistle, the male, who flies along close to the ground, rises up near-vertically 20 metres into the sky, with closed wings, then stalls and dive-bombs downwards, the wings still closed until just before it reaches the ground and continues its horizontal flight. There’s no mistake, it’s saying, ‘In this part of the world, I am king’.”
Other LBJs on your wish list might include short-toed rock-thrush, black-eared sparrowlark, southern tchagra and Karoo eremomela. Japie recounted how the rock pipits call for four days immediately after the rains, then they go all silent until after the next downpour. “And a Namaqua warbler, if you don’t know where to look, you may hear for a month without finding it.”
If you thought one night at Karoo National Park suffices, you’re in for a wonderful surprise.
Karoo National Park is conveniently located off the N1, near Beaufort West. Reception is open until 19:00.
Chalets in the rest camp start from R1 000 a night for one or two people, family cottages from R1 500 for one to four people, R290 an additional adult, R145 an additional child. Breakfast at the restaurant is included in the price.
The campsite has 24 stands. From R205 for one or two people, R72 an additional adult, R36 an additional child.
Book on 012-428-9111 or visit www.sanparks.org
Embizweni Cottage sleeps up to six people in two bedrooms. R857 a night for one to four people, R215 an additional adult, R108 an additional child. Rustic Afsaal has two single beds, R690 a night for one or two people. Both are fully equipped with gas- or solar-powered lights, fridge, hot-water geysers, cooking and braai facilities.
The small waterhole outside Afsaal plays host to the park’s lion pride, whose territory falls within the orbit of the two cottages. Book through the park’s reception on 023-415-2828.
Contact Japie and Ralie Claassen at [email protected] to book a half or full day’s birding, either in your own or their vehicle. In the summer outings start at 06:00.
Source: Wild Magazine