The Karoo falls within the Northern Cape Province and encompasses the north and west regions of the vast, semi-arid Great Karoo. The area is characterised by its sparse population; small, far-flung towns like Loxton, Carnarvon and Victoria West; and large sheep and game farms.
Two National routes - the N12 between Kimberley and Three Sisters, and the N10 between Noupoort and Groblershoop - bisect the region. The main north/south N1 highway runs through the south-east corner, between the towns of Colesberg, Hanover and Richmond.
On the surface, the Karoo is a thirsty land. Its rains are erratic and often meagre. Most of the rivers of the region only ‘flow’ underground and steel windmills work tirelessly on the few breaths of air to draw this water to the surface.
However, there is one river whose bronze surface glints in the sun as it glides eternally across the deserted plains: 500km of the Orange River flows through the Karoo, giving life to an otherwise barren landscape. This flow has been arrested in two places. Furthest upstream is the Vanderkloof Dam, the second-largest reservoir in South Africa. At 108m it also boasts the highest wall of any dam in the country. Further downstream is the Boegoeberg Dam.
For the casual tourist, there are no flamboyant reasons to visit the Karoo. Rather, this is a region of vast plains and bright stars, a region of solitude. It is off the beaten track and any journey here is a journey of discovery. It is the silence, space and solitude of the region that crawls under one’s skin.
The pace of life is slower here and the air is fresh and clean. Visitors can turn off the air conditioning and wind down the car windows. Here one finds star-filled night skies, the freedom of lonely roads and the simple life of small villages and towns.
The towns of the Karoo are special. They have no shopping malls or cinemas, and no big hotels. However one cannot help but be seduced by the beauty and simplicity of some of the country’s most isolated towns and farms, its unique accommodation, its strong traditions, its hearty food and country folk who always have a friendly greeting on their lips.
Then there are the Karoo icons: a windmill silhouetted against a smouldering sunset; a donkey cart rattling along a rutted farm road; boulder-strewn koppies and flat-topped mesas; a diverse range of architecture, including the intriguing beehive-shaped corbelled houses of the pioneers; and the country’s national animal, the springbok, grazing the veld.
That’s a lot to discover and explore in a region that is only now beginning to realise its potential as a tourist destination.
To get to know and appreciate the Karoo, one needs to spend a bit of time here, and preferably break out on foot. By chatting to the locals one is sure to find something that captures the imagination. It is a land for the free-spirited and an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with abundant opportunities to hike, bike, bird watch, game view, 4x4 and even fish or canoe on some of the dams and rivers.
Look out for
Architecture - most towns in the region have a mix of architectural styles including Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque, Cape Dutch and Karoo vernacular styles.
Witsand Nature Reserve - the small (3 500ha), but scenically beautiful Witsand Nature Reserve in the far north-west of the region, protects a unique system of pure white dunes flanked by terracotta Kalahari sands, acacia woodlands and the Langberg Mountains. A specific area of the dunes ‘roars’ when walked on, emitting a sound eerily similar to that of a lion’s roar. The reserve hosts some antelope, other small mammals and 150 species of birds. Activities include a bird hide, sand boarding, a 3.2km ‘botanical meander’, walking in the dunes, mountain bike hire and a nearby 4x4 trail. Accommodation is in air-conditioned lodges and camping sites (not air-conditioned!) and there are swimming pools for hot summer days.
River Rafting - Aquarush organise one to five day trips on the Orange River.
Paragliding - the Karoo reputedly has some of the best paragliding conditions in South Africa and the world for experienced paraglider pilots or those wanting to do a beginners course.
Corbelled houses - many of these dwellings, which were the original homes of the Trekboers in the mid-19th century, still stand in an area between Loxton, Carnarvon, Fraserburg and Williston. Most are inaccessible to visitors but there is a great example in Carnarvon at the museum.
Loxton is probably the smallest, quaintest, and most attractive town in the Karoo. It has no main street, virtually no shops, and the electricity poles are down the middle of the streets.
Book-town - a few years ago Richmond became South Africa’s first and only ‘Book town’. A good place to spend some time browsing for second-hand books.