Measuring about 400 000 km2, the Great Karoo spreads through parts of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Free State in the centre of South Africa. It is a vast semi-desert area known for its beautiful, endless plains, flat-topped koppies and sheep. The sky of the Karoo stretches to forever, and beyond.
The Karoo is huge, and many people think of it as the long flat part of the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town, where there is basically nothing but sheep and a straight tar road filled with ambling trucks and hiding speed cops. Wander a few (or many!) kilometres into it, though, and you’ll find quirky towns, wonderful people, beautiful landscapes, history, fossils, geographical wonders, the cleanest, clearest air in the world and starry nights that’ll leave you breathless in wonder.
Narrowing it down to just ten fabulous places to visit is almost impossible, but here it is:
The Blue Crane Route
Situated on the southern edge of the Karoo, on the Blue Crane Route (so-named for the large number of these beautiful birds that call the area home) is Somerset East. Nestled at the foot of the Boschberg, this little town was established in the early 1800’s and is, therefore, steeped in history.
Walter Battiss Museum
Many of the old buildings still stand, including the one which now houses the Walter Battiss Museum, which contains the largest collection of his work in the world. The building belonged to his family when he was a child. Most well-known for the imaginary world he created – Fook Island – this collection deserves a visit.
"You will seek in vain on maps for the location of the island, for it eludes conventional cartography. It is not a place you arrive at, you are either there or not there."
Walter Battiss (1906 – 1982)
Fresh Air and Fishing
This gem of a village nestled in a valley that’s fed by a spring that flows all year. It’s a tiny oasis filled with fantastic places to see and people to meet.
The Owl House
Most famously, it’s the home of Helen Martins’ Owl House. This spectacular piece of ‘Outsider Art’ has to be seen to be believed – a wonderous display of shining glass and other-worldly concrete sculptures, Helen Martins wove joy and tragedy (and a host of other emotions) together and turned her house into a colourful display of art.
Down the dust road (they’re all dust here, and there are no street lights to dampen the spectacular night sky) you’ll find Dustcovers, the book shop. All I’m saying is give yourself a couple of hours to browse. It’s small, but filled with literary treasures. It also has some of the sweetest book shop animals I've ever met. And what's a book shop without a book shop cat (and dog)?
Goats and Beer
Heading the other way, across the drift, lies the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goat’s Deli. Go there for a cold beer, brewed there, using the above-mentioned pure spring water, and a goat’s cheese platter. The cheese, too, is made there – you’ll see the goats if they’re not out-and-about doing goat things (i.e. eating) – and the kudu salami is sublime.
There are a number of artists, sculptors and ceramicists who call Nieu Bethesda home, too. You’ll need a couple of days to see everything. Go. Stay over. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’re a book fan, this is a town you must visit. Situated on the N1 this tiny town has over ten bookshops. Each year they host the Richmond Book Festival when authors and book lovers gather in the town for a weekend of everything book.
Karoo National Park
The Karoo National Park, situated just outside Beaufort West, is a nature and bird lover’s paradise. The park includes large plains and the Nuweveld Mountains, providing habitats for the wide range of animals and birds that call it home. These include kudu, mountain zebra, lion and wildebeest, to name but a few.
There are a number of places to stay in the park, including an isolated old shepherd’s hut which is accessible by 4X4 only. With only solar power, no cell phone reception and a waterhole in front of it, this is a true wilderness experience!
Karroo Theatrical Hotel
Just 4 km outside of Steytlerville lies the most surprising and fantastic, extravagantly decorated Karroo Theatrical Hotel. Owned and run by Jacques and Mark (and their bevy of furry friends), the hotel offers the quiet solitude of the Karoo, combined with glitz, style, good food and the infamous ‘Steytlerville Follies’ on Saturdays.
The hotel, by virtue of being on a farm outside the town, offers the solitude and clear air of the Karoo. Sit on the stoep and watch the sun set over the Karoo as everything turns pink and golden. On a hot summer’s day, take a dip in the pool, lie on your back and gaze at the huge sky. Even better, do it on a balmy summer evening and be flabbergasted by the starscape.
Food and Fun
All meals are lovingly prepared by Jacques – a la carte in the week and a special three-course dinner on Saturday evenings in the Grimaldi Theatre Hall, followed by the ‘Steytlerville Follies’. Presented by Freddy Ferrari, this rollicking show also stars the legendary Dame Leyla Lamborgini. Prepare to be dazzled.
A Tombstone Tour? Yip, you heard right. Here on the R63 between Calvinia and Carnarvon in the arid Northern Cape part of the Karoo lies Williston. It was here that master-carver, Cornelius de Waal engraved tombstones. The tour encompasses the local graveyard and farms outside the village. An interesting – and different – way to get to know the area’s history.
The Williston Mall, in the town itself, is a magical, quirky place consisting of a family-run pub, restaurant, theatre and shop. It is like Aladdin’s Cave, crammed to the gills with old treasures and things to see. Die Ark offers accommodation next door, too, in case you get stuck into a long evening in the bar, chatting to some of the wonderful characters who call this home.
With a water supply from the Swartberg Mountains, Prince Albert is a quirky little oasis in the middle of the arid Karoo Plains. The town is filled with quaint, beautifully-restored Victorian buildings and has become home to many artists and fascinating people.
The town offers a plethora of places to stay both in town and on surrounding farms. There’s something for everyone here. And the same goes for things to do – from veld walks and scenic drives to galleries and fantastic restaurants, you won’t be bored in Prince Albert.
Prince Albert Nightlife
Prince Albert is over 250 years’ old, so its seen its fair share of stories. Go on one of the Ghost Tours through the town and learn about some of its residents who just don’t want to leave! The beautiful art deco theatre in town – The Showroom – is also a must-see. And then the stars, the stars! Marvel at them yourself, or learn more about the Karoo night sky with an Astro Tour. Either way, you’ll be left in awe.
Just off the N1 between Touws River and Laingsberg lies the village of Matjiesfontein, virtually unchanged since the 1800’s. Established in 1884 on the main railway line that runs between Cape Town and Johannesburg, it was a popular spa during the Victorian times. The whole village was declared a national heritage site in 1975.
Overlooked by the gracious old lady in town – The Lord Milner Hotel – the village oozes with history. It has many stories to tell including having housed Oliver Schreiner and served as headquarters for the Cape Command during the Boer War.
Take a tour on the old London red bus, visit the Transport and Victoriana Museums or just relax in the gardens or rooms of the gracious old hotel and enjoy the fresh air and silence of the Karoo.
In the centre of South Africa, and the Free State part of the Karoo is Philippolis. It’s the oldest settlement in the Free State so is steeped in history. Take a walk through the town to see some beautiful examples of old architecture.
The town was home to many significant characters in South African history – Adam Kok, Emily Hobhouse and Sir Laurens van der Post. At the Laurens van der Post Memorial Centre, a labyrinth has been built and Oom Japie se Huis is well worth a visit, with its restaurant and book shop.
Mountain Biking the Karoo
For the more energetic of you, various places in the Karoo provide spectacular biking spots and a number of MTB races.
This gruelling race, ‘the toughest single stage MTB event in the world’, starts in the Karoo town of Willowmore and makes its way down to Jeffrey’s Bay on the coast. 230 km. In 24 hours. Non-stop. The route is unmarked as emphasis is put on not only strength and fitness, but orienteering too.
Does the Trans Baviaans sound too gentle for you? Perhaps try this, a newly launched race which will take place for the first time in December 2014. With prize money of $750 000 and an entry fee of $10 000, there are big stakes.
The race, a single stage, 1 000km route through the unrelenting heat and dust of the Karoo will test endurance to the max.
Some of our tours that include the Karoo:
17 Day Kruger Park to Cape Town Lodge Safari