Lonely wind pumps and serene sheep suggest a more humdrum countryside, but this route takes in the best views of this vast region and returns to its untouched spaces.
What is it that makes a perfectly iconic Karoo road trip?
I turn off the N1 just before Colesburg and pass Gariep Dam, leaving the Free State for the Eastern Cape with this thought playing on my mind. These flat and endlessly open roads are perfect for brainy brooding. I’m plotting a cross-province road trip with a difference – combining everything the Karoo is (peculiar padstals, creaky windpompies and long straight roads that lick the horizon) and was (a sprawling wild space teeming with handsome antelope herds pursued by lions and cheetahs, and dinosaurs before them).
On the R390 heading for Steynsburg a road sign warns against potholes, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see they’ve all been patched up and I can easily keep the pedal at 120 kilometres an hour, with the straight skyline ahead of me. I don’t pass another car for more than an hour, but I do pass picturesque wind-pump silhouettes and two burnt-out cars, one of them upside down, rusting on its rooftop.
Yup, this is a Karoo journey all right.
I’m further encouraged when I get to Hofmeyr and meet a goat in the main road. It poses for a picture in front of the pastel-pink church in the middle of town, before clipping off down the tar to find something to nibble on. I dip into the Karoobos Padstal to find a little something for myself. After picking up a packet of koeksisters, I carry on towards home for the next two nights, the new chalets at Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock.
The landscapes here are astonishing. Initially proclaimed to protect the park’s Cape mountain zebra (when there were just 11 of them left), the first predators, the also critically endangered cheetah, were introduced to the park just 12 years ago. Later, lions joined them.
Sergeant ranger Donovan Antonie describes the natural workings of the park to me. ‘In 2010 the lions were introduced and pushed the buffalo around, preying on them. We had about 300 buffalo but their numbers quickly dropped as the lions ate nearly 10 a month. It took about two years for this to stabilise, and now the buffalo have moved into different areas of the park, exploring new grazing, which is better for the plant life. The lions have also stabilised the cheetah population – at one point we had 32 in the park that were causing springbok numbers to drop. Once the lions came home, the chain was complete.’
The park now has more than a thousand Cape mountain zebra, as well as the fierce-looking but sweet-natured aardwolf, black rhinos, blue cranes and a number of other precious species in a ‘re-wilding’ of the Karoo that is based on an area bigger than just this one park – the conservation area almost 120 kilometres long will link two national parks through a partnership between SANParks and 65 private landowners, which was officially instated by the Department of Environmental Affairs earlier this year. This ambitious conservation project is known as the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Protected Environment or, more simply, the Karoo Corridor.
I enjoy sunrise surrounded by the squeaks of black wildebeest on the grasslands of the Kranskop Loop in the park, then make my way to the fabled Camdeboo. On the road heading to Graaff-Reinet, it feels like sacrilege to bypass Nieu Bethesda, so I make the easy 40-kilometre detour and visit the Owl House. I’ve been before, but am still impressed by the myriad crazy statues and glittering glass walls so creatively manifested in this dusty village.
Passing a horse-drawn carriage on the road out of town, I take the faster tarred pass back to the N9 and enjoy a little drive around Graaff-Reinet. With more than 200 buildings proclaimed as national monuments and an entire street restored, this fourth-oldest town in South Africa has certainly retained its historical Karoo charm – and it’s almost completely surrounded by a national park.
The Valley of Desolation (another national monument) is undoubtedly the Camdeboo’s biggest drawcard. The sunset on a good day is breathtaking, and the park stays open late so visitors can enjoy the full colour spectrum, which I take advantage of.
It’s hard to believe that just an hour away, elephants have returned to the plains of Camdeboo. A herd of six was introduced to Samara Game Reserve at the end of 2017 – the first time ellies have roamed this part of the Karoo in roughly 200 years. Samara is one of the private properties involved in the Karoo Corridor project, and manager Marnus Ochse excitedly fills me in on the details.
‘Once it’s proclaimed as a nationally protected space, it will also protect the land from any fracking and uranium mining', he says. In its successful fruition, the Karoo Corridor will see 286343 hectares of private and public land protected and preserved in the region.
‘I’m sure in my time here at Samara, we can see the fences drop between us and Camdeboo National Park – it’s possible because there’s a bit of farmland between us and the owners seem positive about the unification.’
In my pursuit of more Karoo wilderness, I have one more stop: the Karoo National Park is just outside Beaufort West. It’s an effortless two-hour drive via Aberdeen on the N9 and R61. The rocky plains seem barren in the dry midday heat, but two ostrich scuttled across the road and in the distance springbok shimmer in the haze. It might look like a lot of boring brown landscape but the sprawling park has more than 14 different vegetation types.
The rest camp is a welcome refuge from the heat, set in a picturesque valley, and all the cottages face the soft backdrop of the Nuweveld Mountains. After checking in, I have a look at the map. There are some serious 4x4 routes that cut across the remote areas of the park, but my little Ford Figo does perfectly well climbing Klipspringer’s Pass, which provides amazing views of the surrounding plains. I even spot an oryx in the valley below.
Given that you can find five South African tortoise species in this park, it doesn’t surprise me that it has always been a reptile hotspot. Back at camp in the cooler afternoon, I walk the fascinating Fossil Trail and wind my way through history to a time when dinosaurs once roamed these parts.
Watching the rocky sunset picture show from my Cape Dutch-style stoep, I think I’ve done justice to following a route that explores everything the Karoo is - and was.
It’s heartening to know, too, that work is being done to create more.
How to road trip through the Great karoo
Day 1 & 2: Gariep to Mountain Zebra National Park
DISTANCE 210km ALLOW 3 hours
Turn off the N1 and drive the R58 over the Gariep Dam wall (stop to take some photos). Then just before Venterstad, turn right onto the R390 – it’s a flat, scenic drive that passes through Steynsburg and Hofmeyr (stop at the Karoobos Padstal for country snacks) before reaching Cradock. Here, fill up with fuel and get food supplies at Spar or Pick n Pay before driving the last 10km stretch to Mountain Zebra National Park on the R61. Spend two nights in the park at the gorgeous rock chalets as it’ll give you a full morning to do the highly recommended cheetah tracking.
DAY 3: Mountain Zebra to Camdeboo National Park
DISTANCE 220km ALLOW 5 hours
After breakfast, head towards Graaff-Reinet on the R61. Once you hit the N9, turn right and immediately left on the 28km dirt pass that goes to Nieu Bethesda (signage is very clear). Check out the famous Owl House and grab Karoo tapas at The Karoo Lamb. Leave the village, taking the faster 24km tarred road out to the N9, and drive to Graaff-Reinet. Once in town, you can explore the various museums or antiques stores, followed by good coffee and milk tart at Polka.
If you have time to kill, do the game-viewing loop in Camdeboo National Park (entrance gate 4km out of town on the N9) before doubling back to the Valley of Desolation for sunset – 5km out of town on the R63. The park’s Lakeview Tented Camp is a great budget option to spend the night, or splurge at Samara.
DAY 4: Camdeboo to Karoo National Park
DISTANCE 230km ALLOW 1 hour