Semi-desert so rich with plant species, The Karoo dominates the centre of South Africa, so that botanists come from all over the world to see it. But to many people, it is a flat, hot expanse that must be raced through to get from Johannesburg to the Western or Eastern Cape. They are missing a treasure. This is the world’s largest plateau outside Asia, featuring the largest variety of succulent plants found on Earth.
Its defining landscape is that vast green-grey plains punctuated by flat-topped hills like dry sugarloaves, a stoic land that has endured much, and will survive much more. In dry times, its plants seem to die, and the earth cracks like a clay pot.
But in times of plenty, green grasses rise between the succulents, and there is a soft carpet of flowers everywhere you look.
At least 250 million years ago, before the great break-up of Gondwanaland, the Karoo was a giant inland sea that dried to a swamp full of dinosaurs and then eventually to a rich semi-desert.
Not surprisingly, palaeontologists have found some of the most ancient traces of life on the planet here. At the Karoo National Park, you can see a display of some the fossil remains of strange Triassic creatures – the stocky Bradysaurus, the mammal-like reptile called Lystrosaurus, the deadly scavenger-predator Gorgonopsian, and the strange, plant-eating, burrowing Diictodon.
Cutting a line through the Great Karoo is the busy N1 national road. But venture just a little way of it, and you will discover eccentric little hamlets, farmstays and towns that boast old-time hospitality.
They include the friendly towns of Colesberg and Hanover (almost exactly equidistant from Johannesburg and Cape Town), Richmond with its rich Anglo-Boer War history, and the popular refreshment and fuel stop of Three Sisters.
Beaufort West is where the famous heart transplant pioneer Dr Chris Barnard was born. Make a point of visiting the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West, where you will experience vast, welcoming silence, and see animals like the mountain zebra, oryx, springbok and red hartebeest. As in all deserts, there is a rich (but quiet) nightlife, including the termite-hunting nocturnal aardvark and aardwolf, as well as the bat-eared fox and long-nosed elephant shrews (also fond of termite snacks).
Further along is Leeu Gamka, where the last Cape Lion is thought to have been shot, and where there are many Anglo Boer war graves.
One of the Karoo’s most popular little towns is Prince Albert, set near the foot of the spectacular Swartberg mountain range and the equally astounding mountain pass. Every year, in May, the town hosts an annual Olive Festival, but the beautiful architecture of this town is a year-round attraction.
Incidentally, no stay in the Karoo is complete without tasting Karoo lamb, which many international chefs rate as the best in the world. Sheep graze on the herby shrubs, and the delicate flavour infuses the meat.
The climate is extremely healthy. In the 1800s, many famous Europeans came here to enjoy the dry, clean air that cured many people of chest complaints. Among them were Lord Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston’s father), the Sultan of Zanzibar, and Olive Schreiner, writer of The Story of an African Farm.
They all came to Matjiesfontein, a little Karoo town founded that started as a railway siding, but in 1884 was turned into Africa’s first health spa by an entrepreneurial Scot, James D Logan. The whole town was declared a national monument in 1979, and has been preserved as an entity. It is still a railway siding, and the purity of the air is still unmatched.
The dazzling desert days give way to nights bright with stars. Not surprisingly, the Karoo’s clear dark nights offer some of the best stargazing in the world.
In fact, Sutherland in the Southern Karoo, near Matjiesfontein, is home to the country’s most important astronomical observatories. The newest, most powerful and prestigious addition to the star observatories is SALT – Southern African Large Telescope, completed in 2005.
It is one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, so sensitive it can detect flickers from stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye – the equivalent of a candle flame on the moon.
The Karoo means Place of Thirst in the old indigenous languages. What it lacks in water, though, it makes up for in the hospitality of its people, in the intensity of its days and nights, in its enveloping peace, and its healing silence.
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