For decades, the semi-desert, Karoo region of South Africa was for many cross-country travellers a massive patch of nothingness you had to drive through to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back again. But times have changed. Visitors are beginning to explore the Karoo with new eyes and are discovering what we locals have known for a long time: South Africa’s heartland is where the fun begins.
There are dozens of ways to enjoy the Karoo, but these are our top 5.
Snow and romance
When snow falls in the Karoo it’s like Christmas for a week, so check the snow report and book a few nights at a local farmstay in an area in which the snow’s likely to be falling. The farmers will be a little busy, herding their livestock into sheds and shelters, especially in Jansenville in the Eastern Cape, where Angora goats (which produce mohair, otherwise known as “diamond fibre”) are bred and raised.
The landscapes are marvellous with their snowcaps and vast openness, the fires are lit and welcoming, the lamb chops are delicious and so is the red wine. The Karoo is, arguably, the most romantic place to be snuggled up in a South African winter. Visit: www.snowreport.co.za
A morning with meerkats
A must-have on your Karoo bucket list is to spend at least one sunrise in the company of a meerkat family.
Your “meerkat man” settles you down in a semi-circle of camp chairs in front of a large, people-friendly burrow in the veld outside Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo before dawn.
The second the rising sun hits the edge of one of the burrows the first meerkat is out, quick and as upright as an exclamation mark. Then they all emerge, offering their tummies to the sun, warming their bodies before scattering to hunt for breakfast.
It’s a precious experience, as your photographs will attest. And through it all, your guide will tell you everything you need to know about one of SA’s most iconic creatures. Visit: www.meerkatadventures.co.za
If you had to gather every biker who ever revved up their machine in the Karoo, you’d have the most formidable fan club in the country. The marriage of a Karoo landscape, the hospitality of its people, a fine machine opening up on tar and the general bonhomie of a biker outing all make for pure magic.
The riders trek to towns like Graaff-Reinet, Colesberg, Willowmore, Cradock and Bethulie and the weekend becomes a festival of wheelies, donuts and a long sunset drive out into the flat lands where it’s just you, the bike and the blacktop.
Another big biking destination is Route 62, which always includes a stop at the ever-popular oasis called Ronnie’s Sex Shop?? (Delete final sentence re sex shop? Checking with Ingrid). Visit: www.graaffreinet.co.za
Time-out at the Tankwa Padstal
If you like exotic watering holes in the middle of the desert (and who doesn’t?) you can’t afford to miss the Tankwa Padstal on the R355 between Ceres and Calvinia. It consists of an old-time trading store (the variety of stuff on sale is simply mind-boggling), a restaurant and a pub called Die Werkswinkel (The Workshop).
Co-owner Wally Lange is your barman. He’ll pour your drink while you wander about the precinct eyeing out some of the eccentric decor flourishes that have helped to make this place so popular with road trippers on their way up through the dry pans of the Northern Cape. Visit: www.facebook.com
Smell the daisies
If you time your Namaqualand trip right (the first week in September) a double-jackpot awaits in the form of undulating fields of flowers and the fabulous Williston Winter Festival.
From Cape Town, head up the N7 to Vanrhynsdorp, over to Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia and you’ll find yourself in daisy heaven. You could even head north from Nieuwoudtville to Loeriesfontein to photograph the “steel flowers” – the massed windpumps of the Fred Turner Museum – the second-biggest windpump museum in the world. Then continue east on the R63 to Williston, where the exciting Nama Riel dancers entertain the crowds that grow every year. Visit: www.nieuwoudtville.com