Lonely wind pumps and serene sheep suggest a more humdrum countryside, but this route takes in the best views of this vast region and explores its untouched spaces, says MELANIE VAN ZYL
Beyond the windpumps and sheep, Melanie van Zyl finds something wild
What is it that makes a perfect Karoo road trip? I turn off the N1 just before Colesberg 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 ideal for brainy brooding. I’m plotting a cross-province road trip with a difference – combining everything the Karoo is (peculiar padstals, creaky windpompe and long straight roads that lick the horizon) and was (a sprawling wild space teeming with antelope herds pursued by lion and cheetah, and dinosaur 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 my 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 10 years ago. Later, lion joined them. Sergeant ranger Donovan Antonie describes the natural workings of the park to me. ‘In 2010 the lion were introduced and pushed the buffalo around, preying on them. We had about 300 buffalo but their numbers quickly dropped as the lion 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 lion have also stabilised the cheetah population – at one point we had 32 in the park that were causing springbok numbers to drop. Once the lion 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 rhino, blue crane 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 space – 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 park’s Kranskop Loop, 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 early, frontier town 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, elephant 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 286 343 hectares of private and public land protected and preserved in the region. ‘I’m sure in my time here at Samara, we will 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 scuttle across the road and in the distance springbok shimmer in the haze. It might look like a lot of dull 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 dinosaur 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.
Delightfully named, ‘hairy-nipple’ vygies dot the landscape around the main camp in the Karoo National Park.
FROM TOP This goat was mooching down the main road of Hofmeyr; Cape mountain zebra grazing on the plains just outside Cradock.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP A silent night at Camdeboo’s Lakeview Tented Camp; the eastfacing inhabitants of the Owl House never lose their fascination; a scrumptious lamb burger at Polka Cafe in Graaff-Reinet.