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

Getaway (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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