Karoo: South Africa’s obligatory backroad

Posted on Mon March 19, 2018.

South Africa’s Karoo is many things. It is a vast inland plateau - home to arid scrublands and expansive grasslands. It is a unique botanical biome with impressive numbers of endemic succulents. It is a gold mine of natural history: 240-million-year-old fossils and dinosaur remains and exceptional geological phenomena from dolorite spires to limestone caves. It is one of the best places on the planet to look at our galaxy and eat a home baked lamb pie (equally sublime undertakings).

First, the multitude of quaint and plucky Karoo dorpies (towns), combined with the Karoo’s kilometres of dynamic, shifting landscapes, make a road trip the obligatory mode of travel. There’s no better way to explore the dusty corners of overlooked South Africa than by car -- let yourself get lost or sidetracked by small-town curiosities or rapturous semi-desert panoramas.

The idiosyncratic towns of the Karoo delight and confound and display the hustle and imagination required to survive in such a severe environment. Oudtshoorn is known as the ostrich capitol of the world, where business boomed in the mid-nineteenth century when fashionable feathers were all the rage in Europe, causing famers to dub the commodity, “white gold”.

Further east is the history-making town of Cradock, home of Olive Shreiner, turn of the century author of Story of an African Farm - one of the country’s most iconic works of historical fiction. Her house has been made into a very worthwhile museum. In the centre of town is the Victoria Manor Hotel, a colonial-era relic oozing Victorian charm. The formal dining room is delightfully ostentatious with its ruby-red walls, fine white linens and shining silver candelabras. Not to be missed is the Karoo Food Festival, which the town hosts in April. This is a celebration of local food that brings together generations of farmers, cheesemakers, passionate gastronomes, serious entrepreneurs and excited revelers.

Karoo food is worth delving into. Don’t pass up those roadside stands that dot the highways at regular intervals. These alone could inspire a food-centric road trip. Padstals, or farmstalls, as they’re affectionately called, are immense pantries of local homemade goods. Where actual grannies and aunties and local boermeisies peddle their family recipes recipes. You will find biltong and roesterkook, savory pies, chutneys, jams, farm cheeses, rusks -- some of the most wholesome, satisfying grub there is. And don’t pass on the Karoo Lamb, now a legitimate certification, globally recognised in the same way as Champagne or Parma Ham. Its unique flavor comes from the indigenous Karoo vegetation the animals graze on.

The sweeping views are to be savored too. From the Swartberg Mountain Range and the Outeniqua-Langbergs to the flat-topped koppies and undulating hills, all dressed in scrub veld and succulents and cut through with dry, acacia-lined riverbeds. By night it only gets better -- the skies offer some of the best star-gazing on Earth. In fact, the northern Karoo is home to the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

A road trip through this sweeping hinterland is a critical experience for gung-ho adventurers and slow-going explorers alike. For old-fashioned hospitality and modern day eco-tourism, it’s where the rubber meets the road. Where else can you marvel at prehistoric fossils and raid bric-a-brac shops for your own antique relics? Sample farm-to-table cuisine before it was ever in vogue? Or enjoy the hospitality of people who are the salt of these out of the way places, who always have time for you and who remind you just how much time you have.

Photo provided by Karoo Connections.

By Hailey Gaunt