In America they call it flyover country; that great swathe of not-much-at-all in the middle of the nation. And South Africans often look at the Karoo in much the same way, a place to be ignored. A lonely obstacle on the way to somewhere more exciting. But you’re wrong.
This is the land of the glorious road trip, where byways beat highways and oddball towns will leave you dreaming of a move to the country. Give it time, and you’ll soon see that the western reaches of the Karoo dish up all the quirk, character and wide-open spaces you could hope for.
Always thought not much happens in the Karoo? The quaint country museums will convince you otherwise, with exhibitions ranging from the tragic to the eccentric.
The Beaufort West Museum is largely given over to celebrating its most famous son, Christian Neethling Barnard, with exhibits tracing his rise from Karoo seun to world-famous heart surgeon. The museum includes his childhood home, and the garden where his ashes are buried.
Further south along the N1 the Laingsburg Flood Museum retells the devastating flooding of the Buffels River in January 1981. In Prince Albert you’ll find the Fransie Pienaar Museum, with an eclectic collection of antiques, fossils, furniture and displays on the construction of the Swartberg pass. The museum also has its own witblits distillery. Up north, the Fred Turner Folk and Culture Museum looks at the history of Loeriesfontein, but by far the most popular display is the offbeat Windmill Museum next door.
Established in 1884 as a country escape for wealthy Victorians — and a profitable railway stop for its entrepreneurial founder James Logan — Matjiesfontein remains a quirky highlight of the N1.
The main attraction is the grandiose Lord Milner Hotel. Rumour has it, there is a resident ghost named Katie, whom you might have the fortune (or misfortune) of bumping into during your stay. In the surrounding estate you’ll also find cosy pubs, a historic cricket field, eccentric museums, a collection of transport memorabilia, the “coldest swimming pool in Africa”, lush gardens and a handful of unfussy restaurants and pubs. It’s well worth a night or two, not least for the history tour aboard an original double-decker London bus. The tours, led by local raconteur “Johnny” Theunissen, are legendary in these parts.
We all know South Africans enjoy a good braai, but up in Calvinia they really — like, really— love a braai. They like it so much they even have an annual festival for it. The annual Hantam Vleisfees (meat festival) pays homage to the high art of flame-grilled meat. And in these parts it’s lamb that’s the star attraction, from the non-stop cooking to the carcass-deboning demonstration. Through the two-day festival you’ll also find local trompoppies tromping, riel dancers dancing and hungry young men battling for glory in the meat-eating competition. Vegetarians need not apply.
Padkos for lonely roads
The Karoo is the land of the lonesome road trip, the gravel or tar (your choice) endlessly peeling away into the distance. But you won’t go hungry if you know where to stock up on padkos. Roads don’t come much quieter than the R355 north of Ceres, which makes the Tankwa Padstal a welcome sight on this puncture-happy track. The trading store, restaurant and bar is nothing short of an oasis for road-trippers and Afrika-burners.
Amid the orchards of the Koo valley, Oupa Batt se Winkel — Est 1915 — is a popular stop for touring bikers, while south of Beaufort West on the N12 the Boeteka Padstal is a perennial favourite. Along with home-baked goodness you can also pre-order generous parcels of Karoo lamb for collection.
Foodies take note
If you’re a hungry traveller, it’ll pay to add Prince Albert to your route. Fuelled by a combination of industrious country folk and “semigrants” from Cape Town and Gauteng, “PA” has become the gourmet hub of the Karoo. For morning coffee and pastries the Lazy Lizard is the go-to. For dinner, up the ante with fine dining at chef Brent Phillips-White’s glorious Gallery Café. The Real Food Co. focuses on local produce, while the Karoo Kombuis is all about traditional regional fare. On the road out of town, towards the Swartberg Pass, Gay’s Dairy is rightly famous for her handmade cheeses. There’s a village market on Saturday mornings.
Don’t leave without getting starry-eyed
The lack of pollution — light, air or human — has made the Karoo, and the sleepy town of Sutherland, a global hotspot for astronomy. On a lonely hilltop 20-clicks from town, the domes of the South Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) peer off into deep space. The most impressive of the lot is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT); with a mirror measuring 11m it’s able to detect light a billion times too faint for the human eye. Daytime guided tours allow you to wander in among the domes, and inside SALT, while evening tours include a peek through two hefty telescopes.
Listen to a local
Born and raised in the Limpopo village of Giyani, Kennet Makondo grew up inspired by the khaki-clad rangers employed at the nearby Kruger National Park. After his studies in KZN he joined their ranks, before a decade as a section ranger in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. In December 2015 Kennet took the reins as park manager of the Tankwa Karoo National Park.
I just love the Tankwa. It’s so quiet. Stand outside and look at the vast plains of the Karoo, it’s breathtaking.
Look at this horizon; you can almost see the earth curving down. I love to drive, and when I’m not busy I’ll drive the Leeuberg 4x4 Eco-trail here in the park.
But you can also ride your mountain bike, and we have hiking trails. We have wonderful overnight accommodation, and the stargazing is amazing. There is just no light pollution out here.
If I have time off I enjoy driving the Gannaga Pass. There’s a lodge on top where I like to stop for lunch. I always order the lamb’s tails. But if I have a few days free I love driving around the region to discover the small towns in the area. Maybe Sutherland, or up to Calvinia and Nieuwoudtville. They all have something interesting to see.