#KarooSecrets: SA insider guide to the best of the Karoo

2016-09-18 19:32
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Formed hundreds of millions of years ago, the Karoo of South Africa certainly is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Home to unique, arid landscapes that stretch across more than half of this beautiful country we call home. 

Many visit the ever-stretching Karoo for its warm hospitality, the authentic Karoo farm experience, Karoo lamb, family reunions or simply travelling between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Some even visit Tankwa for the ultimate party experience at Africa Burn. A Karoo art escape might not be top of mind, but is not to be overlooked. The Little and Great Karoo is buzzing with arty hangouts and galleries, each providing a unique art experience, from photography to upholstery and art-themed breakfast spots.

Whatever your reason, we've curated what we consider the must-do #KarooSecrets to help you make the most of it. Take a look.

LEGENDARY KAROO TOWNS: There are many but here re a few choice options:

NORTHERN KAROO

The Karoo Highlands Route: Calvinia to Victoria West

Situated in the southern part of the Northern Cape, this route covers a small but very unique part of SA, including Niewoudtville, Calvinia, Williston, Sutherland, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Loxton and Victoria West. This is sheep-farming country, and the landscapes are barren and flat - but it makes for some of the best Karoo Stargazing and road-tripping in the world. Sutherland, especially, is the perfect winter weekend breakaway destination but offers up iconic Karoo charm all year-round - friendly local people, icy nights and perhaps the best lamb in the country...

SEE: Oasis in the Kalahari: Retreating on the Orange River

Kimberley - Joburg to Cape Town pit stop

One of the most important cities of our country's past, Kimberley - "The city that sparkles". In 1871 a chance discovery of a precious stone on a farm owned by the De Beers brothers would signal the rapid birth of the diamond industry in the then colony of South Africa, as thousands of miners flocked here hoping to make it big.

Although Museums have the reputation of being stuffy, the recreation of Victorian life at the Kimberley Mine Museum is really quite extraordinary. If you prefer to rather get a sense for the people that lived here, the Belgravia historic walk stops at 33 places where the "opulent lifestyle of days gone past" are reflected and divulged.


SEE: SA Insider: The Complete guide to the Cape Route 62


WESTERN KAROO

Blissful BarryDale

The quaint little town of Barrydale in the Western Cape serves as a welcomed oasis at the end of the unique, mostly dry and barren R62 that runs through South Africa’s Klein Karoo. It offers the opportunity to quench your thirst at Ronnie’s Sex Shop  as well as meander up and down tricky Huis River Passes - read more here.

SEE: Bring on spring: 50 reasons to get excited!

Montagu: A trip down memory lane

The actual town of Montagu is currently a bit cut-off from the modern world. Engineers are broadening the road leading to Montagu from Ashton, and the roadworks are only set for completion in 2017. This means the trip takes a while, but once you're there the town is quiet and peaceful. However, considering its setting, Montagu offers loads of options for the venturesome travellers - hiking trails in the gobsmackingly beautiful mountains, mountain biking, rock climbing, cliff jumping, waterfall scaling, sky-rocking... you name it, you can find it there. 


CENTRAL KAROO

Maitjiesfontein- The Forgotten Route

The historic Karoo village of Matjiesfontein is central to an iconic rail trip known as the Forgotten Route since here the station itself is a real Victorian charmer, with a quaint railway museum and of course it is home to Lord Milner Hotel - the refurbishment of which has brought this little down back on the map.

As with most of these dorpies, dotted through the Karoo, they've acted as an oasis to many historical figure, the likes of Cecil John Rhodes and Oliver Schreiner in this instance. 

SEE: Time travel with four of SA's best train trips



Prince Albert

Home to the popular local cooking show, Kokkedoor, it's no surprise that Prince Albert is really quite a Karoo food mecca.

Walking down the main street of Prince Albert, one is surprised with many art galleries, photo galleries, gift and antique shops. Hours can pass in these hideaways before one realises the craving for coffee and treats - something that is quickly addressed by a selection of cosy coffee stops. Try The Olive Branch, or Lazy Lizard for breakfast.  A visit to Gay's Guernsey Dairy, the town's fresh milk provider, is also a must.


In the evening, opt for dinner at the Prince Albert Hotel or at the Gallery Cafe, situated on the upper level of one of the towns many amazing art exhibition spaces.  

In the past few years Prince Albert really has established itself as one of the quintessential Little Karoo towns, which means that they have really upped the accommodation game.

SEE: SA's halfway towns

Laingsburg

Want to know more about fossil hunting, geological studies and Anglo-Boer War memories? Then this is a Karoo pit-stop to make. 

This little town is also home to the Hartland Karoo Butchery - Laingsburg, making it the perfect top up for biltong supplies on a long road trip on the N1. Farmers markets have become a great way for small towns to showcase the fresh, organic produce of the region and Laingsburg has responded with its own weekend market on Saturday. Check it out for delectable preserves, meats and bakes. 



EASTERN KAROO

Graaff-Reinet: Exploring the Drostdy legacy

Graaff-Reinet is said to be the fourth oldest settlement in South Africa - after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam. It’s quite a site - this oasis amidst the Valley of Desolation - the Eastern Cape’s oldest town that is home to some 200 national monuments. 

It’s a town in the middle of nowhere. A town built around the triumph and tragedy of war rooted on the pillars of law and religion. Sounds like most of the world’s issues today. Yet here stands Graaff-Reinet, testament to its outpost status and a convergence of the old-fashioned with the modern. Peaceful, charming and not a hint of strife.

Walking its wide streets, wide enough so that ox-wagons could make full turns back in the day, it’s clear this isn’t your run of the mill sho’t left escape. Streets lined with stone-cobbled canals that ensured the town’s daily supply of water, a system still in effect in neighbouring Nieu Bethesda as we would soon discover. In case you hadn’t noticed the Karoo is semi-desert, water is like gold under these conditions and through the likes of the Anglo-Boer War, the Great Trek and discovery of gold and diamonds further north, this little towns continues to stand tall.

A visit should see you checking in at the historic Drostdy Hotel, a walking tour, dinner at the De Camdeboo Restaurant and a day-trip through the Camdeboo National Park.


Nieu Bethsada: Creating a unique world out of nothing  

If you take one message away from this beautiful, somewhat macabre Owl House stuck out in the dusty town of Nieu-Bethsa,  it should be to "Create the world you desire despite your surroundings". This seems to be what artist Helen Martins did, after being called back home from the exciting art scene in Johannesburg, to come and look after her ailing parents. While some of Martins' sculptures elude to a troubled mind and soul,  the overall reflection of the Owl House is that of an exceptionally creative individual.  

Also pay a visit to The Bethesda Art Centre. Local township artists from Nieu-Bethesda are encouraged to develop their skills, sell their artworks and work at the centre - an admirable community project worth a stop. Workshops are held in printmaking, drawing, sculpture, ceramics and mosaic and classes are given by local an international volunteers. 

Karoo home-style meals like cottage pie and Karoo lamb as well as lighter snacks are prepared seven day a week at the Tower Café. After your visit to the art centre, pop over! It's not hard to find, and what's more, the tower is actually a guest house. 

SEE: Mapped - Your Karoo art escape mapped

Cradock: River town living at its best

Cradock is formed around the banks of the Great Fish River, and life in town orbits around the river. It creates a stream of life through the heart of the usually barren Karoo.  Over the years, a couple of family ‘dynasties’ - names including the Michaus, the Jordaans, the Calatas and the Goniwes have established themselves here.  Today still, within their different spheres, these community pillars are still actively involved in keeping Cradock alive and well, whether it be through farming, business, politics or community and charity.  

Cradock is also quite the Karoo foodie hub. And the Karoo Food Festival is certainly a top thing to attend in town. The festival is held every year in winter, so be sure to keep your eye on the Facebook page to see 2017's dates.  Apart from the food festival, Cradock also hosts the Olive Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival, an event that brings together the greatest Karoo-based or -inspired authors of both bygone eras and now.


While away in Willowmore

Willowmore is a small town in Sarah Baartman District Municipality of the Great Karoo, around a 100km from any other town in all directions. In other words, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Unless, of course, you’re driving through the heart of the Karoo to join up with Route 62 to take you to the Garden Route and southern coast, which many South African road trippers do. Then, Willowmore is an oasis, a haven where many a tired traveller has been welcomed.

Kapoet Padstal is a good place to start. Grab a hot lamb pie from the oven or, if you’re there on a Sunday, settle in for Sunday lunch. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the owner of Kapoet, Hennie Lotter, on site. He’ll be able to tell you where the lamb is farmed, and how those insanely delicious and hearty lamb pies are made.

If you’re after cake and tea, settle in at Sophie’s Choice – a typical Karoo shop with everything your heart desires. From furniture to food to tea cloths and toys, and of course, the ins and outs of local news.

 

KAROO SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND TASTES 

Karoo Food 101 - what to eat where and why

Karoo Food. What is it? Why is it so sought-after and why is it so, so undeniably good? Firstly, Gordon’s Veld to Fork masterclasses would be the best start. He hosts hands-on classes in the area and says his next Karoo food masterclasses will focus on smoking your own hams, just in time for Christmas.

The next classes will be on 13 October, 22 October and 27 October, all hosted in Graaff-Reinet. Get more info here



Karoo Guide: 10 Annual festivals to explore

Vast spaces, landscaped layouts of horizons, rocky mountain ranges and open sky space so wide that it makes you feel like you could touch the stars, you probably imagine this to be a deserted region where it hasn’t clicked to society to develop anything here… wrong!

This misconception or rather stereotype of the Karoo has long been smashed, since this region is becoming popular for being a prominent region to party!


MAPPED: Your Karoo Art Escape

Unleash your inner artist and explore the art experiences the Karoo has to offer - the Karoo has a special place for the writer, reader, painter or performer. From Prince Albert to Nieu-Bethesda, here's where to go and what to do during your Karoo art escape... See full details here.

 

SEE: Alternative parks of SA: 7 spots often overshadowed by Kruger


KAROO NATIONAL PARKS:

Tankwa Karoo National Park

Just a four hour drive from Cape Town brings you to the ideal destination of Tankwa Karoo National Park (TKNP) for those seeking the brightest stars of Africa, a once in a lifetime glimpse of a rare endemic bird, or perhaps nothing more than a silence that reaches deep into the soul.

As luminous clouds of dust swirl through the ancient landscape, a tortoise patiently wanders in search of succulent morsels; a lizard basks in the sun while gemsbok and red hartebeest share the arid plains with mongoose, orb-web spiders, skinks and leggy toktokkies...

If you’re looking to escape the bustling city life in search of peace and quiet, then a visit to the Karoo National Park should be right at the top of your travel bucket list.  Often used a stop-over for those travelling between Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Karoo National Park is best visited during late winter, spring and autumn, as the summer months can be uncomfortably warm.

The Karoo National Park is accessible for any type of vehicle, and boasts some wonderful 4x4 routes, most notably the Nuweveld Trail which follows a 90-kilometre route into the western section of the park, boasting steep, rocky sections and sandy dry river crossings.

Camdeboo National Park

A unique feature of the 19 405-hectare park is its location, practically surrounding the town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. The greater portion of the park is situated between 740 and 1480 metres above sea level on the foothills of the Sneeuberg range, while a small section of the low lying-plains is included. The Nqweba Dam lies within the park and covers about 1000 hectares when full. At some places, dolerites form jointed pillars – the best examples of which are found in the Valley of Desolation where erosion of the softer sedimentary beds has left dolerite pillars which rise to heights of 90 – 120 metres.

One of its key attractions the Valley of Desolation has been declared a national monument, added to this the Nqweba Dam is also something along the route worth checking out.