Experience big sky country on a Karoo farm
A road trip across the country from the interior to the coast will inevitably see travellers having to traverse the Karoo, the vast semi-desert heart of the country that is divided into geographic areas known as the Upper Karoo, Great Karoo and Little Karoo.
To the unknowing eye, crossing this arid landscape may seem like a daunting prospect, with long distances between towns and little infrastructure in between on roads occupied mainly by long-haul trucks that ply their trade between Johannesburg and the coast.
But South Africa’s Karoo region can be likened to the Australian Outback or the American West, where the pared-down landscape has an allure all of its own.
Here you’ll find sweeping vistas, a night sky thick with stars, fascinating geological formations, rock art, fossils and the opportunity to practise your photographic skills on lonely wind pumps, a billowing blue sky and the sheep that dot the landscape.
A farm stay is the best way to experience the Karoo. If you choose your spot carefully, you’ll be assured of a friendly host with the inevitable tail-wagging sheepdog by his or her side, a comfortable bed, a good home-cooked meal and the chance to explore the South African veld (grassland) on foot.
Most farms usually offer full board or self-catering accommodation – and if there is a meal involved, in all likelihood, you’ll be offered roast Karoo lamb with its distinctive, herby flavour from the wild shrubs it feeds on, with accompanying vegetables cooked in the boerekos (farmers' food) style, with sugar and butter, followed by a hearty baked pudding.
If yours is a winter (June to August) visit, a good Karoo host will also provide you with a down duvet or electric blanket and a toasty fire in the sitting room to warm your toes by, as temperatures can drop well below freezing.
In summer, the days can be scorching, so any outdoor activities are best tackled during the cooler hours, and the rest of the day spent reading on the stoep (verandah) or swimming in the farm dam. Many guest farms also offer outdoor activities such as horse riding, birding, tennis, hiking and mountain biking.
With all this on offer, what’s not to like about a Karoo farm? Here are a few to try:
Doornberg near Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape
Only 9km outside the village of Nieu-Bethesda, Doornberg has several options available. You can stay at the main house itself or opt for a self-catering cottage called the Vleihuisie (which takes its name from the adjacent dam or vlei). Nieu-Bethesda is now an artists' retreat with several galleries in the town and was made famous by the folk artist Helen Martins (whose tragic life story was the subject of a play by Athol Fugard). Martins’s otherworldly sculptures can be seen in the grounds of her former home, which is now a museum.
Garingboom near Springfontein, Free State
This guest farm is on the edge of the Karoo in the southern region of the Free State and really epitomises big sky country for its vast horizons and wide, open spaces. At Garingboom, you can expect comfy rooms with a stoep to sit on where you can enjoy a cup of tea while looking out over the lucerne fields. The owners are very environmentally conscious and have laid out some excellent walks for guests, along with good interpretive information about the natural environment. Their evening meals usually feature delicious Karoo lamb.
Cavers, Bedford, Eastern Cape
Stylishly appointed, with an excellent table, Cavers is an upmarket farm guest house where you can sleep in the old manor house or a cottage on the property. The house is fifth-generation and the original homestead dates back to 1850. This area is particularly popular in October when the village of Bedford holds an open garden festival, but to secure accommodation in this period you’d have to book well in advance.
Melton Wold, Victoria West, Northern Cape
A famous old guest farm in the Northern Cape located midway between the Karoo towns of Victoria West and Loxton, Melton Wold has an old-fashioned appeal, with fire places in the bedrooms and an old-style dining room, comfortable lounge and a lovely swimming dam. It’s big (with 23 rooms) so you might find yourself rattling around a bit if you visit off-season. But for anyone interested in fossils, nature walks or just a bit of peace and tranquility, it’s a good overnight spot.