Did you know?
Some of the best-preserved South African War blockhouses are to be found on Karoo farms.
Karoo farm museums are not always immaculately archived. You might find an old rusty tin that held bully beef (or ‘blow-up stew’ as the soldiers of the day mockingly called it) on display next to an ostrich shell or the skull of a mongoose – or perhaps something many millions of years older.
That’s the case out at Ganora Guest Farm, near Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo heartland. According to owners JP and Hester Steynberg: ‘In one day, we can give you a lifetime experience starting 240-million years ago.’
JP will take you into the veld on a ‘bone safari’ to show you where the fearsome-looking Gorgonopsian pre-dinosaur died as he or she lay moored in mud.
About 180-million years ago, the Karoo was not the semi-desert it is today. It was an inland basin of massive proportions, and it looked something like the lush Okavango Swamps of northern Botswana of today.
The Ganora farm museum contains San and Khoi artefacts and tools, an array of fossils, and the body parts of long-gone species.
But the main display of this museum is a complete fish fossil that tells you more about the nature of the ancient Karoo than almost anything else can. Named Kompasia delaharpi, it’s the only known complete fossil of the fish in existence.
Outside Somerset East is a heritage farm called Glen Avon. Its shearing shed was once the mess hall for British soldiers stationed at Middelburg in the Eastern Cape during the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), fought between 1899 and 1902. It was dismantled piece by piece and taken to this farm.
An incredible seven generations of the Hart family have owned Glen Avon since its inception early in the 19th Century. Nowhere is there a greater sense of history than in the old mill, which once ground corn for the district. All its working parts are still stored there, including the gigantic spade-sized spanner used to tighten the great bolts on the miller’s wheel.
The next time you pass a guest farm in the Karoo, you might want to stop over and learn a thing or two about the deep history of South Africa...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Ganora Guest Farm is 8km outside Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. Proceed for about 55km south from Middelburg on the N9 before turning to your right on the Nieu Bethesda road. Continue for 20km until you see the Ganora sign on your left.
To get to Glen Avon Farm, drive 150km north on the N10 from Port Elizabeth until you reach the village of Cookhouse. Turn left onto the R63 at Cookhouse and continue for 18km until you see the Glen Avon sign on your right.
Best time to visit
A Karoo farm is best visited in spring (September to October) and autumn (April to May).
Around the area
Depending on which farm you visit, take a drive in to the neighbouring town, such as Nieu Bethesda or Somerset East.
Tours to do
Your farmer-host will usually be happy to take you on a tour of the farmstead and its various activities, such as sheep-shearing. Tell him your preferences and he’ll show you what interests you.
Self-drive is the best option for Karoo travel. The distances between districts are great and having your own vehicle gives you freedom of choice.
What will it cost
Karoo farm stays start around R250 per person per night, depending on the rating and number of meals served. There is normally no charge at the farm museums.
Length of stay
A good Karoo farm stay normally lasts two nights.
What to pack
Pack seasonally and for outdoor activities.
What to eat
Indulge yourself and dine on the farm produce, which will invariably involve lamb, fresh vegetables and seasonal fruits. There are always vegetarian options available – just check with your host.
There are always craft mementos on sale in the Karoo: travel books, mohair products, pottery and walking sticks are very popular.