A church steeple shaped like a leaping springbok; Trafalgar Square in the South African countryside; expertly crafted pulpits; services under a peach tree; Karoo Gothic at its best; and a Mother Church shaped like a Greek cross – the finely built Victorian-era churches of the Karoo all have their own stories to tell.

Did you know?

The Dutch Reformed Church in Prince Albert takes the shape of a Greek cross.

If you were a Briton and you drove past the Dutch Reformed Mother Church in the Karoo town of Cradock, you may well experience a distinct sensation of déjà vu.

That’s because this church is a spitting image of St Martin's in the Field in Trafalgar Square, London.

And, like other churches of the Karoo, it has a story to tell

The Karoo legend of this Cradock church is that the pastor’s wife was English and pining for her home country. This influenced the church leaders in choosing a design that paid homage to the genius of Sir Christopher Wren in its Corinthian portico, clock and Gothic steeple.

Across the Great Karoo in Graaff-Reinet, the Victorian Gothic Mother Churchlooms – like its sister in Cradock – over all.

An interesting design element of the Graaff-Reinetchurch is the series of small crowned heads carved into the stone.

To the south, the dusty little village of Rietbron has the only church steeple in the country that sports a leaping springbok emblem instead of the customary rooster.

Back in the 19th Century, the Dutch Reformed Churches were built with verve and style. And, it seems, there was no shortage of stone.

You had Gothic, you had Wren and, in the case of the Mother Church in Somerset East, you had a Dutch Renaissance tower rising from a thatched nave on the Eastern façade.

Other facts about churches of the Karoo:

  • The Dutch Reformed Church in the village of Pearston stands at the foot of the Plains of Camdeboo. Back in the mid-1800s church services were held in the outdoors under a giant pear tree.
  • The Dutch Reformed Church in Philippolis is most famous for its pulpit, which was carved from wild olive and put together using no nails, screws or bolts.
  • Before the Dutch Reformed Church came into being in Colesberg, this Northern Cape town was more famous for its gunrunners, horse thieves and rum runners.

The Anglican church in the Karoo had its champion in the form of architect Sophia Gray (1814 – 1871), the wife of the bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray.

Of the 40 churches she designed in South Africa, 15 of them were in the Great- and Little Karoo, from Montagu to Graaff-Reinet, Colesberg to Fraserburg. Most of them were built in the neo-Gothic style, with a decidedly British feel to them.

Gray was also a noted artist, and her watercolours of the churches she helped build are to be seen in a book called The Bishop’s Churches by Desmond Martin (Struik, 2005).

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Using 101 Country Churches of South Africa by Philippe Menache and Darryl Earl David as a guide, you should find many interesting examples of Karoo church architecture.

Best time to visit

Spring (September/October) or autumn (April/May) are some of the nicest times of the year.

Around the area

Pay a visit to some of the more prominent old graveyards in the Karoo, in towns like Cradock, Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda. The gravestones are historical markers and many famous names have come to rest here.

Tours to do

Karoo Connections from Graaff Reinet has some of the best-informed historical guides around.

Get around

Hire a vehicle and hit the open road of the Karoo.

What will it cost

Travelling through the Karoo is less expensive than staying in any of South Africa's cities.

Length of stay

The distances are vast, so you should plan ahead and set aside at least a week for this adventure.

What to pack

Weather conditions in the Karoo can be extreme. During the summer months from November to May, pack light. For the rest, bring out the woollies. Or, better still, buy some great mohair products in the Karoo itself.

Where to stay

Guest farms, guest houses, self-catering accommodation – see the listed Karoo Heartland site for details and rates.

What to eat

Venison dishes and lamb chops are favourites in the Karoo. Winter broths are also very popular in many of the non-franchised restaurants.

What's happening

Check the listed website for any events and festivals.

Best buys

101 Country Churches of South Africa by Philippe Menache and Darryl Earl David at R200. Order from philippemenache@gmail.com or +27 (0)83 307 4041.