Victoria West to Calvinia – the 'upper Karoo route'
Did you know?
The Calvinia-Williston area is home to the lively and newly revived Nama Riel folk dance.
Our journey in the upper Karoo begins in a tiny Anglican church in Victoria West, as we gaze up at the stained-glass windows.
Some of the images displayed portray scenes from a devastating flood that hit the small Northern Cape town in 1871. More than 60 people were killed when a wall of water, following a typical Karoo cloudburst, rushed down the gorge where Victoria West stands. Of the victims, 21 were revellers dancing at Quirk’s Hotel that night.
We check in at Die Pophuis Hoekie ('the doll’s house corner') self-catering cottages along the main street. If it is springtime the daisies will be out in full profusion, lining the sidewalks and adding even more flair to the Victorian-era buildings.
The next morning we leave for Loxton, which is about 80km away. This little sheep-farming centre has a special charm, and comes complete with water furrows and donkey carts meandering in the streets. Apart from being a favoured Karoo hideaway for Capetonians, Loxton is also the official headquarters of the Riverine Rabbit Working Group, which is trying to manage and save the highly endangered and last few hundred riverine rabbits still living in the region.
We take a long lunch at Die Rooi Granaat ('the red pomegranate') and, goodness, look at the time! We were going to drive up to Carnarvon this afternoon, but best we stay over in Loxton and leave in the morning. So we check in at one of the many self-catering cottages in the town and enjoy a braai (barbecue) under the Karoo stars.
The next day we’re in Carnarvon before lunch, even though we took our sweet time getting up. There are some special places in Carnarvon, including the local museum with its reconstructed corbelled house. There’s also the Blikkies (Tins) Bar in the local hotel, where we’ll have a drink completely surrounded by wall-to-wall beer tins. There’s a jukebox in the corner and we’ll play a couple of classics before moving on.
Carnarvon’s main attraction, although access is restricted at present, is the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope field about 80km away. Once built, it will be the world’s biggest telescope complex – a very exciting coup for South Africa and its space scientists. You can book a tour there and it's well worth it, but be sure to go in advance as they don't run every day.
After an interesting night on a nearby farm, where we sleep in an original corbelled house built sometime in the mid-1800s, we head for Williston, nearly 120km to the west.
Lunchtime finds us at the humorously named Williston Mall, wandering about the junk-art displays, the little bookshop and curio stalls. We have lunch here, and the pudding consists of the very special Williston Milkshake.
Williston is the site of the annual Williston Winter Festival, where people of all cultures come together to feast and dance.
After a night spent in Williston, we continue to our last point on this route: Calvinia. This is another of those attractive, energetic little Karoo towns where many residents are tourism-savvy. We stay in one of the Hantam Huis cottages and spend the afternoon behind cameras at the local flower reserve, getting up close and personal with daisies. It just doesn’t get any better than this...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Victoria West Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)53 621 0312
Die Pophuis Hoekie (Victoria West)
Tel: +27 (0)53 621 1243
Cell: +27 (0)82 496 4390
Loxton Tourism (Municipality)
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3102
Tel: +27 (0)53 382 3685
Stuurmansfontein Corbelled Guest House
Tel: +27 (0)53 382 5900
Cell: +27 (0)82 221 7500
The Williston Mall
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3659
Cell: +27 (0)72 018 7288
Tel: +27 (0)27 341 8500
Die Hantam Huis (Calvinia)
Tel: +27 (0)27 341 1606
How to get here
Victoria West is on the N12, approx. 50km off the N1 in the Northern Cape. It is about 600km away from Cape Town (a six or seven-hour drive).
Best time to visit
The route is best driven in spring (August to September) or autumn (April to May).
Around the area
From Calvinia, take a day trip through the saltpans north to Brandvlei.
Tours to do
Book via the Williston Mall for a tour of the Tombstone Route – showcasing the art form of stonecutting – around the Williston area.
For this route self-drive is the best way to travel.
What will it cost
Self-catering accommodation along the way should cost no more than about R250-R350 per person, per night.
Length of stay
Set aside six days and five nights for this trip if you can – you’ll want to stay over in each of the significant towns along the way.
What to pack
Pack seasonally, remember something warm for the nights, and make sure you have sturdy, comfortable footwear.
Where to stay
Recommended are Die Pophuis Hoekie in Victoria West, self-catering cottages in Loxton, Stuurmansfontein Guest House outside Carnarvon, Die Ark at the Williston Mall and the Hantam Huis cottages in Calvinia.
What to eat
You’ll be feasting on classic Karoo fare, which usually centres on a couple of delicious lamb chops.
Check the listed websites for details on what's happening in this part of the Karoo.
One of the local crafts on display at the Williston Mall.