Cruising Through the Little Karoo
The fabled Little Karoo begins at Klaarstroom in the eastern folds of the Great Swartberg Mountains in the Western Cape Province and ends in the lee of the Langeberg, near the chocolate box town of Montagu. As you drive this, one of South Africa’s most colourful and dramatic road trip routes, you are always in sight of craggy mountains and minutes from a decent cup of cappuccino.
Your journey begins in a little village founded in the 19 th Century as a wool-washing facility. When commercial washers and railway routes did away with Klaarstroom’s prime business, it became an overnight stop into the Little Karoo. It went into decline until the 1990s, when a group of doctors moved in and restored the old buildings.
Now, there’s a trading store, a curio shop, police station, church and very agreeable guest house run by the Witts-Hewinson family. The few houses in the village are highly prized as retirement and holiday retreats. If you’re staying over, make a point to climb the hill above Klaarstroom and watch one of the most magnificent dawnings in the southern hemisphere.
Meiringspoort and De Rust
Meiringspoort is the winding, stately gorge linking the Great Karoo to the Little Karoo and the town of De Rust. Meiringspoort itself is worth a slow meander, perhaps a picnic at one of the well-appointed stopping places.
A very interesting day drive from your base in De Rust would be to head due west towards the Cango Caves, the quite magnificent Swartberg Pass and, possibly, Gamkaskloof, also known as The Hell. And if you don’t feel like going to The Hell today, then hold your course through the Swartberg Pass until you reach the Victorian Karoo town of Prince Albert, where ghosts move in the paintings over at the local hotel.
If the Little Karoo has a Capital City, then Oudtshoorn is it. It was once the Feather Capital of the World in the ostrich farming days before World War I. Then the town gently faded into obscurity when the feather boa was no longer the fashion item of its day. But Oudtshoorn is back as one of the cultural centres of South Africa, with its annual Little Karoo National Arts Festival.
What’s more, there has been a resurgence in ostrich farming, because the world has become fond of the big bird’s healthy meat – and there is a new market for ostrich skin as well. Ostrich farms also offer tours to visitors, where they can see the industry at work.
If time permits, try to spend a few days in Oudtshoorn exploring the area. This would include the town architecture and museums, and visits to a series of interesting surrounding farms. The Gamka Mountain Reserve outside Oudtshoorn offers fynbos, succulent Karoo, Cape mountain zebra and six hiking trails.
You’re now in port wine country and a more picturesque wineland setting would be hard to find. The Gamka Valley with its trellised wine estates embraces the little town of Calitzdorp, where you can feast on superior carrot cake in a place called Rose of the Karoo.
And if you’re based here, one of the better day trip drives is to head through the Red Hills to the Kruis Rivier community of farmers and artists.
Now you’re travelling firmly on Route 62, a well-marketed tourism road packed with diversions. But should you get the urge to put some dirt under your wheels, then turn right at Amalienstein and head for Laingsburg – you will not be disappointed.
This track takes you through the Seweweeks Poort Pass, quite simply one of the most stunning mountain passes in this country. As you drive through what looks like a giant cathedral of Cape Fold Mountains, you might spot a pair of black eagles (now called Verreaux’s eagles) hunting rock rabbits up on the high ledges. Stop at a stream, take a walk in the water and unpack the sandwiches to feel the magic of the Seweweeks.
As you drive in the Ladismith district, you cannot keep your eyes off a jagged peak called Towerkop ( Bewitched Peak) up on the Klein Swartberg range. It stands like a beacon and carries a quaint legend concerning a witch, a wand and fit of pique.
Ladismith itself is a charming town known for its wines, fruits and cheeses. Just more than 30 km south of Ladismith, on a good dirt road, is the mountain village of Vanwyksdorp, which is well worth a visit – particularly for the carrot cake at the Ougoed en Kougoed restaurant. The return trip through the mountains takes you on the magnificent Rooiberg Pass back to the R62.
On the way in to Barrydale, you will come across a nondescript little building on your left, bearing the legend: Ronnie’s Sex Shop. It’s not really a sex shop, it’s a great little roadside bar. And if you’re hungry, why not try the carrot cake at the Roadkill Café?
Barry dale itself lies at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains and has a number of good restaurants and guest houses to choose from. In recent years, it has become a hub of creativity as artists and media folk have settled there.
If time permits another detour, try the Tradouw Pass between Barrydale and Swellendam. Like the Swartberg Pass, it was built by the ‘Man with the Theodolite Eyes’ – Thomas Bain – and has stood the test of time.
One of the most sought-after villages in the Western Cape Province – in terms of property investment and retirement – is the exquisitely positioned Montagu in the Langeberg Valley. More than 20 of its Cape Dutch- and Victorian buildings are official national monuments, and as you drive its streets you get the sense of old-time elegance and history.
There are hot springs, museums, hiking trails and gardens galore at this, the end of your Little Karoo journey. Take time out to enjoy it all…
- For information on Route 62 see www.route62za.com
- For wines of the Klein Karoo visit www.kleinkaroowines.co.za
- Garden Route Tourism: www.tourismgardenroute.co.za
- For more on the Karoo and Little Karoo go to www.karoospace.co.za