The Great Karoo
Did you know?
Writer Rudyard Kipling called the Swartberg mountain range near Prince Albert the ‘thrones of kings’.
Spanning nearly 400 000km2 in the geographic midriff of South Africa, the Great Karoo must be one of the quietest places on Earth.
It is a place of immense spaces, wide-angle horizons, craggy mountain ranges, conical hills, an ancient inland seabed, and a sky so big that at night it feels like you can touch the stars.
The Great Karoo stands proudly with other desert tourism regions like the Australian Outback and Arizona and New Mexico in the United States, and makes for a memorable road-trip.
It seems you could travel for months in and about the towns of the Great Karoo and have a different experience in each one.
Watch a sunset thunderhead gathering over the village of Aberdeen after a blazing hot midsummer’s day and toast life on the open road.
Stand still in the Matjiesfontein military graveyard and try to hear the strains of the lone Highland piper who is said to be playing Scotland the Brave for all time.
Head for the mountain settlement of Nieu Bethesda in winter time (May to August) and hunker down with a Karoo Ale at the Sneeuberg Brewery.
Share a traditional Karoo supper in the Victoria Manor Hotel in Cradock, where you can also watch the supremely fit canoe paddlers compete in the Fish River Canoe Marathon.
Go on a book safari in the Northern Cape town of Richmond, where the printed word still rules.
Stride the streets of Colesberg on a walking tour of this Victorian-era town and venture out on the Gariep Route, staying over at the most eccentrically stylish hotel in the region.
Enjoy a Saturday night cabaret in the Karroo Theatrical Hotel outside the mohair town of Steytlerville, and be entertained by a concert pianist and an exotic singer named Dame Layla Lamborghini.
Sit with astronomers on a hill outside Sutherland, home of the Southern African Large Telescope, and relish the heavens above.
Visit the seven radio dishes out at the Square Kilometre Array near Carnarvon and imagine the day when more than 2 500 of these wonderful techno-beasts will be swaying in unison, listening to the universe.
Hear all about the endangered riverine rabbit in Loxton, join the Nama Riel dancers at the Williston Festival in the Upper Karoo, and drive to Calvinia to catch the seasonal display of spring daisies, perhaps the greatest free show on Earth.
Have a sundowner with your favourite person at a spot overlooking Graaff-Reinet and the Valley of Desolation, giving you an eagle’s-eye view of the vastness of the Karoo.
Go fossil-fossicking in the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West and antique-chasing in a specialty store in Willowmore before entering the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, famous for its mountainous, rugged terrain and adventure tourism activities.
Enjoy Prince Albert, gateway to the Great Karoo, at Olive Festival time and listen to the happy gurgle of the water furrows as you sit on your stoep (verandah) on a warm summer’s evening.
And then turn your car around, grab the road map and choose a different route all together...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Karoo Connections (tour operator)
Tel: +27 (0)49 892 3978
Cell: +27 (0)82 339 8646
How to get here
The Great Karoo is bordered by the Kalahari to the north and by the Little Karoo to the south, and is bisected by the N1 highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Best time to visit
Visit the Great Karoo in the spring (September to October) when many parts are in flower, in the mild autumn (April to May) and if you want a hardy ‘Christmas in July’ experience, then come out in midwinter.
Tours to do
One of the best tour operators in the Graaff-Reinet area is Karoo Connections.
A hired sedan will get you around most places in the Great Karoo, but for those with a sense of outdoor adventure, a 4x4 is recommended.
What will it cost
You will find that accommodation costs across the board in the Great Karoo are much lower than in the urban areas of South Africa.
Length of stay
Set aside at least a week if you can for your road trip to parts of the Great Karoo.
What to pack
Pack informally, seasonally and for the outdoors. It gets very cold at night in winter in the Karoo (May to August), and is very hot in summer (October to March). Whatever the time of year, pack light clothes for the daytime and warm clothes for evenings.
Where to stay
Check the listed websites for accommodation choices.
What to eat
The Great Karoo is traditionally meat country (lamb and venison), but most venues offer vegetarian alternatives.
There are many festivals in the Great Karoo, particularly in the winter month of July. Check the listed websites of the areas you intend visiting to for events.
Buy sheep’s-wool slippers from one of the many farm stalls in the Great Karoo.