Did you know?
Bridal couples once posed for photographs with the Aberdeen circus lions – plate glass separated them from the beasts.
We’re going on a 250km drive north through the Eastern Cape Karoo, from Willowmore to Graaff-Reinet, with a remarkable detour along the way. If you’re a city-stressed person, this road is where you are going to find the peace and open skies you’ve been dreaming about.
Willowmore, most days of the week, is a buzzing little town because it stands as the gateway to both the Karoo and the Baviaanskloof area, a large natural area popular with hikers, nature lovers and adventure junkies. Willowmore is especially popular with bikers of all ages who love to visit the Baviaans and then ride for hundreds of kilometres through the vast Karoo, South Africa's dry, inland heartland.
We stop over for coffee and a snack at Sophie’s Choice, and snoop around the antique shop next door. There’s some really fresh carrot cake on the menu today, a generous slice of which will give you good travel-energy – and, of course, a sugar rush.
The treed streets of Willowmore are so alluring that by mid-afternoon we’re still exploring. OK. Let’s just book in somewhere for the night and make an early start tomorrow. The Willow Historical Guest House looks good, and so does the eccentric little pub inside.
The next morning we head up the N9 for a scant 20km before turning off on a reasonably good dirt road to the village of Rietbron. They say nothing happens in Rietbron, and we’re going to test that theory.
They’re right! It’s all quite marvellously still as we drive through the dusty streets of this farming settlement. Many of the classic Karoo building styles are evident here, and some of us make discreet enquiries about where the nearest estate agent might be lurking.
Rietbron is much-beloved by its locals, and the highlight of the annual calendar is a rugby festival early in the year, which brings schools from all over the region to these hard-scrabble Karoo playing fields.
After some time spent chatting to the trading-store owner, we head out of town and rejoin the N9 to Aberdeen.
The first striking feature of Aberdeen is its wide streets, where you can comfortably do a U-turn with a wagon and a team of 16 oxen. Then there’s the beautiful Dutch Reformed church and those stunning gargoyles on top of the tiled roof of the post office. This is a town with serious Karoo architecture – and, if you make enquiries, you will find it is home to some of the best artists in the region.
We sleep over at Pagel House, one of the most elegant homes in the Karoo. It is named after the famous Pagel family who owned a travelling circus in the early 1900s. Many of their animals spent their retirement years in a zoo in Aberdeen – now long-closed.
On our last day of this Camdeboo route (Camdeboo is a large, desolate and beautiful area which incorporates the towns of Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen and Nieu-Bethesda), we make the short 55km drive to Graaff-Reinet, also known as the Gem of the Karoo. This is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa, and its Victorian-era buildings have been well-preserved.
We take a tour of the museum complex, drop in at the fine McNaughton's Bookshop and, with David McNaughton as our guide, we drive up the Camdeboo National Park to a viewing point overlooking the Valley of Desolation. Someone thought to pack a picnic hamper, and so we feast and toast the end of the trip...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Willowmore is approx. 150km (two hours' drive) from the larger centre of George, beginning with the N12 and cutting onto the N9 and passing Uniondale.
Best time to visit
The Camdeboo route is best driven in the spring and early summer (August to October) or autumn and early winter (April to June).
Around the area
Visit the Camdeboo National Park outside Graaff-Reinet.
Tours to do
Karoo Connections runs very good historical tours around the Graaff-Reinet area.
Hire a car in George or Port Elizabeth, get a good road map and hit the tar...
What will it cost
Accommodation costs (self-catering) should run at little more than R250 per person, per night.
Length of stay
Set aside four days and three nights for this journey if you can.
What to pack
Pack seasonally (it gets very hot in summer, between November and March, and cold in winter, from May to August) and informally – don’t forget to add sunblock, dark glasses (there is a bright glare in this part of the world) and extra memory cards for your camera.
Where to stay
Recommended are the Willow Historical Guest House in Willowmore and Pagel House in Aberdeen. You'll find a wide choice of accommodation in Graaff-Reinet.
What to eat
Eat at Sophie’s Choice in Willowmore, Pagel House in Aberdeen, and check the listed Graaff-Reinet website for all the options here.
There are often festivals along the N9 – check the listed websites for event dates and details.
Visit McNaughton's Bookshop in Graaff-Reinet and look at its wide choice of books on the Karoo.