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IIf you want a South African road trip that offers riverine rabbits, spiritual skies, corbelled houses, the presence of space-listening telescopes, windmill landscapes and small towns that know little of stress, traffic and deadlines, then hit the Upper Karoo Route, which winds through Northern Cape province from Victoria West to Calvinia.
Your journey through the upper Karoo begins in a tiny Anglican church in Victoria West, where you can gaze up at the stained-glass windows. Some of the scenes they portray date back to a devastating flood that hit the small 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.
A good bet for accommodation here is Die Pophuis Hoekie (‘the doll’s house corner’), which offers self-catering cottages along the main street. In spring, the daisies come out all over, lining the sidewalks and adding even more flair to the Victorian-era buildings.
The next morning, after taking your leave of the sights of Victoria West, head west along the R63 to Loxton, which is about 80km away. This little sheep-farming centre has a special charm – which 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.
Enjoy a long lunch at Die Rooi Granaat (‘the red pomegranate’) and spend the afternoon exploring the neighbourhood, before staying over in Loxton – you might want to check in at one of the many self-catering cottages in the town and enjoy a braai under the Karoo stars.
The next day, a relaxed drive north along the R63 with stops to take in the view will still get you to Carnarvon before lunch. There are some special places to see in this little town, including the local museum with its reconstructed corbelled house. There’s also the Blikkies (Cans) Bar in the local hotel, where you can have a drink surrounded by wall-to-wall beer cans. There’s a jukebox in the corner, so you can play a couple of classics before you move on.
Carnarvon’s main attraction, although access is restricted so you won’t be able to see it up close, is the Square Kilometre Array – the famous radio telescope field about 80km away; a project that involves 12 different countries. Once complete, it will be the world’s biggest telescope complex – a very exciting coup for South Africa and its space scientists.
Consider spending the night at Stuurmansfontein Guest House, an hour outside Carnarvon – an original corbelled farmhouse built in the mid-1800s. The next day, head for Williston, nearly 120km to the west along the R63.
You can arrive in time for lunch at Williston Mall, after wandering around the recycled art, the little bookshop and curio stalls. Make sure your lunch includes the legendary Williston Milkshake.
If you’re visiting during the annual Williston Winter Festival, you’ll see people of all cultures come together to feast and dance.
After a night in Williston, continue west along the R63 to your last destination on this route: Calvinia. This is another of those attractive, energetic little Karoo towns where many residents are tourism-savvy. Stay in one of the Hantam Huis cottages and spend some time wielding your camera at the local flower reserve, getting better acquainted with the daisies.
It’s a great trip if you want to soak up the peace of the deep Karoo…
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Victoria West Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)82 464 2690 (Contessa Kruger)
Die Pophuis Hoekie (Victoria West)
Tel: +27 (0)53 621 1243
Tel: +27 (0)53 381 3102
Stuurmansfontein Corbelled Guest House
Tel: +27 (0)53 382 6097
Cell: +27 (0)82 221 7500
The Williston Mall
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3659
Cell: +27 (0)72 018 7288
Die Hantam Huis (Calvinia)
Tel: +27 (0)27 341 1606
How to get here
Victoria West is on the N12, approximately 50km off the N1 in Northern Cape province. It is about 600km from Cape Town (a 6 to 7-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 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 between R500 and R1 000 per person, per night.
Length of stay
Set aside 6 days and 5 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, a hat and sunscreen.
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 involves delicious lamb.
Check the listed websites for details on seasonal happenings in this part of the Karoo.
The local crafts on display at the Williston Mall.