Karoo Road Trip: Discovering South Africa’s Small Towns
Kim Bell hit the road to traverse South Africa’s great desert with a particular mission in mind: to uncover the quaintest, most novel and experiential stays in some the darling small towns of the Karoo.
Our journey through the Karoo’s small towns (commonly referred to as ‘dorpies’) turned out to be an explorative and delightful budget holiday that indulged our curiosity and nourished our soul. Following 4 400km circling the Karoo from Kimberley to Augrabies, Calvinia to Carnarvon, Prince Albert to Sutherland, and back to Johannesburg again.
So, how do you plan for a road trip?
Rule no 1: pick your travel companion carefully. There is no escape! They need to be easy-going, have a good sense of adventure, and better-than-bearable conversation skills. I’d recommend driving no more than three to four hours a day. And a minimum stay of two nights per place. Ultimately, if you gun it, all you’ll end up doing is driving, arriving and sleeping, with no time to take in your destinations. A trip to the Karoo is essentially about open skies, stargazing, delectable food, contemplative moments, and connecting with nature and yourself.
Pack a yoga mat, walking shoes, as well as both cool and warm clothes. Desert temperatures change dramatically from day to night. Take along some books and good music. In our case, Paul Simon’s Graceland made a pleasant revisit and inspired in us a lot of animated air trumpeting in the car. Don’t forget a paper map – you will lose signal and Google Maps won’t always be there to rescue the situation.
We know how much food plays a memorable role on a road trip, so cram a crate with cooking and braai essentials – self-cate
ring is the way to go in the Karoo. We also found it useful to freeze bottles of water. They serve as ice packs for the cooler box. And, when they melt, they make for a much-needed chilled refreshment for the midday desert heat.
Lastly, you may also want to polish up on your Afrikaans – it’s polite, at least to break the ice.
Be Boldly Adventurous
Just as we had embarked on this magical road trip, I enthusiastically yelled to my travel partner: “Check this out, Rivon! This is a 4×4!” Two minutes later, two flat tyres in the middle of Augrabies. Johan, a passing traveller, must have thought he was seeing a mirage. Two girls in nothing more than bikinis, open shirts and flip flops stood in 42-degree Kalahari heat waving frantically. A pasta dinner and braai to thank our knight in shining armour was in order. He then accompanied us to Kakamas the following morning, to buy new tyres. By the way, interesting town, Kakamas… offering the second mirage of the trip: vineyards in the desert. Whatever next?
Calvinia was the following dot on the map. Famous for its giant postbox, a museum housed in an old synagogue and a sheep that once got lost (only to be found a year later looking like a giant walking cloud of wool). Speaking of sheep, the Karoo is the place, as many will agree, to find the country’s finest lamb. This is primarily because the sheep graze on indigenous shrubs and herbs with aromas ranging from rosemary to sage and eucalyptus. We stocked up, and headed for what was possibly the highlight of the trip.
Emerse Yourself in the Culture of small Karoo towns
Papkuilsfontein, in Nieuwoudtville, is a farm nestled alongside a canyon, offering private stays in quaint, restored farm stone cottages with Victorian baths and fireplaces. This place is beyond picturesque. There is neither signal nor electricity. Everything is gas-fired, with oil lanterns for light. This lack of distraction is what relaxes the senses instantly, and here you can enjoy “plaas lewe”, stargazing, hikes, birding and gourmet boerekos. The Karoo somehow ensures that every meal feels like Oumie’s Sunday lunch.
Our favourite braai lamb recipe: a marinade of rosemary, balsamic, pepper, olive oil and lemon. Add the salt on the braai once only (to ensure tender meat). Salting the fat, in particular, allows it to crisp up nicely. This came with an assortment of healthy side-dishes. Such as boereboontjies with mashed potatoes, and fresh salads with halloumi, rocket, roasted grapes, pecans and pumpkin.
Alternatively, your meals can be prepared and served in your private abode by Ouma Petru, who, when asked “if this was still part of the Karoo”, warmly replied in storybook dreaminess: “Nee, my kind… dit – is die Namaqua…”. You can imagine how spectacular it must be to hike to the canyon when the farm is in its full-bloom splendour. Which is from August to September.
Watching Ouma Petru waving goodbye in our rearview mirror, we headed for Osfontein, a privately-owned sheep farm near Carnarvon. The town of Carnarvon is a photographer’s dream. Dotting the streets are quaint and colourful houses, reminiscent of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap. Here, we reconnected with our inner child in a treehouse sporting all the comforts of a tented bush camp. A quiet evening was spent around a vegetarian potjiekos in the company of the farm’s loyal, blue-eyed sheep dog.
Become One With the Remaining Parts of History
Osfontein also offers one of the most memorable experiences you could have: a stay in their corbelled house. In fact, these little-known, but super-cool, quirky, igloo-shaped houses pepper this particular landscape. Corbelled houses were built 200 years ago by the early Voortrekkers. The houses are cosy and cute. Their circular stone formation makes them an engineering wonder and a must for architect-enthusiasts. Here, a glass of wine and a candle-lit dinner can be enjoyed around the kaggel (fireplaces used for cooking) as your mind drifts into another era.
A sunrise start the following morning gave us our first taste of a grondpad. Many Karoo dorpies are connected by secondary gravel roads. And, while they can be more taxing on your tyres, they provide great scenic shortcuts, with the only passing traffic the occasional boer in a bakkie. Here you can feel as though you really do “own the road”. Added to that, there is nothing quite like the stillness of the morning’s soft, peachy light, contrasted against granite roads that wind through jagged hills. Photographers call it the “magic hour” for a reason.
Beauty has a way of pacifying the soul.
The next breathtaking pass opened up to the jewel of the Karoo. Prince Albert, a quaint, 250-year-old city that belongs in the pages of a design magazine. There is a lot to do. Including yoga and healing retreats, spas, bike trails, cooking classes, galleries, olive groves, cheese farms, museums, the famous “Die Hell”. Or, you can simply marvel at all of the Victorian houses with their pretty broekie lace. Our favourite experiences include a meal at the Karoo Kombuis, a movie at The Showroom Theatre, an antiquated Art Deco cinema, and the spooky ghost tour.
We stayed at The Old Milking Shed, which we adored. It had the charming aspects of natural, simplistic, bare-boned style, tasteful attention to detail and luxurious linen. Exquisite! A good sleep in a plush bed instantly restores the senses. The first national road we encountered was the N1 to Matjiesfontein, en route to Sutherland. Here, we stopped to visit the famous Lord Milner Hotel, straight out of a bygone era, and believed to be haunted.
Sutherland is an old dusty town, with a somewhat otherworldly atmosphere, that attracts hoards during snowfall season. Our highlights included seeing South Africa’s only mainland volcano (whoever knew?), a farm dam with flamingos, and, because it’s one of the darkest places in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s home to SALT (the South African Large Telescope). Visiting SALT is like experiencing an atmospheric space station, although you don’t actually get to look through this telescope (a bit disappointing). If this is what you really want to do, spend an evening with Jurg. He offers a fascinating evening of stargazing through telescopes. I always find this experience meditative and therapeutic somehow, a chance for a broader perspective on things.
“It’s Not the Destination, it’s the Journey”
Now for the bittersweet part of the road trip: the final stretch home. We rounded off our exploration of interesting stays at The Kimberley Club boutique hotel – a total time warp. It’s a colonial-style, richly decorated, historic hotel, and, according to legend, its upstairs library is haunted. Although you’d expect to see an apparition of Rhodes and other young millionaire mining magnates puffing cigars around the billiard table, we didn’t. Instead, we indulged in a little fun role-playing – hard to resist, in a setting as nostalgic as this.
Oh, great Karoo… thank you for your warm embrace, glorious sunshine, nostalgic wind pumps and boere hospitality. I’m going to avoid the cliché “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, because, when it comes to the Karoo, it’s very much about the destinations along the journey. Click here to find out what the link between travel and health is.
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