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THE GREAT KAROO

Where the horizons are infinite and footprints few
under a sky you can almost touch ...


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AN ENDURING STORY

When travellers of the world hit the road only a discerning few find their way to the Great Karoo, here where nature dazzles on the endless plains and in the blue mountains, here in the blazing summers and icy winters where the wild winds fade to a silence so pure you can hear God think.

The Great Karoo is one of the world's most unique arid zones. In South Africa it stands alone, globally it is an envied rarity. Karoo is an old indigenous word for dry thirst land. The area is considered a wonder of the scientific world. It is an ancient, fossil-rich land with the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth. There are more than 9 000 species of plants in the Great Karoo, one district alone being home to more species than the whole of Great Britain.

RECORDED IN STONE

Some of the world's most important archaeological sites are located in the Central Karoo, particularly the Beaufort West and Nelspoort areas with their multitude of stone-age sites and petroglyphs, rock engravings, done by the earliest hunter-gatherers. The Great Karoo is integral to the work of the world's scientists, botanists, archaeologists, geologists, palaeontologists and ecologists. For those who care to look, the story of the evolution of mammals from reptiles is here recorded in stone. And the story is 190 to 500 million years old.

Game animals to whom these plains and mountains are home makes the Great Karoo an outpost of nature where man's intrusion is still but a light touch. Here are found many species of plains game, hyrax, Hartman mountain Zebra, fallow deer, wild ostrich, guinea fowl, the Egyptian goose and lynx. Bird life is abundant. The endangered black rhinoceros and the riverine rabbit have also been re-established in the Karoo So has the quagga, a species once extinct, but which has now been regenerated from portions of its genetic code found in tissue samples taken from mounted museum exhibits.

TALES OF WAR AND PIONEERS

At the end of the last century one of the largest fighting forces ever to leave the shores of Imperial Britain arrived at the Cape. These soldiers, with all the paraphernalia of battle, moved across the plains of the Great Karoo to engage the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War, last of the gentlemen's wars. Lonely British war graves now dot the plains and silent block houses still guard the railway bridges as grim reminders of those turbulent times.

HOME OF THE PIONEERS

The Great Karoo is also a place of pioneers. Born here in the last century was Dr Emil Hoffa, founder of the modern science of orthopaedics. It was also the birthplace of probably the world's most famous surgeon, Professor Christiaan Barnard, heart transplant pioneer. Even the man who early in the 20th century was acknowledged as the prince of the shadowy world of international espionage, Fritz Joubert Duquesne, had strong family ties in the Karoo.

PLACE OF VISUAL INSPIRATION

As scenery goes, the Karoo is not for pretty chocolate boxes. Visually, it is stark, a starkness that distils into a grandiose beauty, at times awesome. Here sunsets and dawns do not stoop to being visual clichés, they stun with blinding light and cloud shows.

The Great Karoo has a harsh climate with little rain, severe droughts, fiery summers and bitter winters. Occasionally it surprises with mighty cloud bursts and fearsome floods. But it is an invigorating environment considered highly health giving, in fact, so much so that at one time it was popular with the aristocracy of Europe as well as eastern potentiates.

It is a place of vast plains and endless blue mountains, a land of enchantment and mystery. Those who linger in its vastness soon sense the magic, and over the years are forever drawn back to this, the world's largest plain of its kind outside Asia.

A GOSSAMER TAPESTRY

In an impassioned plea for its preservation, archaeologist Garth Sampson once said: "The Karoo is like a rich tapestry. Removing any item is like unpicking a stitch, each path or road cut across its surface is equal to pulling out a thread, and each settlement is like a moth hole!"

THE ROCKS TALK

When the earth was younger, about 280 million years ago, the Great Karoo was a vast swamp. Over the aeons, the swamp of prehistory, where mammal-like reptiles once ruled, disappeared. It gradually changed to a desert with rugged beauty and eternal rock layers that hid the secrets of this ancient land, guarding them for the caring few.

The swamp's transition to desert started about 280 million years ago when the climate began to change. Temperatures climbed and the world grew warmer, slowly drying. The huge lake, an inland see, fed by a network of north-flowing rivers, began to silt up. Glaciers and vast ice sheets slowly slid downwards, bringing with them abundant rock debris.

The streams became sludge and winds carried debris into the lake where layer upon layer of sediment and silt slowly built up, burying the skeletons of aquatic creatures that lived at that time. Over the next 100 million years the lush plant growth on the land wilted and swamp creatures battled for survival as food dwindled. They plodded the rim of the lake in search of anything edible, leaving in the mud footprints and tail drag marks.

TRAPPED IN TIME

Around the water holes thick mud trapped the heavier creatures that now are found as fossils. Among these are examples of the 2,5 metre-long Bradysaurus, so often found with heads tilted up, indicating that they could not free themselves and so suffocated. In time, they became extinct. After millennia, the climate became drier and dinosaurs inhabited the ancient deserts. Since 120 million years ago the Great Karoo has been eroded into the vast plains and flat-topped mountains of today.

FOOTPRINTS FROM THE PAST

Fossilised footprints are found on many Karoo farms, and on Gansfontein, near Fraserburg, there is an intriguing palaeo-surface. It shows an ancient flood-plain surface with contour, mud, ripple and wrinkle marks, as well as worm trails, fish-fin imprints and anthropoid trails. There are also many large mammal-like reptile, Dinocephalian and Bradysaurus tracks.

There is a complete Bradysaurus fossil, restored in situ, on Melton Wold, near Loxton. These huge, lizard-like, plant-eating reptiles were once as plentiful 260 million years ago as springbok are now.

ON THE TRAIL OF FOSSILS

Fossil sites abound in the Great Karoo, but a good starting point is the Karoo National Park's Fossil Trail. It has wide walkways for wheel chairs and Braille board inscriptions for the convenience of the blind. Taped commentary is available for disabled visitors who have their own cassette players. Some display cases may be opened for blind visitors to feel the fossils. Gondwanaland is explained, and along this 400m route there are superb examples of fossilised mudstone, silified trees and a wide variety of fossils, most of which have been found in the Beaufort Series of rock formations.

THE KAROO NATIONAL PARK

On the outskirts of Beaufort West lies the huge Karoo National Park which stretches far into the Nuweveld mountain range. Here two of South Africa's most highly endangered species, the riverine rabbit and the black rhinoceros, have been successfully resettled.

The park is also home to five tortoise species, the most in any conservation area in the world.

Found in the park and mountains and on the surrounding plains are springbok, black springbok, white springbok, kudu, eland, blesbuck, white blesbuck, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, blue wildebeest, impala, southern mountain reedbuck, grey rhebuck, klipspringer, oryx, blue duiker, steenbuck, hyrax, Hartman mountain zebra, fallow deer, wild ostrich, guinea fowl, Egyptian goose and lynx. Abundant bird life includes the magnificent black eagle and the somewhat shy eagle owl.

There are chalets for those who wish to linger a while. There's a pool, a restaurant, hiking routes, a Braille fossil trail, a nature walk and a popular 4 x 4 trail.

EXTINCT QUAGGA BACK IN THE KAROO

This remarkable event had its beginnings on August 12, 1883, the day a quagga mare died in Amsterdam Zoo. Nobody then paid much attention. Only later it was revealed that she had been the last of her kind on earth.

This beautiful species of zebra-type animals was once abundant on the plains of the Great Karoo. But they were ruthlessly hunted as settlers considered them competitors for the grazing needed for sheep, goats and cattle. Then, nearly 100 years later in the early 1980s, a project was launched to recreate the species from portions of its genetic code present in tissue samples taken from mounted museum exhibits.

It was a painstakingly slow process, but now 11 of the once extinct plains quagga have been resettled in the Karoo National park where everything possible is being done to help them to adapt to life on the veld.

DUCHESS OF THE PLAINS

No visit to these parts is quite complete without calling in at Matjiesfontein, the Grand Duchess of the Great Karoo. This Victorian village, which has been restored in its entirety, was declared a national monument in 1979. It was established in 1884 by a colourful, entrepreneurial Scot, James D Logan. What he saw as great opportunity was the sale of water to the fledgling Cape Colonial Railway, but in time he also created one of the first health resorts in Africa.

Matjiesfontein is closely linked with Olive Schreiner, famous South African author of "The Story of an African Farm." She spent long periods in the tiny village writing in a house Logan built for her. The house is still there, as well as her favourite tree, fondly known as Olive's Tree.

In the last century the aristocracy of Europe flocked to Matjiesfontein to enjoy the "good clean Karoo air" which had cured Logan of a chest complaint. Among these were the Sultan of Zanzibar and Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill's father.

WHERE HUNTING IS PART OF NATURE

Since long before recorded memory the Great Karoo has been natural hunting country. For centuries the /Xam (Bushmen) used their legendary skills with bow and arrow to kill for the pot.

Then, as now, the graceful and swift springbok roamed the plains in herds of many thousands. Every so often they stampeded through the early towns, leaving behind trails of devastation. But when nomadic life on the plains gave way to the settled existence of farming, fences arrived, changing the whole pattern. Now there are large herds of game behind fences, ironically saved from extinction by commercial hunting that is strictly controlled. Among the health conscious, venison is enjoying growing popularity, being almost completely fat-free.

Karoo game farms are internationally known. Many offer hunters larger antelope such as vaalribbok, blesbuck, oryx, eland, kudu and black wildebeest.

SETTLEMENTS MIRROR THE PAST

Towns and settlements in the central area of the Great Karoo still reflect the ethnic bouquet that shaped the present-day inhabitants of this sparsely populated region - hunter-gatherers, indigenous tribesmen, Dutch and British settlers and the early slaves.

Flitting across the map from the north there is Three Sisters, a popular fuel and refreshment stop along the main N1 arterial highway. It takes its name from the three almost identical dolerite topped hills in the background.

Nelspoort is just off the N1, and is the site in the Great Karoo richest in Xam (Bushman) engravings or petroglyphs. Across the plains and under the mountains lies little Murraysburg, once the scene of a frantic oil search.

Beaufort West, oldest town in the Central Karoo, was established in 1818 in an attempt to curb growing lawlessness and gun running in the interior. There is a museum in what was the country's first official town hall, a superb Victorian building. On display here are all the awards presented to pioneering heart surgeon Professor Christiaan Barnard. The original equipment he used to perform the world's first heart transplant can also be seen.

Lying at the entrance to scenic Meiringspoort, Klaarstroom is the settlement from where South Africa's last wagon transport business was conducted. On a nearby farm there is a witblits (or white lightning) still, now a national monument which produces the powerful white spirit to this day.

Leeu Gamka on the N1 is a small settlement where the last of a now extinct species, the Cape lion, was shot in 1857.

Way off the beaten track, Merweville lies in an area of the Great Karoo strongly resembling Nevada. On the outskirts of this small town is the grave of an Australian soldier who was so disturbed at the thought of fighting Boers during the Anglo-Boer War that he committed suicide.

Prince Albert Road began life as a convenience stop for travellers, which purpose it still serves.

Situated at the foot of the Swartberg mountain range near the entrance to the famous Swartberg Pass, Prince Albert is unique in that almost all Cape architectural styles are found there. Near the town an aardvark sparked a gold rush in the last century when he unearthed a huge nugget.

Laingsburg and its surroundings are considered to be one of the most interesting geological areas of the Great Karoo. Alongside the main road are layers of fossilised mudstone and layers of volcanic ash blown across from South America 250 million years ago.

A short run south lies Matjiesfontein, a perfectly preserved piece of Queen Victoria's British Empire. To stay at the Lord Milner Hotel there is to enter HG Wells's time machine.

ONE HELLUVA LITTLE VALLEY

More popularly known as The Hell, Gamkaskloof is a strange little valley of legends and stories that lies snug in the heart of the Swartberg mountain range. The first settlers arrived there in 1830, and Gamkaskloof attained a certain fame as home to one of the world's most unique communities, one in almost total isolation. A story goes that the two world wars came and went with the people of the valley being blissfully of both these momentous events. For many years the valley was cut off from the outside world and could only be reached on foot or by pack mule. Then a road was constructed and opened in 1963. Sadly, this led to the decline of the valley as the inhabitants gradually drifted out to nearby towns.

The Hell now belongs to Cape Nature Conservation. All that is left in this beautiful little valley as a reminder of its once uniquely individualistic people are their abandoned homesteads, and once in a while the delightful scent from the bloom of a long-ago rose cultivar.

THROUGH THE GATEWAYS

The gateways to the Great Karoo are littered with history and stories of outlaws, murderers and ghosts. The two most intriguing ways into the area are the Old Diamond Way and the Smugglers' Route.

Old Diamond Way was the route fortune hunters used to reach the fabulous diamond fields at Kimberley. Rich in history and spiced with incredible happenings, it was also the route the regular post coach used, and the way Cecil John Rhodes travelled to and from his diamond claims. Many are the farms along the way where Rhodes is said to have slept and where stories originated of the magnificent diamonds he always carried with him.

Said to be haunted, Smugglers' Route meanders through Seweweekspoort Pass. This was the way brandy smugglers travelled to avoid paying taxes on their produce. One of the many legendary ghosts in this pass is a toll-keeper. For many years now he has been seen running frantically along the road, swinging his lantern to warn travellers of threatening storms and rising rivers.

OVER THE PASSES

Magnificent passes link the Great Karoo with the Little Karoo. One of these is the Swartberg Pass, a tribute the brilliance of renowned road-builder Thomas Bain, and considered the most spectacular in the world after the Djareleeng Pass in Asia. Then there are Meiringspoort, Seweweekspoort and a number of smaller passes to intrigue the motorist.

SEASONS ON THE HIKING TRAILS

Spring and autumn are favourite seasons for hiking in the Great Karoo. There are splendid routes in the mountains, at the Karoo National Park and at nature reserves such as Anysberg, near Laingsburg, where pony treks are a highlight. Many farms also offer hikes, each with an own character. There are eco, adventure and wilderness trails, birding bonanzas, mountain bike and 4 x 4 routes. Many farms also have camping sites, caves and natural shelters for amateur astronomers and those happy just gazing at the crystal nights of the Great Karoo.

TRAVELLERS' CHOICE

There is always a warm welcome for visitors at the individualistic accommodation establishments of the Great Karoo. The choice is wide and the selection of venues accommodates every budget.

There are country inns, traditional hotels (mostly one or two stars), guest houses, cottages, flats and overnight rooms, as well as caravan parks and farms that offer their special brand of hospitality. The choice covers everything from self-catering stops to fully-catered cuisine in pampered elegance.

Text by Wally Kriek. Research by Rosalie Willis

FURTHER INFORMATION

Regional Tourism Office, Central Karoo District Municipality,
Private Bag X560 Beaufort West, 6970

Further information: Rose Willis - Tel No 023-415-1160 -
Fax No 023-414-3675 - Cell 082-926-0474

e.mail : karootour@internext.co.za


 

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