South Africa

Karoo road trip: ostriches, mountain passes and Camdeboo

Looking out across Desolation Valley in the Camdeboo: Karoo road trip

April, 2017: Across the way from South Africa’s Garden Route the countryside changes quite dramatically into something much drier, more arid but for us more beautiful. We left the coast at the unassumingly named town of George, cross a rugged mountain pass and headed for the ostrich capital of Oudtshoorn. Yeah, you heard right, the ostrich capital…more on that later. Despite Lonely Planet’s rating of the Garden Route being the third biggest attraction in South Africa we were a bit underwhelmed. As we crossed that mountain pass though, our mood changed almost immediately. For what felt like the first time, the broad expanse of Africa stretched into the distance. Our Karoo road trip was on!

What is the Karoo?

As it’s been described to us, the Karoo is South Africa’s version of the Australian outback. The little version is the first that you encounter from the coast and is ostrich country. Then as you head further north from Oudtshoorn, crossing the Swartberg mountains, the huge expanse of the Grand Karoo stretches before you. Sadly the traditional people of the Karoo, the San, have all but been wiped out through colonial and inter-tribal genocide. Today the land is dominated by sheep stations, Mohair goat farms, game reserves and beautiful, random little towns. Coming from the middle of nowhere in Australia, this huge expanse of arid bushland felt immediately familiar to me. Life feels slower, the sky is bigger and people more warm. It’s awesome and the perfect place for a road trip.

The wide open plains of the Grand Karoo: Karoo road trip

The wide open plains of the Grand Karoo

 

Oudtshoorn and Ostrich Country

Oudtshoorn has a definite middle of no-where charm about it. Even though it’s only a few hours off the coast life seems to move to a completely different beat. Streets are wide, people smile and say hello when you pass and yet, it’s still pretty lively. There seemed to be plenty of cafes and restaurants scattered around catering to the fairly well developed tourism industry. Oudshoorn forms a good base for exploring the Little Karoo, the Swartberg mountains and the nearby Cango Caves. It’s also the place to come to learn about ostriches.

Fi getting cosy with some cute little ostriches: Karoo road trip

Fi getting cosy with some cute little ostriches

 

A little more about ostrich country. Ostriches traditionally roamed further north in the continent but over the centuries have migrated south and into the Karoo. In the early 1800’s people started farming them and today the Little Karoo, or more specifically Oudtshoorn, is known as the ostrich capital of the world. As you drive the road in and out of town, you can see hundreds of the crazy looking birds milling around on little farms.

Ostrich eggs are amazing. They can take up to 150kg of weight. Here's Fi testing that out. Karoo road trip

Ostrich eggs are amazing. They can take up to 150kg of weight. Here’s Fi testing that out.

 

On one such farm we spent an hour or two learning more about the ostrich industry both past and present. We learnt that ostrich eggs can take up to 150kg of direct weight (we tested this by standing on them), discovered the ins and outs of feather duster production, and giggled like 12 year olds while the greedy birds ate corn from our palms. It was the full royal tour and while it may sound a bit naff, was actually super interesting. Fi even got to ride one around what I can only describe as an ostrich rodeo arena. I was apparently a little porky to be allowed on the poor thing.

We finished our tour of the ostrich farm with a moment on the ostrich race track: Karoo road trip

We finished our tour of the ostrich farm with a moment on the ostrich race track

 

The Swartberg Pass

From Oudtshoorn, our Karoo road trip took us further inland to cross the Swartberg Pass. The highway wound out of town, past olive farms and private game reserves until it to climbed into the mountains. The paved road disappeared relatively quickly but our trusty steed climbed ever higher. Am not sure why but as we climbed higher I kind of felt like we could have been climbing into the hills of Afghanistan (not that I’ve ever been). The terrain felt ancient, windswept and lonely, but majestic and achingly beautiful. As the road got worse our pace slowed until we were happily crawling up and over the pass itself. On the other side the Grand Karoo greeted us in all it’s dry, red dust awesomeness. We couldn’t help but stop repeatedly to take it all in and exchange stories with passing motorcyclists about how amazing it all was.

Looking out across the stunning Swartberg Pass: Karoo road trip

Looking out across the stunning Swartberg Pass

 

A friendly welcome to Graaf Reinet and camping Camdeboo

After completing the Swartberg and then the Meiringspoort pass (paved and beautiful but not a patch on the Swartberg), we headed for Graaf Reinet. Several times we tried to explain to people where we were headed but it always took at least 5-6 goes before they understood us. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t pronounce the damn place. For several hours the road took us through more stunning arid countryside and kookie little towns until we arrived in Graaf Reinet.

In Graaf Reinet we had the pleasure of spending the night with Paul and Sandy, probably the friendliest AirBnB hosts ever! From Paul’s welcoming hug to sitting on the back porch in the morning for a yarn with their monster of a dog, they were soooo friendly and warm. They epitomised everything that we were coming to love about the South African people. They even lent us some camping gear for our next night in the nearby Camdeboo National Park.

Camdeboo is a fairly recent addition to South Africa’s formidable array of amazing National Parks. No doubt it doesn’t have a patch on Kruger or the other more famous parks, but, as it was our first ‘game park’ experience, we loved it. It didn’t matter that we didn’t see lions or elephants as we were stoked just to sit and watch wildebeest and monkeys, springboks and kudu. Lakeside grasslands merge into to scrubland filled with thorn bush which climb up into craggy peaks. As an introductory bonus it’s also only about 5km out of town so an easy drive in for any forgotten supplies.

Sunset across Camdeboo National Park: Karoo road trip

Sunset across Camdeboo National Park

 

Even though there wasn't a huge amount of game to see we still loved the wide open spaces of Camdeboo: Karoo road trip

Even though there wasn’t a huge amount of game to see we still loved the wide open spaces of Camdeboo

 

Arguably the highlight of our Karoo road trip was when we drove our trusty little datsun up into the hills standing guard over Desolation Valley. We drove past red hartebeest and families of little monkeys before the road started winding it’s way upwards. Before we knew it we were parked atop rugged hills looking out over endless plains. From these hills you get an epic view across ancient pinnacles of rock and then onwards into the Grand Karoo. We sat for ages just taking it all in. For a time we had the place to ourselves with the only sound being the rustle of tree branches and cooing of birds. This was the Africa that I came for. Stark, arid and never-ending with the constant promise of wild adventure.

Pretty amazing places to perch up on top of Desolation Valley: Karoo road trip

Pretty amazing places to perch up on top of Desolation Valley

 

Such amazing views across the pinnacles of ancient rock: Karoo road trip

Such amazing views across the pinnacles of ancient rock

 

Karoo road trip: the fine print..

  • We thoroughly enjoyed our tour at Highgate Ostrich Farm just outside of Oudtshoorn. At R320pp for just over two hours of tour it’s not the cheapest but we still thought it was gold. Phone ahead to ensure a spot.
  • Check out the Cango Caves and do the 1.5 hour, R150 Adventure Tour. The caves are beautiful and it’s surprisingly good fun to get amongst a bit of spelunking!
  • Nostalgie Restaurant in Oudtshoorn was a great place for a cheeky dinner. It’s a lovely looking restaurant with friendly staff and a pretty delicious ostrich burger.
  • If you’re passing anywhere near the town of Willowmore, make sure to stop into Sophie’s Choice for a coffee and a piece of epic cheese cake. It’s a beautiful coffee shop / farmstall / antiques shop and is definitely worth a stop.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Karla
    July 16, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Hey this made me miss my south africa trip. To date, its one of my favorite destinaitions. We did this ostrich too, I loved it a lot.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 5:37 pm

      Yep, there is a lot to like about South Africa. Such a beautiful place but also has sooo much complexity to deal with stemming from apartheid. Loved our time there though.

  • Reply
    Claire Summers
    July 16, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    There is so much I didn’t get to explore in South Africa. I really should plan a return visit one day. I can’t believe that ostrich eggs take up to 150kg of weight! That’s pretty impressive!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 5:35 pm

      We spent nearly 3.5 months in South Africa and feel like we only really scratched the surface. Such an awesome country!

  • Reply
    Ka
    July 16, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    What a fantastic trip! I never knew you could stand on Ostrich eggs. Love a good road trip and the photos, the scenery just whoa. Just makes you want to go on a trip asap.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Couldn’t agree more. Road trips are the best. We like them sooo much we have bought an old Toyota and are going to try and drive it back to the UK over the next 6 months. Looking forward to more awesome African road trips.

  • Reply
    Dawn
    July 16, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    It really does look a bit like the outback of Australia. It was really interesting to read about the ostrich history – loved the photos of you standing on the eggs and ostriches being raced – so funny!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      The ostrich race was pretty hilarious. Initially I wasn’t super keen on the idea of the animal being used for such a spectacle but they didn’t seem overly bothered at all. My wife certainly loved having little ride.

  • Reply
    Rachel Elizabeth
    July 17, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    Such wide and open spaces! Not a part of South Africa that I see too often. I love ostriches too!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 4:06 pm

      We really loved the Karoo. Such a beautiful part of the country and relatively un-touristed. Where are you based?

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    July 18, 2017 at 11:37 am

    That’s crazy with the ostrich eggs! It must take a lot to be able to break one. I know people use them for cooking like we do with chicken eggs. If you can stand on one, it surely can’t crack easily.

    The Desolation Valley looks beautiful. I can see from your photos why it was your favorite stop along your route.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 3:55 pm

      It is crazy about ostrich eggs. My mum used to cook with emu eggs in Australia so I was keen to get hold of an ostrich egg to give it a whorl. Sadly we were there at the wrong time of year so I’ll have to go back!

  • Reply
    Rocio
    July 18, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Very savage place!! very similar in fact ti Grand Canyon in Arizona….but different and very fascinating. I need the Africa, never been and we absolutely to do it because I guess it has also more to teach!

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 3:53 pm

      Have never heard savage used to describe the Karoo but you know what, it’s not far off. Savagely good I’d say!

  • Reply
    Shruti Prabhu
    July 18, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    I had never heard of the karoo road trip. Definitely putting it on my bucket list. How cute is the baby ostrich! Did not know how strong the ostrich eggs were! Fascinated! The views are amazing! The caves sound like something I would want to do as well.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 11:54 am

      Thanks Shruti! I really think the Karoo is a bit of a secret gem in South Africa. Loads to do and so beautiful!

  • Reply
    Megan Jerrard
    July 19, 2017 at 5:25 am

    Wow, Karoo sounds like an incredible roadtrip! Interesting to hear that you were underwhelmed by the Garden route – though thanks for the tip to carry on through to Oudtshoorn. It’s funny that this is known as South Africa’s version of the Aus Outback as when I heard the name Karoo I actually thought “that sounds like an Australian name”.

    We recently returned from Cape Town and spent 5 days, so we didn’t get a chance to do the Garden route but were hoping to return soon. I would love to do Karoo instead though. With varied and interesting landscapes, and OMG those ostriches are SO cute!! I had no idea that their eggs could sustain so much weight! And I’ve never ridden one before, that would be an epic experience!

    Thanks for sharing your trip – looking forward to reading more of your trips 🙂

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 19, 2017 at 11:50 am

      Thanks Meg! I hadn’t actually thought about the ‘Aussieness’ of a name like Karoo but you’re totally right. RE the Garden Route, I think if you had more time and money to spend on doing some hiking and getting amongst some of the adventure activities, you’d probably love it.

  • Reply
    Cai Dominguez
    July 22, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Youre photo at desolation valley is perfect! Thanks for introducing this country to me. I dont have any idea. Ostrich racing looks cool. I cant imagine riding on an Ostrich hehhee. The view is indeed beautiful. Yeah I agree it looks like Australia in some point.

    • Reply
      RoamingCo
      July 22, 2017 at 7:51 pm

      The whole road trip was epic. Really can’t recommend the Grand Karoo enough. So beautiful!

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