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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.