South African Holidays in Central Karoo

By Laurianne Claase

Murraysburg, Central Karoo, South Africa The farm once named Loneliness is today neither lonely nor merely a farm. The dusty Karoo farming district of which Murraysburg forms the hub, has turned to tourism to supplement the plough and the town's premier attraction these days is traditional Karoo hospitality.

Local farms have moved into eco-tourism and hunting ventures and the range of outdoor activities on offer is all but complete - from cycling, hiking, horse-riding, rock-climbing, game-viewing, partridge hunting, trophy hunting and 4x4 routes to a full complement of water sports. Bar river-rafting. Water has long been scarce in the thirsty heartland of the country but then, there's plenty of sun.

Three Sisters, Central Karoo, South Africa

This is little more than a route marker on the long road north.

Laingsburg, Central Karoo, South Africa

The Karoo is a vast and inhospitable dryness peppered with isolated outposts of warmth and hospitality. Travellers through the region have long been welcome at the lonely farms and the town of Laingsburg was established from one such popular pit-stop - the farm Salty Flats. (Zoute Vlakte) Today the coaches and tour buses that pull into the Laingsburg gas stations continue the tradition.

Boer War Blockhouse, Laingsburg, Central Karoo, South Africa

Built by the British in 1901 to guard the bridge over the Geelbek River and keep watch for Boer commandos during the South African Anglo-Boer War of 1899, this unprepossessing guard tower was declared a National Monument in 1965.

There are three others in the vicinity, also guarding bridges; the one at Ketting features in the poem 'Bridge Guard in the Karoo' by Rudyard Kipling, a colonial English writer. Access to the others is difficult but one you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. There is a good view from the top, however.

The Block House Route, Geelbeksbrug Farm, Laingsburg, Central Karoo, South Africa

The erosion-exposed rocks of the Karoo hills are up to three hundred million years old and were formed when much of the world's land mass made up the single super-continent of Gondwanaland. If you know how to read them they tell of a time when these arid plains were covered in water and leafy with life. The ancient rocks also yield fossil remains of the dinosaurs that once roamed the swamplands.

A number of farms offer holidays and rambles but farmer Dries Swanepoel of the farm Geelbeksbrug takes the visitor on a guided walk of the rock formations on his property and interprets the ancient stones. Accommodation is in a restored farmhouse.

Laingsburg, Central Karoo, South Africa

The energetic walker will find numerous hiking trails of varying duration including the 24 kilometre Klipkraal Route along the Swartberg with its spectacular scenery. Anysberg Nature Reserve nearby has a two-day pony trail in the mountains as well as abseiling and caving opportunities.

Floriskraal dam, 20 kilometres south of town is scenically set amongst the hills and caters to all manner of watersports. And if you have any energy left, the 80 kilometre Karoo Marathon is run in September.

Matjiesfontein, Central Karoo, South Africa

Quite why this scattering of restored Victorian establishments along a dusty railway siding should be the stuff of legend is not at first clear but it is true that there is nothing quite like Matjiesfontein in the whole Karoo.

The names associated with the country's first health resort read like a Who's Who of nineteenth century South Africa. Olive Schreiner, ( one of South Africa's earliest femininst writers) Cecil John Rhodes, the diamond magnate and imperialist, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the more famous Winston, to name but a few of its illustrious patrons.

The man responsible for this little slice of Scotland on the lonely road through South Africa's parched interior, was one James Douglas Logan, a Scottish adventurer who was shipwrecked on the Cape Peninsula. Starting off as a penniless porter, he subsequently became one of the wealthiest men of the period.

An astute businessman and visionary, his house at Tweedside farm was the first private dwelling in the country to have electricity. And it is Logan we have to thank for water-borne sewage; his was the first flushing loo.

He opened his Waterworld resort in November 1889, in one of the driest parts of the country. Popular lore has it that when congratulated on 'creating a paradise in the desert', Logan replied, 'It is not that I have done so much but that others have done so little.'

While Matjiesfontein village has met with both rising and falling prosperity over the last century, today it has been resurrected anew as a popular stopping-off point on the long road north. If you're inclined to get into the spirit of the thing, the period Lord Milner Hotel insists on dressing for dinner while Logan's Masonic Hotel is now the boarding house and doesn't have a dress code.

The Laird's Arms provides wood-panelled shade amidst cricket memorabilia for thirsty travellers and there's a museum and Olive Schreiner's rented cottage for the insatiably curious. And of course, the inevitable church.

Graaff-Reinet, Central Karoo, South Africa

This is the land of the springbok, South Africa's national emblem. Once so abundant in this region that herds took three days to pass from sight, these agile antelope are still to be found on the local farms. The springbok is not the only object of national heritage.

Graaff-Reinet has more protected historic buildings than anywhere else in the country. Cradock Street alone has more than fifty; most are private homes. Then there's the Graaff-Reinet Pharmacy, a relic of the Victorian apothecary with his stone jars and dispensing bottles inlaid in gold.

The Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1886, was modelled on Salisbury Cathedral and is one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country. Out of town on a private farm is the most extraordinary of Graaff-Reinet's national monuments. The Kalkkop impact crater was formed some 200 000 years ago when a meteorite smashed into the Karoo, leaving behind a 640 metre wide crater. Over the years, limestone deposits have filled in the hole but the circular impact ridge is still visible.

Floriskraal dam, 20 kilometres south of town is scenically set amongst the hills and caters to all manner of watersports. And if you have any energy left, the 80 kilometre Karoo Marathon is run in September.

Karoo Nature Reserve, Graaff-Reinet, Karoo, South Africa

This 14 500 hectare reserve around Graaff-Reinet covers mostly hilly terrain in the foothills of the Sneeuberg (Snowy Mountains) offering a postcard view of the town nestled in a bend of the Sundays River.

The fluctuating waters of Van Rhyneveld's Pass Dam allow watersports upon occasion and there are hiking trails of varying duration through the semi-arid landscape dotted in rare Cape Mountain Zebra and Cape buffalo, antelope and ostrich and springbok, of course. But it is the Valley of Desolation that visitors usually come to see.

The pillars of eroded stone which stretch across the Karoo plains are awe-inspiring, as is the view from above if paragliding from Uitkyk (Lookout) Peak. There are no overnight facilities in the reserve unless you are on a pre-booked overnight hike.

Graaff-Reinet, Central Karoo, South Africa

The farms in the area have been in the family for generations. While there is an abundance of town lodgings, farm-stay accommodation provides a glimpse not only into contemporary Karoo life but also into its past. The farms offer a variety of activities including cycling, hiking, horse-riding, birding, plains game-viewing, tennis and golf.

Some feature more esoteric excursions such as visits to a Stone Age tool workshop and one has its own fossil collection. And should the wild space and champagne air of the Karoo go to our head you can take to the sky and sightsee from above.

Graaff-Reinet, Central Karoo, South Africa

A township walkabout tour of Umasizakhe is available. The Old Mission is today a new cottage industry, practising the traditional arts of spinning, weaving and knitting. The Hester Rupert Museum has a fine collection of contemporary South African art including oils and watercolours by the town's resident artist, Edward Speirs, whose studio in Cradock street is open to the public.

Nieu- Bethesda, Central Karoo, South Africa

The Owl House, Nieu-Bethesda, Karoo, South Africa Inside, a black-eyed fish swims under the fire, sad-faced suns gaze into a room daubed in coloured light. Out back... acrobats, peacocks and owls, wise men and camels and long-necked giraffes throng the garden - surreal sculptures composed in cement.

The life's work of Helen Martins, a lonely, enigmatic figure, her house remains as testimony to her extraordinary, artistic vision. Ibis Art Centre, Nieu-Bethesda, Karoo, South Africa Since the days when Helen Martin was regarded with suspicion in this tiny, remote village, times have changed.

Today, Nieu-Bethesda is something of an artists haven and eccentricity is only to be expected. The local art and craft gallery, run by artist/ filmmakers, Noelle Obers and Mark Wilby, doubles up as a B and B. Other accommodation is equally eclectic and ranges from Karoo farmhouses and a morning dip in the dam to Victorian guesthouses complete with snooker table.

Beaufort West, Central Karoo, South Africa Museum

South Africa's first town hall houses a permanent collection devoted to the world's first heart transplant. The Chris Barnard exhibit displays over a thousand gifts and awards received from all over the world by the local-boy-made-good. The museum complex includes the church where his father preached and the family home, all national monuments.

Beaufort West has retained some of its old-world architecture. The churches, jails, hotels and private homes of the past are best viewed on a walk through the historic heart of what is otherwise a rough and ready farming town.

Beaufort West, Karoo, South Africa There is horse-riding, mountain climbing, hiking and game-viewing on a local farm. You get to rest up in a colonial English hunting lodge. There are three 4x4 trails on farms in the region which have river-crossings, canyons and highland plateau to test the mettle of man and machine.

Location: 50 kilometres north-east of Beaufort West over De Jagers Pass. Contact: Hilary, Tel: (+27 2024) 714 Karoo National Park, Central Karoo, South Africa

These undisturbed 50 000 hectares of Great Karoo are an important breeding area for the rare Cape Mountain Zebra and the endangered Black Rhino. Other plains mammals include a variety of antelope as well as the bat-eared fox

Unless you're staying in the well-appointed lodges, dining at the a la carte restaurant and going for guided game drives, activities in the Karoo National Park will appeal to those with more adventurous inclinations. The 4x4 trail has only the most basic of overnight huts although the Parks Board will provide both vehicle and guide should you not want to risk the rented car.

Hiking trails of various lengths have few facilities but lots of wide open space. For the interested eco-tourist, there are two short walks, rather mistakingly labelled trails, which introduce the fossils and the plant life of the Karoo. With 64 different species of flora, you'll learn that there is more to these dusty plains than sage and khaki scrubland.

Fraserburg, Karoo, South Africa

This little town, high on the Karoo plateau is chiefly interesting for its architecture. Victorian houses preserve their wrought-iron embellishments more modestly than the eccentric six-sided 'pepper box' designed in 1861 by Reverend Carl Bamberger as his office.

Prince Albert, Karoo Central, South Africa This picturesque Karoo village at the foot of the Swartberg mountains once made its living from ostrich feathers. Today, it's olives. And Karoo lamb, dried fruit and home-made cheeses. Not to mention, rumours of gold and ghosts.

Thomas Baine, one of South Africa's legendary nineteenth century renaissance men, built the spectacular Swartberg Pass just outside the village. Of a geological bent as well as an engineer he believed that there was gold in these hills.

Despite a number of gold-rushes that fizzled out, alluvial gold glints in the rivers and gold nuggets are still periodically unearthed. There are ghosts too if you believe the stories. There's the wandering Jew of the Swartberg, a young girl seeking her wedding dress in the museum, a gambling ghost in the hotel and a ride safe spectre that routinely helps travellers in difficulty. Walking tours of the historic town are offered.

Fossil Museum, Zwartskraal Farm, Prince Albert, South Africa

This privately-owned, painstakingly catalogued collection includes a 3 000 million year old piece of petrified algae and a 250 million year old skull. For more glimpses of the giant lizards that once roamed these parts, the Fransie Pienaar Museum has a fossil section and there are dinosaur footprints on another local farm.

Swartberg Nature Reserve, Prince Albert, Karoo, South Africa Included within the Swartberg Nature Reserve is the Meiringspoort and Gamkaspoort Nature Reserve making a total 129 000 hectares of conservation area. There are few facilities throughout this vast area other than picnic spots, hiking trails with overnight huts and designated camping areas.

So, if hiking, the rock formations, vistas of fold mountains and antelope, leopard and baboon are all yours. There is fishing in the Gamka river and in the Gamkapoort Dam but you must have a permit. Gamkaskloof, Die Hel, Prince Albert, South Africa Over the Swartberg Pass, on a scooter. There are worse ways of going to hell.

Which turns out to be a hidden valley in the Swartberg mountains, isolated for a hundred years before the road was built in the 1960's. The lure of the world ended the life of the valley and today the old farmhouses belong to nature conservation and are open to visitors as a base for hiking and mountain-biking through this forgotten oasis. There are also birding trips and guided ecological, geological and botanical tours of the whole area.

Prince Albert, Karoo, South Africa

As is becoming more common throughout the rural areas of South Africa, farm stay accommodation is an alternative to staying in town. The farms offer their own hiking and horse-riding trails as well as tractor rides and in October, after good rains, the figs bloom purple. One such farm offers day and two day routes including as optional extras traditional food cooked on the open fire, as well as a local story-teller for those round the fire tall stories, Nature Conservation hiking trails are threaded throughout the Swartberg Nature Reserve and include the Swartberg National Hiking Way, Tierberg Trails and Gamkapoort Nature Reserve

And if all that walking takes it out of you, succumb to the seductions of the Wellness Retreat with its aromatherapy, shiatsu massage, reiki and meditation therapies at Bijlia Cana Wellness Retreat in Prince Albert.

Fransie Pienaar Museum, Prince Alfred, Karoo

Fransie Pienaar was another of those women that the isolated farming towns of South Africa seem to produce. Like Helen Martin with her Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda and Ruth Lock in Queenstown with her shells, Fransie Pienaar pursued her personal vision with dedicated single-mindedness. She was a born collector and from her youth set about ensuring that not all of our past would slip from recent memory.

Her collection of pieces of the past soon filled a room, then a church hall, and finally a residence on Main Street was turned into a museum and at 88, she helped display her collection in its new home.

Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.