The Karoo 

The Karoo comprises over 35% of the land surface of South Africa or about 400,000 square kilometres.  The Eastern Cape portion is roughly delineated by the towns of Graaff-Reinet , Willowmore,  Steytlerville, Somerset East and Cradock and incorporates an area called the Camdeboo.   Eve Palmer in her book entitled The Plains of Camdeboo describes this area ‘as a country flooded by sun; lonely, sparse, wind-swept, treeless…..for many miles’.

This part of the Groot (or Great) Karoo is a place of history, of museums, of fossils, of authors and artists, of architecture, of Game farms and above all of spectacular scenery. The Valley of Desolation outside Graaff-Reinet and the plains of the Camdeboo stretching out to distant koppies and multi-layered mountains are some of the most photographed scenes in South Africa.  The sunrise and sunsets are legendary – a palette of pinks, peaches and mauves blending into a deep indigo sky and the night sky dazzles with a million stars.  Some of the best stargazing can be experienced here as well as some of the most thrilling fly- fishing.  Over 5000 succulent plant species have adapted to withstand the harsh climate, typified by the extremely arid conditions and very limited rainfall. The fossil beds found in this area – exposing the remains of prehistoric mammal-like reptiles that roamed the Karoo more than 260 million years ago are another major attraction.

Here many old Karoo sheep farmers now open their homesteads with traditional kindness and hospitality to those travelling the Region. One such place would be Ganora Guest Farm, just outside the village of Nieu Bethesda. This little village, home to the renowned Owl House where Helen Martins once lived has plenty to offer - galleries, arts and crafts, a micro brewery and deli, a fossil Centre and lots of interesting people.   The town of Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa with its beautifully preserved and restored Cape Dutch architecture is just kilometres away and boast art galleries, museums and 220 National Monuments. The magnificent Johannesburg Station panels by well-known artist JH Pierneef on display in the Old Missionary Church (Pierneef Museum) reflect an ordered and monumental view of South Africa’s great uninhabited landscapes.  Taking the R63 out of Graaff-Reinet, the Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve in this “empty heartland of South Africa” presents a really special African safari experience and just further east you will find Somerset East where The Angler and Antelope could be your resting post.  Here the solitude of the surroundings presents a different opportunity – that of wild fly fishing, birding, hiking, mountain biking and much more.

Whilst in this Region another town worth visiting is Cradock, one of the oldest in the Eastern Cape.  The Dutch Reformed Church is modeled on the St.Martin’s in the Field Church in Trafalgar Square. The town’s famous daughter was Olive Schreiner - the author of the South African Classic – The Story of an African Farm.   Her home is now a Museum.   Here the Great Fish River that skirts the town hosts one of the sporting highlights of not just Cradock, but South Africa – the Great Fish Canoe Marathon.  The town is lined with Oak trees that have been declared a National Monument and at the Cradock Spa you can experience the therapeutic properties of natural sulphur spring water in both indoor and outdoor pools. The Mountain Zebra National Park just kilometres out of town is a sanctuary for the rare Cape Mountain Zebra and visitors are now able to join a guide in tracking elusive cheetahs – a really exciting new development.

Helen Martins Owl House