The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert
Published: April 2009
By Douglas Rogers
Driving through South Africa’s arid and once forbidding Karoo region, Douglas Rogers discovers a landscape now filled with artist pioneers, revitalized Afrikaner towns, and vibrant vineyard oases.
I was, I confess, a reluctant convert to the charms of the Karoo, a vast semidesert covering more than 100,000 square miles of South Africa’s Cape region. My induction began, like an initiation into a cult, with a surprise phone call eight years ago from a college friend insisting I visit him there. His name is Hermann Niebuhr, and he’d stunned us all after we graduated from university in South Africa in the mid-90’s by buying a tumbledown tin-roof shack in a remote Karoo dorp (village) where, he said, he planned to live the life of the ascetic artist, painting desolate landscapes populated by scrub, sand, and rusty windmills. Ah well, to each his own.
My childhood memories of the Karoo were scorched on my brain like a stove burn. We used to spend our annual family holidays in Knysna, a gorgeous lagoon town on the Garden Route, the coastal road that curls below the Outeniqua Mountains, which barricade the parched Karoo interior from the Indian Ocean. To get to Knysna from our home in Zimbabwe, we would have to drive for a day through the Karoo’s dusty emptiness. The only respite from the heat and boredom was to stop for “coke ’n’ chips” in some conservative Afrikaner dorp where Boer men in veld hats sipped brandy in saloons and the signs above the swing doors read MEN ONLY. To me, the Karoo was the Wild West of the arid Cape plains—just without the romance.
And yet, when I took Niebuhr up on his invitation, the Karoo seeped through my skin. The beauty that was lost on me as a child—the space, the quiet, the creak of those windmills—became apparent as an adult. I was entranced.
I’m not alone. Artist pioneers like Niebuhr (who now shows in galleries from Cape Town to New York) led the way. Today, they’ve been followed by creative urbanites—restaurateurs and hoteliers among them—who have grown tired of the crime and stress of South Africa’s cities and are embracing the Karoo’s charms in growing numbers. Together, they are creating an unlikely desert utopia, a network of revived dorps strung together by dusty roads and mountain passes. And the best way to see the transformation: a drive through the Karoo to Knysna, my childhood haunt.
Day 1: Barrydale to Calitzdorp 71 Miles
I began my journey in Barrydale, a serene hamlet and the gateway to the Klein (Little) Karoo, the slender valley oasis nestled between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains. (The Groot, or Great, Karoo is the desolate expanse stretching deep into the provinces of Western Cape and Eastern Cape.) Once a typical conservative Karoo town, Barrydale has reinvented itself as a chic destination for weekending Capetonians, a renaissance best evident at the Barrydale, on the main drag. This formerly decrepit Victorian hotel has been turned into an offbeat, modern art–filled 14-room property by an Afrikaner antiques dealer from Pretoria. On any given weekend you can find couples lounging poolside between tastings at the nearby Joubert-Tradauw winery.
For me, though, the real Karoo starts east of here. Exiting Barrydale, the R62, a former ox-wagon trail running 170 miles across the desert floor, flattens out; sand and fynbos scrub roll toward the horizon, and the sky ahead becomes so big it takes on the earth’s curve.
And yet, drenched by springwater, the Klein Karoo is filled with fruit farms, and in less than two hours I arrived in Calitzdorp, a dusty valley town of gabled Cape Dutch homes rimmed by vineyards. The Karoo’s Mediterranean-like climate makes for sweeter grapes than the more famous estates of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek; there are no less than five cellars in Calitzdorp producing sublime fortified wines. I joined a carload of German tourists for a tasting at Boplaas, established in 1880, and sampled several ruby and tawny ports as good as any I’ve had from Portugal.
But there was another reason to come to Calitzdorp. In 2002, the South African ceramicist Hylton Nel, whose painted clay plates and dinner sets have been exhibited in London and Toronto, settled here. I met him outside his pretty farm cottage on the western edge of town and toured his mud-barn studio. Nel, known for using his ceramics as canvases, paints iconic, often satirical images filled with literary and political allusions. As a Zimbabwean, I approved of the inscription on one glazed fruit bowl: [Robert] Mugabe is a MAMPARA—South African slang for “fool.”
Later, relaxing in the shade of his latticed veranda, it was easy to see why the Karoo so inspires the ascetic artist. It was late afternoon—the magic hour—and the sandstone cliffs of the distant Swartberg Mountains were a swirling kaleidoscope of red and purple in the fading sun. “I came for the space, the quiet, the beautiful skies,” Nel said. Just then a raucous wailing rang out from the wine-soaked streets of town. “If you can just get past the rather chaotic drunkenness…”
Day 2: Calitzdorp to Oudtshoorn 32 Miles
Calitzdorp is gentrifying fast, but the cultural heart of the Klein Karoo is the sister towns of Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, in the foothills of the Swartberg at the eastern end of the R62.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oudtshoorn feather merchants—many of them Lithuanian Jews—got wildly rich exporting plumes from area ostrich farms to the great fashion houses of Europe. They built Victorian mansions, so-called Feather Palaces, on the veld, with spiral staircases and stained-glass windows as grand as Gatsby mansions. Most fell into decline when the feather boom went bust before the Great War, but now, I discovered, they were being restored. Montague House, a handsome 1908 palace with a polished oak interior in the town center, has been transformed into a bistro; and the Feather Palace, a red-roof mansion just off the R62, is part of a stylish working guest ranch owned by a gay couple from Durban.
Yet it is not only inkommers creating the Karoo-chic aesthetic. On my friend Niebuhr’s insistence I booked a night at Boesmanskop, a two-room inn opened in 2006 by a local farmer named Tinie Bekker. A soft-spoken fiftysomething Afrikaner whose ancestors were among the first Boers to settle the Karoo in the early 1750’s, Bekker inherited the family’s grape and dairy farm in 1982. He has since transformed it, planting jungle-thick gardens of agapanthus and iris and furnishing the homestead with Victorian pieces and Cape Dutch antiques—a style he describes as “rustic Cape Country Afrikaner.”
My room, the upstairs room in a refurbished barn, had worn yellowwood floors, a vintage claw-foot bathtub, and stunning vineyard views. In the evening, I dined on Karoo lamb chops and an organic fig pie that Bekker whipped up in his kitchen. Then came the check: a paltry $30 a night—food included. (The prices have since gone up.) Embarrassed, I offered to pay more. “Agh, no,” Bekker protested. “It’s really just a side business. My guests are mostly word-of-mouth, and I want to get it just right before I charge more.”
So much for those dour, conservative Boers of my childhood memory.
Day 3: Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert 45 Miles
The town of Prince Albert sits on the other side of the mountains, through the majestic Swartberg Pass, a 17-mile-long heart-in-mouth miracle of cliff-edge engineering built by Thomas Bain in the 1880’s. At the pass’s summit, 5,195 feet above sea level, the arid plains of the Groot Karoo stretch endlessly below, and the rocks around you seem all the more precipitous for their blood-red color. And then, as if to soothe your nerves, the road winds gently down, delivering you into the most serene town in all of the Karoo.
During the 19th century, Prince Albert was the biggest fruit-producing district in the Cape. It slipped into obscurity as ostriches replaced grapes and apricots, but today that isolation serves it well. Its ox wagon–wide streets are lined with beautifully preserved Victorian houses: handsome white-gabled bungalows covered with bougainvillea, many of them now owned by artists. It came as no surprise to discover that Jackie Burger, the editor of Elle South Africa and the Anna Wintour of Africa, owns a Prince Albert farmhouse.
Fruit farming has returned to Prince Albert too. You can sample a sublime Shiraz Reserve at Bergwater Vineyards, and meaty Manzanilla olives at the thriving Swartrivier farm. I lunched on a juicy ostrich burger under the guava trees of the alfresco Koggelmander restaurant, and then bought bags of dried fruit, almonds, and artisanal cheeses at several country stores in town.
The village also serves as the jumping-off point for the Groot Karoo. A spate of game lodges has opened here in recent years, former sheep farms that are being restocked with springbok and mountain zebra—animals that roamed the desert centuries ago, when it was home to the San bushmen.
Day 4: Prince Albert to Knysna 164 Miles
It was time for me to cool off, so I took the soaring Montagu Pass over the Outeniqua Mountains and onto the Garden Route, only 90 minutes away. And here was another world: the rusty palette of the desert gave way to dense evergreen forest, the turquoise swell of the Indian Ocean stretched in front, and skirting the edge lay the famous ocean road.
I took it east, stopping briefly to clear away the desert dust with a swim in the wild waves at the aptly named Wilderness Beach. Another 30 miles and I arrived in Knysna, the glassy lagoon town of my childhood holidays. The once sleepy village was barely recognizable. A rash of condos and restaurants has replaced the rustic wooden oyster shacks along the waterfront; and my late grandmother’s cozy cottage on Leisure Isle, in the middle of the lagoon, has been torn down to make way for a larger house.
I checked into Pezula, a sprawling golf and spa resort on a bluff above the ocean, with a stylish, contemporary African look. It certainly has its charms. Tennis superstar Roger Federer bought a private residence here; its restaurant, Zachary’s, is one of the finest in the Cape (be sure to try the seafood); and you can even transfer by helicopter from Pezula’s lawns to the polo estates of the tony beach resort Plettenberg Bay, 30 minutes to the east.
But had all this development changed Knysna for the better?I took Helena, my 84-year-old Afrikaner godmother, very much a Knysna local, to lunch on the new waterfront and asked her. She loved Limani Blue, the new Greek restaurant on the water, and Pezula, too: “They have a splendid spa and give all us pensioners a discount!” But when I told her I had just come from the Karoo, her eyes lit up. She grew up on a sheep farm in Steytlerville, a tiny dorp deep in the Groot Karoo. “When I was young, I couldn’t wait to leave,” she grinned. “But now, my dear, the local hotel has been bought by two wonderful fellows. They host cabarets and fancy tea parties. I hear it’s quite the scene!” We laughed over our oysters. Crumpets and cabarets in the Groot Karoo?This I have to see.
Douglas Rogers is a freelance writer based in New York City. His Zimbabwe memoir, The Last Resort, will be published next year.
When to Go
Spring (September–November) in the Karoo is ideal, with sunny days and cool nights, though the hot summer months (December–February), when temperatures can reach 100 degrees, are livelier. Just make sure you have an air-conditioned car.
South African Airways (800/722-9675; flysaa.com) has daily flights from Washington, D.C., and New York to Johannesburg, with connections to Cape Town. You can pick up a rental car at the airport. For the drive to Barrydale, take the N1 northeast of Cape Town to Worcester, then hop on the N15. Turn onto the R62 outside Montagu.
Where to Stay
great value 30 Van Riebeeck St., Barrydale; 27-28/572-1226; thebarrydale.co.za; doubles from $84, including breakfast.
R62, Oudtshoorn; 27-44/213-3365; boesmanskop.co.za; doubles from $114, including breakfast and dinner.
De Bergkant Lodge
Stylish Cape Dutch guesthouse with eight rooms and a swimming pool, on Prince Albert’s main street. 5 Church St., Prince Albert; 27-23/541-1088; www.princealbert.org.za/bergkant.htm; doubles from $205, including breakfast.
Guest Farm R62, Oudtshoorn; 27-44/251-6760; thefeatherpalace.co.za; doubles from $114.
Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa
Lagoon View Dr., Eastern Head, Knysna; 27-44/302-3410; pezularesorthotel.com, doubles from $730.
Samara Private Game Reserve
A six-suite game lodge in Karoo-settler style on 70,000 acres of wilderness. Off R75, near Graaff-Reinet; 27-49/891-0558; samara.co.za; doubles from $805.
Where to Eat/Drink
Superb Karoo cuisine, such as lamb in muscatel sauce. 94 Baron van Reede St., Oudtshoorn; 27- 44/272-0808; dinner for two $37.
Koggelmander Eatery and Art House
16 Church St., Prince Albert; 27-23/541-1900; dinner for two $36.
Waterfront Dr., Knysna Quays; 27-44/382-0530; dinner for two $44.
Ronnies Sex Shop
A cult bar and roadside burger joint owned by farmer Ronnie Price. R62, 16 miles east of Barrydale; 27-28/572-1153; lunch for two $15.
Prince Albert Valley; 27-23/541-1703; bergwater.com.
2 Saayman St., Calitzdorp; 27-44/213-3326; boplaas.co.za.
Joubert-Tradauw Private Wine Cellar
Vleiplaas, Barrydale; 27-28/572-1619; joubert-tradauw.co.za.