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The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Dook The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Photo: Dook

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.

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