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The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Dook The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Photo: Dook

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.


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