Travel

The outback experience in Karoo, South Africa

Thanks to rewilding, this great inland desert is once again roamed by lions, but follow the Karoo’s gravel roads to find a scattering of atmospheric Dutch settler towns where culture and frontier country colourfully converge Monday, 8 April

By Heather Richardson

It’s clear the two young lions are itching to leave. Over the past couple of weeks, they’ve started pacing the boundary of the boma (enclosure). They’ve had no food for four days. So, when the gate is opened and the carcass of a gemsbok — a large antelope — is left temptingly outside, we’re ready, cameras poised.

We wait. And wait. The anticipation of earlier now somewhat flat, we drive to the boma to investigate. True to form, the lions are sound asleep under their favourite bush. Around 14 hours later, just as we finish dinner, we hear they’ve finally moved. We race back to the boma and there they are, gorging on the gemsbok: the first free-roaming lions in this part of the Great Karoo for 180 years.

A vast, semi-arid region that covers around 40% of South Africa, the Karoo is little known outside the country. Divided into the Great and the southern Little Karoo, thriving herds of elephant, hippo, rhino and the now-extinct Cape lion once roamed these unforgiving plains. But colonists’ rampant hunting eradicated most of the wildlife and farmland fences put an end to the little-understood springbok migration.

Aiming to restore what was lost, Samara Karoo is a 70,000-acre private reserve, about an eight-hour drive east of Cape Town. With the lions’ reintroduction, Samara is now the Great Karoo’s only Big Five conservancy, part of a rewilding project by South African-British owners, the Tompkins family.

The wealth of wildlife encountered on these expansive plains is surprising. On foot, we spend time with a cheetah called Chilli and her five fluffy cubs, and a curious white rhino, who wanders over to get a better look at us. There are flocks of blue cranes, South Africa’s national bird, herds of wildebeest, white-faced blesbok (another type of antelope), springbok and Cape mountain zebras. And we spot the elephants — reintroduced in 2017 — roaming the forested lower slopes of the mountain.

It’s wild safari territory but the Karoo’s arid expanses aren’t just Big Five terrain. Driving west, I arrive in Prince Albert at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains. With one central main street of Cape Dutch buildings, fringed by eucalyptus trees, the tiny town has become something of a cultural hub. There are cooking schools, yoga centres, the eclectic Fransie Pienaar Museum, and galleries showcasing local artists.

My guesthouse, Prince Albert Country Stay, is attached to an antique store. Two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line my bedroom walls, with the antique bed frame and artworks available to purchase.

From there, I drive cautiously over the Swartberg Pass. An incredible feat of late 19th-century engineering, this series of narrow, blind switchbacks is one of the country’s most dramatic drives. On the other side, I emerge into the Little Karoo, a much greener land. I turn onto a long dusty, dirt road lined by little farms, further coating my car in a thick layer of peachy dust, and eventually join scenic Route 62 that leads to Cape Town via rolling hills of vines. En route, I stop at Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Originally a fruit and veg store, the bar was renamed as a prank, Ronnie embraced his new identity, hanging donated bras from the ceiling.

There’s something captivating about the Karoo — the space, the isolation, the starkness. Speaking to people along the way, I find a sense of escapism, too. Many move here for a fresh start, to pursue dreams or forget broken ones. From serious rewilding projects to bonkers back-country bars, it’s a place of possibility.

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Published in the April issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). 

This month we’ll be sharing the stories of unsung South Africa. Follow the tales here