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Losing your Heart to the Karoo

Losing your Heart to the Karoo

A world-class travel route right under our noses here in South Africa? And in the Karoo, nogal? It cannot be. And yet it is. Join Chris Marais and find out…

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So here’s the trip I’ve been dying to take you on. On this 10-day journey of the Karoo Heartland, I’m going to show you stuff that will amaze and delight you and your family. Make you laugh, maybe. I’ve planned a detailed itinerary for us. At the end of this trip, I’m hoping you’ll agree that very little can beat the Eastern Cape Karoo.

Marketed as the Karoo Heartland, it embraces ten towns and villages and offers up what I believe to be one of the finest, most diverse road trip routes in the country.

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So just to jump-start the experience, we’re going to meet some wild cats on a farm near Cradock. It’s OK to call Marion Holmes the Cat Lady of the Karoo. Out at Clifton Farm, she looks after a group of indigenous kitties you might never come across in the daytime. We go out in the late afternoon when the light starts to fade and see African wild cats (the ancient grandparents of Bobsy back home), small-spotted cats, servals and caracals.

We return to Cradock after dark, where the Tuishuise team are waiting to wine and dine us in the old Victoria Manor Hotel. Take your napkin with you to the buffet table, because the plates are always hot. And help yourself to lots of lamb.

Good morning. After breakfast, we head out to the Mountain Zebra National Park for the day. Just outside Cradock, the park comes as a delightful surprise to most visitors, who normally traipse off to Addo or the Kruger. It’s a well-run true Karoo camp, with lookout points and stunning plateau drives.

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After lunch at the park restaurant, we’re off to Lowlands Guest Farm at Fish River Station. Dave and Anne Bowker of Lowlands will fill you in on this legendary settler outpost, where farmers still gather to play tennis every Saturday – an old Karoo tradition that has fallen away in most other parts. There will be sundowners at the dam and a sunrise walk along shady lanes to look at the sheep and the pecans – but mainly to stretch the legs before we leave.

Mid-morning finds us in Middelburg at the local museum. Here, in the corridor, is the clock-face of the old Mother Church that lost its entire steeple back in 1967. Here’s a replica of a classroom of the old Poor School of Middelburg, and on a large wall display you’ll see how the Anglo-Boer War went down locally. And should you meet Hennie Coetzee, the town historian and author of the very popular Middelburg: Hede en Verlede, ask him about the following legend.

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Back in 1982, the old Poor School was being converted into its new identity as town museum. It was the job of Mr PF Aucamp to visit the local businesses and ask for shelving and shop mannequins for display purposes. Mr Aucamp’s wife worked at the town library. He drove up in his car, with a female mannequin in the seat next to him. In full view of everyone, he began kissing the mannequin rather passionately. Mrs Aucamp was called out to witness this act of ‘infidelity’ and was, according to reports, mightily displeased until she realised she’d been ‘had’ by her husband.

After lunch at Picadilli’s in Middelburg we drive out to Hillston Farm to meet the Southey family. Riana Southey and her chef daughter Adrienne take us on a long farm walk with sights of the iconic Teebus and Koffiebus hills in the distance. Later, legs well stretched, drink in hand, we wander through to supper and Adrienne has done us proud. Thank goodness for the afternoon exercise.

heartland 19Today we have a delicious drive over the majestic Lootsberg Pass, stopping off at the Jagtpoort padstal for some droewors and bottled pineapple chilli jam. Down in the valley we turn right at the sign of the owl and head into the Sneeuberg Mountains, with the ever-rising Compassberg before us.


We’re in the village of Nieu-Bethesda and it’s time to haul out the cameras and short lenses again, for a two-hour wander through the iconic Owl House and Camel Yard. When you’re done, we’ll cross the Gats River and have a little feast with André Cilliers over at The Brewery & Two Goats deli. I’ll have a Karoo Ale, please.

After lunch we’ll roll on out of town to Ganora Guest Farm, and those of us who don’t want to nap can go in search of owner JP Steynberg and ask him to take us on a fossil tour of his place. The late afternoon is spent soaking up the atmosphere (and some red wine) on this classic Karoo farm, with its own intriguing museum. Hester Steynberg will introduce you to Helen the Cape Eagle Owl.

The slow-blinking, thoughtful-looking Helen was brought to Ganora with a broken wing. She lives in a roomy cage with large pumpkin leaves for shelter and fulfils her role as resident owl ambassador. (If you have the stomach to pick up roadkill en route to Ganora and bag it, Helen the owl will be most grateful.)

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And because we like Nieu-Bethesda so much, the next morning is also reserved for the village. We visit Nico Zaverdinos and Victoria Nance at a buzzy little bookshop called Dustcovers. After lunch at The Karoo Lamb we’re off to Wellwood Farm, owned by the legendary Rubidge family. Before we get fully ensconced in Trymore Cottage, I want to show you the fossil museum. Better still, let’s ask Marion Rubidge to take us on a tour.

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The next day we go south to Graaff-Reinet, known as The Gem of the Karoo, and you can see why. The old Victorian architecture has been well preserved and the town has a graceful mien. Local guide and bookstore owner David McNaughton takes us on a sundowner drive up to the Camdeboo National Park where, from
a viewpoint, we look down on the Valley of Desolation and the Plains of Camdeboo beyond. It is, truly, one of the great South African landscapes.

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And now we go to one of the great South African ‘foodscapes’ with Gordon Wright of the Andries Stockenstrom Guest House. He’s going to make a great fuss of us tonight. It could take the form of a springhare spring roll, ‘earth soup’ with beetroot, garlic and onion from Gordon’s garden, and spiced medallions of springbok.

Hi there. Sleep well? Tuck in at breakfast, because we’re going south on the N1, with Willowmore as today’s stop over. This little 150km road trip is Classic Karoo Flats, once you clear the Camdeboo range. You’re entering Mohair Country, and herds of ringleted angora goats are everywhere.

So are the windpumps. OK, now I know you have your Karoo Eyes on, because you’re requesting a photo stop at every windpump sighting. That’s fine. Call them windmills – half the country does.

About 30 klicks south of Graaff-Reinet you’ll find a rusted bedstead standing out in the veld. It’s on your left, close to the turn-off to the Camdeboo Conservancy – which is on your right.

You drive while I look out for it. Here it is. Now, according to legend that bedstead stands over the grave of a Voortrekker woman who took ill and died before she could see a doctor. Her husband buried her here, with the bedstead-headstone as an intimate reminder of who lies here. Just another sad but interesting little Karoo roadside story.

Let’s divert into Aberdeen for a bit and stop outside the Mother Church in the centre of the village. If you look at the spire from a distance, you might see a slight ‘lean’ to it. Opposite the church is the Aberdeen Bookstore, with more than 12 000 volumes on sale.

Down at the Willow Historical Guest House in Willowmore we check in and have a drink at the bar, which is festooned with interesting old signs.

The next day, we make a slight inland dogleg to Jansenville to visit the local mohair museum. This is where we find out how angora fleece becomes mohair – as they say, from the ‘goat to the garment’. Wow. It’s Saturday. It’s high summer. It’s the Karoo. We need to find ourselves a pool. Luckily, at our next overnight stop, the Karoo Theatrical Hotel just outside Steytlerville, there is such a cooling commodity. Tonight we watch The Steytlerville Follies, the Karoo’s very own burlesque show.

We spend most of Sunday flyfishing with Alan Hobson of the Angler & Antelope Guest House in Somerset East. Monday is our last full day together, and we begin it with a visit to the Walter Battiss Museum in Somerset East. Now it’s off to Bedford village, the final settlement on this Heartland trip. We check into Cavers Country Guest House on an historic old farm nearby. If you want to know anything about a heritage rose, head for Bedford post-haste.

And so now we’re on the N10 going south to Port Elizabeth, where I’ll drop you off at the airport and say adios. But I know you’ll be back. I saw you making the bookings…

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