Discovering the Great Karoo

The Great Karoo—one of South Africa’s 20+ National Parks (and a fine name for an up-and-coming magician)—is located in the middle of what looks like an illustration from one of my brother’s dinosaur encyclopedias. To reach it, we had to drive 7 hours through absolute nothingness, beneath a sky the blazing blue of a neon takeout sign. Our rental car, a Volkswagen we came to nickname, “The Off-Road Polo”, matched the color of the flat landscape beyond the window: a dry, drab gold, further washed out by a harsh South African sun.

When we told people we were planning a road trip through South Africa, people automatically (and logically) assumed we’d be following along the picturesque coastline. Instead, we opted for the faster, more direct way from Johannesburg to Cape Town. We planned a day of hard desert driving punctuated by a stop at the Karoo National Park, then another solid half-day’s drive to our Airbnb in coastal Cape Town. And in truth, we didn’t think of the Karoo as more than just that—a stop on the route. It was only on our radar based on a recommendation from a local; a cursory Google search popped up some pretty pictures of flowers and rocks. We imagined a nice quick hike and then an evening spent at the lodge’s pool. It wasn’t until we arrived at the Karoo gates that we found out just how many tricks the park has up its metaphorical sleeve.

First of all, you are not technically allowed to leave your vehicle except at specific sites within the park. The reason being that the Karoo is host to a number of lions and aggressive black rhinos, in addition to ostriches, baboons, kudus, elands, hyenas, oryx, and a number of other large mammals.

Second of all, the bulk of the park must be driven with a 4×4. The Off-Road Polo took this in stride, and we committed ourselves to driving the smaller loop—the promise of the pool strong in our minds.

Third of all, the landscape was far more than just pretty flowers and rocks. It legitimately looked like sets from Jurassic park—long, flat mountains (called Karoo koppies) that sprung abruptly from flat, rocky ground. Craggy cliffs descending into deep gorges where kudus roamed in the shade. Wide badlands made of red and black stone that looked like the remnants of a charcoal grill. The odd bits of greenery, scrubby but strong. It was wildly wild—a contrast to the more lush area around the Vredefort Dome from which we had just come.

We made the 2×4 route, a snaking stone road called Klipspringer’s Pass, fairly easily, spotting a number of placid deer, saucy baboons, and haughty ostriches as we cruised the loop. At one of the lookout spots, we encountered a volunteer ranger. She eyed our Polo as we asked about the park and the different routes one can take to explore it. She took hold of our map. “You can do this one,” she said, tapping. “But it’ll be difficult.”

“But it can be done?”

“It will be difficult,” she reiterated.

Difficult does not equal impossible. Tim and I traded glances, then decided to go for it on the condition that if the Polo showed signs of struggle, we’d backtrack right away.

Our fourth surprise of the day? The Polo handled magnificently, trading the tar road for gravel-gullied tire trails with relative ease (Tim’s driving skills certainly helped). While we couldn’t catch a glimpse of the park’s lions and rhinos, likely due to the high heat, we saw the other animals in spades. Best of all, the animals were all we saw—the Karoo was basically empty of other tourists and cars, which made our exploration feel all the more exclusive.

The Great Karoo has a fascinating history. Its vastness has been described as a palaeontological wonderland, as rich with fossils as our initial Jurassic impression implied. It has also been host to an unpredictable and inexplicable massive springbok migration (that’s a lot of adjectives to describe one migration, I know). The grounds are superbly kept, with clean facilities and nice little picnic spots dotted throughout. And though we came to find out that “Great Karoo” refers more to the area’s size (as opposed to nearby “Little Karoo”) than it does its excellence, I still recommend you go off the beaten tourist path to check out the magic of The Great Karoo for yourself.

Know Before You Go:

  • Visit the park early (before it gets too hot) for the most animal sightings
  • Go with a 4×4 for the full, unfettered experience
  • Lodging can be found within the park.
  • Conservation Fee of R192 pp (International Visitor as of 1/2018)

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