10 things you might not know about South Africa’s Karoo

How much do you know about the Karoo?

Star-gazing in the Karoo. Credit: Neal Markham, Unsplash.

1. The Karoo covers around 40% of South Africa

This vast semi-desert region covers approximately 40% of South Africa – though it doesn’t have any official boundaries. It spreads across the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and the Free State.

2. There’s a Little Karoo and a Great Karoo

The Great Karoo accounts for the vast majority of the region. The Little Karoo – Klein Karoo in Afrikaans – is on the southern side of the Swartberg Mountain range in the Western Cape. The Great Karoo is known for its big, dusty plains and long open roads, whereas the Klein Karoo is much greener with rolling scenery.

Central Karoo. Credit: Redcharlie, Unsplash.

3. It was once home to a huge springbok migration

Little is known of the giant springbok migration that came to an end around 120 years ago. Reports of the migration mention a huge dust cloud that would linger over the town of Graaff-Reinet for weeks after the animals had passed through. Hunters would ride among the animals, barely causing them to flinch as they shot through the herds; it seems the springbok were almost zombie-like in their urge to keep moving across the Plains of Camdeboo. We don’t know why they migrated or where they went, as hunting and farming fences put an end to the movement when colonists arrived in the Karoo. The last recorded springbok migration took place in 1896.

Springbok. Credit: Redcharlie, Unsplash.

4. There were enormous Cape lions

The black-maned Cape lion was thought to be 25% bigger than the lions we have in Africa today and were part of the reason colonists were so fearful of travelling through the Karoo after dark. Hunting rendered the Cape lion extinct by the mid-19th century.

5. But lions have since been reintroduced to the Karoo

Rewilding conservation efforts now mean there are lions in the Karoo again. Most recently, lions were reintroduced at Samara Karoo, which is now the Great Karoo’s only Big Five reserve.

6. People have lived here for around 100,000 years

There is evidence to suggest that people have continuously inhabited the Karoo for around 100,000 years. Certain Stone Age tools have been found, which may suggest the time frame is even longer. Fossils found in the Karoo date back over 600 million years.

7. ‘Karoo’ is thought to mean ‘land of thirst’

The name is thought to have originated from a Khoi word, ‘garo’, meaning desert or ‘land of thirst’.

8. Despite the harsh environment, there are many animals who survive out here

In the Karoo’s nature reserves and national parks, expect to find oryx, springbok, blue cranes (South Africa’s national bird), ostriches, elephants, rhinos, lions and cheetahs, amongst many others.

A young cheetah at Samara Karoo. Credit: Etienne Oosthuizen.

9. Its climate is one of extremes

The climate varies regionally, but certain parts can get as cold as -15°C (5°F) in winter and well over 40°C (104°F) in summer.

10. A Karoo road trip is a very South African experience

Wondering how to explore the Karoo? Just load up your car and go. These long roads are perfect for road-tripping; we recommend taking the back roads to avoid the trucks that use the main N1. Stop over in cute towns like Prince Albert and Graaff-Reinet, and take scenic roads like the winding Swartberg Pass and the famous Route 62 that weaves through the rolling winelands of the Little Karoo.

Road trip
Road-tripping through the Karoo. Credit: Dan Grinwis.

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