SPONSORED: When everyone hits the highway to the ocean, do something authentic. Take the backroads in the Karoo for an unforgettable road trip and fall in love with South Africa again
Genuine Karoo lamb chops, interesting museums, small talk with locals that make you feel at home and movies in an old art deco theatre … If you’re in the mood to recharge, sidestep the masses on the busy Cape beaches and head to the heart of the Northern Cape. The Karoo Highlands Route will take your breath away.
The word Karoo comes from the Khoi-San word “karusa”, which means “land with little water”. Water here is scarce, but the area isn’t lifeless. The Karoo is home to ancient fossils; important archaeological, historical and cultural treasures and over 9 000 succulent – the largest collection in the world. If you travel through the upper Karoo, on the Karoo Highlands Route, you won’t add too many kilometres to the clock, but you’ll see various attractions and get to experience the warmth and hospitality of your fellow South Africans.
You’ll find the first road signs for the Karoo Highlands Route after you turn off the N7 at Van Rhynsdorp. We first stop to buy a few last-minute braai items for the weekend before we continue on the R27 towards Nieuwoudtville.
At Nieuwoudtville, we turn onto Loeriesfontein Road (which goes past the Nieuwoudtville Waterfall) and drive to Gannabos, our home for the weekend. It’s late afternoon, and the surroundings take on soft shades of blue, pink and purple. It’s like driving into a Pierneef painting.
Gannabos has a beautiful quiver tree forest, and parts of the TV series Nêrens, Noord-Kaap were filmed here recently. Nakkie van Wyk and her fluffy Pomeranian, Gollie (Goliat), hand us the key to the schoolhouse, where we’ll be staying for the weekend.
“Ja, the purple and blue shades are a sad sight for farmers,” Nakkies says. “We call those pink vygies and conebush leaf the death shroud – these wildflowers usually come up towards the end of the rainy season. If we see them and hear the chirr of the bladder grasshopper, we know it’s the end of the rainy season.
Our visit to the Northern Cape was at the beginning of October, and at the time, some parts haven’t had proper rainfall in seven years – but later in October and November, the heavens opened up and the area received some much-needed rain.
Years ago, our self-catering unit was a farm school, but it’s now a quaint guesthouse. Across the schoolhouse, you’ll find campervan stands. We’ve chosen to stay at Gannabos specifically because we want to photograph the quiver trees at night – and it doesn’t disappoint.
The next day, we head out: first in the direction of Loeriesfontein to visit the Fred Turner Windmill Museum. Here you can view 27 windmills from different eras, and all are still in working condition. However, it’s a Sunday and the town is quiet.
In Nieuwoudtville, we encounter another hiccup – most of the restaurants here are only open during flower season. But at the town’s entrance, we manage to get a few griddle cakes for tonight’s braai. On our way back to Gannabos, we first stop at the Nieuwoudtville Waterfalls, one of the town’s jewels. The waterfall is stunning, even during the dry season, and the grounds have neat braai stands and ablution facilities.
The backroad to Calvinia
On Monday, Nakkie’s husband, Merwe, suggests that we take the backroad to Calvinia, and it’s excellent advice. The area is dry, but it’s still lovely, and we’re literally the only people on the road.
With several noteworthy places to see, Calvinia is another a great place to stay overnight, but today we’re only having coffee at Hantamhuis, which is across the road from the large Post Box. We want to push through to Fraserburg, where we have an appointment with Marthinus Kruger, the town’s dinosaur guide. At Hantamhuis, we yield to the temptation of koeksisters and pancakes, and we buy a recipe book with regional recipes.
To get to Fraserburg from Calvinia, you take the well-maintained R63 for about 120 km until you reach Williston. From there your turn off on the R353 and drive for about another 90 km until you reach the town. The R353 is a part-tar-part-dirt road.
I didn’t think to book accommodation in Fraserburg – it’s a Monday and out of season – but this was a mistake. A cycling tour is passing through town and the guesthouses are booked up. We have no luck at Kliphuis or Tuinhuis, but someone answers the phone when we call the Marigold Guesthouse. Anni Hennep, who was pottering in her garden when we called, comes running across the road. She has a large straw hat on her head and wears a leopard print kaftan. She wasn’t expecting guests, but we’re still welcome.
The Marigold, with its black-and-white floor tiles and overflowing bookshelves, is a colourful house on one of the town’s quieter streets – and Anni is as colourful as her house. She bought the house years ago because it was “cheaper to do so than rent storage space in the city” while she was exploring the world as a tour guide. She came to live here during the first lockdown in March 2020. She now writes her book, gardens and receives guests in her unusual house until she can once again hit the open road. We’re amazed by the vegetables she’s managed to cultivate in the Karoo. “The townsfolk told me that you never plant vegetables before communion in October (because of frost), but my vegetables are thriving.”
We pick up Marthinus Kruger at his home on the outskirts of town. His house is the last one before the R356 winds out of town. Marthinus is a retired magistrate who came to Fraserburgh seeking calm. His chickens walk around in the side street. People don’t steal them because they’re afraid of his goat, Betsie, he says.
A qualified tour guide, Marthinus now takes people on outings to Gansfontein, where you can see, amongst other things, Bradysaurus footprints. He talks passionately about the town’s history, explaining where the Peperbus clocktower, which dates to 1861, comes from and gives insights into the town’s architecture. The Peperbus is a hexagonal building that’s nine-meters high and was initially the magistrate’s private office. Later, it was home to the town’s first library.
Marthinus’ main hobby, however, is archaeology. At Gansfontein Farm, he expertly points out the dinosaur footprints, which were made about 250 million years ago, during the Permian era, over the course of about 11 days. It’s an amazing sight to behold. Afterwards, he unlocks the old rectory building, now a museum, and inside, a life-size model of a Bradysaurus sports a pair of pink glasses on its nose. “Kids were too scared of the model.” The museum also shows you how people lived in bygone eras. Marthinus adds that since the Covid pandemic, several city dwellers have relocated to Fraserburg.
Karoo chops and hospitality
Back at the Marigold Guesthouse, Anni is cooking up a storm, and her house is filled with the aroma of typical Karoo food. Lamb is stewing on the old stove in the kitchen. We first have a drink and chat in the living room, swopping travel stories, before we sit down at the kitchen table for dinner. The conversation flows like we’re old friends. The next morning, before we hit the road, she sends us on our way with a jar of pickled citrus peels (“add it to your meat stews”).
Lekker in Loxton
We’re in no rush to get to Loxton (it’s less than 100 km on the R356) and drive at a leisurely pace. We pop into Loxton Lekker coffee shop for coffee. Loxton is known as a writer’s town – Ena Murray was born here, and it’s where Deon Meyer wrote many of his best-sellers. Loxton Lekker has a nice collection of fiction books and bric-a-brac. The town is also playing an instrumental role in conservation efforts to save the riverine rabbit from extinction. We’re invited to have a look inside the church at the traffic circle, then we’re off to Victoria West.
The charm of Victoria West
Victoria West, where we’ll be staying for two nights, is about 80 km from Loxton. We make ourselves at home in the Moonlight Manor. This guesthouse is at the foot of Moonlight Hill, which has a couple of trails and lookout points. Victoria West was established in 1844 and named after the Queen of England. The town flourished during the diamond rush era, experienced a bit of a dip afterwards, but now, during the Covid era, it’s enjoying a revival. A strong internet connection means that many work-from-home city dwellers have relocated here.
The Victoria West has several attractions, like the town’s museum and the Anglican Church (built in 1847), but the crown jewel is the Apollo Theatre in Voortrekker Street. Marthinus gave me the contact number of his colleague, Ricardo, but at the time of our visit, Ricardo is in Johannesburg for training. He puts us in contact with Erney Bostander and Roché Speak. We first drink a coffee at Karoo Delhi before we drive down Voortrekker Street.
Built in the 1950s, the Apollo is an art deco bioscope that still maintains its original look and feel. Roché greets us warmly when we arrive. She takes us on a tour through the stately theatre, telling us about the old movies on show. Deon Meyer is one of the theatre’s patrons, and the premier of his movie Jagveld was held here. “There were classic cars parked down the whole street.” Before Covid, Roché screened two to three movies a day during the holidays to keep the kids off the streets, but things have slowed down since. The theatre can still be rented for private events, and they hope to resume movie screenings in 2022, Roché says. We’re dying to watch a movie in this beautiful space, and we manage to twist Roché’s arm and book the theatre for the following evening. We buy 10 tickets, and the other guests staying at the guesthouse are welcome to join us at the movies.
The building which previously housed the Mannetjies Roux antique shop is now a butchery that sells delicious biltong. We also take a peep at NoeX Leather (in the same building as Karoo Organic Meat) lower down the street (on the N12). The shop stocks beautiful, handmade leather goods. For dinner, we dine at Ka’roux, located on the corner of Voortrekker Street and the N12.
Carnarvon’s star status
The next morning, we tuck into a farm-style breakfast at Moonlight Manor and then head to Carnarvon and Vosburg. Carnarvon is about 150 km from Victoria West and deserves its own, separate visit. It was established as a missionary town in 1847 and is one of the oldest towns in the Northern Cape. The SKA telescope put it on the map, and it’s now a popular destination for stargazers.
And you can stay in traditional corbelled houses on farms like Osfontein and Stuurmansfontein. These corbelled houses, which are scattered throughout the Northern Cape, were built by trekfarmers in the early 1800s. Trees are scarce in the area, and the trekfarmers had to make do with what was available, namely rocks. Instead of using wood for ceiling support, they placed consecutive rows of flat stones on top of each other, each row extending slightly inward, until the walls of the roof met at the top. The remaining hole was closed with a single flat slab. The stone walls helped insulate these houses from the area’s extreme temperatures. The Carnarvon Museum, which is also worth a visit, is located right next to a corbelled house.
Less than 4 km outside of Carnarvon, you’ll find the Appie van Heerden Nature Reserve (about 860 hectares). Here you’ll not only see Karoo koppies and flora, but also springbok, blesbok, gemsbok, black wildebeest and zebra. Access is free, but the gate is only open on Sundays. On other days, you need to get the key. (See the number below.)
We have another coffee in Vosburg, where after the town and surrounding area finally had some proper rain, a swarm of locusts caused extensive damage, and head back to Victoria West. Later that afternoon, we join about 20 townsfolks in the Apollo Theatre. We watch The Sound of Music, and Roché serves us popcorn and soft drinks in vintage bottles. For a moment, it feels as if time stands still.
The Karoo is a special place – but you need to take the time to explore it properly.
Gannabos: Book at gannabos.co.za or send a WhatsApp to 087 150 8101
Marthinus Kruger offers dinosaur tours (R350 per person) as well as tours of Fraserburg. Book at 084 873 0098.
Visit Anni Hennep at the Marigold Guesthouse. Call 071 125 6139.
In Victoria West, to book a tour of the town or the Apollo Theatre, call Roché Speak (067 062 9278), Erney Bostander (062 682 7622) or Ricardo Pieterse (073 763 9892).
Stay at the Moonlight Manor in Victoria-Wes. Book at 053 621 0055.
Other places of note:
- The Hantam Botanical Garden. Contact 027 218 1200.
- The town’s museum is housed in the old synagogue, which was built in 1920. Contact: 027 341 8500.
- Akkerendam Nature Reserve is 2 km outside of Calvinia. The reserve is at its most spectacular when it’s flower season (August to September), but it’s a bird watcher’s paradise through the year. Contact 027 341 8131.
- Calvinia’s Pox Box is the biggest in the world. All letters sent from this post box get a special stamp.
- The Williston Mall is a great place to eat, shop and socialise. The pink milkshakes come highly recommended. Contact 072 018 7288.
- The town’s museum is in the former DRC hall. 053 382 3012.
- SKA, the Square Kilometre Array telescope, is situated outside the town and can only be visited on open days. Contact Angus Flowers, Candice Raeburn or Vivienne Rowland at email@example.com or 021 506 7300 to book your spot. It’s R350 per person.
- Stay in a corbelled house on Osfontein (book on booking.com) or Stuurmansfontein (book on safarinow.com).
- To gain access to the Appie van Heerden Reserve, call 027 53 382 3012.
Good to know
We drove this route in an Isuzu D-Max double cab bakkie. You can easily do it in a normal sedan, but when on dirt roads, you’ll appreciate extra ground clearance.