Karoo is a word that conjures dry landscape, the freedom of open spaces and big skies. One of the best ways of exploring these spaces is in Karoo game reserves and nature reserves. Here’s my pick of 10 places to go for a Karoo safari or immersion in nature.
In the Karoo, summers can be furnace hot and winters may throw a crackle of frost on the veld or sprinkle the mountain tops with snow. But it’s a place to love at any time of year. Think game drives to see the Big 5 in malaria-free game reserves, long walks in nature reserves to appreciate birds, plants and landscapes. At night, imagine stories around the camp fire and a sky perforated with stars. Inhale, exhale - breathe to the rhythm of nature. Feel the Karoo peace deep in your bones.
1. Anysberg Nature Reserve
Visit in a high-clearance vehicle to enjoy everything the reserve has to offer, go for a hike, drink in the stars in the clear Karoo air. Ride a horse or mountain bike along the Tapfontein 4x4 Trail. Swim in the pool near the cottages and campsite. Most of all, inhale the sense of peace and tranquillity.
Read more about Anysberg Nature Reserve
2. Camdeboo National Park
Go for a game drive to see wildlife like Cape buffalo, bat-eared fox, meerkat and antelope like eland and kudu, keep a lookout for some of the park’s 250 bird species, including water birds along the Nqweba dam. Drive a 4x4 trail, go hiking, enjoy fishing and watersports on certain sections along the dam. Just a few kilometres from the park gates, visit South Africa’s fourth-oldest town of Graaff-Reinet to explore its national monuments and restaurants.
You can get to most parts of the park – including the game drives and the Valley of Desolation – in a normal vehicle, though high clearance is useful. You will definitely need a proper 4x4 to tackle the steep and rocky Koedoeskloof Trail.
Read more about Camdeboo National Park
3. Gamkaberg Nature Reserve
Go hiking, rock climbing or drive along a 4x4 trail, keeping your eyes peeled for martial eagles, bustards and korhaans. Look closely at the ground and you might spot some fascinating succulents like bababoudtjies (babies’ bottoms). There is also San rock art in the reserve. Stay in one of the private tented eco-lodges and have the place to yourselves.
Read more about Gamkaberg Nature Reserve
4. Karoo National Park
Go on a game drive on a network of gravel trails to see some of the 60 species of wildlife from lion and Cape mountain zebra to klipspringer and Verreaux’s eagles that breed among the cliffs of the Nuweveld range. Don’t miss a drive up the steep Klipspringer Pass to marvel at the rock formations. If you have a 4x4, driving some of the gravel trails can be both fun and rewarding. There’s also a short mountain bike trail. Explore the Fossil Trail on foot to see the fossilised bones of creatures that lived here millions of years ago and get an idea of what the area might have looked like back when the Karoo was still a swamp.
Read more about the Karoo National Park
5. Mountain Zebra National Park
Although the park was formed to protect the striking Cape mountain zebra, this is also a place for a full-on Karoo safari to see cheetahs, lions, buffalo, black wildebeest and antelope like eland. If you’re out early or late there’s a chance to find the special little aardwolf or aardvark. Bird specials include the blue crane, Denham’s bustard and Verreaux’s eagle.
Go hiking, relax or swim at one of the restful picnic sites, drive a 4x4 trail, track cheetah with a guide, see San rock paintings. Whatever you do, don’t miss a game drive along the winding Kranskop loop – the best place to see black wildebeest and get a wide-screen view of the mountains and plains below.
Read more about the Mountain Zebra National Park
6. Roam Private Game Reserve
Enjoy guided game drives (no self-drives allowed) across the stark landscape, learn about the geology of the Karoo, stride out on a nature walk for a closer look at some of the smaller creatures and the reserve’s plant life. Bring your bike and ride a mountain bike trail or sit around the campfire and gaze at the stars that sparkle in the dry Karoo air.
7. Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
Birders will delight in species like Ludwig’s bustard, cinnamon-breasted warbler and Namaqua sandgrouse with their liquid call. And don’t forget the reserve’s 600 plant species, including succulents with quirky names like pig’s ears and ostrich toes.
Step out on a wilderness walk with your guide to learn about the fauna and flora, visit a 3500-year-old KhoiSan rock art site, go on a boat safari on the Bellair Dam for a different perspective of animals like hippo and elephant, explore the night skies with a high-powered telescope.
Read more about Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
8. Samara Private Game Reserve
Game drives with rangers and trackers are informative and productive. Best of all is the chance to climb out of the vehicle to get closer on foot to animals like cheetah or aardvark. Although aardvarks are usually nocturnal, in winter you’ll find them foraging during the late afternoon here; it’s a thrilling experience to follow one of these rarely seen animals on foot.
Knock yourself out on one of the mountain bike routes, hike to a cave to see rock art and learn about 250-million-year-old fossils. Visit in summer to experience the Karoo night skies from Samara’s romantic star-bed.
Read more about Samara Game Reserve
9. Swartberg Nature Reserve
You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to get around here, and the last 37km along Elands Pass to the park is very steep with some 200 bends. Accommodation is in restored old houses from the days before a road was built, and there’s a campsite too.
Go mountain biking, stargazing or drive a 4x4 trail. Duck into the info centre at Ouplaas to uncover the stories of people who used to live an isolated life here before the road was built in 1962.
Read more about Swartberg Nature Reserve and the people who used to live here
10. Tankwa Karoo National Park
Take yourself on a game drive to find mammals like Cape mountain zebra, eland, gemsbok, red hartebeest and springbok. Note that the gravel roads can become corrugated like an old washboard. Almost 190 bird species occur in the park, many of them Karoo endemics, and there are water birds at the Oudebaskraal dam. The Succulent Karoo biome is the world’s only arid area to be declared a biodiversity hotspot and there are 615 plant species in the park. Visit in spring to see the dry land come to life with wild flowers.
Rough camping (no facilities), luxury camping (private ablutions) and a range of old-fashioned cottages are ideal places to stay as you soak in the Karoo atmosphere.
Read more about the Tankwa Karoo
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