Karoo Facts and Stats

Karoo

The Karoo is visually defined by its wide horizons and flat-topped hills.

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais

South Africa’s Karoo is a biologically distinct ‘country’ that sprawls over 400 000 square kilometres, making it a little bigger than Germany.

Karoo map

The Great Karoo (outlined in yellow) and the biodiversity hotspot of the Succulent Karoo (outlined in green) sprawl over an area larger than Germany.

There are around 100 Karoo towns, settlements and villages, a few thousand farms and one million people in an area that includes four provinces – Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and the Free State.

The name Karoo is thought to have come from a Khoi word of uncertain meaning, popularly thought to mean Land of Thirst.

Yet it is acknowledged as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with 6 000 plant species (of which 40% are endemic) and critically endangered mammals like the riverine rabbit.

Karoo Farming and Groundwater

Everything in this dry land depends on underground aquifers. First introduced in 1874, windpumps raising groundwater made permanent farms and towns in the Karoo possible.

Karoo towns and agriculture depend on groundwater.

Karoo towns and agriculture depend on groundwater.

The Karoo’s timeless quality is often celebrated. Yet many things are changing.

For a start, it has long been known that the Karoo supplies South Africa with a third of its red meat needs, much of it world class.

But a rather prestigious development is that Karoo Lamb now ranks as a regional food of origin, carrying a certification that is recognised worldwide alongside Parma Ham and Champagne.

Underpinning the Karoo’s economy are its 7 million sheep, divided between 3 million hardy Dorpers and 4.3 million wool-bearing sheep like Merinos, according to Cape Wools SA and National Wool Growers Association. There are also about a million goats.

Sheep

Karoo lamb is now a certified food of origin.

The Karoo has long been a good producer of fibre, contributing 13 million kg of South Africa’s annual 44 million kg of wool. It also produces all of South Africa’s 2.4 million kg of mohair annually – around than 60% of the world’s production – from some 670 000 angora goats. Most of the wool and mohair is exported and brings in billions in foreign revenue for South Africa.

But these days, agriculture is diversifying to include crops like maize and interesting newer ventures into pomegranates, olives, pecan nuts and walnuts, berries and A-grade lucerne. Flood irrigation along some rivers is making way for more efficient centre pivots.

New Karoo Trends

Change is coming in the increase of game farming wildlife numbers, and also cattle farming in the grassy Eastern Karoo. Nguni’s are a popular breed because they are light on the veld.

New ‘slow foods’ are starting to become popular in the Karoo, like artisanal cheeses, olive oils and kudu salami. There are popular food-oriented festivals in Bedford, Cradock, Prince Albert and Calvinia.

SKA

The multibillion Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in the Karoo is one of the world’s foremost science projects.

Thanks to clear skies, low development concentrations and open spaces, the star observatories in Sutherland and the world’s largest radio telescope planned near Carnarvon have brought cutting edge technology to the Karoo.

Intellectual capital has been steadily growing in previously moribund Karoo towns, with creative people semigrating from South African cities to the platteland.

Energy from shale gas may be decades away, if it ever happens at all, but renewable energy in the Karoo (solar and wind power) is forging ahead at a dizzying pace.

Karoo Parliament

The Karoo even has its own roughly annual Parliament, and its own ‘think-tank’ – the Karoo Development Foundation (KDF).  If only all bioregions had this honour!

The KDF came into being as a Trust to protect the reputation of Karoo lamb. The Karoo Meat of Origin certifies lamb that is from the Karoo, raised on distinctly flavoured Karoo bossies.

Karoo Development Foundation co-founder Professor Doreen Atkinson at the Karoo Parliament.

Karoo Development Foundation co-founder Professor Doreen Atkinson at the Karoo Parliament.

But co-founders Professor Doreen Atkinson of the University of the Free State’s Centre for Development Support, and Professor Johann Kirsten of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Agricultural Economics soon realised the KDF could do far more. It could network the Karoo together, focusing on aspects like tourism, crafts, success stories and sustainable development.

From 2009, it has held regular gatherings, the latest one in Philipstown dubbed the Karoo Parliament.

The next one will be held in Cradock on 5 and 6 November 2014.

  • Chris and Julienne have just launched a Digital Bookstore, featuring a number of their illustrated Karoo ebooks.

 

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3 Responses to Karoo Facts and Stats

  1. phillybob May 29, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

    Great article. It encompassed so much information about the present capabilities of the Karoo and its future potential.

  2. MR. A. Ismail July 8, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    I love the Karoo and I have even bought a plot there. I see that kind of life as the best in the entire world. Just love it. You have to experience it – since you can’t explain it in words. Keep it up. The place , The people , The environment. Not a single word in the dictionary has the ability or power to do justice to the Karoo. Thank you.

  3. Susan Winchester January 25, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    I am very concerned about the proposed fracking that will be a disaster for the area, its ground water and farming.

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