By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit
A lot of people think the Karoo is flat. But when they start travelling around the 14-town precinct of the Karoo Heartland in the Eastern Cape interior, they tend to find themselves basically drifting from one awesome mountain to another awesome mountain.
And here’s another point of interest: it is pure magic in winter, when the snow lies thick on the heights and there’s a fire roaring away in your farmhouse room.
Hop in as we visit some of these legendary piles of old rock, beginning right here just outside our home town of Cradock.
The Mountain Zebra National Park, Cradock
One of the first things you should do when visiting this very popular national park is to climb out of your vehicle at one of the viewpoints and sniff the clean air.
It smells of the herbed fragrance of Karoo bossies with the occasional mid-note of sweet thorn.
Set among the bulky ironstone massifs of the Bankberg Mountains, this park combines the serenity of a semi-desert with horizon-wide views of stacked mountain ranges that fade to mauve.
Traversing the Swaershoek Pass between Cradock and Somerset East, you will see rugged peaks and ranges that include Coetzeesberg, Wesselskop, Doringbosberg, Leeukloofberg, Gannahoekberge, Bloemfonteinberge and the Bankberge, where the mountain zebra roam.
Originally knowns as Zwagershoek (Dutch for “brother-in-law’s corner”), these valleys are populated by farming families of long standing. This is where local Anglo-Boer War hero, General Pieter Kritzinger, came to settle once his fighting days were done.
No one expects you to climb a mountain to visit a butterfly, unless you’re on the hike up the Compassberg, the peak that looms over Nieu Bethesda.
The Compassberg Skolly (Thestor compassbergae) can only be found up here, on the slopes of the highest and most important slab of dolerite in the Karoo.
This famous fanged mountain stands at a shade over 2 500 metres above sea level, and was named by the adventurer-soldier Robert Jacob Gordon back in 1778.
Corridor through the Karoo
The R61 skirts the northern foothills and rising peaks of the Sneeuberg Mountains, bracketed by the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock and the Camdeboo National Park outside Graaff-Reinet.
Back in 2003, a ‘biodiversity corridor’ linking the two national parks was first proposed. The potential area under consideration is 530 000 hectares, a huge swathe of land straddling the Sneeuberg range and stretching from the R61 in the north to Pearston in the south.
In 2012 the Wilderness Foundation was appointed to partner South African National Parks (SANParks) in implementing the first phase of the project.
The land between the parks is all privately owned, mostly livestock farms alongside game farms and private nature reserves. And even though this land has been farmed for centuries, the veld is in fine condition.
The corridor area sprawls over four biomes (grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savanna) and six vegetation types that are home to several rare mammals like aardvark, black-footed cats, African wild cats and honeybadgers.
It’s also designated as a Globally Important Bird Area, with grassland and Karoo specials like lesser kestrels, martial eagles, Ludwig’s and Stanley’s bustard, the blue korhaan, sicklewinged chat, ground woodpecker, blackheaded canary and Layard’s titbabbler.
The Boschberg, Somerset East
The Walter Battiss Museum in Somerset East is where you can still find yourself wandering through Fook Island, that fabulous mind-place created by the artist himself.
Walter Battiss once told writer Jill Johnson:
“We lived in Somerset East – a small but very beautiful little town at the foot of a mountain. That is what made it beautiful, the mountain, always green, with a waterfall three hundred feet high – unusual for the Karoo.”
There was a time, back in the 1950s, when that ‘green mountain’ called the Boschberg was the refuge of a rather inventive thief called John Kepe.
He lived in a cave and stashed his loot in another cave nearby.
No one knew what he looked like, so, in the time-honoured manner of a true Karoo vagabond, he would often join search parties and go on the hunt for himself.
Eventually, Kepe’s reputation as a tolerable thieving rogue was tarnished. He was branded a murderer after the death of a shepherd up on the Boschberg. John Kepe was finally captured and hanged up in Pretoria.
Today, the Boschberg Nature Reserve serves as a hiking venue, complete with an overnight hut where you can sip your hard-earned dram of whisky and admire the view – like Battiss and Kepe before you.
The Kagga Mountains, Bedford
Wander the utter green density of the streets of Bedford and you might wonder why some call it Karoo.
It does not have the khaki look of a Karoo settlement. Instead, Bedford could easily pass for a quaint English dorpie, complete with 1820 Settler stock, a country school and nearby cricket field.
Bedford is simply blessed with natural abundance. It sits in the Smal Deel between Pearston and Alice, the grasses and bossies around here are packed with protein and the soil is just about the richest you could wish for.
Because it lies at the south-facing slopes of the Kagga Mountains, Bedford has a milder weather pattern than its neighbours to the west.