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.
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.
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.
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 Cradock, Graaff-Reinet and Calvinia.
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.