Karoo – The Beginner’s Guide

Karoo, donkey cart
Karoo map
The Great Karoo delineated in yellow and the Succulent Karoo in green. Map by Mark Wilby

Words by Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

The Karoo sprawls over 40% of South Africa’s landmass, a warm dry heart at the country’s centre.

Rainfall is low in this semi-desert covering 400 000 square kilometres (a little larger than Germany or Norway). Yet it’s a highly productive arid zone, with mineral-rich soils and a staggering 6 000 species of plants. Nearly half of these plants are found nowhere else.

Within the Karoo’s boundaries are found roughly 2.5 million people living on farms and about 100 towns and settlements. The vast majority of towns and farms are completely dependent on groundwater – which accounts for all the wind pumps.

Karoo sheep, wool
Merino sheep in the Karoo Midlands.

Wool and mohair

The Karoo’s main industry is small livestock farming. This bio-region accounts for 30% of the country’s protein needs in terms of mutton and beef. There are around 3 million Dorper sheep, used only for meat production, plus 4.2 million wool-producing sheep, more than a million goats and a growing number of cattle and wild animals, mostly in the grassier Eastern Karoo.

Karoo lamb is internationally famous for its delicately herbed flavour, which comes from the plants eaten by the sheep.

The Karoo produces 13 million kg of South Africa’s 44 million kg of wool. It also produces all of South Africa’s 2.3 million kg of mohair – around 50% of the world’s production – from some 800 000 Angora goats.

There is irrigation agriculture along the Orange, Great Fish and Sundays Rivers, and crops here include maize, lucerne, fruit and nut trees, grapes and wheat.

Biodiversity hotspot

It is roughly divided into three main areas – the Great Karoo (also called the Nama Karoo), which shades into the Grassy or False Karoo in the east; the fertile Little Karoo (also called Klein Karoo) and the Succulent Karoo (sometimes referred to as Namaqualand), notable for its very high plant biodiversity.

Namaqualand, Succulent Karoo
A tiny succulent of Namaqualand.

In fact the Succulent Karoo is recognised by Conservation International as one of only two arid zone biodiversity hotspots in the world.

The Karoo’s biodiversity (which includes very high endemic reptile numbers) is protected by seven national parks: Mountain Zebra near Cradock, Camdeboo near Graaff-Reinet, Karoo National Park near Beaufort West, Tankwa Karoo near Calvinia, Namaqua near Kamieskroon, Richtersveld north of Springbok, and Mokala National Park near Kimberley.

Because the Karoo falls into four of South Africa’s provinces – Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Free State – it has never been managed as a single coherent bio-region.

Karoo United

The Karoo Development Foundation, however, has begun to pull together people and towns from the region to create dialogue and connection between disparate communities.

Initiated by Professors Doreen Atkinson of the University of the Free State, and Johann Kirsten of the University of Pretoria, the KDF has helped establish the Karoo Meat of Origin certification – the region’s very first Geographic Indicator brand.

The KDF has also organised two major conferences (Graaff-Reinet in 2009 and Beaufort West in 2012) and the first Karoo Parliament (Philipstown, 2013).

The Karoo is already benefiting from a worldwide growth in desert tourism.

Karoo hills
Typical flat-topped hills of the Karoo.

As the KDF points out in a 2013 tourism strategy document: “The Karoo offers nothingness, which is increasingly valuable, in terms of space, silence and solitude.  Urban people live in stressed societies… and the Karoo offers a healing experience.”

Fossil revelations

Geologically and palaeontologically, it is already one of the most famed areas in the world. About 253 million years ago, the Karoo was a vast inland basin, a lush Okavango of unimaginable size, bracketed north and south by huge mountain ranges. Wandering through it were strange creatures – cynodonts and dicynodonts, tiny diictodons and scary gorgonopsians.

Gorgonopsian, Rubidgea
The fearsome Rubidgea, a Permian predator.

According to Professor Bruce Rubidge, Director of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and also Director of the Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences, the Karoo is “the only place in the world where such a time-extensive fossil record of the early diversification of reptiles is preserved in a single basin, chronicling the most distant evolutionary ancestry of mammals in remarkable detail.”

  • Facts courtesy the Karoo Development Foundation, Cape Wools and National Wool Growers Association, Mohair South Africa and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences.

Karoo map

Karoo Icons map, by Gillian Vermaak of Jagersfontein.

9 thoughts on “Karoo – The Beginner’s Guide

  1. Tony Bastos says:

    Wonderfully put together.
    Hey guys, here is an invitation for you to come and visit us in Venterstad.
    We need to include Venterstad in your “Karoo Towns” section.
    My facebook page will give you an idea of what to expect here.
    Take care,

  2. Sophie G says:

    Hello and thank you for this article. Shows how much I know, as I only thought there were two distinct regions in the Karoo – Great and Little (in my defense, I’m not South African). I have been to the Great Karoo, albeit briefly and I fell in love with everything about it. It is a haunting, desolate, mysterious world. I am returning this year and this time I will stay in the Klein Karoo for three months. My goal is to live like a local and experience everyday life there. The spirit of the Karoo is so enticing. I think in our post modern world we lack the traditional life…the old fashioned and original. The preserved Karoo towns gives people this feeling that most don’t realize they lack. The original Victorian/Cape Dutch quaint little tin roofed cottages remind us of an era long gone. The quietness and openness restores our souls. Goodbye Canada, hello Karoo!

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  6. Christo says:

    Hi, I wonder if someone can refer me to a good book/ resource that could teach me the A-Z about sheep farming in the karoo.

    Thanks very much!

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