Moving to the Karoo: Handy Survival Hints

By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Moving to the Karoo is like emigration on trainer wheels. Your friends and folks are easily accessible in Johannesburg or Cape Town, the folding money still looks the same and we mostly speak South African languages – although we tend to mix them up a bit.

But don’t be fooled by all that. You are, in effect, moving to another country. And it’s a wonderful place. So here are some basic survival tips for moving to and living in the Heartland of South Africa.

Karoo winters are sometimes harsh and sometimes fun – if you’re dressed for them.

A Chance to Re-invent Yourself

Stockbrokers become rose growers. Company mavens become cheese-heads. Former coal miners now make forest fairies for a living. Old journos become wine-makers. OK, that’s not much reinvention but it’s something.

The point is, both husband and wife can chase their dreams out here and do The Thing they’ve always dreamt of doing.

In our 20 Karoo Gypsy years of wandering backwards and forwards across the dry lands, we’ve met hundreds of couples who have successfully undergone this transformation.

The picturesque and jagged Tandjiesberg (Mountain of Teeth) south of Graaff-Reinet, adorned with flowering Aloe ferox in winter.

Your Work Plan

This town you’ve settled on, does it support your professional work plan? How is the broadband connectivity? Do the courier companies deliver every day? Who is your client base?

This is a good time to take off the rose-coloured spectacles and look long and hard at how you’re going to make a living in the Karoo. The trick, obviously, is to bring your clientele with you in the move, to earn city money while in the platteland.

Williston in the springtime.

Your Social Network

Make sure you have someone to talk to, to get drunk with, to pray with, to take on projects with or to share a good book, movie or song with. You don’t need a big posse. A couple of couples will do. You cannot live in isolation, no matter how big or flat your TV screen is.

Even without rose-tinted spectacles, Graaff-Reinet remains the Gem of the Karoo.

Your Support Services

In small towns, things still get repaired. There’s always a handy guy around, a Mr Fixit who takes in your toaster, your heater, your hoover, your kettle and gives it back to you tomorrow as good as new – for a very small charge. And you’ll probably find your Mr Fixit used to be a Randlord or something.

Everything drops down to human scale. You know the person who works on your water mains, who does your taxes, who fills your teeth, who takes your pulse, who massages your back and who sells you hardware. You see them around a lot.

Make sure your town has at least two computer geeks – they’re pure gold when your PC goes down.

Nieu-Bethesda in the early winter.

Your Energy Backup Plan

We used to have a power failure backup plan that involved (in winter) a roaring fire, a lustily played Spanish guitar, lots of blazing candles, cheese, crackers and bottles of red wine. This plan was often put into action, and when the lights come on we simply switched them off again and carried on warbling. Now we’ve joined the Solar Generation, but the wine and the songs are still there.

Much of Murraysburg’s old Karoo architecture still stands.

Your Medical Needs

Check out the local hospital. Any good? Or just another depressed germ factory? Now work out exactly where you would go in a medical emergency. Find out if there’s a private ambulance service running to a big city or a good hospital in another town, and if your medical aid covers it. In Cradock, we have a medical centre (good doctor, physio, clinical psychologist, dietician, visiting chiropractor, visiting specialist surgeon) and a private ambulance service that can whisk you down to one of the bigger centres. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good workaround.

Weekend visitors to Richmond enjoying the country sunset.

Teach Your Children Well

How is the schooling system? A working set of all-inclusive schools brings business to the town, goodwill from parents, it speaks to the future of the community and its faith in being here – its sense of place. There’s nothing sadder than a deserted schoolyard – and few things more pleasant than a grandstand packed with ardent supporters at a high school rugby game in the country.

Evening Riel dancing in De Skema section of Vosburg.

Your Cost of Living

Rentals are lower, local hire doesn’t put your overheads through the roof and, in general, the cost of living drops radically – along with your insurance rates. Even the supplies of fresh fruit have improved over the years. But just remember: the freshest celery sticks are always sold in the cities. That weird truth is right up there with why the braai smoke always follows you around at a party.

Diamond diving boats at anchor off Port Nolloth.

The Town Champion

It really helps if a town has a local champion. In the rural areas, one person can indeed make a difference. That person is normally the tourism firebrand of the town, someone with a passion for restoring the local heritage, someone whose blood boils at the sight of litter all over the place.

Break bread with this person. And lend a hand when asked to.

Steytlerville has seen a recent influx of enterprising young residents.

The Town Story

This might sound trite to some out there, but look out for a town that tells its own story well. It’s normally a place with a lot of festivals, tour guides and raconteurs. However, drive past the towns that have become too precious. They do not need your intellectual capital.

Die Tuishuise, one of the great tourism assets of Cradock.

Beware of…

Watch out for dirty towns where no one likes to drink the water. Litter and bad water management are often signs of deeper damage, and that trail leads right up to the front steps of the local municipality.

If you can find a town where the chamber of commerce can actually sit down with municipal officials and work something out for the good of all, you’re onto a winner.

This is an excerpt from Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo (illustrated in black and white) for only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact


18 thoughts on “Moving to the Karoo: Handy Survival Hints

  1. Pingback: Moving to a Small South African Town | Karoo SpaceKaroo Space

  2. Hillary Chaplin says:

    An excellent article. Informative and interesting. Glad I moved here. Wouldn’t live anywhere else.
    Hillary Chaplin

  3. Helen Liebenberg says:

    Just a little bit of humour/advice from a city dweller who moved to a small (very small) village in the Karoo:
    Never, never, ever put your feet into your slippers/shoes before checking what spent the night (and is still there) in them.
    Love my Karoo life more than anything I have ever experienced.

  4. Theuns says:

    Geniet elke oomblik, die lewe het weer kosbaar geword. Klein dingetjies het groot waarde.
    Ons moes dit al baie baie jare gelede gedoen het .

  5. Fiona says:

    I have been hankering to live in the Karoo since I was a pre-teen. I have a great set of practical skills, as well as commercial talents that can operate from afar…however….

    Along comes the biggest problem of all.

    My daughter is not boarding-school material. She’s in Grade 10 and I simply do not know how to move forward. She currently attends one of Jozi’s best govt high schools, so a move means I have to find a place that has quality education. I fear I am not going to find it.

    Cape Town is out of the equation (yeah, I know it’s not the Karoo) but how do I find a reliable assessment of schooling in Karoo towns?

    This is a genuine concern, and I’d really appreciate feedback.

    • Barry Grindley-Ferris says:

      Prince Albert, acknowledged as ‘The gem of the Karoo’ has an excellent private school which has produced some outstanding scholars. Do let me know should you require more info. Kind regards,
      Barry Grindley-Ferris.

      ps. I moved here six years ago with my only regret being that I did not do so earlier in my life!

  6. Hillary Chaplin says:

    My daughter is in grade 10 at Union High in Graaff-Reinet. It is a top class school, small class sizes, good teachers and is as picturesque as the website shows.
    I didn’t want to take my daughter out of her previous school, and many tears later, I did. Now am glad I did.
    Your daughter will fit in easily, as the girls are friendly and have not experienced bitchiness at all, which is common to a lot of new kids on the block.
    Hope this helps a bit!
    Good luck.

  7. Tania Spencer says:

    Hi there,

    Any chance you could quietly mention which are towns to avoid (particularly the ones with dirty water). If not publicly, would you mind emailing me some names. Much obliged.


  8. Kate says:

    Ahhhh…how do I survive if I’m coming from London rather than Cape Town?!

    We stumbled into Prince Albert pretty much at random on a road trip two weeks ago. I fell in love with the place almost instantly and hard. I have your Karoo Keepsakes II by my bed and am reading a little every night for sweet dreams.

    Right now I can’t get back on that plane, but I hope the day will come when I get to live in the Karoo at least for a while, rather than just be a tourist! In the mean time, sending all my love to your amazing country.

  9. Gwen says:

    How do i find a good nursing job in a pleasant hospital or clinic? This must be in a nice place like Prince Albert or Graaff Reinet. This is possible?

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