The Karoo is probably the most misunderstood region in South Africa. The climate is hot, dry and harsh, not at all suited to meet the needs of a demanding human population. It is barely qualified to meet house animal and plant life, and so it may come as a surprise to many people that it's South Africa's largest ecosystem. The diverse forms of life found in the Karoo successfully adapted to the arid living conditions centuries ago.
Dry seasons can last for up to eight months and there have been occasions when no rain has fallen for over a year. During these times the plants turn brown and seem to die, and the earth becomes parched and cracked. The whole landscape takes on a burnt, barren and dusty appearance. Nothing stirs and there is no sign of life to be seen. All it takes, however, is a few millimeters of rain and the plants revive, the earth pushes up green shoots and flowers begin to bloom.
The central plateau of the Karoo is 1200m above sea level, which means that the summer temperatures are usually bearable. Occidentally it'll get hotter than 35 degrees Celsius, but this is not the norm. Towards the North West, temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius. The best time to travel in the Karoo is between May and September when the temperatures range from 20 – 25 degrees Celsius.
Sheep are hardy animals that are able to survive on the scrub and bushhes that grow in the Karoo. Farmers tried farming cattle in the region but they could not find enough to eat and become undernourished. Sheep farming forms the foundation on which the Karoo economy is built. Tourism has recently begun to have an impact on the economy, as more game farms are opened and the foreign market is more aggressively targeted.
There are many activities to attract tourists to the Karoo. Klipspringer Pass is a picturesque drive that has been built with the conservation of the surrounding environment in mind. Along the road you can stop at Rooivalle and admire the breathtaking scenery. There is a Karoo 4 x 4 trail that you can drive in your own vehicle or as part of a tour with a guide. Game viewing in the many game parks is also providing to be very popular. Many of the parks offer night drives with trained game rangers.
There are also many interesting Karoo towns to visit, each with their own colorful history and eccentric residents. Within the valley of the Sneuberg Mountains is the secluded village of Nieu Bethesda. Its relative isolation has been resolved in it retaining a large part of its original culture and historical appeal.
One of its primary attractions is the Owl House, which was created by Helen Martins in defiance of how colourless she felt her life had become. Her simple desire to create more light and color soon became a compulsive need for self-expression and communication. Helen incorporated every day items into her work, as she experimented with reflection and space, light and dark and different hues. One of the predominant methods of design in the house is the use of crushed glass imbedded in brightly colored paint.
Prince Albert is one of the fort Karoo towns to have plentiful water. It gets its water supply from the Swartberg Mountains and is regarded as a veritable oasis in the other arid landscape. The town is known for its sun-ripened fresh and dried fruit. It specialties are figs and apricots. Olives, olive oil and cheese are also popular exports to all areas of South Africa. Farmers are in the process of restoring old vineyards to revive the wine making, which was last successful in the 19th century.
The climate is excellent and well suited to a host of activities including a guided historical walk through the town's rich cultural heritage, an evening ghost walk, hikes in the Swartberg, a visit to the Prince Albert gallery to see work by local artists, and a visit to the Fransie Pienaar Museum to sample some "Witblits" distilled by a local farmer.
The Karoo at night is one of the most impressive sights that you are likely to see. The sky is so clear and the air is so crisp that stars shine and twinkle, as you've never seen them before. The Karoo night sky is so remarkable that it was decided to build one of the largest telescopes in the world in Sutherland, in the southern Karoo. The telescope, SALT – Southern African Large Telescope, was completed in 2005 and is so sensitive that it can detect galaxies and quasars that are a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye.
In the 1800s the Karoo served as a health retreat for Europe's rich and famous. The dry, clean air cured many chest complaints and the peace placated tired nerves. The air is still pure and the atmosphere healthy. The people are hospitable and imbued with the culture of their ancestors. If ever you need a place to wind down, relax and admire some unusually beautiful scenery, the Karoo is the place to be.