The part of the Great Karoo that falls within the Northern Cape’s borders is a vast, remote and fascinating place, with different subregions and biomes. There is no “one-size-fits-all” Karoo or Karoo experience – every dorpie is different, every koppie holds its own ancient secrets, and every succulent, shrub, dassie (rock hyrax) or duiker offers up new and interesting insights.
The Tankwa Karoo, the Hantam Karoo and the Roggeveld Karoo collectively make up a subregion of the Great Karoo, located on the south-western edge of the Karoo plateau and falling into the Succulent Karoo biome (the other main biome in the province being the Nama Karoo biome).
This region stretches from the Cederberg Mountains in the south-west, northwards along the Bokkeveld Mountains to Loeriesfontein, eastwards to the Roggeveld and Nuweveld mountain ranges to Fraserburg, and south to where the Swartrug and Bontberg mountains meet, near Ceres.
The Hantam-Tankwa-Roggeveld Karoo, recognised globally as a biodiversity hotspot, is just one part of the sprawling, intriguing expanse known as the Great Karoo – a place of great adventure, great solitude and great road-tripping experiences, not to mention windmills galore and succulent Karoo lamb!
The Hantam Karoo consists of a number of small towns, such as Calvinia (with its many Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings and a fascinating museum that is housed in the old synagogue), Nieuwoudtville (the epicentre of the annual spring wildflower spectacle) and Loeriesfontein – the latter being home to the Windmill Museum, the Fred Turner Folk and Culture Museum and an art deco Dutch Reformed Church.
For much of the year, the landscape is harsh and dry, while sporting its own stark beauty – but it is completely transformed when spring brings an explosion of wildflowers that has to be seen to be believed. Sparked into life by a sprinkling of rainfall, the carpets of spring blooms are viewed by many as a true wonder of the natural world.
Striking landscapes and mountain passes make this region a must-visit for the discerning traveller.
Adjacent to the Hantam Karoo is the Tankwa Karoo – famous as the former site for the annual AfrikaBurn Festival, the official regional Burning Man event, which in past years drew thousands of free-spirited revellers to celebrate “the collective creative power of collaboration and community”.
If you’re looking for peace and quiet, and somewhere to get away from it all and bury yourself in nature, this is the place. The Tankwa Karoo National Park is one of the unheralded jewels in the country’s tourism crown, with its lunar-like landscape contrasting with the rugged peaks of the Roggeveld Mountains.
It abounds with flora such as succulents, scrub and acacia trees, fauna such as leopard, zebra, gemsbok and porcupine, and a panoply of bird species. Straddling the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces, this area is less than four hours’ drive from Cape Town and is well worth a weekend visit – or longer.
The Roggeveld Mountains lie to the east of the Hantam Karoo. In this part of the Karoo, you’ll find the highly elevated plateau town of Sutherland (about 1 500m above sea level), known not just for its sub-zero winter temperatures, but also for its status as South Africa’s star-gazing capital. The night skies here are nothing short of spectacular – but be sure to wrap up warmly!
Home to the South African Astronomical Observatory and the South African Large Telescope (SALT), this picturesque town is known by many as “the gateway to the universe”. The greater Roggeveld region is also known for its undulating hills and valleys, and its merino sheep-farming activity.
This is a great region for road-tripping, as there are several mountain passes traversing the plateau – such as the Ouberg Pass and Bloukrans Pass. Take a drive up and down the Gannaga Pass to the top of the escarpment if you’re in the mood for some incredible scenery.