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I recently read that the most spacious plateau region in the world outside Asia is our own Little Karoo and Great Karoo, so when an English friend came to visit I planned a trip and, at the end of three weeks, it was a decision neither of us regretted.
As we travelled through the many narrow valleys of the Little Karoo shut in by the high mountain peaks of the Swartberg and Outeniqua ranges, rising between 1 800 and 2 200 metres, we thought that nothing could be more wild or beautiful – till we reached the Great Karoo, five times its size and also hidden behind the massive Swartberg mountains.
Here we drove for hours straight into the horizon, marvelling at vertical cliffs and piled dolerite columns formed by 100 million years of volcanic activity and all balancing precariously above the endless stretches of valley floor.
It was equally awesome at night because the sky is full of hundreds of stars and we subsequently learned that it offers some of the best opportunities for astronomy in the world .
Still enjoying the wild countryside in the mountains 80km north of Graaff-Reinet, we saw signs pointing to the Owl House at Nieu-Bethesda, an isolated village in the mountains.
This was once the home of Helen Martins, a reclusive artist who transformed her house and garden with more than 300 cement and glass sculptures, mainly of owls but also of people and animals, all created over many lonely years. She never exhibited any of them but instead crammed them, with increasing difficulty, into the Camel Yard outside her house where they are still on display.
Her house is equally interesting with walls and ceilings glittering with brightly painted crushed glass and the obsolete impedimenta of daily life just as she left it in 1976 when she committed suicide. Today her Owl House is a national monument and is definitely worth a visit.
We managed to tear ourselves away and continued driving into a vast cathedral of mountains and had mixed feelings as we neared Graaff-Reinet. We still wanted the wildness plus the wide, seemingly never-ending open road, not the confines of a town, even though it is the fourth oldest in the country and the only one established in a game reserve.
Our first view of it was from the mountains surrounding it on all sides and, immediately, we understood why it was called it the “gem of the desert” by the early travellers.
We saw a rich green oval of gleaming white buildings without a single one breaking this historic uniformity of colour and architecture and we subsequently learned the town’s harsh history of the Great Trek from its two museums.
Founded in 1876 and named after its first governor, Jacobus van der Graaff and his wife, whose maiden name was Reinet, the town has magnificent examples of Cape Dutch architecture and 220 heritage buildings, all centred on the impressive Dutch Reformed Church with its pointy steeple and intricate decoration.
From this central point little streets fan out, all lined with whitewashed Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian Karoo-type homes and, as we explored it, we felt we were walking in another era.
We spent two unforgettable days wandering the streets and watching the world go by as we drank coffee at the Drostdy Hotel, once the seat of local government.
Then we drove 14km to explore the Karoo Nature Reserve and its highlight, an area known as the Valley of Desolation and now declared a national monument.
Though it is called a “valley”, it is another Karoo marvel of sheer cliff faces, ochre and red rocks soaring 120m into the sky, vast canyons, dolomite towers and ancient craggy columns.
Surprisingly, this wild desolation is bursting with life and has 336 plant and 43 mammal types. We heard bird calls from many of the 220 species here.
We followed a series of trails for hours hoping to find traces of fossilised skulls or skeletons of the Karoo dinosaurs that populated this area 230 million years ago and, had we known, we could have stayed overnight in a hut for hikers. This must be booked in advance from the Department of Nature Conservation (049 892 3453).
Instead we drove on to the Nqweba Dam and watched the buffalo, gemsbok, springbok and black wildebeest that came to drink its waters, while huge birds soared among the clouds.
Our next visit was to the Mountain Zebra National Park, clearly signposted off the N10 to Cradock. The mountain zebra, as distinct from the Hartman’s (ordinary) zebra, is one of the rarest mammals in the world.
In the early 1930s they were threatened with extinction. So, in 1937, the National Parks Board proclaimed this an area for their preservation with five stallions and only one mare.
It seemed a hopeless venture, particularly since there were still only 25 in 1964, but now there are 330 of this rare species alongside buffalo, black rhino, eland, kudu, wildebeest and cheetah, the last recently introduced after an absence for 70 years.
Mountain zebra hooves enable them to climb as high as 2 000m, run up to 70km/h and dig for water. They have thin vertical black lines on the neck and body that change to wide horizontal bars on the haunch.
From the park we drove to Cradock, a thriving agricultural community full of historic buildings, before making our way back to Durban. We had time for a quick visit to Olive Schreiner’s house and Plewmans Store where the authenticity of the first diamond found in SA was tested by scratching a window pane.
On our way out, we passed the Van Riebeeck Karoo Gardens with its indigenous shrubs, succulents and old yellowwood water mill. Our adventure had ended.