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On the outskirts of Cradock, 145 miles north of Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, stands a tombstone erected in memory of a man called Harry Potter. He died in 1910 at the age of 46, oblivious to a future fame that now brings a smile to any Hogwarts fan passing through this dusty frontier town.
Cradock lies at the gateway to the Great Karoo - the vast, elemental semi-desert that covers a third of South Africa.
The original Harry Potter was most likely a descendant of the 1820s settlers shipped in from Britain to colonise the land west of the Great Fish River.
This rich pioneer history is one reason to visit the oasis-like settlements of the Karoo, where the past is boxed up in absorbing museums and heritage buildings.
In Cradock, the streets are wide enough to turn a huge ox-cart. The centrepiece is a magnificent Dutch Reformed Church, completed in 1868. It is modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.
The nearby Victoria Manor Hotel dates from the 1840s and is now a delightfully restored Victorian-era hotel with pressed-tin ceilings, antique beds and haddock in hollandaise sauce for breakfast. Alongside it is Die Tuishuise, a string of single-storey wagon-builders’ cottages now converted into cosy guesthouses with gardens filled with citrus trees
Then, checking into Ganora, a 4,000-hectare farm near Nieu Bethesda nearly two hours from Cradock, I’m impressed to find whitewashed outbuildings that house designer bedrooms - £80 (about R1000) a night with breakfast. Dinner is in a restored barn where my host, Hester, uses old LPs as table mats.
Outside, the night sky is filled with stars. My only other companions are 2,500 sheep, a few Dutch tourists and a perky Jack Russell called Lulu who joins me on a walk to see some Bushmen paintings in a nearby river gorge. They are 7,000 years old.
For men such as JP, who farms Ganora, the true joy of the Karoo is fossil-hunting. Palaeontology might seem a dry old subject, but it isn’t here - 253 million years ago this was covered with rivers filled with many strange beasts. One creature with a fearful grin was even christened the “smilesaurus”.
The fossils of the Karoo have given us a complete record of the evolutionary sequence from reptile to mammal, and JP shows me some fine examples in his farm museum, along with a haunting collection of Stone Age tools.
Just two centuries ago, the Karoo teemed with wildlife, including herds of migrating springbok so vast they took days to pass. You can still have enchanting animal encounters here - most notably in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock and on the vast private game reserve of Samara where wild cheetah have been successfully re-introduced.
For me, though, the real draw of the Karoo is its immense, heartlifting landscape. This is a place, as Cecil Rhodes put it, “to be alone with the alone”. - Daily Mail