Be careful when walking in the Karoo  one wrong step and you could squash a a small, slow-growing plant that can only be seen with your eye to the ground.
Be careful when walking in the Karoo  one wrong step and you could squash a a small, slow-growing plant that can only be seen with your eye to the ground.
Being alert to plant treasures in the Karoo is a prerequisite, as is wearing the right clothing.
Being alert to plant treasures in the Karoo is a prerequisite, as is wearing the right clothing.

On a trip to Namibia a few years ago, my bored teenage son remarked, tiredly, “why would you drive 2 000km to look at nothing?” Even though he was born in that country, he had developed a city slicker’s contempt for apparently wide open and barren spaces.

A little older and, no doubt, with the wisdom that experience brings, he would realise that Nature’s biggest illusion is that the thick, green verdant places are the ones which teem with life.

Deserts are places where life is harsh, where survival is a matter of adapting, of being able to thrive where the pampered organisms of other environments would shrivel and die. And, from that fiery yet dry crucible has developed some of the most amazing ecology on the planet.

That’s something I should be appreciating as we huddle on the bakkie, heading out of Prince Albert on a dusty district road. But I’m still replete with the warm coffee and tasty home-made rusks we’ve consumed at African Relish, which has been our base for the past two days.

I normally love the open spaces – as far away from a suburban 4x4 as possible, please – but somehow, today, as we head away from the Swartberg mountains which ring the scenic little town, all I see is kilometres and kilometres of… nothing. Maybe that’s because I’ve driven through landscapes like this many, many times. Flashing past at 120km/h, the Karoo is the meaningless time between home and destination.

The Karoo is a vast, arid region, hot in summer and cold in winter and, as the website centralkaroo.co.za puts it, “droughts are the rule, good seasons the exception”.

“Temperatures range from minus 5°C in winter to 43°C in summer. Snow is often recorded, particularly in mountains in winter, and in summer the normally dry rivers can become rapidly raging torrents for very short periods.

“Plants throughout the region have adapted themselves to these vastly changing conditions.”

I am about to get up close and personal with this place and to be jolted out of my comfortable, couldn’t-care-less urban reverie.

It’s a jolt which will remind me of how easily we gloss over the miracles of our country… and how easily those miracles can be snuffed out by the thoughtless, or profit-driven antics of humankind.

Our guide on a walk through the Karoo landscape is renowned botanist Dr Sue Milton who, with her husband, ornithologist Dr Richard Dean, has been researching the area’s ecosystems for more than 25 years.

She is a lecturer in conservation ecology, arid zone vegetation dynamics and restoration at the University of Stellenbosch and has been involved in studies of plant populations, animals, resource use and seed dispersal in the Karoo and Kalahari as well as in central Germany and southern USA.

Sue and Richard run an organisation called RenuKaroo Veld Restoration, which is based in Prince Albert and is an initiative to educate and assist in the rehabilitation of wilderness areas and overgrazed pasture land.

The couple own a small farm about 10km outside the town, which they have declared a nature conservancy and on which they take regular education tours, for visiting tourists and school groups.

The first thing Sue emphasises is that we should stick to the 1.2km path, which is lined with rocks and stones for most of its route.

“This is a very fragile environment and we want to keep the human impact to a minimum and in controlled spaces.”

She points out the “stones” we’re about to step on. They’re not stones at all.

They look as though they are, they are the same colour and texture as the surrounding ground, but they are succulent plants, vygies.

The Karoo is a wondrously diverse place – they say there are more plant species in the Beaufort West area than in the whole of the UK – and this “Succulent Karoo” is what Sue has described in a research paper as “a global biodiversity hotspot”, meaning it has more kinds of plants and animals for its size than any other arid area.

Of the 5 000 plant species in the region, almost half are restricted to the Succulent Karoo and many of them are succulents – or plant species adapted to store their own water supply in leaves or stems for use in the dry summer. They include vygies (Aizoaceae), daisies (Asteraceae), aloes (Liliaceae), plakkies (Crassulaceae), geraniums (Geraniaceae), melkbos (Euphorbiaceae), kambroo and halfmens (Asclepiadaceae). One third of the world’s 10 000 succulent plant species are found in this area, says Sue.

When the rains come, the vygies and other succulents may or may not bloom. But they will survive. They grow infinitesimally small amounts every year so even acomparatively small plant could be decades or even centuries old.

Suddenly we’re awake. We’re in a living, breathing natural treasure house. And one where we, the clumsy humans, can destroy something in a blink.

It suddenly dawns on all of us. This is the place, vast as it is, where multinational energy giants like Shell have proposed explorative “fracking” operations to release large reserves of “shale gas” which are trapped in layers of rock kilometres below the surface.

Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing”, where millions of litres of water are pumped into the ground (with a mix of chemicals) to force the underground structure to rupture and so release the gas.

I am a bit ashamed to admit that I, as a journalist, have only been following the evolving controversy from afar and that I am scant on details. I am not really sure who to believe, to be honest.

This has long since become a battle of images and impressions… and of spin doctoring. Who’s right? The small band of environmentalists, farmers and Karoo dwellers who want to preserve their space? Or is Shell – and the government – correct in implying the process will create jobs and do minimal damage to the environment?

What I do know, standing here as the morning sun starts roasting the back of my neck (tip: whatever time of year you go on one of Sue and Richard’s tours, take sun screen, a long-sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat) is that it is not going to take much to damage this place beyond repair.

Richard points out that there is no clarity in any environmental impact study yet done about what will happen to the water and chemicals which are pumped underground: will they contaminate the vast below-surface aquifers which cover tens of thousands of square kilometres of the Karoo?

The Karoo, he says, depends on ground water. Everybody – from the farmers to the tourist towns like Prince Albert – would be in dire trouble if their water resource was threatened.

Sue shows us more interesting plants – like the tiny Lithops, which needs to be pointed out to us because it is half-buried in the soil.

This is the area in which you’ll find another famous – or notorious – succulent, the hoodia plant.

It was used by the original San inhabitants as a medicine and there are those who claim it is a wonder slimming agent… opening up a huge, multinational business.

Sue and Richard readily acknowledge – as some of the proponents of fracking put it – that humankind has already irrevocably changed the Karoo.

The influence of grazing animals, farm fences and widespread hunting has made the area a different place from what it was 200 years ago.

But that, they say, is no reason to embark on a project like fracking without carrying out the most thorough research and evaluation beforehand.

This is the only Karoo we have – or, more correctly, which we have borrowed from our grandparents to pass on to our grandchildren.

l If you are concerned about fracking, then go and see the Karoo for yourself. Contact Dr Sue Milton at www.renu-karoo.co.za. Tel/fax 023 541 1828; cell 082 770 0206 - Saturday Star