The Karoo National Park is not what most people expect it to be. Forget the idea that everything Karoo-related is stony and flat. There are aspects of the region that will surprise and delight you. Mariëlle Renssen reports.
The Nuweveld escarpment did it… blew our hair back, that is. Mountains with slopes that rise into the sky and guard the vast valleys between them.
It was into these mountains that we headed in October 2013 to tackle the 90km Nuweveld EcoTrail. Actually, we had some unfinished business there…
Two years earlier we’d thought it wise to cut short our first attempt at exploring this trail when heavy overnight rain caused the rivers and streams to flood. Now we were returning to complete the course.
The Karoo National Park, stretching out westward from the outskirts of Beaufort West, covers more than 880km², and the circular ecotrail commands the central portion of the park. The best way to enjoy this trail is to break the journey in two: Spend the night at the park’s Embizweni Cottage located in the middle of nowhere (it is in fact a steel-windowed, zinc-roofed farmhouse), and then return over the slightly longer trail section the following day. From the main rest camp, the first day stretch is an easy 46.5km drive.
After spending a night at the well kitted-out self-catering cottages at the main camp (breakfast at the on-site restaurant is included in your stay), we trundled out in a Land Rover Freelander and a Toyota Hilux. Not that we needed such heavyweight hardware, coupled with all-terrain tyres. The trail is only a Grade 1 – at a stretch Grade 2 in bad weather conditions. But having travelled extensively in SA – from north to south and east to west – for our Back Road Tours travel-planning business, this is our standard mini convoy: Keith in his sturdy Hilux, and Hirsh and I in our nimble Freelander 2.
Despite it being firmly labelled a “softroader”, the Freelander has proved as sure-footed as a mountain goat, tackling terrain from soft sand to boulder-strewn gullies and everything in between with grace and elegance. But it has always been reassuring to have the back-up of the solid workhorse Toyota, which considers nothing as an obstacle.
To get to the start of the Nuweveld trail, you traverse half of the circular Potlekkertjie Loop, which also takes in the dramatic Klipspringer Pass. The tar road (unfortunately, yes) snakes steadily uphill and is shored up by a tightly packed stone embankment that’s a visual work of art. It’s a journey of unfolding views onto interlocked hills and vast, empty plains.
At the top (where, thankfully, the tar becomes gravel) you can pull off and get out to breathe deeply and savour the silence. Since the introduction of lion to the park, it’s now the only unfenced spot where you are permitted to step out of your vehicle. This is also the domain of booted eagles.
On the crest of the escarpment we crossed a Martian landscape. It’s a scene of littered stones, strewn boulders and embedded rock in black, caramel and orange.
Inside a fenced area, wooden benches and tables – each with a braai drum – are laid out beneath sweet-thorn acacias, and the ablution facilities are commendable. A sign outside deadpans, “Rhino and lion are potentially dangerous.” Seriously?! We dash in nervously just to be on the safe side.
Before we hit the eco trail, we made a short detour left onto the 4×4-only Afsaal Loop, since we’d been told that lions were hanging out there. But despite of an assortment of confusing feline spoor on the road, the cats remained elusive.
We moved slowly on. A movement caught our eyes and there she was, a female partly obscured by a bush not far from the road. Through our binoculars we made out another female, stretched out in deep slumber in the heat of the day. The thrill of witnessing wild cats in the Karoo was slightly countered by the radio collar worn by one lioness, but we were excited, nonetheless. It was the first time we had spotted cats in this park.
A little more patience and a third lioness, also collared, revealed herself. She stretched out lazily, and then padded most obligingly past our vehicles to flop down 30m from her companions.
By 13:00 it was time to hit the trail. From there it was 20km to Embizweni. The single track cut a double-grooved tongue through the monotone landscape. Tyre pressure had been reduced to 1.6 bar in anticipation of the humpy-bumpy road, which we remembered to be rife with sharp stones and gravel.
We were amazed at the change in colours and vegetation. The last time we were there, at the same time of the year, rain had been plentiful and the mountains were shrouded in a green cloak. The bossies and sweet-thorns were leafy and verdant. But right now the Karoo was living up to its name. Rain had been scarce, the acacias were a leafless mass of white lethal-looking thorns and the wild pomegranate, Pentzia daisies and kapokbos were a dull grey-green.
We descended into the valley and were soon crossing massive gravel plains. All the way we were hemmed in by a towering amphitheatre of mountains.
A great disappointment was that the trail had been graded recently. There were, however, still humps and bumps, broken rock shelves to cross, and countless descents and ascents of riverbeds, but the trail proved no challenge to our 4x4s. In heavy rain, of course, the story could take quite a different turn, so don’t be complacent if you tackle this route in the wet.
The imposing scenery and slow but constant parade of wildlife made up for the easy ride. It was also gratifying to be the only two vehicles on the entire route, especially after the “highly trafficked” Klipspringer Pass.
Turning off to Embizweni, we encountered a heavy padlocked chain across the road that had to be unlocked. On handing the key to us earlier, the SANParks official advised in all seriousness: “When you step out the vehicle, please watch out for lions.” It didn’t help that the gate was nestled into dense clumps of thorn bushes, radically reducing visibility. And guess what? I was the one selected for the task. I survived!
The road became hillier and humpier, and the surface stonier as we climbed steadily. We rounded a corner and there was the house we were to stay in, isolated on a rise with 180-degree views over a plateau of flattened ridges and the Nuweveld mountains.
It was not hard to settle in. A long open veranda with table and benches, wide stairs and a braai corner was perfectly placed for scanning the vast horizon with binoculars for zebra and antelope. And maybe lion.
Although it seemed there was nothing about, we piled into the vehicles for a sunset drive on a single meandering track. Just beyond a high ridge we saw hartebeest, kudu and eland. Most spectacular of all was the valley of red-burnished cliffs. It was a surreal volcanic landscape.
Next morning, coffee and rusks got us going for the day’s drive. We bid farewell to our panoramic views, took another death-defying dash past the padlocked chain and hit the remaining 51.3km of the eco trail.
The road climbed up the edge of a mountain on a good gravel road leading onto truly sensational views. Laid out below us were boundless stony plains scattered with singed dolerite boulders. Interspersed among them were free-standing flat-crested hills, their slopes scored with horizontal rock ridges. Ostriches stood silhouetted on the crests, while springbok and kudu studded the stone shelves. At one point, we were met by a belligerent old hartebeest that refused to budge from the middle of the road – a true Mexican standoff, as Hirsh called it.
For the first time on this trip we spotted a mountain zebra. We also saw a Ludwig’s bustard. At various intervals springbok, eland, kudu and gemsbok made their appearance, but in this part of the park they seemed nervous and twitchy. Not used to cars, evidently. This was also the magic of being here. Since we had been on the trail, not another human had breached our territory.
By 10:00 the temperature gauge had hit the 30°C mark. During the rest of our three-and-a-half hour drive, the terrain became flatter, drier and intensely barren, in parts very similar to the Tankwa Karoo in summer. Only a dry river bed sported a ribbon of green cutting across the plains.
A very bouncy rutted and pitted track up to a mini lookout point thrilled us with “the best bit of 4×4 we’ve had so far” (thanks, Land Rover). And then we headed straight for the Nuweveld mountain battlements again, nicely wrapping up our trip with glimpses of a steenbok and a grey rhebok.
Keith was the luckier one, however… perhaps because they say things always keep going right in a Toyota. As he crossed a riverbed on his way to the rest camp, two male lions eyed him carefully from the sand.
The real world felt very far away, and it had been only two days away from the hustle and bustle…
The historic town of Beaufort West lies on the N1, roughly 460km from Cape Town and 940km from Johannesburg. The N12 cutting up from George in the south, and passing through Oudtshoorn, also intersects with the N1 at Beaufort West.
Karoo NP Rest Camp
The gabled and thatched Cape-style cottages all face the Nuweveld mountain escarpment. The cottages are modern, all with an open-plan design, ceramic floor tiles and feature one to two bedrooms. Each has its own veranda, fully equipped kitchen and dining nook. The family-style cottages are recommended. These units make a perfect stopover on any long trip on the N1. Breakfast is included in the price.
Embizweni trail cottage
More of a farmhouse than a cottage, this slate-grey home with its creaking wooden floors has a large open-plan kitchen/lounge and two bedrooms, one of which has great views through a big window and ceiling-height door. The bathroom has a shower and toilet. The house is simple but thoughtfully furnished in ethnic style with framed pictures on the walls. Embizweni, Xhosa for “where people gather”, lives up to its name … and the veranda is where you’ll gather – breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Lions in the Karoo?
In late 2010, eight lions ― two males, two females and four cubs – were introduced to the Karoo National Park. They came from Addo, but were originally sourced from Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for their disease-free status and more importantly, because they were genetically similar to the Cape lions that historically roamed the Karoo.
Sadly, a male juvenile was killed by a puff adder a year later.
In April 2013, two new young males, Niklaas and Witwarm, were added to prevent inbreeding in the park, bringing today’s lion population to nine.
Niklaas is named after park manager Nico van der Walt, and Witwarm after Nico’s son, who earned the nickname when Nico was managing the Kgalagadi National Park.