Travelling between Grahamstown and the towns of Cradock and Graaff-Reinet (the Eastern Cape’s two most-visited Karoo towns), you’ll be heading into sheep-farming country, with the occasional dorp rising against the horizon, offering the experience of an archetypal Eastern Cape one-horse outpost. The roads through this vast emptiness are quiet, and lined with rhythmically spaced telephone poles. Dun-coloured sheep, angora goats and the occasional springbok graze on brown stubble, and you’ll often see groups of charcoal-and-grey ostriches in the veld. Staying on a farm in this region is a highlight.
Cradock, 240km north of Port Elizabeth, lies in the Karoo proper, and makes a great stopover on the Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg run, because of its excellent accommodation and its proximity to the beautiful Mountain Zebra National Park. Some 100km due west of Cradock, Graaff-Reinet is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, and much of its historical centre is intact. Surrounding the town is the Camdeboo National Park. For more of a sense of the Karoo’s dry timelessness, head to Nieu Bethesda, 50km to the north of town.
Mountain Zebra National Park
When the Mountain Zebra National Park was created in 1937, there were only five Cape mountain zebras left on its 65 square kilometres – and four were male. Miraculously, conservationists managed to cobble together a breeding herd from the few survivors on surrounding farms, and the park now supports several hundred.
For game viewing, the park has a couple of good part-tar, part-gravel loop roads forming a rough figure of eight. As well as zebra, keep an eye out for springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest. The introduction of buffalo in 1998 and plans to bring in cheetahs and rhinos add to the wildlife interest, but mean that hiking across the park isn’t possible, since buffalo have a reputation for extreme aggression. There are, however, two waymarked walks near the camp.
It’s little wonder that tour buses pull in to GRAAFF-REINET in their numbers; this is a beautiful town and one of the few places in the Eastern Cape where you’d want to wander freely day and night, taking in historical buildings and the occasional little museum, and having a meal or a drink before strolling back to your accommodation.
Graaff-Reinet has a large population of Afrikaans-speaking coloured people, mostly living on the south side of town, some of slave origin, others the descendants of indigenous Khoi and San who were forced to work on frontier farms. The dry mountains surrounding the town are part of the Camdeboo National Park whose main attraction is the Valley of Desolation, a B-movie name for an impressive site. The rocky canyon, echoing bird calls and expansive skies of the valley shouldn’t be missed.