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South Africa’s Karoo Heartland Discovered


South Africa’s Karoo region is a sprawling heartland that separates the grasslands and industrial northern and eastern parts of the country from the vineyards and craggy coastal belt of the Cape.

Travelers speeding by road or rail between Cape Town and Johannesburg see little more than scrubland broken by flattop hills South Africans call koppies. Small towns flash by, seemingly assembled from a standard construction catalog of churches, general trading stores, and hotel-saloons to provide services to outlying sheep ranches every fifty miles or so.

It’s not unlike the arid interiors of Australia and North America, you might imagine.

But traversing the Karoo via the main transportation corridor reveals nothing about the region’s distant past, when it was lush and swampy and the stomping ground of dinosaurs.

There is also little to indicate that the modern greater Karoo is a special and fascinating place.


The Karoo’s thousands of species of succulents make the region a paradise for botanists.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

Few people know, for example, that the international environmental organization WWF has called the Karoo the world’s most extraordinary desert, a designation that has earned it a place as the world’s only biodiversity “hotspot” that is entirely arid. One-third of the world’s 10,000 species of succulent plants grows in the Karoo. Among them thrives a host of insects, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.


Migrating springbok herds once stretched from horizon to horizon in the Karoo.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

The Karoo is where the earliest European explorers reported seeing single herds of tens of thousands of springbok, the small, hardy, fleet-footed gazelle that is South Africa’s national animal.

On its coastal side, on the fringes of the desert created by the cold Benguela current that courses up the western side of southern Africa, one of the greatest spectacles of nature can be experienced. For a few weeks of the year vast parts of the Succulent Karoo are carpeted with wild flowers, a profusion of color that paints entire landscapes purple, green, red, and orange.


The aloe is a common site in the Karoo. The plant has a variety of medicinal uses.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

Part of the Karoo is also the home of the San, the people who have been found to be the most closely related, genetically, to human ancestors. Recent research suggests that modern humans probably originated in the general area of the Karoo, perhaps somewhere along the Orange River, which today forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. The real Garden of Eden.

It’s in this strange and magnificent land that husband-and-wife travel journalists Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit settled a few years ago. From their home in the Karoo town of Cradock, they set out to discover, explore, and document the South African heartland.


Windmills like these are a common site throughout the Karoo. These have been collected in a “windmill museum.”

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

In their new book “Karoo Keepsakes” (MLM Publishers, 2009), Marais and Du Toit showcase the awesome scenery, magnificent wildlife, and eccentric characters of the Karoo. It’s a book that reveals and celebrates South Africa’s best-kept travel secret.

“Rush hour traffic, strange faces that drive past without smiling, ten-day downpours, crime waves, and vast swathes of boxlike developments–we don’t have them here in the Dry Country,” they write in the book.


Itinerant laborers travel with all their possessions from farm to farm in search of work. Many of these nomads are descendants of the San.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

What is on offer in the Karoo can be seen in 270 pages filled with hundreds of images and wry vignettes–a tapestry of experiences that range from one of the last clear night skies left on Earth (a great place to see the diamond arc of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, stretching away from our sun) to unconventional art festivals.

“Karoo Keepsakes” reminds me of old postcards that sell for exhorbitant prices on eBay. The postcards recall days and sites long forgotten. But in “Karoo Keepsakes” the photos document what can still be seen today, one of the last travel destinations that retains its authentic local character. 

From the global significance of the unique geology, plants and wildlife, to the flavor of the smallest villages, to a cast of unforgettable characters, “Karoo Keepsakes” has captured the essence and spirit of a genuinely unique part of the world.

Richtersveld-Stockpost.jpgSarah and Kous Joseph with their goats at a grazing outpost. Nomadic goat herding has been a family tradition for generations.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais


The Karoo is a great spot to observe the stars. Several observatories have been built to take advantage of the thin, dry air, remoteness from big cities, and predominantly clear skies.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

For more about the Karoo and “Karoo Keepsakes,” visit Karoo Space >>


                                                                              Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais in the Karoo.

Photo courtesy Chris Marais

South Africa’s Arid Areas Programme

Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit collaborate with South Africa’s “Arid Areas Programme,” a partnership of local universities with public and private funding.

The initiative focuses on socioeconomic development in the Karoo–defined geographically as the arid, underdeveloped hinterland of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, according to the program’s Web site.

“Since the 1870s, economic modernization has largely passed these areas by,” the Web site says. “The structure of small towns and extensive sheep and goat farming still bears the imprint of the mid-19th Century.


“But these areas now face major development challenges, including rapid urbanisation, east-west migration from more populous regions into the Karoo, the restructuring of agriculture, the changing profile and function of towns, economic marginalisation, the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, and severe structural poverty.”


Photo of Karoo ostrich farm courtesy Chris Marais

Important ecological research has recently been done by several universities in these regions, particularly in Namibia and Namaqualand, according to The Arid Regions Programme.  But there has been a general neglect of social, economic and political issues. 

“Furthermore, many natural scientists are now recognizing the importance of linking ecological research with issues of a more social and economic nature, particularly in the light of changes in land use by commercial and emergent farmers. 

“In particular, the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme in Namaqualand has focused on local ecological resources, and it is increasingly posing questions regarding the optimal relationship between humans and the environment.”

Read more about this work on the Arid Areas Programme Web site >>


Photo courtesy Chris Marais

Learn more about the Karoo:

Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme

Unique Bidoversity of the Karoo (Conservation International)

The Arid Areas Programme

Succulent Karoo (National Geographic Wild World)

Karoo Space (Traveler’s companion to the SA heartland)

South African Desert Becomes Global-Warming Lab (National Geographic News)

New Dino Species Found on Dusty Shelf (National Geographic News)