Expert Reviews – Karoo NP
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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Sea of fossils
Better known for its scenery than its wildlife, Karoo National Park lies in the semi-arid Western Cape interior flanking the N1 close to the town of Beaufort West. The area once lay below a large inland sea, and it is renowned for its wealth of fossils dating back over 50 million years, some of the most interesting of which are displayed on the short and enjoyable Fossil Trail near the main rest camp.
A short all-vehicle road network leads from the entrance and rest camp through wonderful desert rockscapes associated with the Nuweveld Mountains, but a 4x4 is required to travel deeper into the park. Common wildlife includes Cape mountain zebra, gemsbok, red hartebeest, greater kudu, springbok and klipspringer. If you are seeking the Big Five, be warned that while leopards occur naturally, and lions, buffalos and black rhinos have all been reintroduced, none of them is very likely to be seen on a short visit. An avian highlight are the 20-odd pairs of Verreaux’s eagle (black eagle) that breed on the cliffs and are often seen soaring above them. More obscurely, the park also forms the major stronghold for the riverine rabbit, an endangered and seldom-seen Karoo endemic thought to number just 1,500 in the wild.
A good logistical reason to include Karoo National Park in your itinerary is that its attractive rest camp makes for an excellent overnight break when you drive along the N1 between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Rolling Back the Years
The Karoo once played host to one of Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacles: the annual Springbok migration, but uncontrolled hunting and rapid expansion of the sheep farming industry put an untimely end to this natural phenomenon many years ago. The Karoo National Park offers us a rare glimpse back to a bygone era and I find the park provides a strong sense of what the wider area must have been like a century ago.
The sparse vegetation in this low rainfall area ensures wildlife cannot hide and some of my best animal sightings having taken place on the Lammertjiesleegte route on the plains, while the scenic drive up the pretty Klipspringer Pass to the viewpoint at Rooivalle is well worth the effort. I have also found that it is the 4x4 only areas deeper inside the park that tend to be most productive for lion sightings. Many of the park’s other species are harder to observe due to their shy nature and nocturnal habits in this sun-baked national park.
Lucy is travel writer for a range of publications, including Lonely Planet's guides to Africa, Southern Africa and South Africa.
Worth a stop when road-tripping
Most people wouldn’t plan an itinerary around the Karoo National Park, but if you’re road-tripping from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the park makes for a magnificent way to break up the drive. You need a 4WD if you really want to explore, but there is a 45km gravel road that’s perfectly doable in a sedan, plus a short tarred loop between the gate and the rest camp. Lions were re-introduced here in 2010 and black rhino also wander, though sightings are fairly rare. You will likely spot smaller mammals though, including zebras, dassies and a range of antelope. Other than that, the semi-desert park offers often empty dirt roads, vast open skies, superlative star-gazing and a couple of day hikes close to the rest camp. Most of all, it makes a marvellous alternative to another night spent in a perfectly pretty but altogether nondescript Karoo town as you make your way across the country.
Mike is an award winning wildlife writer, editor of Travel Zambia magazine and author of the Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife.
A glimpse of the past
This small, scenic park preserves only a tiny fraction of the immensity that was once South Africa’s great Karoo. Nonetheless, it has a certain stark beauty and offers an excellent spectrum of wildlife, including some species that you may struggle to see elsewhere. I had an excellent aardwolf sighting on my first evening here, while guests the previous night had watched both caracal and aardvark during a single night drive. (How often could you say that in, say, the Kruger or Okavango?) The attractive rest camp, with its Cape Dutch-style chalets, has a very relaxed feel and panoramic views. Black rhino and buffalo have been reintroduced to a restricted area, but this park is perhaps best known for smaller stuff – including the critically endangered riverine rabbit and five species of tortoise, the latter making it one of the world’s tortoise hotspots. Distances are small, so it is easy to explore thoroughly. Drive the loop roads to spot mountain zebra and springbok grazing the scrubby plains; climb the rocky viewpoints for klipspringer and black eagle on the pinnacles; and take a guided walk to learn more about the reptiles, flora, geology and other hidden attractions.
Kim is a travel writer who authored and updated over 15 guidebooks, including Lonely Planet's South Africa and Bradt's Tanzania guides.
The Karoo renewed
Hot, flat and boring is how many people describe the Karoo. But for me the vastness of the landscape and the richness of its unique vegetation is what make the Karoo National Park such a great destination. It’s not the place you go to for game viewing. It’s a place you go to, to renew your soul. That said for the last few years, SANParks has reintroduced a number of historically-occurring species into the park such as black rhino and buffalo, as well as Cape mountain zebra and, most recently, eight lions. Long known for its hiking and 4×4 trails, the reintroduction of lions of course has now limited these activities. While low-level electrified fencing was installed prior to their release around the restcamp area, reception complex, camping ground, swimming pool and popular fossil trail, if you want to tackle trails such as the Pointer and Bossie Trails you now need a guide.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
Wildlife & Fossils in Karoo National Park
Conveniently located next to the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Karoo National Park makes for a perfect overnight stopover. A short, but very scenic tarred wildlife circuit is accessible by normal sedan, but you need a 4x4 to explore further.
The small park gives an insight into how South Africa’s vast Karoo once was before humans transformed the land and killed all the animals. Wildlife densities aren’t big, but the open scenery makes it easy to spot quite a wide variety of creatures. We saw small herds of Cape mountain zebra, black wildebeest, gemsbok, red hartebeest and several klipspringers. Lion, black rhino and buffalo have been reintroduced, but we didn’t manage to see any of these flagship species. Night drives are very rewarding with a chance of seeing aardvark and other nocturnal specials rarely seen elsewhere, such as aardvark and Cape fox. There is some interesting birdlife too and we were happy to spot Verreaux’s eagle, which is known to breed in the park. Even if you don’t have time for a game drive, it is worth checking out the educational Fossil Trail near the entrance. This outdoor museum brings back to life the extinct wildlife that lived in the Great Karoo a staggering 255 million years ago.