Expert Reviews – Karoo NP

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Sea of fossils
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Another park better known for its scenery than its wildlife, Karoo National Park lies in the semi-arid Western Cape interior. 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. On out most recent visit, we were impressed by the wonderful rockscapes and wealth of antelopes, which include gemsbok, red hartebeest, greater kudu, springbok and klipspringer. More obscurely, the park also forms the major stronghold for the riverine rabbit, an endangered Karoo- endemic thought to number just 1,500 in the wild. It is not a Big Five reserve at present, but the successful reintroduction of eight lions in 2010 represents the first step in a transformation to become one.

Rolling Back the Years
Overall rating

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.

Worth a stop when road-tripping
Overall rating

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.

A glimpse of the past
Overall rating

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.

The Karoo renewed
Overall rating

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.

Wildife and Fossils in Karroo National Park
Overall rating

Like many South Africans, I’ve often driven from Johannesburg to Cape Town. It’s a long boring stretch of road crossing the Great Karroo. Most people don’t like the emptiness of the Karroo, some people who grew up with it love it and I suppose I was indifferent to it. Last year, on another one of these 1500km trips down to the Cape, I decided to break up the drive with a visit to Karroo National Park. It’s right on the way, so why not. Here I got a feel of how the Karroo would have been hundred years ago, before all the wildlife was gone. You can’t fully appreciate the Karroo driving past at 120km an hour.

Wildlife densities aren’t big, but because of the open scenery you can easily spot a fair number of grazers on a drive through the park. Cape Mountain zebra and Black wildebeest are special to me because they don’t occur in any of the more classical safari parks further north. Not to be missed is the Fossil Trail, an outdoor museum showing real fossils from the Great Karroo.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.0/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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