South Africa’s “outback,” the mesmerizing Great Karoo, stretches through the country’s heartland, covering about a third of its landmass. Immense and often desolate, this semi-arid desert with striking landscapes is great road-tripping territory with fabulous sunsets, charming towns, and out-of-this world starry nights. Here are 15 suggestions for things to do in the Karoo.
1. Watch the sunset
The Karoo is famous for its magical sunsets, which seem to be more intense than other parts of the country and go on forever in streaks of red and purple, orange and pink. The town of Aberdeen is known for its sunsets.
2. Check out the stars
The largest telescope in all of southern Africa – the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) – is located on a hill outside of Sutherland, and visitors can sit with astronomers and check out the constellations.
3. Agave tasting
Head about 8 kilometers north of Graff-Reinet — which itself is a picture-perfect Karoo town in the Eastern Cape — to the only agave spirit distillery outside of Mexico and sample the tequila-like nectar produced here.
4. Hike Swartberg
Outside of Prince Albert in the Central Karoo, the Swartberg Nature Reserve is a great place to explore the semi-arid landscape on foot via more than 100 kilometers of trails.
Matjiesfontein in Western Cape is one of the Karoo’s most fascinating destinations — the entire village has been restored as a National Monument. It is home to a grand old hotel that used to entertain Cecil John Rhodes and other diamond and railway barons during colonial times.
Head to the Victoria Manor Hotel in Cradock in Eastern Cape for a traditional Karoo meal. If you visit during the beginning of October you can catch the Fish River Canoe Marathon competition.
Visit for the mountain town of Nieu Bethesda in winter (from May to August) and just chill out with a Karoo Ale at the Sneeuberg Brewery. The town is also home to historic Karoo architecture like the church pictured here.
8. Karoo National Park
There are 61 mammal species in Karoo National Park, and the landscapes there are also pretty spectacular. And don’t forget the fossils!
9. Karroo Theatrical Hotel
Catch a cabaret performance on a Saturday night at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel just outside Steytlerville. A concert pianist and an exotic singer named Dame Layla Lamborghini entertain guests.
Ride an ostrich in Oudtshoorn, a town in the Little Karoo. The country town is full of beautiful homes from the days of the ostrich barons, plus some excellent restaurants and guesthouses. And of course you can’t miss the ostrich farms where you can ride these oily, feathered birds.
In spring the roads around Calvinia put on a magical flower show of spring daisies that make for mesmerizing photos. Some people just drive into the desert and paint the landscape in bloom as well.
12. Somerset East
A quaint old town at the foot of Boschberg Mountain, Somerset East calls itself an “oasis in the Karoo.” Because it is surrounded by mountains it receives much more rain than other parts of the desert and as such has some lush forests.
This is a classic Karoo country town in the Northern Cape. It was founded in 1829 and many of the original buildings remain.
14. Victoria West
Victoria West is another classic Karoo country town that is fading gracefully into oblivion. It is home to the old-fashioned Victoria West Hotel, which used to host railway barons during the 19th century.
15. Prince Albert
Another charming Karoo town, it is best visited during the olive festival held at the end of April.