Karoo Heartland



By Janet Middleton

Graaff Reinet, the historical little town in the Eastern Cape, is the most delightful combination of small-town wonderful and golden countryside. Take a meander through the mists of time with me; to a time where streets were wide to accommodate ox-wagons, game wandered freely across the plains of Camdeboo and farmers, well, they farmed much as they do today. The town itself has grown and modernised while still retaining its old-world charm as South Africa’s fourth oldest. The architecture, including the unmissable NG Kerk, is incredible and visitors can choose from a selection of traditional venues including the restored Camdeboo Cottages and Drostdy Hotel for a few nights’ comfortable rest. Just strolling through the jacaranda-lined streets instils a sense of small-town bliss for a road-weary traveller. Take a walking tour of Graaff Reinet if you don’t want to miss a single treasure. Once you’ve freshened up, you’ll want to get out and explore the countryside, which includes superb scenery, private game reserves and the beloved Valley of Desolation at the Camdeboo National Park. Be prepared for golden and grey vistas, South African wildlife and some of the best sunsets in the Southern Hemisphere! Don’t discount this special Karoo town when planning your trip across South Africa. Here are five of my favourite moments from just 36 hours of exploring…


Just a short drive from town, you’ll find yourself in another world: the world of Mount Cambedoo. A place where cheetah laze under a tree, the vulnerable mountain zebra gallops the golden plains and the rare white rhino may just be closer than you think!

Our game drive started with a sighting of six rhino, moms and calves, just grazing within sight of the lodge – they were covered in red dust from a mud bath and completely unperturbed the vehicles. Our lucky streak continued as we were fortunate to spot a cheetah napping away after a hearty meal, and mountain zebra, before finally settling on a mountaintop to enjoy a golden sunset and a sundowner before heading back to the lodge for our al fresco dinner. That’s when things really got unforgettable. A Karoo traffic jam!

Our guide spotted some fresh rhino droppings on the mountainside road and, as we turned a corner, in the fading dusk, there he was: a beautiful, real-life rhino – just metres in front of us. What a moment. Hardly bothered, although incredibly insistent that he take his time, we did what anyone would do in a traffic jam: creep along and wait; although, the sights and sounds where a darn sight better than any gridlock I’ve ever seen! We spent 45 minutes following this rare and endangered creature, the hardest part was putting my camera away and staying in the moment, because you know that something like this will never happen again and you don’t want to witness it from behind a lens.

MOUNT CAMDEBOO is a private game reserve outside Graaff Reinet that focuses on the conservation of vulnerable and endangered species such as the white rhino, cheetah and mountain zebra. In addition to game drives, guided walks and stargazing, the reserve also offers accommodation in the form of three manor houses, a secluded cottage and a safari tent camp.


Where to begin? A helicopter flip over the ancient Valley of Desolation will leave you feeling both dwarfed and invigorated, somewhere between being awed by nature and thrilled at a heli-trip over, what could very easily be, Jurassic Park. You could expect to see dinosaurs wandering the plains of the valley! The Valley of Desolation has formed over 100 million years and is a sheer spectacle of 120m high Dolerite cliffs and columns. Fly Karoo offers an exhilarating flip over the valley and the Camdeboo National Park with beyond-breath-taking views. This short trip provides a birds-eye view of Graaff Reinet, the Ngweba Dam, the Valley of Desolation and the Camdeboo National Park. This is a must-do for first-time and returning visitors to the Karoo Heartland.

FLY KAROO is Graaff Reinet’s first helicopter charter service, offering scenic flights which enable visitors to Graaff Reinet to visit popular sites in the surrounding areas. Charters are also offered to nearby locations such as game lodges and Port Elizabeth airport.


The sun sets at its own special pace in the Karoo, sliding gently towards the distant mountains and turning the light that special golden colour that feels unique to the Karoo Heartland. It’s magical and romantic. Couple this lovely light and fresh summer air with an al-fresco dinner at Mount Camdeboo and you have a recipe for an unforgettable Karoo experience. Following an afternoon spent game viewing and realising how close the wildlife is to your cosy dinner table, makes this doubly special. And here’s a not-to-well-kept secret: the Karoo folk really know how to cook! The talented chefs at Mount Camdeboo have taken inspiration from South African cuisine and recipes that date back to the early Cape settlers, reinventing old favourites with a light, contemporary touch.


An overnight stay (or three) in Graaff Reinet will reinforce the feeling of having stepped back to a time when porches were deep, floors were wooden, and hospitality was as warm as the wide streets in mid-summer. Graaff Reinet has a number of converted and restored guesthouses and hotels complete with superb cuisine, crisp linen and first-class service. As there is so much to see and explore in, and around, Graaff Reinet, settle in for a few relaxing days, unpack your bags and allow the folk of the Karoo Heartland to take good care of you.  Next time, I’ll spend more time explore the museums and architecture.


I’ll never tire of sunsets at the Valley of Desolation. Once you’ve seen the valley from the air, you can truly appreciate how vast and magnificent it is. However, sitting at a picnic bench, sundowner in hand and watching the rock formations change from fiery orange to black silhouettes against a navy sky is one of the surest ways to experience everything that is special and unique about the Karoo. In that dusty golden light, you can see forever.



It’s the time of year when families across South Africa and abroad start planning their Christmas holidays. Time to start thinking of where to spend a vacation. Do you head for one place? Or take a trip through a region? Will you camp or stay in five-star luxury. We think you should give the Karoo Heartland (Eastern Cape Karoo) a try. A place where the land meets the sky, where vistas are endless and wildlife is easily spotted on the plains of the Karoo. Take a trip to the Karoo Heartland to restore your love of South Africa, detox from a frantic city life and reconnect yourself. If you’re looking for an unforgettable South African experience, let us introduce you to the National Park and Game Reserves of the Karoo Heartland.

Camdeboo National Park

The Camdeboo National Park is a treasure trove for nature lovers. The Park includes the magnificent Valley of Desolation, game viewing and the vast Nqweba Dam. The Valley of Desolation, a national monument also known as the Cathedral of Mountains was a finalist in the National Lilizela Tourism Awards for 2016, and is 120m formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years. The park features six picnic and braai areas, 19km of gravel road for game viewing and bird-watching the 240 species of birds, three hiking trails and two 4×4 routes. Watersports such as canoeing and fishing can be enjoyed around the 1000 hectare Nqwba Dam. Find out more: Camdeboo National Park

Mountain Zebra National Park

Named for the 300+ Cape Mountain Zebra residing amongst the rolling plains and deep valleys of the Mountain Zebra National Park, this is a must visit if you’re in the Cradock region. The park consists of three distinct biomes: Nama-Karoo, Grassland and Thicket – an important example of the Karoo’s rich biodiversity. The Cape Mountain Zebra differs from the plains or Burchell’s Zebra, having narrower stripes and orange facial colouration. Other species to look out for are Red Hartebeest, Eland, Springbok, Kudu and recent reintroductions Black Rhino and African Buffalo. A wonderful South African natural adventure! Find out more: Mountain Zebra National Park

Kuzuko Lodge

Kuzuko Lodge, situated within the famous Addo National Park, means “place of glory” in Xhosa and you will soon see how apt the name is. Built high on a hill and offering those magnificent Karoo views, Kuzuko brings guests to the very edge of the Karoo Heartland wilderness with private balconies and uninterrupted views of the valley below. Kuzuko is a family-friendly lodge with consideration of your child’s needs including special menus, age-appropriate outdoor activities and even a babysitting service so parents can enjoy a bit of quiet time in the bush. Five-star authentic Karoo cuisine, lounges and infinity pool for relaxing viewing and luxury spa treatments are some of the highlights at Kuzuko.

Samara Private Game Reserve

Once a thriving semi-arid ecosystem of astonishing diversity, the fortunes of the Great Karoo region changed with the advent of fences, firearms and farming. The once-epic springbok migrations vanished, as did the predators that stalked the herds. The ecosystem faltered; grassland slowly turned to dust.

Assembling 11 farms totalling 67,000 acres, Samara’s founders vowed to restore the magic of this place, embarking on an ambitious programme of land restoration and wildlife reintroduction. Today, thousands of wild animals roam this born-again wilderness and Samara is working with local stakeholders to extend the conservation ethic to over 3 million acres.

26 guests at a time are invited to join Samara’s conservation journey and help to shape it for the future. Two intimate owner-run lodges with a true sense of place offer a quintessentially warm Karoo welcome, with myriad activities on offer to explore, entertain and educate.

In staying at Samara, every guest plays a role in safeguarding the landscape in perpetuity. Yet for those who visit, Samara’s magic extends beyond its conservation importance. To immerse oneself in this soulful landscape of infinite horizons is to experience a recalibration of the frantic modern mindset, a deep reconnection with Nature and a heart-lifting vision of hope for the future.

Thembalethu Safaris

Whether you want to sneak away for a bush weekend or spend a solid holiday surrounded by nature, Thembalethu Safaris is 6500 hectares of Karoo Heartland magic. With options of 4×4 and 4×2 tracks, rare Black eagles nesting and fourteen species of buck to enjoy. Accommodation is in the form of an upmarket guest house, large open plan living, kitchen and dining area and most importantly, a spacious verandah to sit, sip a drink and enjoy the peace of the Karoo. Find out more: Thembalethu Safaris

Mount Camdeboo

Mount Camdeboo, meaning “place of green hills or pools” in ancient Khoisan, lies as short distance from Graaff Reinet. Nestled within the Sneeuberg Mountains of the Karoo Heartland, guests are accommodated in four Cape Dutch houses, which have been lovingly converted into the very essence of luxury lodge accommodation. Visitors can enjoy game drives, guided bush walks, cheetah tracking and star-gazing. Mount Camdeboo doesn’t disappoint. Find out more: Mount Camdeboo

Now, what are you waiting for? Plan your summer Karoo Heartland holiday today!