The Klein Karoo (Little Karoo), in South Africa’s Western Cape province, is a region of astounding contrasts and boasts the imposing Swartberg mountains, green fertile valleys and desert plains, charming villages and towns, and South Africa’s largest ostrich breeding industry. A visit to the Klein Karoo, a few hours’ drive east of Cape Town, is a must in my book, and can easily be combined with the immensely popular Garden Route.
This loop, which winds around and through the rugged Swartberg mountains, is one of my favourite drives. You can start the loop in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa, with its distinct Afrikaans atmosphere. Oudtshoorn also has a good selection of excellent restaurants. Try the crocodile carpaccio or one of the ostrich specialties!
Search for hotels in Oudtshoorn
From Oudtshoorn, head east towards the quaint village of De Rust. The route takes you through the plains which are dotted with ostrich farms, alfalfa grass fields and the occasional vineyard. De Rust is worth a stop to explore the lovely main street lined with beautiful Cape Dutch houses and old jacaranda trees.
Then drive through the Meiringspoort, an extraordinary gorge which offers a wonderful insight into the geology of the mountains – look up and gawk at the dramatic wave-like layers that form the Swartberg mountains. At the other end of the gorge, turn westwards to Prince Albert. The vegetation on this side of the mountain range is noticeably different; drier, less verdant and more shrubby. The drive to Prince Albert is lovely and leads you along the foot of the Swartberg range, over gentle rolling hills. Prince Albert is a charming village surrounded by fruit orchards. It’s a perfect place for a lunch stop.
Swartberg Pass and a snake encounter…
From Prince Albert, head back towards the Swartberg mountains over the Swartberg Pass. This pass is more than 20kms long (along a winding, cliff-hanging gravel road with many blind corners…be careful when driving here) and reaches a height of about 1500m. The geology of the area, exemplified by the many folds, crevices, cracks and intriguing rock formations which you’ll see during the drive, is quite astonishing. The views from the top of the arid Karoo plain and the verdant valleys below are truly spectacular.
I had a pretty harrowing experience driving up through the Swartberg Pass several years ago. I was very careful as the road was quite uneven and the steep drop of several hundred meters on my right wasn’t exactly comforting. I slowed down to take in the view and my friend and I had our windows open. I stayed close to the cliff wall on the left which meant the car often brushed up against the prickly bushes which grew along the roadside. I was driving at a snail’s pace when I suddenly noticed something move in a bush we were about to pass. The bush was about to brush up against my door when I realised what it was: a snake curled up in the bush. The last thing I wanted was for a snake to drop into my lap so I made a quick swerve to the right. My friend, who was in the passenger seat, started yelling as I swerved. The car jerked to the right as I tried desperately to get the car back onto the middle of the road. With a bit of luck, we were back on the road a few seconds later. I hit the brake and broke out into a cold sweat. I’d been inches away from running the car off the cliff!!
On the other side of the Swartberg mountain range, the scenery becomes more gentle and green. It’s a wonderful, eye-pleasing drive back to Oudtshoorn. If you have the time, you can also visit the Cango Caves – the subterranean limestone formations there are fascinating.
If you’re visiting the Western Cape, I highly recommend touring around the Klein Karoo. You can easily spend a few days in Oudtshoorn and drive this loop in a day.
Read other Velvet Escape posts on South Africa:
- Driving the Cape Peninsula loop
- 10 things to do in Cape Town
- Cederberg: mountain passes, safaris & San rock art
- The marine life of the Western Cape