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Places to go: The Karoo, Northern Cape

3 hours drive from Cape Town, and you are approaching the middle of the “Great Karoo desert”. Steeped in eccentricity and other worldly feel, it is deafeningly quiet with crisp dry air. First seeming barren and lunar, South Africa’s largest ecosystem, is host to 9000 species of plants and a healthy stock of game animals. The Karoo National Park may be your last chance to see Black Rhino, or Riverine Rabbits. The Quagga too, looks remarkably well, considering it has been extinct for 125 years. Miraculously re-bred, it resembles both a Zebra and an Antelope.

The few small towns that quietly survive are character filled relics, with signature squeaking metal windmills known as “Karoo Moons” and wide streets for turning pony and trap. Traditional style buildings, some with stables, radiate from the steeple of an ever present Dutch reform church. The original examples are distinctive, with thick whitewashed stone and clay, tin roofs, and Yellowwood floors.

Sutherland is reliably the coldest place in South Africa, and the location of this hemispheres’ largest telescope. S.A.L.T or South African Large Telescope, is a hugely expensive 5 nation project. Its 11 meter mirror, and $600K Digital camera is reportedly capable of imaging a birthday candle on the surface of the moon. After touring of the facility, have a coffee and apple cake, at “Halley-se-Kom-eet”. Which translates, “Halley says, “come and eat”. Adjoining the coffee shop there is a lovely, but perhaps lonely guest house.

Fraserburg is known for its bounty of fossils, and boasts the clearest example of a paleosurface in the world. Footprints of a giant lizard, trotting along, look like they were laid yesterday. Other things to do include 4×4 trails, reservoirs and bushman paintings. Remnants of the Anglo-Boer war abound, featuring graffiti from British soldiers, a mass grave, and a war magazine outpost. The people are charming and friendly, as are their businesses. I’m a South African, but felt like a tourist when shown the varieties at the local butcher. Offerings such as Skilpadjies (tortoises) Poffadders (Puff adders), which once explained were just different configurations of fat, kidneys, and liver (Yummy). Friendly though the butcher was, his cholesterol surely outnumbered his white blood cells. The Karoo is known within South Africa as being the only place to get lamb. Karoo lamb chops are the best you will eat, which is surprising when you see their habitat, and the shriveled twigs they get to graze on.

An increasing number of city folk are reconsidering these areas, boosting average prices from $2K to $40K in 10 years. If you have a green thumb, organic gardening at 1260 metres is a breeze, as there are few if any bugs. There are even some mad Belgians growing tulips up here. Rumor has is, that Mexico has been running low on Agave (Tequila Cactus) and is now importing some from The Karoo. Self sustaining, cheap properties, away from people, crime, and arthritis might be the way of the future.