Camping in the Karoo: a South African road trip
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
A far cry from the typical South Africa tourist hubs of Cape Town and the Kruger National Park, camping out in the Karoo Desert is about as off-the-beaten-track as it gets. Miles and miles of rolling wilderness, dotted with an antiquated desert town here and there. In the midst of a record 5-year-long drought, the arid plains of the Karoo desert unexpectedly turned out to be the ultimate highlight of a 3-week South Africa road trip.
Where is the Karoo?
The Karoo is an ancient desert region of South Africa, stretching across the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape provinces. Vast empty plains, big open skies and a backdrop of dusty mountains await those making their way to or from Johannesburg and Cape Town. Though the long, open roads provide 10/10 road trip conditions, the best thing about travelling a long, long way through the Karoo is getting to stay there along the way.
Currently even more desertified than ever, the Karoo is suffering through a years-long drought. The plants are dead; the remaining vegetation is barely hanging in there, animals are struggling to find enough water, farmers are facing bankruptcy... A great place to head as a stopover from Johannesburg to Cape Town, right?
Actually... yes. Despite the hot and dusty conditions, the Karoo has an undeniable draw and is, surprisingly, so much more than a convenient stopover.
Maybe I was swayed by the romantic pictures my South African boyfriend had already painted of the African bush... but as the landscapes slowly changed from green to red, I understood. The Karoo is wild. It's unforgiving, it's isolated, it's terrifying, it's enchanting.
A quick search on the road lead us to Ko-Ka Tsara Bush Camp on Booking.com - a fairly last minute booking. It wasn't the first choice. Or the second. I'll be honest: I was living for a rustic farmhouse - something unique, isolated, beautiful, romantic... Instagram-worthy. But we lucked out and the budget bush camp was available. Located a few kilometres from Beaufort West - the largest town in Great Karro region - the camp was perfectly on our way to Cape Town, cheap and it looked… well you know. Alright. Nestled in the middle of nowhere, it wasn't all so bad. The private bush chalet came with a big private braai and a promise of giraffes, warthogs and impalas on your doorstep. Sold.
Life in the Karoo: Sunrise, Savannah & Silence
Driving next to the border of the Karoo National Park in the late afternoon, we pulled up to the wooden gates to what looked like nowhere. As promised, I guess... Driving into the camp, we uncertainly trundled along at 20kph down a dirt road into the mountains, stopping to watch the giraffes and impalas running around the bush. The silence was deafening... a little unsettling, but exciting. After six years of living in the middle of the city of Amsterdam, the opportunities to hear sweet, sweet nothing were few and far between. Finally, we turned the corner, and there it was. Ko-Ka Tsara Bush Camp: a handful of thatched-roof chalets, a modest reception house, an honesty bar (god, don't you LOVE an honesty bar) and – lo and behold – a pretty decent pool.
Spending a few minutes eyeing the baboons roaming around the place and checking in with the eccentric Afrikaans owner and his very large, very strange talking parrots (seriously.), we pulled alongside our wooden chalet, slid open the doors and fell in love. It was bright, cosy, bush-camp-luxury on the inside, with a shaded seating area, fire pit and a private space for the perfect braai on the outside – my dream, dream, dream accommodation. Honestly, this is all I wanted out of our Karoo desert stay: a cosy place to stay and bask in the glory of the great African wilderness. (I was reading Karen Blixen's Out of Africa at the time. I think these romantic ideas of my Karoo stay were also heavily influenced by Blixen's love letters to Kenya!).
Cracking open an icy cold Savannah Dry within 30 minutes of touch down, bush life was an easy state to sink into. I spent the first evening eating BBQ under the stars, watching the bush animals edge closer as darkness crept in. Watching the brightest moon emerge behind the mountain towering in front of us, we tipsily determined to catch the sunrise and made our way to bed.
Catching the sunrise over the African desert
That contented bliss was nowhere to be seen when our alarms started ringing at 0400. Dragging ourselves out of the comfort of the enormous bed, we tumbled into the car armed with rusks and a quick cup of coffee and drove to the top of the mountain to take in moon-set and sunrise. Haphazardly chugging up the rocky, dusty hillside in the inky black night, honestly? I was scared. With a steep drop to the side of us and the eery sounds of unknown animals around us, I began to wonder if it was all worth it.
After many shrieks and screeching halts, we pulled the backie to a flat spot. The moon was hanging low, just touching the tips of the rocky mountains in the distance. I was taken aback by the space: I could see every inch of the starry sky and every drop of sleepy sunshine edging its way in from the east. This was going to be worth it.
We climbed out of the backie and roamed around, kicking aside the straw-like grass and crumbling rock. Standing at the top, we watched as the sun slowly rose up and chased the darkness away. The sky was everything; the silence was everything, the sweet morning air was everything. This whole delicious moment was e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
Heading back down to the camp for a nap and a day of lounging in the oasis that was the swimming pool, I couldn’t believe the luck of this South African bush camp stopover. The next couple of days were spent in complete desert bliss - if not an icy Savannah-induced stupor. We took ourselves on a self-drive safari and spotted more giraffes, kudu and impala. We took a visit to the dried-up dam. We had a stroll around the underwhelming town of Beaufort West... and let go of life's endless worries, to-do lists, obligations. We took a wild stab in the dark of the Karoo and ended up finding the gem of the desert: the very best of South Africa.