The Karoo
The Karoo, Eastern Cape, South Africa, 2009-10-14 12:00 by Martin and Laerke
Graaff-Reinet is a lovely town; the 4th oldest in South Africa it has maintained it is old world charm with lots of Cape Dutch architecture, broad boulevards and a relaxed atmosphere. Most houses in the city center are whitewashed, single-story and kept in the old style, often with many flowers in the small front yards. As pretty as the town is, it is the surrounding landscape that will have you love this place. The Karoo is amazingly beautiful here; the arid plains rise up into evenly arid, but stunning mountains, and while not many drops of rain fall here, shrubs, thorny trees and colorful wildflowers abound.
We took a few walks into the Camdeboo National park, which straddles Graaff-Reinet and contains some of the most beautiful scenery at Desolation Valley. Clear blue sky made our walk hot, but the wind was cool. We really soaked up the sun, enjoying the clear weather, as we had missed it a lot. Travelling mostly in Southeast Asia, you quickly get used to sunshine every day.
Heading for the top of a mountain overlooking the Desolation Valley and the nearby Spandauhok Mountain, we got to see some amazing vistas. Graaff-Reinot was like an oasis below, white and glistening, while the orange Karoo spread as far as the eye could see. Close to Graaff-Reinet is a very large dam though, which serves as a water reservoir, but even with that much water close by, the semi desert still prevails there too.

Driving from Graaff-Reinet southwest through the Karoo, we visited some small and cute towns along the way. Especially Matjiesfontein was an interesting stop. A single street along the railway is all you get, but what a different world you enter. The main building, the Lord Milner Hotel was build over a hundred years ago and attracted wealthy people as a health resort in its heyday; Cecil John Rhodes, Winston Churchill and the Sultan of Zanzibar have all been entertained here. The other buildings are just as charming; the old post office is now a charming curio store, and other buildings house small museums or are now adjoining self catering cottages, or staff quarters. To complete the colonial atmosphere is a red London bus fully functioning, which is sometimes used to give a very short, but fun sightseeing tour up and down the street. You can also stop and refuel your car at the old and older fuel pumps outside the old post office.

Be careful when you drive on the looong stretches of Karoo road. They are long, straight and easy to drive fast on, and even though the Karoo seems a harsh place, it is not without wildlife. Several times did we have to break and steer ‘round big or small tortoises crossing the road and game can jump in front of you too.
Just before entering the Winelands, we had a stopover in Montague in the very southwestern part of the Karoo. The town is beautifully nestled at the foot of high mountains, which separate this part of the Karoo from the more fertile valleys to the south. We stayed at a great little backpackers/farm, where Ostriches, Peacocks, Dogs, Cats and an adorable little pony kept us company.

While settling in for the night, we were amazed by a beautiful sight on the clear and starry night sky. A star-like light, trailed by a less shining light, was making its way across the firmament. What made the whole thing incredible were the 5 blurred rings, expanding from the first light like ripples in water and slowly fading as they grew larger; the outer ring must have been 10 times the diameter of a full moon. While looking, the first light flared, producing a new inner ring that also slowly expanded from it. After 5 minutes or so, and a few more ring producing bursts, the lights had crossed the sky, and disappeared over the horizon. We were quite puzzled by its nature, and we have yet to figure out what could have caused such a spectacular sight. Our friendly neighbors on the campsite were very excited the next day, asking us if we had seen “the spaceship” as well. We could confirm that we had indeed seen the same thing on the night sky; a spaceship though, it probably wasn’t :-)
(PS. Later we discovered that our sighting was a rocket dumping fuel into the atmosphere - NASA should make more of these spectacular "fireworks", haha)