Things To Do Before You Die: Cycle The Karoo

Things To Do Before You Die: Cycle The Karoo

Elizabeth Schaerer of Gaborone, Botswana, was celebrating her 60th birthday with friends when they got the idea to cycle the Karoo.

A semi desert area of extreme heat and cold, the Karoo forms the 400,000-square-kilometer (154,400-square-mile) interior of South Africa.

It’s an area prone to flooding and drought, but has underground water throughout that’s accessible via bore holes, making it an ideal place for sheep farming. It’s also home to vast herds of game, and in the spring, massive swaths of wild flowers.

Namaqualand, Goegap  Photo: Winfried Bruenken/Wikipedia
Namaqualand, Goegap
Photo: Winfried Bruenken/Wikipedia

The Karoo is one of the quietest places on Earth, according to SouthAfrica.net. Dotted with 50 towns, it’s a place of immense spaces, mountain ranges, an ancient inland seabed, “and a sky so big that at night it feels like you can touch the stars.”

Cycling through the Karoo is a new thing for tourists, according to TourismUpdate.

Despite the fact that none of them actually rode bikes, it seemed like a great idea for Schaerer and her friends, and she described their four-day cycling adventure in a guest column in TourismUpdate.

It turned out to be one of the most interesting trips of her life, she said, “full of awesome surprises.”

“Our thoughts of the Karoo were of wide open spaces and flat terrain, perfect for cycling, and it was something new for a group of us who were trying to prove that age doesn’t stand in the way of a challenge.”

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The fact that no one in Schaerer’s group actually did any cycling seemed of little consequence. It was only when the moment arrived to make a commitment to David Southey of Great Karoo Cycling that reality set in: “We had to ride about 200 kilometers (124 miles) over four days,” Schaerer said.

The average age of group members was 57. Only the youngest, age 41, owned a bicycle. The others rented bikes through a rental company in the Karoo.

There are two separate and independent Karoo biomes, or botanical regions, of South Africa that bear the name Karoo: the Succulent Karoo to the west of green line, and the Nama Karoo to the east. Wikipedia
There are two separate and independent Karoo biomes, or botanical regions, of South Africa that bear the name Karoo: the Succulent Karoo to the west of green line, and the Nama Karoo to the east.

Colesberg was the starting point of the trip. The group collected their bikes, then did a walking tour of the old town, working up an appetite that was satisfied by a lavish Karoo-style dinner including delicacies such a sheep’s tails.

On Day 1, cyclists were introduced to the “Tour de Karoo” by way of Heartbreak Hill. It turns out the Karoo is not flat, Schaerer said. But they were rewarded with sweeping landscapes, flawless blue skies and no cell phone signal, “so we could simply enjoy the nothingness.”

They cycled past the occasional homestead with broad stoeps (front porches) and Karoo sheep.

Cycling on Day 1 ended with brunch at Karoo Nights Country Lodge. “One of the things we learned quickly is that the Karoovians aim to fill you up,” Schaerer said. There were snacks along the way, and main meals usually included succulent Karoo lamb, fresh vegetables grown locally, and scrumptious desserts. “And the homemade rusks are irresistible,” Schaerer said. “All eaters are catered for, whether gluten intolerant or Banting.”

Marine, the hostess at Karoo Nights, gave guests a goat’s cheese-making demonstration.

Day 2 saw rocky roads and rutted sections on jeep trails. “These are, however, navigable and it’s no disgrace to walk the extra-steep parts,” Schaerer said. “In any case there are plenty of stops and sustenance plus the reassurance of a backup vehicle.” Bike problems on day 2 were solved with the help of a spare bike on the backup vehicle.

Elizabeth Schaerer cycles The Karoo Photo: TourismUpdate
Elizabeth Schaerer cycles The Karoo
Photo: TourismUpdate

Days 3 and 4 included cycling through Oviston and Gariep game reserves.

“The plains around the Gariep Dam are simply teeming with game,” Schaerer said — “herds of a variety of antelope, wildebeest and zebra, often thundering along at great pace. Move over Serengeti! The spectacle of these species in such numbers and cycling along behind the clouds of dust left by the hammering hooves, made us feel absolutely part of the landscape.”

Bethulie, a town of unassuming houses typical of a Free State dorpie, is where the cyclists spent their third and fourth nights. Some of the houses had been the homes of famous occupants including missionaries, actors, and ghosts. The group was entertained with a piano recital by Benjamin Fourie, an internationally recognized concert pianist.

The ride through the Northeastern Cape and the Free State ended with a celebratory bottle of champagne. “And yes, it’s perfectly possible for a group of multi-generational amateur cyclists to accomplish this feat,” Schaerer said.

The best time to visit the Karoo is in the spring (September to October) when many areas are in flower and in the mild autumn (April to May), according to SouthAfrica.net.