he Little or Klein Karoo, which is a long valley bordered by the Swartberg and the Langeberg Mountains in the Western Cape, forms the southern sibling of the larger Karoo -the Great or Groot Karoo occupies the northern part.
This is the land of succulents - their thick, fleshy diversity unparalleled anywhere else in the world - peppered only by the odd bush and tree that gives theKaroo, at first glance, the appearance of arid, dry and very flat land devoid of living matter and given over to hot days and cold nights. Herds of buffalo, elephant and kudu once dominated these plains only to be hunted or driven out by modern development.
Today the mainly visible animal in the area is the ostrich, farmed for his meat, eggs and feathers, but stay awhile and you’ll hear the rustlings of the bat-eared fox, the meerkat and the common barking gecko.
This bleak landscape is, on second glance, an area of towering cliffs, clear streams and a unique biome dominated by the aloe and dwarf baobab tree with its yellow peeling bark and midsummer red tubular flowers. Majestic mountains lend a blue haze to the distant horizon and spring flowers draw huge numbers of tourists from all over the world for a few weeks every year when sand becomes a tapestry of flowers.
This semi-arid climate with winter rainfall gives rise to various microclimates that allow Karoo winemakers to produce a wide variety of quality wines from vines grown typically along the fertile river banks. Little villages and hamlets make intermittent appearances and towns like Calitzdorp, Ladismith, Van Wyksdorp and Uniondale give the visitor a good idea of a typical SouthAfrican dorp or town.
Just west of Oudtshoorn, were discovered by a young Hottentot looking for missing cattle and extend underground for over two kilometres. Formed as a result of 20 million years of rainwater scouring and dissolving rock and limestone to form halls and passageways, the caves were declared a National Monument in 1938 and include the Wonder Cave that has some superb examples of drip stone formations and a resident bat population.
And last but not least, the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival at Oudtshoorn showcases South African art forms from serious drama to farce and includes music, fine arts, festive food, poetry, theatre for the little people and dancing. Some have described it as a ‘boere bazaar’ (farmers’ market) rather than an arts festival, but one is seriously spoiled for choice here when it comes to catching up on the local art scene.
The Karoo Supergroup was formed in vast inland basin starting 320 million years ago, at a time when the part of Gondwana which would eventually become Africa lay over the South Pole. Icebergs that had calved off the glaciers and ice sheets to the north deposited a 1-km-thick layer of mud containing drop stones of varying origins and sizes into this basin. This became the consisting primarily of the lowermost layer of the Karoo Supergroup.
As Gondwana drifted northwards, the basin turned into an inland sea with extensive swampy deltas along its northern shores. The peat in these swamps eventually turned into large deposits of coal which are mined in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Highveld. This 3-km-thick layer is known as the , which is overlain by the 5.6-km-thick Beaufort Group, laid down on a vast plain with Mississippi-like rivers depositing mud from an immense range of mountains to the south. Ancient reptiles and prospered in the wet forests, and their remains have made the Karoo famous amongst palaeontologists. The first of these Karoo fossils was discovered in 1838 by Scots-born Andrew Geddes Bain at a road cutting near Fort Beaufort. He sent his specimens to the British Museum, where fellow Scotsman Robert Broom recognised the Karoo fossils' mammal-like characteristics in 1897.
After the Beaufort period, Southern Africa (still part of Gondwana) became an arids and desert with only ephemeral rivers and pans. These sands consolidated to form the Stormberg Group, the remnants of which are found only in the immediate vicinity of Lesotho. Several dinosaur nests, containing eggs, some with dinosaur fetal skeletons in them, have been found in these rocks, near what had once been a swampy pan.
Finally, about 180 million years ago, activity took place on a titanic scale, which brought an end to a flourishing reptile evolution. These genera represent some of the extinct, mainly pre-dinosaur, animals of the Karoo.