The Karoo

by 03/11/2012 11:58:00 0 comments 3641 Views
The Karoo

The Karoo (a Khoisan word of uncertain etymology) is a semi-desert natural region of South Africa. Its inland section, the Nama Karoo, has two main sub-regions - the Great Karoo in the north and the Little Karoo in the south. The western section is the Succulent Karoo, situated in a winter rainfall region near the Atlantic coast.

In geological terms the Karoo Supergroup refers to an extensive and geologically recent (100 to 260 million years old) sequence of sedimentary and igneous rocks, which is flanked to the south by the Cape Supergroup, and to the north by the more ancient Witwatersrand Supergroup. It covers two-thirds of South Africa and extends in places to 8,000 m below the land surface, constituting an immense volume of rocks which was formed, geologically speaking, in a short period of time.

Geological history




The Great Karoo has an area of more than 400,000 square kilometers. From a geological point of view it has been a vast inland basin for most of the past 250 million years. At one stage the area was glaciated and the evidence for this is found in the widely-distributed Dwyka tillite. Later, at various times, there were great inland deltas, seas, lakes or swamps. Enormous deposits of coal formed and these are one of the pillars of the economy of South Africa today. Ancient reptiles and amphibians prospered in the wet forests and their remains have made the Karoo famous amongst palaeontologists. About 180 million years ago, volcanic activity took place on a titanic scale, which brought an end to a flourishing reptile evolution. The following genera represent some of the extinct animals of the Karoo:

Mesosaurus, aquatic Dwyka carnivore

Bradysaurus, Beaufort Group herbivore

Diictodon, Permian mammal-like reptile

Rubidgea, Permian predator

Lystrosaurus, Triassic mammal-like herbivore

Thrinaxodon, Triassic mammal-like carnivore

Euparkeria, early dinosaur

Massospondylus, late Triassic to early Jurassic herbivorous, bipedal dinosaur

Megazostrodon, early mammal

The first Karoo fossils were 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.

Modern history

The first European settlers who landed in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, began to move inland when the arable land around the Cape became scarce. The Europeans that first settled in the Karoo were the trekboers in the mid 1700s. Before that time, large herds of antelope, zebra and other large game roamed the grassy flats of the region. The Khoi and Bushmen, last of the southern African Stone Age peoples, wandered far and wide. The Bantu people to the east of the Karoo did not occupy this arid region due to the lack of summer rainfall preventing the farming of cattle. The two ethnic groups mentioned above differed substantially in their cultures and lifestyles; the Hottentots were described as grazers of sheep and cattle, while the Bushmen were hunter-gatherers. (These were the original names given to these tribes by the Dutch. The terms may not be regarded as politically correct today). With the occupation of the region by European settlers, sheep gradually replaced the game and the cover of grass degenerated, owing to changes in the pattern of grazing and in the climate.

Starting in the middle years of the 19th century, a railway track was extended into the Karoo from Worcester in the south. This was eventually extended into Bechuanaland, South West Africa, Johannesburg, Rhodesia and far beyond. The impact of this railroad on the history of southern Africa is difficult to exaggerate.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, three Republican commando units, reinforced by the rebels from the Cape Colony, conducted widespread operations throughout the Karoo. Countless skirmishes took place in the region, with the Calvinia magisterial district, in particular, contributing a significant number of fighters to the Republican cause. Fought both conventionally and as a guerrilla struggle over the Karoo's vast expanses, it was a bloody war of attrition wherein both sides used newly developed technologies to their advantage. Numerous abandoned blockhouses can still be seen at strategic locations throughout the Great Karoo; a prime example is located next to the Geelbeks River, 12 kilometres outside the town of Laingsburg.

Currently sheep farming is still the economic backbone of the Karoo, with other forms of agriculture established in areas where irrigation is possible. Lately game farms and tourism have also started to make an economic impact.

Little Karoo


As the name implies, the Little Karoo is the smaller (and more southerly) of the two Karoo sub-regions. Locally it is usually called the Klein Karoo, which is Afrikaans for Little Karoo. Geographically it is a fertile valley (bounded on the north by the Swartberg, and on the south by the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains). Although the boundaries of the region are not strictly defined, most people consider the western limit of the Little Karoo to be in the region of Barrydale and the eastern extremity around Uniondale.

The main town of the region is Oudtshoorn. Other towns/settlements in the region include Ladismith, Calitzdorp, De Rust,and well-known mission stations such as Zoar, Amalienstein, Barrydale and Dysselsdorp.

This area was explored by European settlers in the late 17th century, who encountered Khoisan people living in this rather dry area. Modern farming methods have brought productivity and wealth to this district.

Karoo in literature


Poet Thomas Hardy wrote in his poem The Dead Drummer:

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -

Fresh from his Wessex home -

The meaning of the broad Karoo,

The Bush, the dusty loam,

And why uprose to nightly view

Strange stars amid the gloam.



A blockhouse in the eastern Karoo

In Bridge-Guard in the Karroo, Rudyard Kipling evoked the loneliness experienced by blockhouse soldiers at Ketting station on the Dwyka River while guarding the Karoo railway track, a lifeline during the South African War (excerpts):

Sudden the desert changes,

  The raw glare softens and clings,

Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges

  Stand up like the thrones of Kings –


We hear the Hottentot herders

  As the sheep click past to the fold –

And the click of the restless girders

  As the steel contracts in the cold –


And the solemn firmament marches,

  And the hosts of heaven rise

Framed through the iron arches –

  Banded and barred by the ties, ...