There’s no quick and easy way to do the Karoo properly. You might choose to cruise in and out by private biplane, perhaps, but you’d be missing out on the many slow, contemplative pleasures invariably delivered on the languorous journey by car. The stark beauty and endless open spaces of this vast, exposed part of the land can mesmerise, even astound, as you wend from Little to Great Karoo along roads that seem to stretch on forever, through unspeakably sheer mountain passes and tiny rural towns. It’s a drive inviting multiple stopovers and extended overnight stays, and singling out a few rustic gems and lodges is a gratifying approach to planning a route.
Located just outside the town of Montagu, the gateway to the Little Karoo, is Galenia Estate, a boutique olive farm and nature retreat that provides a restful escape for a weekend or longer. Its position, tucked against the imposing Langeberg Mountains, presents an extraordinarily scenic setting: you’ll pinch yourself while taking in the views from the spa bath on the fynbos-covered slopes. Already operating as a guest lodge before it was taken over by the Bailey family in 2015, the historic property – one of the original old farms in the area – has been given a new lease of life. At the centre of the cluster of whitewashed buildings is the contemporary Cape Dutch ‘langhuis’, which is the hub for checking in, drinks and meals. Country breakfasts and candle-lit dinners are served on the sheltered, glass-enclosed stoep, facing onto the indigenous garden.
The stark beauty and endless open spaces of this vast, exposed part of the land can mesmerise, even astound.
The feeling throughout Galenia is of being in a warm, elegantly decorated home, with its comfortable sofas set beside a fireplace, bookshelf-lined walls, vibrant artworks and family photographs. But there are always plenty of activities to lure you away. After a day of brisk walking or sunbathing poolside, make a point of joining a guided tasting of the farm’s own extra-virgin olive oils. We appreciated all the more their subtle inclusion on the menu, most notably the unusual but delicious olive-oil ice cream.
While the extent of wildlife encounters here is mostly limited to the resident ostriches and a whole lot of other, smaller birds, it’s a different matter entirely on the other side of the Swartberg range, at the Great Karoo’s superb Samara Private Game Reserve, near Graaff-Reinet. In the custodianship of the Tompkins family for the past 20 years, its conservation efforts have been considerable and continue to inspire.
Its position, tucked against the imposing Langeberg Mountains, presents an extraordinarily scenic setting.
Tracking cheetah at the break of dawn is not an activity you might expect to be doing in this arid part of the country. But we discover from our armed ranger, Jan, that the cats roamed freely here more than a century ago, and that Samara has been incredibly successful with its project of reintroducing them since 2004. And here we are, silently creeping through the grass, straining eyes in the hope of catching a sudden flash of spots between rock and tree. It is nothing short of exhilarating when the moment happens, and it becomes a point of much excitable chatter between all those present for the duration of our stay at this enchanting place. You find yourself desperately looking forward to the next game drive, whether early morning with its finale of coffee and rusks, or late afternoon, with sundowner gin and tonics sipped while gazing out over the Camdeboo plains from a precipitous plateau. The game on the 70 000-acre reserve encompasses magnificent buck, zebra and giraffe, not to mention a small group of black rhino. On our last night, while enjoying a surprise dinner set up in a natural boma away from the lodge, we cosy up to the fire while listening to an orchestra of grunts not too far away.
While the call of the wild is strong, so is the urge to relax with a book on the communal verandah or your own private stoep, where there’s often a troop of Vervet monkeys providing diversion. Whether staying in one of the luxurious standalone cottages of the Karoo Lodge, a rustic farmhouse blending classic colonial-style furnishings with antiques, or at The Manor, the chic exclusive-use villa designed by John Jacob Interiors, the experience is equally elevating. Mealtimes are a treat, with the chefs going to extra lengths to take care of your needs when preparing their delectable home-style dishes. This personal approach to service and hospitality is just another reason why you’ll never want to leave.