When we were first charting our course through South Africa, we asked at our hostel in Johannesburg whether the Karoo, an arid area that composes over 40% of South Africa, was worth a visit. The response: “Only if you like a whole lot of nothing.”
Well, apparently, we love nothing, as we bucked the advice, headed into the Karoo, and then stayed longer than we planned. Though on the surface it can easily seem like vast emptiness, it’s actually not at all barren, and the seeming endlessness of it all only makes its beauty more striking. Plains stretch out, flat as can be, until a mountain jumps up from the ground. Purple wildflowers break up a sea of golden grass. The sky is big and brilliant and blue, at least until sunset when it glows every shade of red, silhouetting the mountains and making you wonder if this is what heaven looks like.
If you love a sense of wide open space, it’s a perfect place. Mountain Zebra National Park, though not highly visited and not especially packed with game, is amazing. We didn’t see wildlife as up close and personal as we did in most of the other parks, but instead we saw them framed against magnificent scenery. It wasn’t just about the animals; it was the entire scope of life in the wild in Africa.
And the Valley of Desolation, inside Cambedoo National Park, left us feeling not desolate, but awed. Huge dolomite formations, some one hundred meters high, jut from the ground, while behind them the land stretches seemingly empty until the mountains on the horizon. Both Jeff and I were reminded of Meteora in Greece. To us, there’s something majestic about a place so stark yet so beautiful.
Adding to the wonder of the whole place is the fact that amidst all this natural beauty and so-called “nothingness,” there’s also a really fabulous town, Graaf-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa. It’s quaint, with a slew of Cape Dutch homes that have made the national registry, house museums, a tasty farmer’s co-op store, and a grand church. It’s also exceptionally friendly, as people said hello on the streets and shop owners took the time to ask where we were from and tell us about themselves or about all their favorite places in the U.S. We were so smitten that what was supposed to be a two-hour morning visit turned into a two-night stay.
For us, that’s the beauty of road trips: finding the unexpected and discovering that one person’s nothing might just be someone else’s everything.