Thursday, January 7, 2016

Focus on the Karoo National Park – Keith Marallich.

During the final week of 2015, between Christmas and the end of December, I visited two of South Africa’s National Parks that are situated in a fairly arid part of South Africa – the Karoo National Park and the Mountain Zebra National Park. Both these parks can be and are recommended to be utilised on any of our overland tours between Durban/Johannesburg and Cape Town (or Cape Town and Durban/Johannesburg). These suggested itineraries (which can be tailor-made to suit individual requirements), are found at This piece hereunder will focus on the Karoo National Park.

The Great Karoo is a vast and unforgiving landscape of which the Karoo National Park is but a small portion. Being the largest ecosystem in South Africa, the Karoo is home to a fascinating diversity of life, all having adapted to survive in these harsh conditions. The Karoo National Park is dominated by the lofty Nuweveld Mountains and rolling plains, where many species that originally occurred here now once again occupy their former ranges. Many of these species have been relocated to their former ranges - such as brown hyena, lion and Cape mountain zebra. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to see any lion during my visit, but as some compensation, I did awake early one morning to the sound of a far-off roar of a lion!

It was in the 1970s that South African National Parks proposed the establishment of a National Park that would be representative of the Nama Karoo Biome after a campaign launched by the South African Nature Foundation and funded through the commission and sale of special art stamps depicting the flora and fauna of the Great Karoo. As a gesture of support, the Town Council of Beaufort West donated some communal land north-west of the town to the South African National Parks. This area then formed the nucleus of the Karoo National Park, which was proclaimed in 1979. The entrance gate to this park is situated about twelve kilometres from the town of Beaufort West, just off the N1 road between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The park now has a road network of about 130 kilometres with about 200 bird species, 18 snake species and 58 mammal species, among them eland, springbok, red hartebeest, aardwolf, bat-eared fox, caracal etc. – all species adapted to a dry climate – and the Karoo is dry, very dry! The annual rainfall totals about 260 mm, with the plains being hot in summer, and the mountain areas relatively cool throughout the year. During mid-winter snow occurs regularly on the peaks of the Nuweveld Mountains, but during our visit there was no rain and no snow and it was hot – very hot.

The very comfortable (and may I add, very scenic camp) has a fully licensed a la carte restaurant which is open for breakfast from 07:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. (and breakfast is included with all reservations) and dinner from 18:00 p.m. to 21:00 p.m. – lunch is not offered – as well as a well-stocked shop where curios and basic commodities may be purchased between the hours of 07:30 a.m. and 20:00 p.m. On one of our evenings we had a build-up of clouds over the mountains and I took some photos from the veranda of my comfortable bungalow in the camp of this setting – unfortunately the camera does not do this justice, but these photos below will hopefully give some idea of the scenery:

The view from my veranda as the sun sets to my left

As the sun set lower, so the tops of the hills were bathed in soft, golden light

Then with a rainbow set against the dark skies

The sun reflecting off the clouds just a few minutes before it disappeared for the night

What I particularly liked about the camp was the Fossil Trail (which is situated within the camp perimeter). This 400m long trail depicts the geology and palaeontology of the Great Karoo and has genuine fossils and petrified wood on display on this paved trail which is accessible to wheelchair-users. This impressive collection of bones, skulls and remains of extinct Karoo wildlife is from some 255 million years ago, during the Permian Period. The Great Karoo is an area of unrivalled importance for understanding the evolution of the oldest known complex ecosystems on land. The park forms part of one of the Karoo’s classic study and collecting areas for the wealth of ancient petrified fossils of the long-gone Karoo animals. In the Karoo National Park there is a clearly visible link between the geological horizons of the plains of Beaufort West, progressing through time, layer by layer, to those at the top of the Nuweveld escarpment.

There is also a bird hide within the camp perimeter (where I photographed some birds and antelope.) Some of these photos are below:

Greater-striped Swallow, perched on the window-sill of the hide, just a few feet from me

and it's mate in a different pose

Some Red Hartebeest heading down to the water - a scarce commodity here

A burst of speed as they get closer to the  water

One morning I decided to take on the Klipspringer Pass – and what a spectacle. This is a very, very scenic paved pass inside the park, beautifully constructed and a joy to drive. Oh, yes, I did see two klipspringer up on some large boulders on this pass, but sadly, they were too far out of range of my camera.  Again, my camera could not do justice to this scene but hereunder are two photos of the pass and one of a gemsbok (Oryx) that we had seen on this particular drive:
One of the hair-pin bends on the Klipspringer Pass

A small cross-section of the Klipspringer Pass

An Oryx (gemsbok) hidden among some scarce foliage

Out on the open plains wildlife was quite scarce – this didn’t bother me as I did not expect an abundance of wildlife. It is a fact of nature that dry, semi-desert areas just do not have the carrying capacity of wildlife such as reserves that are situated within higher rainfall areas. I doubt that I would recommend this game reserve to first-time international visitors who would possibly only visit one game reserve, as a “must-see”. Had they been visiting other reserves in the country that have higher wildlife densities (such as Kruger Park Addo, the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi and the many private reserves) then yes, it is certainly well worth the visit. We did see many ostriches, but sadly had no sightings of the sought after species, lion, caracal, bat-eared foxes among others. There are also Burchells (plains) zebra in this reserve, but we did not see any of these either, but were fortunate to have some good sightings of mountain zebra.

A cross-section of some of these animals and birds that were seen are below:

Ostrich - female

Ostrich portrait

Ostrich family - the male on the left with some chicks and then the female on the right

Female Ant-eating Chat - they lack the white shoulder patches of the male (and are lighter in colour than the males).

A group of inquisitive Mountain Zebra with a great back-drop

Red Hartebeest at full tilt
Mountain Zebra portrait

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