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The Karoo, South Africa

Also known as ‘the Place of Thirst’, the Karoo is an infinitely magical region, covered by enormous sheep and game farms, where vast plains drift away towards distant rocky outcrops and multi-layered mountains that pierce the velvet skies. ‘Karoo’ is a Khoisan word of unknown origin, and is a semi-desert natural area of South Africa made up of two related eco-regions:  the Nama Karoo (which mostly has winter rainfall), and the Succulent Karoo (which mainly has rain in the summer).

The Nama Karoo has three primary sub-regions; the Upper Karoo in the north (which is separated from the Great Karoo in the centre by the Great Escarpment, leaving the Upper Karoo rivers to run northwards into the Orange River), and the Little Karoo in the south. The Succulent Karoo is located in the western portion of the area, located nearby to the Atlantic coast.

In geological terms, the Karoo Supergroup refers to an expansive and geologically recent sequence of sedimentary and igneous rocks, which is flanked to the south by the Cape Supergroup, and to the north by the older Witwatersrand Supergroup. It spreads over more than half of South Africa and reaches in certain areas to 8,000 metres below the land surface, constituting massive amounts of rocks that were formed in a relatively short space of time, geologically speaking.

You could pause almost anywhere in the Karoo and simply listen to the beautiful silence whilst you breathe in the scent of earth and stare into the remarkably clear horizon that seems like a line drawn across the opposite end of the earth. The midnight skies are crystal clear and are speckled with thousands of stars and big, bright planets. Other galaxies can even be seen with the naked eye, providing you with some of the world’s finest star-gazing.

Fossils of some of the earliest kinds of one-celled life have been found in the Karoo, demonstrating that life has existed in this area for over three billion years. The richness of pre-dinosaur fossils in this area is famous the world over. To fully experience the enchantment of this region, you should venture off the main national road, where you will find peculiar little hamlets, sprawling farmsteads and historical towns inhabited by friendly and hospitable folk who are more than happy to share their tales and legends.

The Great Karoo spreads over an area of over 400,000 square kilometres. From a geological point of view it has been an expansive inland basin for almost all of the past 250 million years. At one stage the area was glaciated, the evidence of which can be seen in the widely distributed Dwyka tillite. Later, at numerous times, there were enormous inland deltas, seas, lakes or swamps. Massive deposits of coal formed, which is now one of South Africa’s economy’s main pillars.

Ancient reptiles and amphibians flourished in the dense wetlands, and their remains have brought fame to the Karoo in the palaeontology field. Approximately 180 million years back, volcanic activity took place on a giant scale, which effectively brought an end to the prosperous reptile evolution in the region.

Some of the Karoo’s extinct animals include aquatic and Triassic mammal-like carnivores, Permian predators, Jurassic herbivores and more. The fossils were first discovered by Andrew Geddes Bain, a Scottish man born in 1838, at a road cutting close by to Fort Beaufort. He sent his specimens to the British Museum, where fellow Scotsman Robert Broom recognised the mammal-like characteristics of the Karoo fossils in 1897.

About Bronwyn Paxton

Article by: Bronwyn Paxton
on September 26, 2013
Filed under  Africa Blog • Destinations • South Africa 
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