Animals of the Karoo
The Karoo National Park on the outskirts of Beaufort West is home to many Karoo creatures. Two of South Africa’s most highly endangered species, the riverine rabbit (left) and the black rhinoceros, have been successfully resettled here and the quagga, which became extinct on August 12, 1883, when the last mare of the species died in Amsterdam Zoo, is again roaming free in the park. It was recreated from portions of its genetic code present in tissue samples taken from a mounted museum exhibit. Drawing from The Riverine Rabbit brochure, Cape Nature Conservation.
The park is also home to a wide variety of indigenous buck, mountain zebra, wild ostrich and five tortoise species, the most in any conservation area in the world.
Because of the sparse vegetation game viewing in the park is wonderful. Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest, Eland, the two zebra species, kudu and springbok are all regularly seen on the13km “Lammertjiesleegte” Route on the plains. Klipspringer are regularly seen on the "Klipspringer" pass. Other species are less obvious due to smaller size, nocturnal habits or restriction to the wilderness areas of the park.
CHECKLIST OF THE MAMMALS IN THE KAROO NATIONAL PARK
You are bound to see springbok in the park - but not on the scale reported during the 19th century when milllions of buck crossed the plains. Sir John Fraser, whose father was the Dutch Reformed Church minister at Beaufort West in 1849, left a memorable impression of the springbok invasion of the village in that year. A smous drove into the village one day looking bewildered, and told the people that countless buck were on the way, leaving the veld bare. This report was not taken seriously. Soon afterwards the people of Beaufort West were awoken one morning by the trampling of all kinds of game. Springbok filled the streets and gardens, and they were accompanied by wildebeest, blesbok, quagga and eland. For three full days the trekbokke passed the village, and they left the veld looking as though it had been consumed by fire. (For a vivid report of a springbok migration click here)
Birds of the Karoo
The most spectacular raptor of the Karoo National Park is the Black Eagle Aquila Verrauxii, the Monarch of these Mountains (right). At least twenty pairs nest in the park. Haunting cries fill the air as these magnificent creatures hunt.
A list of over 200 species have been recorded in the area. Watch out for:
For more birding information go to the Cape Birding Route website.
realise that a dramatic duel takes place on the plains of the Great Karoo each
day. Combatants are the magnificent black eagle and the elephant’s tiny
cousin, the prolific dassie or rock hyrax.
The dassie represents a delicacy on the eagle’s menu.
But to sink his claws into his preferred diet, the eagle has to dive from
150m in the sky to ground level in three seconds. This means the bird reaches a
speed of 180kph.
The dassie, has, however, figured this out, so he limits his feeding to a
maximum range of 12m from his shelter.
When the sentry
who can look directly into the sun through a small light shield on the
retina of the eye, sounds the warning, the dassie streaks bask to safety in 2,7
seconds at a speed of 16 kph.
Pretty neat - only 0,3 seconds between eating and being eaten.
top of page drawing from the Swartberg Nature Reserve brochure, Cape Nature Conservation
Discover the Flora of the Great Karoo
The Great Karoo, one of the world’s most unique arid zones, has the richest desert flora in the world. This ancient, fossil-rich land, called the Great Thirstland by its earliest inhabitants, has the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth. Over 9 000 species of plants are found in the Great Karoo. This is three times more than exist in the whole of the British Isles. The Beaufort West district alone has more species than the whole of Great Britain. In the Succulent Karoo (to the west), where rain falls only in the cool winter months, there are over 5 000 plant species in 51 000 square kilometres. Oddly enough most Karoo succulents are intolerant of sun and frost.
The Tierberg, photo by Albert Jansen, Prince Albert
The semi-desert Karoo region makes up about 35 per cent of the land surface of South Africa. Within the area are Tanqua, Nama, Succulent and Great Karoos, the Klein Karoo, the Great Escarpment, Namaqualand, Bushmanland and parts of the Free State and Eastern Cape.
Generally the Karoo is an exposed, windy region, hot in summer and cold in winter. Annual rainfall varies greatly from year to year. In the north-western Succulent Karoo total annual rainfall is less than 100 mm, while the figure rises to 400 mm in the eastern Karoo. Droughts are the rule, good seasons the exception.
Temperatures range from minus 5oC in winter to 43oC in summer. Snow is often recorded, particularly in mountains in winter and in summer the normally dry rivers can become rapidly raging torrents for very short periods. Plants throughout the region have adapted themselves to these vastly changing conditions.
The flora of the Karoo today is very different from that seen by the first ‘trekboere’ and White settlers who moved into the hinterland. In those early days there were no fences nor windmills. The only stock, relatively few in number, belonged to Khoisan tribesmen and moved with them from waterhole to waterhole.
The Karoo, because of its aridity and low shrubby vegetation never supported the diverse array of herbivores found in the African savannas. Plant-eating animals of the Karoo were highly mobile and the earliest explorers reported millions of buck and larger game species roaming the plains, finding plenty of grazing. There were even hippos in some rivers, according to early reports and these animals alone need a daily feed intake of hundreds of kilograms. Yet, there was no over-grazing. The great game herds were diminished by hunting and their movements curtailed by fencing.
The natural migratory system of the huge herds and tribesmen allowed the veld long rest and recovery periods. Old records indicate there was much more grass on the plains of the Karoo when the earliest farmers arrived. Today, this is considerably less and the carrying capacity of the veld can vary from 2,5 to 10 hectares for a single sheep.
In days of yore the early settlers had no nearby doctor to turn to when they
became ill. They turned to natural healing remedies of plants readily found
within their surroundings. Sadly, much of this knowledge has been lost over the
years mainly because people did not record these remedies. They were simply
passed on by word of mouth and overtaken once chemists and medical men reached
the region. A former Gamkaskloofer, Hendrik Mostert and Dr Jan van Elfen of
Prince Albert have recently published a book about the herbal remedies used by
the people of Gamkaskloof: Blits en ander Helse Rate van Hennie Hoed and
the English translation can be bought from the Fransie Pienaar Museum,
Prince Albert, Tel: 023 5411 172.
Flowering time for most Karoo plants is coupled to rainfall. It is thus almost impossible to give an exact flowering times for most species. The Karoo can flower with sudden briefness, but generally flowers can be seen in conservation areas, such as the Karoo National Park, outside Beaufort West, Anysberg Nature Reserve, near Laingsburg and along the road verges in the spring, early summer and some times even in autumn if sufficient rain has fallen.
Some plants break the rules. The wild pomegranate (wildegranaat) Rhigozum obvobatum, (right) for instance sometimes does not flower even when sufficient rains have fallen but, at other times, turns the veld into a blanket of brilliant yellow.
The veld of the Karoo can be broadly divided into four vegetation types: dwarf scrub veld, grass veld, tree and shrub veld and ephemeral veld. Examples of most of these can be seen within the Karoo National Park where there are three distinct levels, each with its own ecology. These are the Upper Plateau (1 750m above sea level), the Middle Plateau (1 300 above sea level) and the Plains (about 840m above sea level). The highest altitude in this park is 1912m (6 263ft above sea level. Grass grows on the upper plateau, which because of its harsh climate is normally treeless, except for the indigenous Karoo acacia (the soetdoring, sweet thorn tree).
The most diverse group of plants in the Karoo is the Mesembryanthema. This comprising 2 000 species of fleshy-leaved, yellow and magenta flowered succulents, commonly called "vygies" (bijlia cana left). This group also includes the minute, Lithops, which is difficult to see as it is normally half buried in the arid soil. The succulents also include the Aloes, Crassulas, Euphorbias, Haworthias, Hoodias, Othonnas and Sencios. Stapeliads can frequently be seen by those prepared to take the time to walk in the veld and peer under bushes. Strangely, many Karoo succulents are intolerant of sun and frost, so live their whole live in the shade of the larger, mostly spiney shrubs.
Yellow and white would seem to be the most prominent colours of spring in the Karoo. But the tapestry of the veld is coloured by the beautiful red flowers of the kankerbos Sutherlandia fructescens, the pink bells of the klokkiesbos, Hermannia grandiflora, the brilliant red to orange hues of aloes. The gazanias which make such a garden of the road verges range from white, through all the yellows to rich oranges and gold, while the common vygies add a range of mauve pink and white. The cotton-wooly white of kapokbos Eriocephalus ericoides, soften the picture while the poisonous bloutulp (blue tulip) Moraea polystachya and Felecia moricata add delightful shades of blue.
Those who would like to discover more about the Karoo flora will enjoy visiting one of the many guest farms in the central area, the Karoo National Park, the Swartberg Nature Reserve and Anysberg , where in addition to Karoo flora, mountain fynbos can be seen. Photo's: Reinwald Dedekind, Prince Albert
Many farms and the more centrally situated Karoo National Park, have "bossie trails" where visitors can learn more of the ecology. Common names such as beestong. bekvol, bobbejaankos, boesmangif, dikvoet, hotnotsverfbos, ounooibos and volstruistoon, which greatly amuse the tourists are given at most locations with English and Afrikaans as well as botanical names.
: Professor Sue Milton (Stellenbosch University), David Shearing (Karoo - S A
wild flower guide), Kevin Koen (Socio-Ecology Department, National Parks Board
and Sidney Witbooi, Karoo National Park.
Nature Reserves in the Central Karoo
Swartberg Nature Reserve - incorporates Meiringspoort, the Swartberg Pass and Gamkaskloof
The Cape Sugarbird (right) can always be seen at the turn-off to Gamkaskloof on the plateau in the Swartberg Pass.
Drawing from the Swartberg Nature Reserve brochure, Cape Nature Conservation
A Springbok migration in the 19th century - a tale from Lawrence Green's 'Karoo'
Those vast springbok migrations which devastated the Karoo districts of South
Africa almost up to the end of last century must have formed the most dramatic
scenes in the whole world of mammals.
One cannot see everything, but I am sorry these cavalcades of fur and flesh
occurred before my time. There was a trekboer once, a natural artist as a
storyteller, whose tale gave me the human side of it; one of those tales which
carried the ring of personal experience in every vivid detail.
This man had left the Transvaal with his family in the eighteen-seventies as
a boy of ten. They were members of the first "Thirstland trek," a
group of people impelled by real or imaginary grievances and certainly by a
restless spirit, to seek a new country. Some reached Angola, but this family of
Van der Merwes broke away from the ill-fated wagons and headed south. They spent
their lives trekking with their sheep and cattle in search of grass. When the
old people died, the son Gert went on living the only life he knew, sometimes in
Bechuanaland, in the Kalahari and often in the North West Cape. By the time he
was twenty-one he had a wife and three children, two coloured shepherds and a
Bushman touleier to lead the oxen and find the way from one water-hole or vlei
to the next.
One morning Gert van der Merwe's wagon was plodding along the dry, hard bed
of the Molopo river where it forms the southern border of the Bechuanaland
Protectorate. Gert noticed that the Bushman seemed worried about something. In
the middle of the morning the Bushman left his oxen suddenly and ran off into
the bush on the high northern bank of the river. At noon Gert stopped for the
usual outspan and meal. His wife had just settled down to the cooking when the
Bushman raced into camp and urged the party to inspan and 'follow him
immediately. "The trekbokke are coming," the Bushman declared.
"It will be death to stay in the river-bed."
Gert packed up, wondering whether the alarm was justified, but remembering
that he had his family with him. The Bushman led the wagon out of the riverbed,
up the north bank to a hill. Van der Merwe drove the wagon up the hill as far as
the oxen would pull it. Then they went to the summit of the hill and the Bushman
At first Gert could see nothing unusual, but later he observed a faint cloud
of dust along the horizon. It was miles away and did not suggest any great
danger to him. However, the Bushman persuaded him to cut and pile thorn bushes
as a barrier round the wagon and cattle. The Bushman explained that if the
running springbok came over the hill instead of round it they would trample
every living thing in their path to death. However, he hoped the thorn bush and
the wagon would make them swerve.
After protecting his wagon and stock, Gert climbed the hill again. By now the
dust was only a few miles away, rising higher. the air and spread over a wide
front. Gert's hill appeared to be in the centre of the oncoming game. Now, for
the first time, he felt a little nervous, for he realized that anything could
happen if such a stampede passed through the camp. So he ordered his wife and
children into the wagon and made the dogs fast under the wagon tent. With the
aid of the two coloured men and the Bushman he gathered heaps of dry wood and
placed them in front of the wagon. By throwing green stuff on top of each pile
he hoped to send up enough smoke to startle the buck and cause them to swing
Gert waited on the hill summit. The buck were still hidden in their dust
screen, but hares and jackals and other small animals were racing past the hill
and taking no notice of the human beings. Snakes were out in the open, too,
moving fast and seeking cover under the rocks on the hill. Gert and his men
threw stones at the snakes that came too close, but the snakes seemed to be
dominated by a greater fear. Meerkat families and field mice also appeared in
At last came a faint drumming. No doubt the Bushman had sensed this drumming
hours before, with his ear to the ground. Only now could Gert hear it. The cloud
of dust was dense and enormous, and the front rank of the springbok, running
faster than galloping horses, could be seen. They were in such numbers that Gert
found the sight frightening. He could see a front line of buck at least three
miles long, but he could not estimate the depth. Ahead of the main body were
swift voorlopers, moving along a though they were leading the army.
When the buck came within a mile of the hill the Bushman ran to the wagon and
climbed in despite the growling of the dogs. He was taking no chances. Gert and
the coloured men then moved back, pausing only to light the fires. They remained
with the cattle, which had sensed the danger and were milling round and lowing
nervously. Gert's wife wanted him inside the wagon; but he was gripped by the
vast spectacle and climbed on to the hood for a better view.
The first solid groups of buck swept past on both sides of the hill. After
that the streams of springbok were continuous, making for the river and the open
country beyond. Then the pressure increased. the buck became more crowded. No
longer was it possible for them to swerve aside when they reached the fires and
the wagon. Gert said he could have flicked the horde with his whip from where he
sat on the wagon tent. Some crashed into the wagon and were jammed in the
wheels, injured and trampled upon. The wagon became the centre of a mass of dead
and dying buck. and Gert saw more biltong than he could have secured in a year's
expensive shooting. But the thorn barrier had broken, and the buck were among
the cattle. Before long the terrified, bellowing cattle stampeded and vanished
into the dust in the direction of the river. Gert had to let them go. There was
only death for anyone who ventured after them, among the horns and hooves of the
At the height of the rush, said Gert, the noise was overwhelming. Countless
hooves powdered the surface to fine dust, and everyone found it hard to breathe.
Gert's wife, who had been watching the rush with frightened interest, had to
draw the blankets over herself and the children. The dust had almost smothered
them. Everything in the wagon was an inch deep in pale yellow dust, and the
coloured men had also turned yellow.
Within an hour the main body of springbok had passed, but that was not the
end of the spectacle. Until long after sunset, hundreds upon hundreds of
stragglers followed the great herd. Some were exhausted, some crippled, some
bleeding. Gert wondered what had happened to the hares and jackals, and the
snakes which had not taken cover in time. Next day he found the answer.
All night lone buck passed the wagon. The air cleared, but dust rose again
when there was any movement in the camp. At daybreak Gert climbed the hill to
see whether he could find his cattle. He had food, and there was a water hole
not far away in the dry riverbed; but without the oxen he was stranded.
The morning air was so clear, the day so bright, that Gert felt for a moment
as though the events of the previous day had a nightmare quality. Then he saw
that the landscape, which had been covered with trees of fair sizes, green with
food for his cattle, were gaunt stumps and bare branches. The buck had brushed
off all herbage in their passing, and splintered the young trees so that they
would never grow again.
Far in the distance Gert thought he could see a few of his oxen. After
breakfast he set off with his men to recover them. Every donga leading into the
river, every little gully was filled with buck. It seemed that the first buck
had paused on the brink, considering the prospects of leaping across. Before
they could decide, the ruthless mass was upon them. Buck after buck was pushed
into the donga, until the hollow was filled and the irresistible horde went on
over the bodies.
Other sights reminded Gert of the fate he and his family had escaped by
accepting the Bushman's warning. Small animals were lying dead everywhere -
tortoises crushed almost to pulp, fragments of fur that had been hares. A tree,
pointing in the direction of the advancing buck, had become a deadly spike on
which two springbok were impaled.
For a fortnight Gert camped on that hill beside the Molopo, searching for his
cattle. He found half of them. The fate of the others remained a mystery. They
might have been borne along by the impetus of the stampede until they fell and
were trampled to death; or they might have escaped from the living trap far away
from the wagon. Gert inspanned the survivors thankfully and the wagon rolled on,
away from the scene of destruction. When he told the tale, it was clear that he
regarded it as the most memorable episode in a life which he regarded as the
finest on earth. "Ons lewe lekker. Dit is vir ons heeltemal goed
genoeg," declared Gert at the end of his story. "We live well. It is
absolutely good enough for us."