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Tankwa Karoo National Park - From Dust to Gold

By Scott Ramsay | Book Accommodation

Tankwa Karoo National Park

Tankwa Karoo National Park

It was that time of day when everything seems right with the world. The sun was falling in the kaleidoscopic western sky, as the stars sparkled softly in anticipation of the night’s imminent arrival. I drove west along a deserted gravel road, a trail of golden dust in my wake. I felt like a space traveller ­ ying through the Milky Way, wild and free. My destination was Varschfontein, an adobe cottage in the far west of the Tankwa Karoo National Park, where I was to spend the night. It’s isolated and remote, an hour’s drive from the nearest inhabitants.

As the sun touched the horizon, a strange silhouette ambled towards me on the road. Like two travellers in space who bump randomly into each other in the vastness of the universe, we both stopped, both surprised, as if marvelling at the coincidence.

Then it struck me. An aardvark! Its pointed ears, long snout, stooping gait and reptilian tail left no doubt. What luck! These secretive creatures – stranger than science fiction – are endangered, and their crepuscular habits makes them difficult – and rewarding – to see. Neither of us moved, watching, waiting.

Then I came to my senses. My camera! Get my camera! I frantically found the long lens, attached it to my camera, opened the door quietly and walked slowly to the aardvark. No more than 20 metres away, the aardvark kept sauntering towards me – its eyesight is poor, so it relies instead on its prodigious sense of smell to find its way. Then, as it picked up my scent in the stillness of the Karoo dusk, it stopped in its tracks, its pig-like snout sniffing the air anxiously. Startled, it ran off the road, scampering away through the veld, its trail of dust illuminated in gold.

Aardvark - Tankwa Karoo National Park

Aardvark - Tankwa Karoo National Park

The Tankwa Karoo, between Ceres and Calvinia in the Northern Cape, is that sort of place: full of surprises. From afar this secluded valley, between the Roggeveld Mountains of the great escarpment and the Cederberg in the west, seems distinctly unspectacular. For most of the year, the incessant heat of the southern sun bakes the ground. The succulent vegetation withers. The antelope search out every inch of shade. Everything seems to gasp for breath, as temperatures soar into the 40s.

For hundreds of years the Tankwa Karoo was used by livestock farmers, who moved nomadically through the area, giving the land a chance to recover from grazing. But when fences were erected and title deeds bought, the land couldn’t cope with the intensity of livestock grazing. The veld col-lapsed and degraded, to the point where conservationists were ready to give up on its potential revival.

At one stage, about 20 years ago, even South African National Parks – its custodian – believed it to be unworthy of conserving. Even fewer had yet researched or understood its diverse ecology. Hope for a revival seemed scant and then-head of the organisation, Dr Robbie Robinson, re-marked: ‘I cannot see that it really meets the criteria I look for in areas deserving national park status.’

But that was then. This is now. For 20 years up to 2005, the park was off-limits to the public. No-one was allowed in. Like a long-suffering patient, the overgrazed veld needed time to slowly nurture itself back to health. Today, the area has surprised conservationists, botanists, tourists, photographers and even farmers. Tankwa Karoo is a sparkling gem in the national parks system and a radiant example of what’s possible to achieve, if the land is given time and space to recover.

Every spring, the dry, dusty land throws the biggest surprise party of all as it explodes into colour as vygies, daisies and bulbs emerge with the onset of soothing winter rains. It’s a sight to rival the famous Namaqualand ­flower displays, and it confirms for park manager Conrad Strauss all the hard work and patience has paid off. ‘This park is totally different from all the others,’ the former farmer’s son commented. ‘People used to believe this area wasn’t worth anything, but they were completely wrong.’

The numbers prove it. Tankwa Karoo National Park conserves a large portion of succulent Karoo vegetation, a hotspot of biodiversity with more than 3 000 plant species, the richest concentration of desert flora in the world. About 70 per cent of the park’s plant species are found nowhere else.

Flowers in the Tankwa

Flowers in the Tankwa

Flowers in the Tankwa

With the recovery of the veld, Conrad and his team have reintroduced a number of animal species. ‘The veld actually needs a bit of trampling and grazing,’ Conrad explained. ‘Otherwise it wouldn’t thrive ... but of course it can’t be overgrazed, so we’re constantly monitoring the carrying capacity of the land.’ There are now 250 gemsbok, 160 red hartebeest, 500 springbok, 35 Cape Mountain zebras and about 20 kudu. ‘Those kudu have come all the way from Beaufort West,’ Conrad told me. ‘Previously, they would have been hunted here, but now they’ve found the sanctuary of the park, they seem to be thriving. They’ve come to stay and it obviously feels like home for them.’

Another surprise is the diversity of environments. For most, the word Karoo denotes an endless ­ at landscape. The Tankwa Karoo is different. In the west, desert-like conditions prevail, receiving only about 30 millimetres of rainfall every year. But as you move east, everything changes.

Soon grasslands appear, covering the so-called Springbok Vlaktes. Out of the ­ flatlands, tall ­ flat-topped koppies stand sentinel. From the top of Elandsberg, you’re rewarded with the best view in the park. Endless panoramic views stretch west to the stark outline of the Cederberg, more than 60 kilometres away. Then further east, the escarpment of the Roggeveld rises into the sky, with its summer rainfall, shaded kloofs and trickling streams that­ flow intermittently.

The Roggeveld Mountains in the east of the Tankwa Karoo

The Roggeveld Mountains in the east of the Tankwa Karoo

The natural splendour and remote location of Tankwa Karoo lends it a sense of wilderness, but another surprise is the accommodation. ‘People think this is a really wild place – which it is – but then they arrive here and they’re surprised at the comfortable, stylish accommodation,’ Conrad told me.

Perhaps the favourite among visitors is the Elandsberg Wilderness Camp, comprising ‑ five chalets looking south-east over a vast plain, framed on the horizon by the Roggeveld Mountains. These self-catering chalets each have a pool, braai area, deck chairs, kitchen, lounge and bedroom with a huge window in front of the double bed and an open shower.

The view from my cottage at Elandsberg

My cottage at Elandsberg

The view from my cottage at Elandsberg

The view from my cottage at Elandsberg

The other accommodation options are old farm houses, carefully restored to former glory: De Zyfer, Paulshoek and Varschfontein, and they’re all located in far-­flung places of the park, ensuring complete privacy and seclusion for visitors.

The park has grown from 27 000 to 146 000 hectares and every piece of land was offered to SanParks by farmers who moved away from the area, realising the futility of intensive livestock grazing. Now the park is the main source of income in the area, and the most sustainable. It seems as if nature has finally had its way in Tankwa Karoo and it’s something that makes it such an attractive destination.

‘People come here for the lonesomeness, that’s why we’re not planning more tourist facilities,’ Conrad explained. ‘We have about 4,600 visitors a year, but that’s enough for this area. If you have any more, the park would lose its sense of space and silence.’

On my last morning, I drove the Leeuberg 4x4 route, on the northern border of the park. It climbs high onto a ridge of hills and the views were unsurprisingly spectacular. I had come to expect spectacular things from Tankwa Karoo. Then I descended the hills on the northern side and came across a small valley, blooming with ­flowers, exceeding even what I had seen elsewhere in the park.

Blooming flowers

Blooming flowers 2

Blooming flowers...

The sun had worked its magic especially on this patch of land and the ­flowers were densely concentrated over several hundred metres. I thought I had seen Tankwa’s magic, but once again, it had surprised me. The land in the Tankwa Karoo has transformed itself – with some care from conservation – from dust to gold. Conrad echoed my sentiments when he told me: ‘We’re in the “forever” business. It takes a long time re-establish natural processes ... but it’s worth it, don’t you think?’