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Karoo Dirt

Celebrating the back roads of South Africa’s dry heartland.

Text & Photographs by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

We have become very wary of South African tar roads lately, so whenever we roam through the Karoo in search of a good story to tell, the back roads beckon sweetly. Tar roads. Who needs them? On the smooth South African blacktop highways (the N1, the N2, the N3 or the N4 – take your pick), the trucks, taxis and streams of upmarket, impatient SUVs make driving on them an intermittent nightmare.

Take, for example, the stretch of N1 through the Karoo between Leeu-Gamka and Laingsburg. You’re driving behind three massive trucks (these days, mostly furniture removals relocating Vaalies to the Western Cape), and none of these drivers is respecting the following distance laws. In fact, one of them is desperately trying to pass the others, because he somehow believes he’s in a faster vehicle. He’s not.

But you can’t take a chance to overtake all three, because this part of the N1 comes with tricky blind rises, and very fast northbound cars that suddenly appear from nowhere. So you’re a little thwarted, to say the least. Just slip some James Taylor onto the sound system, sit back and try to enjoy the blasted heath of a landscape around you. Norah Jones is good sound therapy for the N1 as well.

Dodging the Potholes

Then you have the dreaded urban tar roads. We’re a nation of pothole-dodgers, especially in our home town of Cradock in the Eastern Cape Karoo. Here, they will have good cause to arrest you for being drunk behind the wheel if you drive in a straight ‘stripe’, as they say.

And just when you have the pothole locations memorised, down come the summer rains and new cavities open up. We all know why this is happening, so suffice to say we’re not great fans of SA tar.

But the lovely, winding dust roads that criss-cross our region from farm to farm, they make up for all of it. We don’t use a GPS to get around, in fact we sometimes try our very best to get gloriously lost. And then there’s the chance of an encounter with a friendly stockman on a horse, moving sheep down the road. Or a roadside wind pump and concrete dam, perfect for an impromptu picnic. Or a front row view of lesser kestrels hunting bugs from a fence line. Or a little family heading off to town on their donkey cart.

Then there’s the matter of pure headspace. The back-country is a good place to open up and let every thought drift about like a cloud. You can rest your mind in this open space, it is mentally embracing. And even though it has wide-open horizons, there is always the reassuring sight of a flat-topped mountain in sight. A hill to hold on to.

The Karoo murmurs its songs in a vast but quiet voice. Very few people hear them, but once they have, they will always yearn to hear more. Some passers-through are repelled by the dry lands, others are fearful of all the space. Most, however, once they become more familiar with the terrain and its people, fall deeply in love with the isolation and towering silence, where the crunch of a boot on the road can seem embarrassingly loud.

The Sheltering Desert

As we slowly cruise along in our bakkie, we often stop, climb out and simply breathe in the pure, clear air. A long time ago, in another life, we lived and breathed in Johannesburg. So you know.

The vegetation is full of responsive flowers and fruits that hang around patiently for rain, sometimes for up to seven decades. The seeds lie dormant, waiting for a chance to leap into life. This intense vulnerability and iron will to survive is touching, no matter which way you look at it. You see a pattern of co-dependence between species. If one is all right, another is likely to be all right. Even in the middle of a seasonal locust blizzard, while the little buggers are eating much of the farmer’s profits, you know that their droppings and their remains will eventually enrich the soil dramatically.

The poet, adventurer and old-time country magistrate William Scully, one of our frontier heroes, once said:

“Lush greenery and rich valleys may stir the emotions, but the desert arouses the intellect. Great ideas spring from deserts – the wilderness has always been the storehouse of spiritual things.”

He said he gained intellectual power in the dry spaces, and declared that he lost it in the land of corn and wine, which we presume to be the Overberg and the Winelands of the Western Cape.

Dusty Shoelace Road

One of our most beloved dirt roads is the stretch between Williston and Middelpos in the Northern Cape, which lies draped over the flowering hills in springtime like an abandoned shoelace. The rolling veld shines with purple vygies in full, cabaret bloom. Little yellow gazanias and perdeblomme are popping up everywhere, dancing in the sunny breezes.

We stop for photographs, and find beetles with their snouts deep in troughs of daisy pollen. Here’s a field of golden stinkknoppies with an old stone kraal and farmhouse ruin. There are strange dolerite outcrops, their skirts covered in orange Namaqua daisies. Woolly bees buzz possessively over little beds of flowers. Hillsides are smeared purple with doringvygies, as if some passing giant bestowed a great big lipstick kiss on them.

We keep a companionable silence, almost a desert meditation, for hours on end. And then we play Jimi’s All Along the Watchtower at full volume. Just for the joy of being South Africans on a drive-about through the best place in the world.

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa.

For more details, contact Julie at


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