When one thinks about SANParks, the Kruger National Park often jumps to mind as the flagship park. While the Kruger National Park has a reputation for having great game viewing and being an excellent holiday getaway for families, South Africa is home to a further 17 national parks. Families have a wide variety of destinations to choose from. For those families looking for an experience in the bush, and closer to home for those of us in the Cape, look no further than the breathtaking Karoo National Park.
This national park is known for its heritage, beauty and tranquillity. In the April holidays last year, my family and I went for a three-night stay in the park which is situated five hours away from Cape Town. Three nights was just enough time to enjoy all that the park has to offer while allowing us to feel that the five-hour trip was worth it.
But, before we could kick back and relax, we had to get there. The past few times we have gone to the park we’ve stopped for breakfast at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein. The stop helps to break up the drive into short, two-and-a-half-hour chunks, that even the most “travel-weary” family should be able to manage. Matjiesfontein itself is a small town lost in time with friendly people and an extremely relaxing atmosphere.
You enter the park by means of a main gate off of the N1. You then travel a short 12km before getting to the rest camp. Upon arrival, we were immediately struck by the beauty of the surrounding mountains. You have to pinch yourself and remember that you are really close to the town of Beaufort West because you feel as if you are cut off from the outside world.
There are several different types of accommodation in the Karoo National Park. We stayed in the chalets, which have breakfast in the S&P Restaurant, near reception, included in the rate. The restaurant is definitely a big selling point for families, who will have hungry teens to feed. I can personally vouch for “The Karoo Jacks” which will fill up even the most ravenous teenager.
The view from the private chalets is unbelievable, with a view out over the Karoo vista with the mountains acting as one of the most majestic backdrops that I have ever encountered.
An integrated undercover braai area meant that our evenings were really enjoyable and were enhanced by the insane beauty of the sky at night. Before we went on our trip to the Karoo, I downloaded the free version of a star-gazing app to my Android smartphone called SkyView. It allows you to point your phone at any star in the night sky and, using your phone’s camera and gyroscopes, it can create an augmented reality view of the sky. If you point your phone at a celestial body, it will tell you what type of celestial feature the object is, the name of the object and loads of interesting information. You can also view the trajectories of certain objects like comets. I was able to find out and see where the international space station, Hubble telescope, sun or any of the planets in our solar system were at any time. If you are planning a trip to the Karoo, or any other place with little or no light pollution, then this is a great app for you.
You can also camp at the park (breakfast excluded). The campsites are beautiful and very cleverly positioned. They are set below the chalets under a slight incline which makes the entire site virtually invisible to those staying in chalets. Likewise, if you are staying in the campsite you can’t see the chalets. This adds to the effect of being immersed in the bush and you don’t realise how many people there are around you. The camping option does give a wonderful, more raw experience, and is great if you plan on staying a bit longer in the park, as it can help keep costs down.
Lastly, for the adventurous, there are two unfenced cottages set in separate, remote parts of the park — Afsaal Cottage and Embezweni Cottage. You need to have a 4×4 vehicle to access them, but they do provide an excellent, alternate experience. Embezweni Cottage overlooks a waterhole, giving you the possibility of seeing game right from the comfort of your cottage. If you are adventurous and looking for an unfenced experience you should definitely check them out.
Before we came to the park, I wasn’t sure about what I would be able to do in what I thought was an endless world of shrubs. So, a few days before our trip I checked the SANParks website. My word, I couldn’t believe the number of activities available. This was my second trip to the park in three years and I couldn’t even remember half of the possible activities from our last visit. I made up my mind to try it all. Our time spent in the park was filled with non-stop activity, starting with the newly opened Sylvester Track for mountain, hiking and running.
I took a ride down the track; it starts off near the far gate of the camp (that leads to Klipspringer Pass) and winds up a hill. The initial climb is quite tough, but once you are at the top, the journey is epic and you can enjoy 1.7km of beautiful scenery and views. The track is not that difficult (I am by no means a serious mountain biker) and although I did find myself getting off my bike every now and then to traverse a particularly difficult part, I really enjoyed it.
I can see the hardcore mountain biker really enjoying the terrain, although the track is still fine for the mediocre rider to take in the incredible setting. There were times along the track when I felt like it was just me, the shrubs and the mountains. The track does bring you quite close to the electric fence of the rest camp, although the part nearest to you is covered in rubber. That still didn’t stop my heart rate from accelerating madly, every time I came close to the fence. The track was also a great way for me to start one of my days with an early morning run. It really felt as if I was running alone through the bush — an almost inexplicably awesome experience.
Talking about the electric fence, I really like the fence of the Karoo National Park as it blends in well, and is hard to see most of the time, so it doesn’t detract from the exquisite natural surroundings. The clever slanted design adds to the feeling of being immersed in nature.
The Sylvester Track also runs past and cuts through, the Bossie Trail, a hiking trail that can be done inside the camp through a spectacular setting. The number of small tracks through the camp really surprised me. I am a passionate runner, and really enjoyed all the different routes that could be taken. For the younger kids, there are loads of flat paths and roads that they can cycle along while trying to spot many of the large tortoise inhabitants of the camp.
At the end of the Sylvester Track, you come out into a small parking area, next to the entrance to the camp’s bird hide. The hide is a great place for the birders in the family to spend their time. In our case, my dad and I. He is practically a walking, talking, Robert’s Bird Guide. The hide used to be inside the rest camp itself, but now sits slightly outside and overlooks a small wetland, where most twitchers will easily be able to spend a couple of hours. Don’t worry, the route to the hide is fenced off from any nosy antelope or cats. Birds we ticked off included the Lesser Swamp Warbler, Moorhen and a resident community of Southern Masked Weavers.
At the end of a busy day out in the bush, we were able to cool off in the rest camp’s pool. It is set high up on the far end of the campsite and is a great place for kids to have some fun in the afternoon and for parents to wind down.
I really couldn’t get over how much the park had to offer. For the studious or simply curious, there is a Fossil Trail in the camp which showcases real fossils from the surrounding area and offers interesting information on the formation and history of the topography of the Karoo dating back millions of years. It also leads off to an old hyena trap that, like those that were used by the early Karoo farmers to protect their livestock. The traps contributed to hyena becoming extinct in the Karoo, until their reintroduction in recent times.
From what we’d heard, there was a relatively vibrant community of game at the park, and this rang true throughout our trip. While you shouldn’t come to the park to see lion, there are a good number of them around. Several of them have had tracking chips attached and each morning the rangers put their last known locations up, on the various sightings’ boards. The game that makes the park really interesting are the smaller animals, like klipspringer and steenbok (both rather rare and unique antelope). We were extremely lucky with our viewing, in that we saw something noteworthy and interesting every day.
The highlight of our trip was probably during our first day in the park. We entered the park at around lunchtime, unpacked and settled in to our cottage and then went out for a late afternoon game drive. We looked out excitedly for antelope and spotted Cape Mountain Zebra, kudu and gemsbok. As the sun began to set and it approached gate closing time, we rounded a bend into a relatively open plain and noticed a single car stopped up ahead on the road. Suddenly, we all seemed to see the two, big, moving rocks at the same time. There were excited hisses of “rhino” and pandemonium ensued.
We couldn’t believe it, we had spotted two black rhino on the first day of our trip. It was the first time I had ever seen black rhino, and I really enjoyed the sighting. There are considerably less black rhino left in the wild than their “white” counterparts (so called for their “wide” mouths) which are almost common in southern parts of the Kruger, so this was an unforgettable opportunity. Being so close to the majestic beasts and being able to see them in their natural habitat, really made me think about the desperate situation the rhino is in. Another notable sighting on our trip was klipspringer. Klipspringer are small, extremely agile antelope that live in rocky, mountainous areas like the Karoo. They pair off for life and are quite skittish. Due to this, it is common for one klipspringer to keep a lookout while the other eats. They are extremely agile and can race up the side of a seemingly flat mountain face in seconds. We came across a pair of klipspringer on the side of the road of the aptly named Klipspringer Pass. Quite contrary to its description, the klipspringer we came across stood still for a long time and we were able to watch them for ages.
Coupled to the great variety of game viewing are the notable passes and 4×4 trails that one can embark on in the park. There are multiple lookout points that give a fantastic view of the entire park and are perfect opportunities for family selfies! There are also two picnic sites in the park. The first is Doornhoek, which is set in the brush along Klipspringer Pass and the second is the larger Bulkraal along Lammertjies Leegte, which includes a swimming pool, a conference venue and more individual picnic spots than Doornhoek. Both picnic sites allow you to be totally immersed by the surrounding bush, while remaining safe, since they are fenced.
Guided walks and drives can also be organised at reception. They do come at an extra cost but feeling adventurous, my dad and I embarked on an early morning walk. Even though it was still the warm season, the morning was extremely cold, so we layered up! The walk took us out of the camp on a 3,5km route that saw us hike to the top of the hill with an armed guide. The guide was passionate about nature and enjoyed describing the history of the park to us. He was also extremely knowledgeable about all the different fauna and flora. The highlight of the walk was definitely straight out of one of Attenborough’s films. We saw (and quite clearly heard) a stampede of gemsbok running down one of the neighbouring mountain slopes while we rested on the top of a hill. It was really incredible how agile and speedy those gemsboks were.
I think that the Karoo National Park is an awesome place for families to have an adventure. The birds, fauna and flora make for an epic experience that is intensified by all the different activities that one can embark on, in a truly breathtaking and beautiful setting.
The Karoo National Park is the ultimate weekend getaway for families needing a break with stunning views and breathtaking serenity. You’ll forget just how close you are to civilisation.
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