The Splendour of the Arid and yet Succulent Karoo

What is the Karoo?


It’s a vast, semi-arid region in South Africa’s Western Cape Province made up of vast landscapes, ancient rock formations, mountainous ranges, stretches of desert-like scrub, unique animals and 6 300 plant species of which almost half occur nowhere else in the world.


Its name Karoo is taken from a KhoiKhoi sound, close to ‘garo’, meaning "desert". The KhoiKhoi were the first herders, who arrived in South Africa over 2 000 years ago.


Modern references to the Karoo include the Klein (Little) Karoo, its southern most section offering a Mediterranean climate and abundant fynbos. The Groot (Great) Karoo lies to the north and east, while the Nama Karoo sees extreme temperatures of the Namib Desert. The Succulent Karoo stretches from Namibia down the west coast of South Africa, including desert, Namaqualand and the Richtersveld famous for its displays of flowers in September each year. Unfortunately, the Succulent Karoo has now reached biodiversity hot spot status meaning it is under threat.


Existing on a knifes-edge of a finely balanced eco system according to Conservation International, this arid paradise is threatened by mining, overgrazing and the illegal collection and trade of its succulent plants and animals, leaving less than 30% of the hotspot pristine.


Small Steps in Preservation


In Prince Albert, the prettiest town of the Great Karoo, small acts make a great difference and visitors to De Bergkant Lodge nestled at the foot of the famous Swartberg Pass will have the opportunity to see the efforts of local conservationists at Renu-Karoo.


Sue Milton-Dean is the visionary behind Renu-Karoo which aims to contribute to the conservation of habitat, fauna and flora on Prince Albert’s adjoining Wolwekraal Nature Reserve. They do this through raising local and public awareness for conservation and environmental issues, provide training and encourage research on ecological restoration and Karoo biodiversity.


As a plant ecologist with 40 years of experience, Sue Milton-Dean has been involved in resource assessment in the arid zone (arid savanna, Karoo) since 1987 and specialises in Karoo vegetation restoration through Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration cc.


They also produce and market indigenous Karoo seeds and plants for veld restoration degraded through alien vegetation, effluent from the village, littering and domestic animals eating wildlife.


Visitors to De Bergkant Lodge are always encouraged to just enjoy the spectacular scenery near the southern Karoo desert village of Prince Albert, but to also visit Renu Karoo and learn about the geology, botany, natural and cultural history of the area on a two hour guided nature walk hosted by these passionate conservations.


Also involved in the Prince Albert Garden Club, Sue offers visitors and gardeners alike expert advice on how to establish your own Karoo garden of indigenous species for drought resistant gardens and once a year hosts the Prince Albert Annual Plant sale held at the beginning of October.


“De Bergkant Lodge, built in 1858, is very much part of the Karoo heritage and as such we take great pride in the upkeep of our own gardens which are an oasis of cool green in summer”, says owners Michael and Renate. “In our gardens, set around our three pools, we encourage nesting weavers and plant vegetation to attract bee and butterfly pollination.”


Karoo Endemics


The Karoo is made up of an array of unusual succulent plants; of which nearly 40% are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else.


Succulents are defined by their climatic conditions as plants which have evolved by being forced to survive either through devising water-storage capabilities, giving them unusual shapes, with some burying themselves in the soil to minimize water loss; while others adopt short life cycles which are completed in one growing season.


Some of the more unusual characters of the succulent family include the Botterboom (Tylecodon paniculatus), a stem succulent that has glossy leaves in winter and red flowers in summer, and the Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum), a stem succulent endemic to the Richtersveld that can grow up to four meters tall.


Familiar Vygies are members of the Aizoaceae family, and cover the ground in many bright numbers, often termed ‘carpet weeds’ which down plays their spectacular show of brilliant colours. 


Stone plants or Lithops, are one of the most popular of all the succulents where their fat leaves act like large windows absorbing the sun to the root below.


Conservation South Africa (CSA) currently works with local farmers to find better ways to raise crops and livestock while ensuring that plants and fresh water are preserved for the protection of the region’s distinctive succulent species. According to them an acre lost to desertification is an acre virtually lost forever.


Theft of Karoo cycads continues to take places and only 2 - 3% of the Succulent Karoo habitat is formally protected.


Animals, Reptiles and Insects


The Karoo’s diverse eco-system supports an interdependent relationship with its special insects, animals and reptiles. With over 75 species of mammals, including the Golden Mole; although elephants, Black Rhinoceros, and Cape Buffalos which used to populate the area have since disappeared, it also hosts 70 species of Scorpions endemic to the area. 


The fragility of the Karoo ecosystem can be better understood when one learns 28 species of plants are dependent exclusively on two types of long-tongued flies (Nemestrinidae) for pollination. This exclusivity means that any damage to the fly’s population may also reduce the population of the plants.


With such diversity, illegal harvesting of species is another growing problem. Scorpions, insects and lizards such as the heavy armoured Karoo girdled lizard are under threat and this species in particular is endangered purely because of poaching by the pet trade. 


National Reserves of Beauty


There are several large reserves and protected areas in South Africa, including the Richtersveld and Namaqua National Parks, which draw tourists who come to enjoy the spring wild flowers which bloom around September each year.


Spring is heralded by the flowering of annual Namaqualand daisies (Dimorphothecas) that creates ‘rivers’ of orange across the landscape. Later in spring gazanias, ursinias, pelargoniums and vygies burst into colourful displays of lustrous pinks, magentas, reds, yellows, whites and oranges, depending on the amount of rain the area has received.


The South African National Biodiversity Institute has a number of conservation projects underway, including the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) which has undertaken conservation efforts that combine science, economics, socio-political, and land management practices.


One of ten national botanical gardens, The Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden is a truly unique experience, cultivating and displaying a wide variety of arid and semi-arid plants. Its 154 hectare of garden are situated at the foot of the Hex River Mountain range, 120 km north of Cape Town and en route to the De Bergkant Lodge in Prince Albert.


A Karoo Visit in Spring!


If you are road tripping through the Great Karoo, take a guided tour of the indoor succulent collection of The Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden or better yet, wander at leisure on your own in the Swartberg Mountains Nature Reserve, with your camera. The views from the top of Swartberg Pass are reason enough to go there and a trip in Spring will make it even more magical.


Book ahead and don’t miss out Spring’s spectacular display of floral colours. Visit www.debergkant.com.

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