Patience, faith and courage make up the pioneering spirit of South Africa’s early explorers; those men and women took the lead in search of a new way of life in the Western Cape’s rugged Karoo interior, preparing the way ahead so that other travelers may follow in their footsteps.
Cape Town, in the early-1800s, was a thriving trading port and a British shipping route supply station for the Dutch East India Company. When the British government outlawed slavery between its colonies in 1834, Cape Town saw the mass migration of farmers, who had lost their labour force, head out into the interior looking for unclaimed territory and their own autonomous communities away from British rule.
This became known as the Great Trek by the Voortrekkers literally translated from Afrikaans means ‘forward-pullers’.
The vast expanses of the central Karoo in the Western Cape Province sheltered its own unfair share of hardy survivalists, adventurers, big game hunters and fiercely independent Boer settlers who battled the incumbent Xhosa tribesmen for water and grazing to feed livestock.
Lawless and largely untamed, they shared the blazing sun, red dust and blue horizons with ivory traders and smugglers of firearms, ammunition and cheap liquor who would traverse the great plains - a wildlife paradise between man-made settlements - on horseback and ox wagon taking their wares to market.
A potpourri of diverse cultural backgrounds, the Karoo inhabitants of today represent some of the hardiest farming stock in the country. Find a more detailed look at the development of the Karoo’s cultural identity and anthropology here, which offers timelines to current issues of land restitution.
A Prince of a Village
The village started life as a loan farm called De Queek Vallei with Zacharias De Beer as its first occupier. Originally known as Albertsburg, the settlement achieved municipal status in 1845 and was renamed Prince Albert in honour of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.
Paying tribute to the memory of her husband, who had passed away in 1861, Queen Victoria sent a book containing Prince Albert's speeches to the village in 1867 which is now on display in Prince Albert’s fascinating Fransie Pienaar Museum, one of the finest country museum’s in South Africa.
Farms and Fashions
The Karoo’s vast herds of game, including leopard, black rhino, African buffalo, and Cape lion began to dwindle in competition with settled farmers who manage to endure the harsh conditions of the region for centuries. Among them were the Oudtshoorn feather barons of the late 1800s, once known internationally as the ostrich capital of the world when ostrich feathers were the height of fashion revered by royalty, maharajahs, emperors, fashionistas and costume-makers around the world. As with all fads however, the fashion died out, largely due to the advent of the motor car.
A Railway and a Mountain Pass
A railway linking Cape Town with the Karoo reached Prince Albert Road in 1879 which spurred development. Now, passengers, mail and supplies could be transported as far as Cape Town, a 343 km road trip for modern travelers today.
The biggest event for pioneers of Prince Albert however, celebrated with much clinking of champagne glasses and a 21-gun salute, was the opening of the Swartberg Pass, built by Thomas Bains and a contingent of convict labourers, in March 1886. This enabled a regular post coach service linking Prince Albert to Oudtshoorn with the legendary opening speech by Colonel F Schermbrucker quoted as saying, "ten-thousand travelers will in future feast their eyes on this beautiful picture" – which most certainly has come to pass today.
Never tarred, the Swartberg Pass is a popular scenic route for travelers which leads directly into the village of Prince Albert, where four star De Bergkant Lodge lays claim to fame at the top of Church Street with its legendary brand of #TrueKarooHospitality.
Abundance and Adventure
As the world’s oldest industry, farming shapes society as we know it today. Karoo farmers are renown as producers of fibre, contributing 13 million kg of South Africa's annual 44 million kg of wool and all of South Africa's 2.4 million kg of mohair annually – around 60% of the world's production.
Organic Karoo lamb meat is sought after for its aromatic flavour from sheep which graze on the fynbos and fragrant Karoo shrubs and bushes. Other animal products include chickens, eggs, and dairy products, some still produced in the traditional way such as that of Gay’s Guernsey Dairy of Prince Albert.
The Western Cape remains a leader in the export of ostrich meat to Europe and is the only province with an outlet for the export of horses, earning millions in foreign revenue.
Sport and Sun-soaked Peace
Modern day adventurers today push themselves to peak condition and competition in local, national and international events in trail running, rock climbing, 4x4 challenges, cycle races and other sporting exertions.
Slowly, wildlife has been returning to the Karoo plains thanks to game farming, breeding and selling of wildlife and its world class wildlife reserves.
While drought continues to challenge farmers in their production pursuits, and its succulent biome and cactus and hardy desert flora is under threat, the Karoo remains a hardy landscape of survival where breath-taking landscapes advance in tandem with the never-ceasing trajectory of the sun.