Little Karoo: in detail
Little Karoo trips: the full story
Northeast of the verdant coastal strip that we know as South Africa’s Garden Route, over the forested slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains, lies the Little Karoo. Often known as the Klein Karoo, this is a generally dry area: the surrounding mountains take much of the air’s moisture, leaving little for the low-lying Little Karoo. It’s one of the more diverse regions in the Western Cape, with gigantic cliffs, desert-like landscapes, crystal clear streams and fertile vineyards. Bounded by the Langeberg Mountains to the southwest, and separated from the much more extensive Great Karoo by the Swartberg Mountains to the north.
Travel around the Little KarooThe mountains which bound the Little Karoo do limit road access here, as well as creating some quite dramatic passes.
Perhaps the popular route here leads from the vineyards around Robertson via to R60 onto the R62. This cuts through the Langeberg Mountains to reach Montagu. This same road then runs east through the Little Karoo, passing through Barrydale, Ladysmith, Calitzdorp until it reaches Oudtshoorn – which in many ways feels like the main town of this small region. From there roads head north across the Swartberg Mountains to the great Karoo, and south to George and the Garden Route.
This R62 route is often used as a more scenic and interesting route from Cape Town to the Garden Route, avoiding the busy N2 highway.
Towns of the Little KarooMost people’s impressions of the Little Karoo are of large stretches of open land – much of it used for medium-sized farming enterprices: orchards, vineyards, herbs and livestock are all farmed. Dotted around are a few settlements, many full of character and worthy of note:
MontaguAt the extreme west end of the Little Karoo, Montague stands just northeast of the linear range of the Langberg Mountains. It’s a lovely old town, dating back to 1851, which is full of Cape Dutch architecture and well worth a visit. There are plenty of orchards and vineyards around the town, which is known for its fruit production – including apples, pears, peaches and apricots. Nearby is a natural spa of note and venues for top-class rock climbing. With a population of over 15,000, it’s one of the Little Karoo’s larger towns.
BarrydaleThe R324 runs roughly north-south, twisting its way through the spectacular Zuurberg Mountains on the Tradouw Pass. To the south is the region known as ‘The Overberg’ – with Swellendam in the centre. To the north of the Tradouw Pass, this road meets the R62 at Barrydale, on the southern edge of the Little Karoo.
Barrydale’s a little less appealing than Montagu, but is set in lovely scenery and was also founded in the 18th century. Around the town are many orchards and vineyards and the town is known for an array of arts, crafts and other souvenirs.
LadismithOn the northern side of the Little Karoo, just south of the Swartberg Mountains, Ladismith looks up at the split peaks of the Towerkop (2198m) Mountain. It’s another pretty, small town (population under 8,000) in the middle of a fairly prosperous farming area – with a real mixture of architectural styles on display.
Many of the surrounding farms are fruit farms, producing grapes, apricots and plums – as well as vineyards, dairy farms, sheep farms and even commercial enterprises which grow flowers. Ladismith has a wine cellar (which is often open for cellar tours) and two cheese factories – and so it’ll come as no surprise that it has its own “Cheese and wine festival", usually in October.
Ladismith takes its name from the title “Lady Smith" – applied to Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith, the Spanish-born wife of Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith, Governor of the Cape Colony. In the early, wives of army officers would normally have been sent home to their husbands’ families. Instead she accompanied him with the army – and stuck with him, sleeping with the baggage or even on the field of battle, and mixing amongst the troops. It’s said that “her beauty, courage, sound judgment and amiable character endeared her to the officers, including the Duke of Wellington, who spoke of her familiarly as Juanita; and she was idolized by the soldiers."
There’s also towns called “Ladysmith" in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, and Canada’s British Columbia, named in honour of her.
CalitzdorpAnother small town (population less than 5,000) on the R62 route across the Little Karoo, Calitzdorp is often hot and dry – which leads some of the vineyards around to produce concentrated, fortified wines like port. Vineyards mix with the odd ostrich farm here, and the local flora is notable for its succulents. Mountains lie north, west and south of here, hence it’s a good base for spectacular drives: seek out the Swartberg Pass, the Huisriver Pass and the Rooiberg Pass.
OudtshoornThe largest town in the Little Karoo, Oudtshoorn has a population of over 60,000 people – and is the centre of the region in many ways.
Where to stay in Little Karoo
Our suggestions for places to stay in Little Karoo