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Map of the two Karoo ecoregions as delineated by the WWF. Satellite image from NASA. The yellow line encloses the two ecoregions. The green line separates the Succulent Karoo, to the west, from the Nama Karoo, to the east. National boundaries are shown in black. Note that the ecoregions given the name "Karoo" do not coincide exactly with the geographical boundaries of what is traditionally recognized as The Karoo sensu stricto. For example, nobody in southern Africa would hold that 'The Karoo' proper extends into Namibia.

The Karoo (a Khoisan word of uncertain etymology [1]) is a semi-desert region of South Africa. It has two main sub-regions - the Great Karoo in the north and the Little Karoo in the south. The 'High' Karoo is one of the distinct physiographic provinces of the larger South African Platform division.


Great Karoo

The Great Karoo has an area of more than 400,000 square kilometers. From a geological point of view it has been a vast inland basin for most of the past 250 million years. At one stage the area was glaciated and the evidence for this is found in the widely-distributed Dwyka tillite. Later, at various times, there were great inland deltas, seas, lakes or swamps. Enormous deposits of coal formed and these are one of the pillars of the economy of South Africa today. Volcanic activity took place on a titanic scale. Despite this baptism of fire, ancient reptiles and amphibians prospered in the wet forests and their remains have made the Karoo famous amongst palaeontologists.

Western people first settled in the Cape in 1652 but made almost no inroads into the Karoo prior to about 1800. Before that time, large herds of antelope, zebra and other large game roamed the grassy flats of the region. The Khoi and Bushmen, last of the southern African Stone Age peoples, wandered far and wide. There were no Europeans and no Africans of Bantu extraction. (The area was never wet enough for cattle and this is probably the main reason why it was never occupied by the Bantu). The two ethnic groups mentioned above differed substantially in their cultures and lifestyles; the Hottentots were described as graziers of sheep and cattle, while the Bushmen were hunter-gatherers. (These were the original names given to these tribes by the Dutch. The terms may not be regarded as politically correct today). With the occupation of the region by European settlers, sheep gradually replaced the game and the cover of grass degenerated, owing to changes in the pattern of grazing and in the climate.

Starting in the middle years of the 19th century, a railway track was extended into the Karoo from Worcester in the south. This eventually extended its tendrils to Bechuanaland, South West Africa, Johannesburg, Rhodesia and far beyond. The impact of this railroad on the history of southern Africa is difficult to exaggerate.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, three Republican Commandos, reinforced by the rebels from the Cape Colony, conducted widespread operations throughout the Karoo. Countless skirmishes took place in the region, with the Calvinia magisterial district, in particular, contributing a significant number of fighters to the Republican cause. Fought both conventionally and as a guerrilla struggle over the Karoo's vast expanses, it was a bloody war of attrition wherein both sides used newly developed technologies to their advantage. Numerous abandoned blockhouses can still be seen at strategic locations throughout the Great Karoo; a prime example is located next to the Geelbeks River, 12 kilometres outside the town of Laingsburg.

Currently sheep farming is still the economic backbone of the Karoo, with other forms of agriculture established in areas where irrigation is possible. Lately game farms and tourism have also started to make an economic impact.

Little Karoo

As the name implies, the Little Karoo is the smaller (and more southerly) of the two Karoo sub-regions. Locally it is usually called the Klein Karoo, which is Afrikaans for Little Karoo. Geographically it is a fertile valley (bounded on the north by the Swartberg, and on the south by the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains). Although the boundaries of the region are not strictly defined, most people consider the western limit of the Little Karoo to be in the region of Barrydale and the eastern extremity around Uniondale.

The main town of the region is Oudtshoorn. Other towns/settlements in the region include Ladismith, Calitzdorp, De Rust,and well-known mission stations such as Zoar, Amalienstein, Barrydale and Dysselsdorp.

This area was first explored by European settlers in the late 17th century, who encountered only Khoisan people living in this rather dry area. Modern farming methods have brought productivity and wealth to this district.

Karoo in literature

The great English poet Thomas Hardy wrote in his poem The Dead Drummer:[2]

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, OED Online
  2. ^ The Dead Drummer

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

KARROO, two extensive plateaus in the Cape province, South Africa, known respectively as the Great and Little Karroo. Karroo is a corruption of Karusa, a Hottentot word meaning dry, barren, and its use as a place-name indicates the character of the plateaus so designated. They form the two intermediate "steps" between the coast-lands and the inner plateau which constitutes the largest part of South Africa. The Little (also called Southern) Karroo is the table-land nearest the southern coast-line of the Cape, and is bounded north by the Zwaarteberg, which separates it from the Great Karroo. From west to east the Little Karroo has a length of some 200 m., whilst its average width is 30 m. West of the Zwaarteberg the Little Karroo merges into the Great Karroo. Eastward it is limited by the hills which almost reach the sea in the direction of St Francis and Algoa Bays. The Great Karroo is of much larger extent. Bounded south, as stated, by the Zwaarteberg, further east by the Zuurberg (of the coast chain), its northern limit is the mountain range which, under various names, such as Nieuwveld and Sneeuwberg, forms the wall of the inner plateau. To the south-west and west it is bounded by the Hex River Moun tains and the Cold Bokkeveld, eastward by the Great Fish River. West to east it extends fully 350 m. in a straight line, varying in breadth from more than 80 to less than 40 m. Whilst the Little Karroo is divided by a chain of hills which run across it from east to west, and varies in altitude from 1000 to 2000 ft., the Great Karroo has more the aspect of a vast plain and has a level of from 2000 to 3000 ft. The total area of the Karroo plateaus is stated to be over ioo,000 sq. m. The plains are dotted with low ranges of kopjes. The chief characteristics of the Karroo are the absence of running water during a great part of the year and the consequent parched aspect of the country. There is little vegetation save stunted shrubs, such as the mimosa (which generally marks the river beds), wild pomegranate, and wax heaths, known collectively as Karroo bush. After the early rains the bush bursts into gorgeous purple and yellow blossoms and vivid greens, affording striking evidence of the fertility of the soil. Such parts of the Karroo as are under perennial irrigation are among the most productive lands in South Africa. Even the parched bush provides sufficient nourishment for millions of sheep and goats. There are also numerous ostrich farms, in particular in the districts of Oudtshoorn and Ladismith in the Little Karroo, where lucerne grows with extraordinary luxuriance. The Karroo is admirably adapted to sufferers from pulmonary complaints. The dryness of the air tempers the heat of summer, which reaches in January a mean maximum of 87° F., whilst July, the coldest month, has a mean minimum of 36° F. A marked feature of the climate is the great daily range (nearly 30°) in temperature; the Karroo towns are also subject to violent dust storms. Game, formerly plentiful, has been, with the exception of buck, almost exterminated. In a looser sense the term Karroo is also used of the vast northern plains of the Cape which are part of the inner table-land of the continent. (See CAPE COLONY.)

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