The Karoo

The Great Karoo, which stretches across two-thirds of southern Africa’s interior, is drenched in history. The parched soil looks as though it aches of thirst, cracked and desolate, dried out by the unrelenting sun. Considering the aridness of the area, it supports a surprising diversity of plant and animal species, well adapted to the dry conditions. No luxury train tour of the country is complete without a stopover in the haunting Karoo.

The Khoi translation for the vast plateau means ‘land of great thirst’, and aptly so, since the landscape has been soaking in sunbeams for millions of years now. Not only sunlight in fact – the laborious formation of this impressive interior plateau began some 150 to 250 million years ago, when a series of three layers of sediment pressed down into the earth, creating the site that would eventually be called the Karoo.

The first layer, the Dwyka Series, is roughly 900ms thick and comprised of a network of rocks sheathed in mudstone and moraine. It is believed that this substantial layer of stone is the debris of a previous ice age which took place many millennia ago. During those prehistoric times, the Earth’s climate was quite volatile and a period of climatic change followed the creation of this layer, ushering in swampy, densely vegetated wetlands.

From a bitter ice age to a moist, muggy climate of leafy jungles, the shift in weather saw to the formation of the second layer, called the Beaufort Series. At 5 600ms thick, this layer makes up the surface of the Karoo as it is today. At one point in time, massive herds of springbok would migrate across the Karoo – a sight that the famous explorer, David Livingstone, was privileged to witness. These days, however, springbok are far more likely to be spotted within the confines of a game reserve, and for those taking a train tour of South Africa, plenty of boks may be seen.