It’s not easy describing the Karoo to those who’ve never been here. Its identity seems to change with every new description, every story retold by travellers and passers-through and even those who have spent a lifetime on its arid reaches.
As Wikipedia describes it, “No exact definition of what constitutes the Karoo is available, so its extent is also not precisely defined.”
The Karoo remains a gathering of fables and old lore collected like fossils on the bed of this ancient sea.
Geologically, the Karoo was formed when South Africa was still called Gondwana by those who weren’t even around to give it a name. It began as an inland sea diverging into swamps and wetlands, a prehistoric sanctuary for reptiles and amphibians, the remains of which are still scattered today as fosilised paleontological jewels.
As Gondwana began to change in the warming clime of an evolving planet, the Karoo developed into a semi-desert and a home to dinosaurs – their abandoned nests of eggs have been found in the rocks of the Stormberg Group of deposits.
The age of the dinosaurs ended here with a series of volcanic activities about 180 million years ago, and in the wake of lava that ensued the distinctive Karoo Koppies were formed, picturesque hills that resemble frozen waves across the desert – dolerite deposits moulded by endless winds.
And so the Karoo became a home for humans, namely the Khoisan people, the first inhabitants of the region, whose beautiful rock paintings depict the flourishing herds of elephant and antelope that lived alongside them: in fact, the largest migration of an estimated 200 million Springbok once passed through here. For a long time these were the only people that could endure the hard life on these bright-hot plains that transition into freezing winters. They lived in small family groups of hunter-gatherers, and much of their ancient knowledge of traditional medicine and herbal lore is preserved by their descendants today. Early European settlers found the Karoo an impenetrable barrier to their northward migration from the Cape, until the hardy “trekboere”, nomadic and persistent pastoralists seeking better farmlands, finally entered from the greener south-east, and first encountered the Khoisan.
The rest is a lengthy history lesson. But why mention all this in the first place? Because it is this very sense of the ancient that has never evaporated under the high Karoo sun. As the modern world forged ahead with iron and fire, the Karoo remained a place of empty, starry silence full of the echoes of a forgotten time.
Today it is studded with vast sheep farms and sprinkled with old villages. It is a melting pot of culture, a brew of European tradition enmeshed with local ways, language, food and lifestyle. It has been home to many great South African artists and writers that have drawn from the wellspring of its quiet knowledge, and every town has its own tales of ghosts and magic and strange travelers.
This very emptiness and acceptance of the unusual has made the Karoo the perfect sanctuary for tigers in Africa. With an average human population of 21 people per square kilometer, at Tiger Canyon we have been able to make a new home for the endangered tiger struggling to survive in a modern world increasingly reserved for humans. Located in the Upper Karoo region of the Free State province, our land enjoys the verdure of the “False Karoo”, so named for the tracts of grassland sprinkled with regional vegetation not found in the drier parts of the Great Karoo. In giving the tigers a sanctuary in this ancient place we have also been able to restore the land in turn. The glittering grasses grow in abundance on our reserve, safe from erosive activities, bolstered by the pans and wet areas we have re-introduced to the area. We have returned indigenous game to the reserve, and witnessed the arrival of blue crane and herons. And most importantly, we have enjoyed the support of our neighbours and the inhabitants of the nearby town of Philippolis, who with the characteristic pioneering spirit of the Karoo people, have welcomed the arrival of the tiger in Africa