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Karoo: Kanna Biodiversity Route


Kanna-Biodiversity-RouteWhere silence tells a story

Going off the beaten track in the Little Karoo brings unexpected rewards. Marion Whitehead discovered some new gems and indulged in some old favourites.

The spoor in the dry, sandy riverbed was not very clear and could easily have been missed by the casual hiker – or the nature lover transfixed by the red blossoms of some the largest, fat-stemmed botterbome outside Namibia.

Walking the Land & Sandhalf-day trail through traditional Khoi lands outside the old mission station of Zoar near Ladismithin the Little Karoo, we’d feasted our eyes on a range of unusual plants, including a giant spekboom called Oubaas, which was taller than two men, and tiny, bright succulents wearing a red ‘sunscreen’ pigment.
The rich biodiversity was a surprise in this arid area where they don’t expect more than 200mm of rain a year. Thanks to three plant biomesmeeting here – succulent Karoo, mountain fynbos and sub-tropical thicket – there’senough variety of species to make it a biodiversity hotspot.

Amid all this, the Big Five never entered my mind. But here was my specialist Karoo guide, Alistair Reizenberg, excitedly pointing to a spoor that looked very much like that of a big cat. ‘Leopard,’ he announced.

Kanna-Bio-Chiefs-under-SpekboomHennie Konstabel, the Khoi chief accompanying us, nodded in confirmation. The spoor was old news to him. ‘He reads the veld like a newspaper,’ explained Alistair. ‘He sees what the baboons were doing, the caracal and the jackals trying to get through the fence.’

We were deep in the narrow GrootfonteinKloof, which is second in importance only to Seweweekspoort in the Swartberg range opposite as a natural ‘high church’ or site of spiritual significance to the Khoi. No media had ever been allowed in there previously. There’s a quality of stillness about the kloof that made me want to whisper, as if I were in a holy place. It’s only recently been opened to the public, with the consent of the local chiefs, and can only be walked with a guide. ‘This is where silence tells a story,’ commented Alistair softly.

Kanna-Bio-Zoar-CottagePeople-centric route
I’d stayed overnight at KlaarGesukkel, James and Sheila Jacobs’s home-stay B&B in the village of Zoar, so we could get an early start before the summer heat forced everyone indoors. The half-day hike is one of the highlights of the new Kanna Biodiversity Route, set up by Open Africa to market some little-known gems and old favourites in the Little Karoo’s Gouritz River corridor. Apart from the rich biodiversity, they include art galleries, craftspeople,unusual gardens, farm stalls, factory shops, wine estates, 4x4 routes, mountain passes and nature reserves.

‘The route is not a road, it’s the people, with their rich multicultural heritage,’ Alistair told me while on a tour of the mission villages of Zoar and Amalienstein. These are the oldest settlements in Kannaland, the original name for the Little Karoo, a reference to the kannabos (Sceletiumtortuosum), which was used by the Khoi to keep hunger at bay on long walks in the veld and has been nicknamed ‘nature’s Prozac’ for it’s mild euphoric effects. You’ll be lucky to see any of it now – it’s been trampled to death and eaten up by the farmers’ ostriches and goats.

Klein Kannaland near Amalienstein is the home of Erna Torr’sangora rabbit show farm. She hasn’t the heart to slaughter her bunnies when they’re too old to produce wool, so it’s more like a retirement home where the angoras are cuddled into their dotage. Visitors can stroke them and watch her spinning wool, from which Erna makes the softest knitwear imaginable. Kruisrivier Guest Farm is a cool oasis in the Karoo. Farmer’s wife Mandie Strydom has an eye for the unusual and a talent for recycling. The décor in their self-catering cottages is quirky, with old horse-feed cribs turned into kiddiebunk beds in one cottage and a smart wagon parked in the living room of another.Oupa’s pipe smoking apparatus graces a wall, alongside a framed flour bag in the old millhouse beside a strongly flowing water furrow. Further on, I stopped at a farmhouse and found the front door wide open. There was no-one at home; they’dcasually gone to town and forgot to close the front door, never mind lock it. This is when you know you’re deep in the countryside, where hospitable people expect nothing but honesty.

The Karoo’s‘rainforest’
Kanna-Bio-Artist-Judy-Bumstead‘The spekboom is our equivalent of the rainforest,’ explained Judy Bumstead as she showed me some of the succulent wonders in the HennieCloeteVeldtuin on a hilltop overlooking Calitzdorp. A tour of this garden with a wide view of the surrounding mountains offers an easily accessible insight into the peculiar biodiversity of the region for those who don’t have the time and energy to hike the Land & Sand Route, or explore the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve to the south of the town.

‘Our plants and history make this a particularly important part of South Africa,’ she said in between pointing out her favourite succulents. ‘The 600-odd folk which modern people are descended from all came down this Gouritz valley from the famous archaeological site at Blombos. The local people here are a close link with the first cognitive thinkers.’

I left Calitzdorp and drove south to Van Wyksdorp over the twisting curves of the Rooiberg Pass, the sparse succulent Karoo vegetation and sub-tropical thicket giving way to mountain fynbos as the Getaway Land Rover gained height. The Little Karoo shimmered through a heat haze all the way to the mauve smudge of the Swartberg beyond. But the lingering images in my mind were of the warm, hospitable people I’d met on the Kanna Biodiversity route: queen of stoep stories Aunty Anne van Weiling proudly showing off her beautifully restored house, one of the oldest in Zoar; Bernadine Steyn, the farmer’s wife who invited the whole neighbourhood over to launch the Kanna Biodiversity Route in her shady garden; and the young musicians who helped make it such a memorable occasion.

I mentally practised the Khoi version of shaking hands which I’d learnt from Zoarchief Hendrik Konstabel, making a soft fist and bowing forward to greet by touching knuckles. It seemed an appropriate gesture in this landscape where so much remains hidden unless you take time to stop and, like Oom Hendrik, ‘read’ the veld’s newspaper. It felt like the beginning of a journey, rather than an end.

Travel Planner
Getting there
The Kanna Biodiversity Route covers the Little Karoo’s Gouritz River corridor from Ladismith in the west to De Rust in the east and is bounded by the Swartberg Mountains in the north. Route 62 is the most convenient link road, with the N12 running north-south.

Who to contact
Alistair Reizenberg is co-ordinator of the Kanna Biodiversity Route and a registered tour guide for the area.
Tel 079 222-4473 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  | Website

Open Africa has facilitated a network of 60 self-drive, rural travel routes in six African countries, covering an area the size of Europe.
Tel 021 683-9639 | Website

Ladismith Tourist Info
Tel 028 551-1378 | Website

Calitzdorp Info
Tel 044 213-3775 | Website

Where to stay
Kruisrivier Guest Farm near Calitzdorp has eight campsites with powerand five self-catering cottages sleeping from two to 16 people. Fish, swim and canoe on farm dams, picnic down at the river, walk in the mountains, pet the farm animals.
Tel 044 213-3788 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  | Website

KlaarGesukkelis an informal home-stay/B&B in Zoarwhere you’ll find yourself drinking tea with the family on the stoep enjoying marvellous views of the Swartberg.
Tel 073 832-2770

Die Withuisie is a self-catering cottage beside an orchard on Buffelskloof, a fruit farm near Ladismith, and sleeps up to four if you use the sleeper couch in the living area.
Tel 082-669-2610 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ladismith Country House on the pretty Hoeko Valleydrive has four elegant en suite guest rooms with own entrances and a self-catering garden cottage which is pet-friendly.Three-course dinners available by arrangement.
Tel 028 551-1155 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |

Where to eat
Olive Garden on Route 62 just outside Ladismith serves traditional meals and local wines.
Tel 028 551-1241

Parmalat Factory Shop in Ladismith’s main streethas a milk bar where you can grab a smoothie while stocking up on dairy produce at knock-down prices.
Tel 028 551-1030

Die Dorpshuis in Van Riebeeck Street, Calitzdorp, serves home-cooked meals and ostrich dishes.
Tel 044 213-3453

Barking Frog in Van Wyksdorp is a cool oasis serving light meals, fresh cakes,coffeeand cold drinks.
Tel 084 568-7538

Things to do
Visit Kruisrivier Gallery, home of photographer and furniture craftsman Roger Young.
Tel 044 213-3296

Boplaasin Calitzdorp is an award-winning vineyard, famous for its port.
Tel 044-213-3326

Hennie Cloete Veldtuin on a hilltop overlooking Calitzdorpoffers guided tours to see a wonderland of tiny succulents. Donation of R10 a person. It’s also where artist Judy Bumstead has her studio.
Tel 044 213-3181

Elnatan farm stall outside Calitzdorp stocks a wide range of nuts and sun-dried fruit.
Tel 044 213-3859

At the Angora Rabbit Show Farm near Zoar, you can see how their super-soft woolis spun and buy hand-knitted items.
Tel 028 561-1967

Ladismith Eyes ArtGalleryin Church Street has a fine selection of local artworks and serves delicious homemade cakes and coffee.
Tel 028 551-2531

Hike 12km to Stanley’s Light on Elandsberg Mountain, or do the more leisurely half-day guided Land & Sand Trail outside Zoar.
Tel 079 222-4473

Scenic drives include the pretty Hoeko Valley, Seweweekspoort, Huis River Pass, the back road through Kruisrivier and the Red Stone Hills to Swartberg Pass, Meiringspoort and Rooiberg Pass.
Gamkaberg Nature Reserve epitomises the biodiversity of the area and is home to the endangered Cape mountain zebra. Birding, hiking, mountain biking and a 4x4 route are popular options. Day visitors pay R30 an adult and R15 a child.
Tel 0861 227-362-8873 | Website

For more activities on the Kanna Biodiversity Route, see

Superplant to save the planet
Spekboom (Portulacariaafra) is something of a superplant when it comes to carbon storing capabilities – one potplant of it is enough to offset the amount of carbon produced by a household of four people, according to researchers.

‘Data gathered over the last seven years show that carbon storage in intact spekboom thicket in the arid southeastern Cape exceeds 20 kilograms of carbon per square metre of vegetation, which is equivalent to that of moist sub-tropical forests,’ reported the Restoration Research Group, comprising scientists based at Rhodes, Stellenbosch& Nelson Mandela Metropolitan universities.

Spekboom can sprout from replanted truncheons, without irrigation or cultivation in a nursery, making it ideal for large-scale restoration of degraded land, even in harsh Karoo environments.

This article first appeared in Getaway.