The thirstland of the Karoo, which covers two-thirds of South Africa, is our country’s defining landscape. To discover the best of it, just follow our tracks. By Scott Ramsay

The sky is faded pale blue by the fire in the heavens; the land of rock and dust is boundless. Rare summer thunderstorms roll like angry gods across the horizon, sometimes hurling water onto a parched earth before the sun steals it back again. In winter snowflakes fall from above, an apology for the harshness of summer.

In the cool stillness of morning the eyes can see forever, the view punctuated here and there by koppies and plateaux. At night starlight drips down from the galaxies, illuminating the land and our souls.

Like pilgrims and prophets of yesteryear who ventured into deserts, travellers today escape into the enormity of the Karoo to return to the essentials of existence. Earth, water, food and fire. People come here to seek the innocence that was lost in the name of progress. This autumn and winter, instead of heading for the bush, why not discover the heartland?

Karoo National Park: Best for Space, Sky and Lions

Lions once again roam the Karoo.

Lions once again roam the Karoo.

If the Karoo is the heart of South Africa, then this national park a few kilometres northwest of Beaufort West is its quintessential protected area. An immense land devoid of humans, where the elements rule and the silence of a thousand empty cathedrals is interrupted now and again only by the roar of lions.

Lions? Yes, for the first time since the early 1800s, Africa’s biggest predators are once again claiming the Karoo as their own. Seven were reintroduced in 2010, and two more males joined them in February this year.

We had only jackal and caracal as predators, so we introduced the lions to bring back the large carnivore component,” ecologist Angela Gaylard said. “Over the next few years, we hope to introduce other predators such as cheetah.”

Two hundred years ago, this region would teem with wildlife after the rain. The park’s interpretive centre gives insight into the “trekbokken” – springbok, wildebeest, blesbok and eland – which migrated in their thousands past the town of Beaufort West, following the new grass.

One report, by Sir John Fraser, recorded how “we were awakened one morning by a sound as of a strong wind before a thunderstorm,” the sounds thousands of migrating antelope, “which filled the streets and gardens and, as far as one could see, covered the whole country.”

This particular herd took three days to pass by, but not before the people had shot and killed many of them. Today, sadly, these herds no longer occur, as hunting, sheep farming and proliferation of fences have stopped their movement.

After two centuries, the wildlife is returning. The park, originally merely 7,209 hectares in 1977, is today close to 100,000 hectares in size, and although the great escarpment of the Nuweveld Mountains dominate the scene, most of the park lies below in a vast undulating plain.

Fossils of animals that predate dinosaurs are displayed in the park.

Fossils of animals that predate dinosaurs are displayed in the park.

From the rest camp, drive up the spectacular Klipspringer Pass, up onto the middle plateau, then look west over the vast plains, and you’re bound to see small herds of kudu, red hartebeest, blesbok, gemsbok, springbok and eland. The gemsbok and eland herds can swell to over 200 during breeding season, according to senior section ranger Johan de Klerk.

The central region of the park is also the best place to see the lions. Other predators include four brown hyena, also recently released, caracal and black-backed jackal. Although leopard have never been seen, Johan believes they must be present.

In the sky, watch out for about 20 pairs of Verreaux’s eagles that soar like dark angels on the thermals, swooping low to scythe unsuspecting dassies off the cliffs. Birders should also check out the bird hide near camp, where weavers and Red Bishops build their nests, making for great photography.

There are two short trails within the fenced camp, the Bossie and Fossil. Visitors who bemoan the seemingly monotonous shrubland are often surprised to learn that the Karoo National Park protects more than 860 plant species, making it one of the most diverse arid areas in the world. The Bossie Trail gives an introduction to this wonderland.

The sense of freedom you experience here is exhilarating.

The sense of freedom you experience here is exhilarating.

The Fossil trail offers an overview of the Karoo’s unparalleled fossil record, dating back 250 million years when this part of the world was a vast floodplain, surrounded by mountains the size of the Himalayas. More than eight kilometres of sediment were laid down, in which thousands of therapsids, the precursors to dinosaurs and mammals, were trapped and fossilised, some of which are on display.

Although most visitors stay at the large main rest camp and campsite, a spectacular place to experience the Karoo is Embizweni Cottage, a remote outpost in the northwest of the park, at the base of the escarpment, reached with a high ground-clearance vehicle. Except for a few gemsbok or hartebeest, and the sunset howl of a jackal, you’ll be all alone, at one with the Karoo in all its wisdom and wonder.

Karoo National Park +27 (0)23 415 2828, SANParks bookings +27(0)12 428 9111. Free entry for Wild Card members. Campsites R190 for 1 to 2 people, cottages from R945 a night. www.sanparks.org/karoo

Camdeboo National Park: Best for History and Scenery

If you’ve only got one day to enjoy the Karoo, then Camdeboo National Park contains the concentrated essence of this vast region. Here you’ll find history, scenery, wildlife and a beautiful dorp, all rolled into one easily digestible bite.

The town of Graaff-Reinet is entirely surrounded by 19,000 hectares of the park’s plains and koppies. Like Table Mountain and Garden Route National Parks, Camdeboo National park is closely intertwined with its neighbouring urban area.

Views that go on forever are characteristic of the Karoo.

Views that go on forever are characteristic of the Karoo.

Go straight to the lookout point of the Valley of Desolation to get a sense of this special bond between town and park. Head north out of Graaff-Reinet on the R63 to Murraysburg for about five kilometres, then turn left at the park’s gate. Follow the narrow, winding tarred road to the top of the 1,400-metre koppie that looms over the town.

The eight-kilometre drive itself offers superb views, but the best is kept for last where the road ends. A series of precipitous dolerite columns, about 100 metres high, stands across a narrow valley from the lookout point. About 180 million years ago, volcanic eruptions forced molten rock through the sediment rock and cooled into hard towers.

No wonder it was declared a scenic national monument in 1935. (Graaff-Reinet has the most national monuments in the country.) While ogling the views and the resident Verreaux’s eagles, remember to hold onto your kids, because there are no fences and it’s a long way down!

The short Crag Lizard Trail (1,5km) is a must-do activity, giving the best views of the valley and surrounding Karoo landscape. From the trail you’ll see how the town is sheltered in a horse-shoe bend of the Sundays River, which is forced to flow between the high hills. Camdeboo is an old Khoi word meaning ‘green valley’, a possible reference to the verdant vein of Acacia karoo trees which line the banks of the river.

Just two kilometres northeast of town on the R61 to Middelburg is the park’s fenced-off game viewing area, which lies alongside the town’s dam. You’ll see buffalo, kudu, springbok, black wildebeest and red hartebeest. Kudu and springbok can also be seen in the other unfenced areas of the park that surround town. Camdeboo really is a very accessible urban wildlife destination.

Savour the view over the Valley of Desolation.

Savour the view over the Valley of Desolation.

Like the local farmers, the wildlife also seems to enjoy popping into town now and again to run their errands. Park manager Peter Burdett was once phoned by a receptionist, who was greeted by a kudu bull on the second-floor of an office building in town. “There was a parquet floor, and the kudu kept slipping,” Peter laughed. “We had to carry it down the stairs, out of the building and back into the veld!”

There is plenty of accommodation in the town itself, but the park offers 15 campsites and four two-bed safari tents at Lakeview Tented Camp on Nqweba Dam in the game viewing area, with fully equipped communal kitchen and ablutions. Three different 4×4 routes are on offer, including Kroonvale, Driekoppe and Koekoeskloof, while the Eerstefontein day walk in the southwest of the park offers three routes of different lengths to stretch the legs.

Camdeboo National Park +27 (0)49 892 3453, SANParks bookings +27 (0)12 428 9111. Free entry for Wild Card members. Campsites R190 for 1 to 2 people, safari tents R540 a night. 4×4 routes free. www.sanparks.org/parks/camdeboo

Mountain Zebra National Park: Best for wildlife and photography

Drive the Kranskop loop just before sunset if possible, and admire the dreamy hues of dusk.

Drive the Kranskop loop just before sunset if possible, and admire the dreamy hues of dusk.

One of the first national parks, Mountain Zebra near Cradock in the Eastern Cape was proclaimed in 1937 to protect one of the last remaining herds of this rare species. By the early 1900s, hunters had killed thousands of these endemic South African animals, which are restricted to high-lying areas.

From small beginnings, the park has grown considerably in both size and stature. Originally 1,712 hectares, the park protected only six animals, which were supplemented with an additional 11 after several died. From there, the population has blossomed and today numbers over 700, one of the country’s great conservation success stories, while the park is now over 28,000 hectares.

Compared to other national parks, Mountain Zebra is relatively small, but hectare for hectare it is one of the most beautiful. Rolling grasslands and high plateaux provide a three-dimensional Pierneef tapestry for zebra, black wildebeest, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland and blesbok. Buffalo tend to hang out in the drainage lines of the Wilge River which flows near the rest camp.

Surely there aren’t supposed to be so many wild animals here? Yet there are, and it’s because the park is located in the eastern part of the Great Karoo, so it receives 25 per cent more rainfall. The vegetation can therefore support a higher density of herbivores.

There are few parks where you can see so much wildlife so quickly,” remarked field guide Michael Paxton, who worked for several years as a trails guide in Kruger. Even if this park lacks true wildness, “it’s an easy place to get your wildlife fix.”

The only major predator for the past few years has been cheetah. These cats were reintroduced in 2007, and from just four animals, the population rocketed to 31, before some were translocated. “They did really well, because there were no other major predators, and the open grasslands suit their hunting style,” Michael explained.

The open plains of Mountain Zebra are home to herds of gemsbok.

The open plains of Mountain Zebra are home to herds of gemsbok.

Today there are nine, some fitted with GPS units. Visitors should definitely sign up for the morning cheetah tracking walks, which allow close encounters with these cats. Up to now, Michael explained, they have been the apex predator, pulling down large animals like kudu bulls. But recently two lions were introduced, which no doubt will provide some competition. Other predators include brown hyena and black-backed jackal.

The best scenery is in the east, where cloud often billows over the high dolerite ridges of Bakenkop Peak.A spectacular road, the Kranskop Loop, takes in the best of this landscape. Drive it just before sunset if possible, and admire the dreamy hues of dusk. For wildlife sightings head to the Rooiplaat Loop on the lower plateaux, as this is where the animals tend to congregate.

Active types will enjoy the challenge of the two-night Impofu Hiking Trail, or the day walk to the top of Salpeterskop in the west of the park, a steep, strenuous climb of the 1,514-metre koppie. Here you’ll find a chess board carved into a boulder, where English soldiers from the Coldstream Guards passed time during the Anglo-Boer War. More easily accessible are some good examples of Bushmen rock paintings, estimated to be about 300 years old.

Back at camp, there are 19 fully equipped cottages for self-catering, all with great views, as well as one of the best restaurants in the national park network. A campsite with 20 sites set among Acacia karoo trees has good shade. The all-round service of Mountain Zebra has also been recognised, winning it Park of the Year for the region the last four years running and consistently earning praise from visitors.

Mountain Zebra National Park +27 (0)48 881 2427, SANParks bookings +27 (0)12 428 9111. Free entry for Wild Card Members. Campsites R190 for 1 to 2 people, cottages from R790 a night. Cheetah tracking R265 a person, no children under 16s. Rock art R132 a person. www.sanparks.org/mountain_zebra

Anysberg Nature Reserve: Best for Spectacular Stargazing

A warning to those who think the Karoo is a place to catch up on your sleep. At Anysberg Nature Reserve, either the moon is so bright or the stars are so numerous that it’s impossible to close your eyelids, no matter how heavy they are. The night sky is just too spectacular.

This little-known, yet relatively large nature reserve southwest of Laingsburg lies in a wide valley between two low mountain ranges, one of which gives the reserve its name. More than 1,000 square kilometres, and away from the main tourist routes, Anysberg is one of the biggest and most difficult to reach of all the Karoo conservation areas.

There's absolutely no light pollution, but with so many stars, you won't be able to sleep.

There’s absolutely no light pollution, but with so many stars, you won’t be able to sleep.

This means there’s absolutely no light pollution,” reserve manager Marius Brand explained. “You have to be here to see the stars. You won’t be able to sleep!”

I took Marius up on the claim, travelling to Anysberg over a new moon weekend. Sure enough, as the sun disappeared a billion more took its place. With a darkening sky it became increasingly tricky to find even the famous constellations, such as Gemini, Orion’s Belt and Southern Cross, because thousands of other stars jostled for position in the heavens, crowding out the usual suspects.

One evening field guide Willem Fullard brought out the telescope and showed me Jupiter’s moons, as well as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They appeared as numinous fuzz in the night sky, each containing a trillion more stars. It was a truly eye-opening night.

During the day, Anysberg is famous for its horse trails. The two-day overnight trail leads into the northern part of the reserve. Guests overnight at Tapfontein, where there are several small yet comfortable wooden huts and an inviting swimming reservoir.

The shorter two-hour version leaves from the main camp at Vrede, and from horseback you’ll spot more wildlife than you’d expect. There are about 160 gemsbok, 150 red hartebeest, 80 springbok and 200 eland, as well as 20 Cape mountain zebra.

And there are plenty of black-backed jackal, and leopard,” Marius said proudly. “We often get photos of them on our camera traps.”

Anysberg is perfect leopard territory as it’s remote and it’s rough. Of all the Karoo parks I visited, this one imparted the greatest sense of wilderness. There are few farms in the area as the climate is too dry and the earth baked too hard by the sun. “Most of the farmers have moved away. Wild animals do best here.”

Other activities include kayaking on the old farm dams, and an easy 4×4 route to the top of Anysberg, which takes about six hours. Alternatively, take some water, a hat and some snacks, and simply walk into the veld or into one of the kloofs that incise Anysberg.

Cool off in the swimming reservoir at the main camp of Vrede.

Cool off in the swimming reservoir at the main camp of Vrede.

The most accessible is Land se Kloof, a short drive from the main camp of Vrede, where there are four small fully-equipped self-catering cottages and a campsite, as well as a huge swimming reservoir and sun-bathing deck.

A word of warning: visit Anysberg before too many others discover it and this lovely reserve becomes popular.

Anysberg Nature Reserve +27 (0)23 551 1922, CapeNature bookings +27 (0)21 483 0190. Free entry for Wild Card members. Campsites R250, cottages R420 a night. Overnight horse trail R750 a person (bring your sleeping bag and food). Two-hour horse trail R200 a person. Stargazing free. www.capenature.co.za/reserves.htm