Though it lacks the grandeur of a Moroccan dune at sunset or the Moab, South Africa's Karoo, the desert hinterland separating the Western Cape from the country's interior, is filled with interesting people, fascinating history, and charmingly bizarre towns that complement its sublime natural beauty. To see the best this region has to offer, pack up the car and hit the road.
Coasts to Ghosts: Cape Town to Prince Albert
Decamping from Cape Town, take the nation's N1 arterial highway northeast, where the backdrop quickly turns picturesque with farmland and mountain passes. At the town of Worcester, divert to the scenic Route 62 towards Barrydale if you're not in a hurry. A pretty little town nestled against the Langeberg Mountains, Barrydale is known for its style brigade of artists and weavers, natural hot springs, and enthusiastically gay-friendly vibe, particularly at the excellent Barrydale Karoo Hotel. Alternately, stay on the N1 and stop for a country-style meal at Die Veld Country Store (just after the Hex River Valley).
In a few hours you'll reach Prince Albert, a serious contender for South Africa's most charming town and the gateway to the breathtaking Swartberg Pass. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this unpaved mountain pass climbs just shy of a mile high through lichen-covered cliffs; its craggy surrounds are perfect for epic hiking and mountain-biking expeditions. If you're interested, the owners of the gorgeous Dennehof Guesthouse organize day trips.
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Prince Albert itself is a tribute to local architectural styles from the 18th to early-20th centuries. To learn about the stories behind these walls, join historian Alisa Tudhope's fantastically bizarre Ghost Walk. When hunger strikes, head to Prince Albert's Gallery Café and Bistro for spectacular fine cuisine sans attitude, surrounded by tasteful fine art (the nearby galery Watershed sells iconic black-and-white photographs).
When it's time to call it a day, you'll have your pick of lovely guesthouses for all budgets. A top choice would be the stylish De Bergkant Lodge, an immaculately restored Cape Dutch home brimming with exquisite antiques with all the modern conveniences and truly superb service.
Get Wild: Prince Albert to Samara Game Reserve
Leaving Prince Albert, take the route via the Meiringspoort Gorge. Another spectacular mountain pass, Meiringspoort follows the low road through a stunning canyon gorge, crossing the Groot River no less than 25 times in 15 miles. A deep swimming hole at the well-marked Great Waterfall makes a great picnic stop. Head toward Graaff-Reinet, an architecturally fascinating town perfect for a quick visit on the way to your final destination.
Your next stop is Samara Private Game Reserve, a 70,000-acre reserve whose exquisite landscape—watch out for wildlife—will serve as backdrop for another 45 minutes until you reach the lodge. The ambiance and service here are top-notch, with spacious private bungalows that boast views of a waterhole. Spend your days tracking cheetah and rhino on foot, or on game drives through some of the most stunning scenery available in a South African game area.
Quirky Characters: Samara to Nieu-Bethesda
From Samara, it's about an hour and a half to Nieu-Bethesda, a tiny village off a dirt road, where a population of local artists has created a funky, shabby-chic vibe—look for the post office that serves tea and cake, a surprisingly well-stocked bookstore, and a B&B in a fairy-tale tower. Though you won't find any banks or gas stations here, Nieu-Bethesda is well worth a visit.
The main attraction here is The Owl House. Once the residence of recluse Helen Martins, the walls of the now-museum are covered in a rainbow of crushed glass, and its garden is crowded with cement-and-wire sculptures of owls, camels, and angels. Fascinating, bizarre, and a little creepy, Martins' masterpiece was made famous by South African playwright Athol Fugard, who also called Nieu-Bethesda home.
About four miles out of town, the Ganora Guest Farm is not to be missed. For those looking to stay in the area, this gorgeous sheep farm boasts a variety of excellent lodging options, all housed in the farm's tastefully renovated outbuildings. Meanwhile, amateur (or professional) paleontologists should not miss the outstanding fossil collection at the farm's small museum; even better, join owner J.P. on a fossil walk through the bush. Hikes to see high-caliber Bushman rock art are also fantastic and informative.
Literary Crossroads: Nieu-Bethesda to Cradock
From Nieu-Bethesda, a scenic, two-hour drive delivers you to the small town of Cradock. Home for several years to Olive Schreiner, widely considered South Africa's first novelist, Cradock celebrates its literary legacy in a small museum located in Schreiner's old home. The enthusiastic curator, Brian Wilmot, is happy to take pre-booked visitors on a literary walking tour through old Cradock, pointing out places of significance through the town.
Originally established as a fort in the early 1800s, Cradock has long been something of a Karoo crossroads, and it still makes a good base for exploring the area. Whether rafting on the Great Fish River, taking day trips to nearby Mountain Zebra National Park, or just soaking up the tranquil hospitality of this typical Karoo farming town, the place to stay is the historic Die Tuishuise, a lovingly restored collection of 30 Karoo-style cottages from the 1840s. Its sister property, the Victorian Manor, remains one of South Africa's oldest hotels still operating today.
When you're ready to exit the Karoo state of mind, head south to Port Elizabeth (about a three-hour drive), where you can return your rental car and fly home or loop back to Cape Town via the southern coast's Garden Route.