It was like a scene from The Living Dead. My own zombie apocalypse. As I parked my Nissan Navara outside the Spar in Carnarvon, to stock up on padkos, drunks lying on the ground nearby lurched to their feet and surrounded the vehicle. Faces pressed against every window, while hands banged on the glass demanding not flesh, but cash. Some of the crowd climbed on the rear wheels, to see what was under the canopy.

Discretion triumphed over hunger. I drove away. Padkos would have to wait.

I was halfway into a road trip through the Karoo, on my way from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Most drivers travelling between the two cities make the 14-hour dash along the N1, over one or two days. It’s a gruelling marathon with only the final destination in mind.

To the west of this tar strip, however, lies one of SA’s most spectacular but underexplored regions. Mountain ranges, forests and tourist traps may be in short supply but the vast openness and clear skies have their own appeal.

My trip effectively started in Bloemfontein, after an early-morning meeting at the Free State University. I drove about 75km along the N8 main road to Kimberley before turning south near Petrusburg. I had no clear idea of where I was going and passed Koffiefontein and Luckhof before making my first conscious decision.

After crossing the single-lane, metal Havenga bridge over the Orange River and into the Northern Cape, I saw signs for Orania, the whites-only town created to protect Afrikaner language and culture.

Orania has plenty of opponents. It’s been labelled by some as "a pathetic outpost of embittered racists"— but I wanted to see the place for myself.

For a start, it’s small. The layout of the residential area evokes a pleasure resort. The streets are clean and well-maintained. Children cycle and walk about safely, even at night.

Doornbult memorial
Doornbult memorial

Some say Orania’s "experiment" is doomed to failure, though there is plenty of housing construction on the go. It has a thriving riverfront hotel, where I spent the night. At the time, the place was packed out by a busload of Dutch tourists.

War and remembrance

My lack of Afrikaans threw a couple of the hotel staff but we coped. One of them explained that her great-grandfather, a fiercely proud Afrikaner, had volunteered to fight for king and empire in World War 2 after — to his family’s horror — marrying an English woman. Now deep into his 90s, he still lives in Orania.

War was also on my mind the next morning. I had arranged to meet Rina Wiid, whose family farm, on the outskirts of Hopetown, is the site of the Doornbult concentration camp created by the British during the Anglo-Boer War. With the help of the Heritage Foundation, Wiid has established a memorial, cemetery and museum.

Archaeological excavations continue to unearth human remains, as well as the detritus of military occupation. It’s a small but lovingly maintained site. Wiid’s passion is remarkable. During the guided tour, she had a story for every item. Sometimes, stories are unnecessary. Memorial walls, listing the names and details of hundreds of Afrikaner women and children and their African staff who died at Doornbult are both enlightening and distressing. Some of the neatly laid-out graves contain multiple, unidentified remains, many of them children. Visits to Doornbult are by appointment only.

From Hopetown, I travelled southwest to Vosburg, and then Carnarvon. The latter is supposedly the site of the MeerKAT radio telescope array and, eventually, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), part of an international project to investigate the universe. I write "supposedly" because they are actually 90km away. But hey, this is the Karoo: 90km is next door.

Telescopes apart, Carnarvon is a sheep-farming centre but, thanks to the Spar zombies, all I was interested in was the road out. The one I chose took me to Loxton, another farming town. It calls itself "the most beautiful town in the Upper Karoo" but I had little time to ogle. It was early afternoon and time was marching. I’d decided to push on to Sutherland, which meant nearly 200km of dirt roads. Not where you want to be stuck in the dark. In the next two hours I met only one other vehicle.

Locals say only bakkies or 4x4s should take the road to Fraserburg, the last stop before Sutherland. But conditions were so dry a cautious car could have made the journey — though the sharp stones gave the Navara a slow puncture.

Fraserburg, another sheep centre, is best known for nearby dinosaur footprints and the fact that the next dorp is 100km away.

Ample space

From there it was another hour to Sutherland so I had to push on. But first I Googled somewhere to stay that night. The Whitehouse Inn looked a good bet so I tried to book, only for the signal to disappear. Another try, same result. It was third time lucky — or so I thought. I reached Sutherland as light was fading and checked in at the inn, to discover I’d booked three rooms. Luckily, the owner let me off with a single booking — in the hotel’s "presidential suite".

A walk around Sutherland revealed a beautiful but almost deserted town, whose centre is dominated by the stunning Dutch Reformed church, built in 1899. Locals say Sutherland comes to life at weekends, when Capetonians arrive in droves. The high number of hotels and guest houses attests to this. It’s particularly busy during winter snowfalls.

Havenga bridge
Havenga bridge

Besides being supposedly the coldest place in SA, Sutherland is home to the SA Astronomical Observatory and its Southern African Large Telescope.

Visitors may book observatory tours. I arrived too late but wasn’t going to be robbed of star-gazing. Whitehouse Inn proprietor Ian Rossouw directed me to Sterland, a small, private observatory 2km from town, where you pay R120 (R150 on Sundays and public holidays) for guided tours of the cosmos.

The tour started indoors, with a big-screen illustration of the constellations and what to look for. Then it was outside for the real thing. Each constellation, star and planet was explained before we viewed it through two powerful, GPS-guided Celestron telescopes. The magnification, clarity and definition were extraordinary. The two-hour session seemed to go by in an instant but it was past 10pm when we finished.

Next morning, my slow puncture had become a flat tyre. With the aid of Rossouw and a fellow guest, it was quickly repaired, ready for my return to civilisation. A 120km downhill drive through stunning scenery brought me to the N1 at Matjiesfontein, and from there it was a couple of hours to Kaapstad.

The entire journey from Johannesburg took three days. The extra day meant that instead of the usual fight for space with thousands of other cars, I often had roads to myself and visited places that were previously only names on a map. For most people, traversing the Karoo is a tedious chore.

It can be so much more.