Geophytes of the Karoo

To most travellers that traverse the Karoo ensconced in an air conditioned vehicle, the vast landscape receding to the horizon leaves a lasting impression of primordial existence long after they have returned home.

For the those with even a fleeting interest in geology, negotiating the meandering incision of Meiringspoort through the Cape Fold Mountains or scaling the towering heights of Swartberg Pass north of the Garden Route will reinforce how ephemeral humanities clambering existence across the grandfather clock of geological time has been.

A four hour drive from Neu Bethesda north of Graaff Reinet to Klaarstroom east of Oudtshoon is a mere descent of 1300m which transports you through approximately 400 million years of geological time, a journey from 60 million years ago to 460 million years ago illustrated by a captivating fossil record.

But to delve deeper into an organic layer of the Karoo, you need to pull the vehicle over, step out of the air conditioning and stroll through the veld. You don’t need to walk far to discover the extraordinary diversity of this region. As you weave your way between the seemingly uniform shrubs, gradually you begin to distinguish the subtle variation in plant form and leaf structure that sets the almost 3200 plant species apart from each other.

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Depending on the season, close scrutiny at the base of a bush could reveal the floral emergence of a root parasite such as Hybanche spp. The plant grows underground extracting nutrients and moisture from the roots of a host plant and then forces it’s inflorescence through the hard earth in early spring.

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Further along your walk you can discover along the edge of a game trail or in the middle of a Jeep track the vivid lilac petals of Babiana sambucina, seemingly out of place in the stark brown and khaki landscape.

All too frequently a mere 500m walk of floral discovery can consume two hours before the midday heat nudges you back to the comforts of you car. But, as you proceed, you will without a doubt become captivated by the multitude of floral treasures.

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