Ecologist, Professor Sue Milton-Dean wrote to express her concerns regarding the Giant South African Flag, being laid out near the Valley of Desolation, outside Graaff-Reinet. “The website and press reports all state that ‘millions of different coloured succulent plants’ will be used to create this R170-million world first giant flag. My main concern is that non-indigenous succulent species i.e. red and yellow barrel cactus and blue agave, are being used for colour-planting. These all come from the Americas. The only indigenous plant species in the flag will be spekbos (Portulacaria). I find this strange for a South African flag. It has been stated that barrel cactus and the selected agave do not invade, but I am concerned that these species will in time be spread by birds and monkeys that eat the fruit and will end up into the national park and elsewhere. Also, the advertising material encourages people to ‘plant your own flag’ and states that ‘take away succulent trays’ will be available. This almost ensures that the alien plants will spread into the local environment, yet, the flag project has been approved following an extensive environmental impact analysis,” says Sue


All plants for the Giant Flag project will be grown by Obsesa Nursery in Graaff-Reinet. “The owner explained that “sustainability of the project will be largely dependent on the massive income generated from the sale of the cacti, growing in the flag,” writes Sue. Once the cacti are big enough to touch each other – in about five years’ time – every second plant will be dug up and exported creating an influx of money which will help the project to continue provide jobs and pay salaries to the weeders. “I discussed indigenous species, such as Red Crassula capitella/Kalanchoe thyrsifolia; Blue Atriplex vestita/Senecio ficoides; Yellow Euphorbia mauritanica and Galenia Africana with Obesa,” said Sue, “but it seems local plants do not have much value in the export market. My real concern is that the fragile ecology of the Karoo will be badly affected by these aliens in the long term. I sincerely believe that the indigenous versus alien aspect of the flag deserves to be re-thought.” Sue and her husband Professor Richard Dean are experts on Karoo veld assessment, vegetation surveys and landscaping. Their Renu-Karoo Nursery in Prince Albert provides indigenous seed and plants for Karoo restoration. For more see on their website


There’s a fun-filled year ahead for Karoo lovers. Join the Robertson’s Hands-on Harvest (February 7 to Marcy 29); or a cycle challenge such as the one-day, Leopard Crawl from Oudtshoorn (February 14). It passes through ostrich farming country and a training camp. Check out the art exhibitions and courses as well as AfrikaBurn, the unusual, spectacular theme camp/city of costumes, music and art at Stonehenge Farm in the Tankwa Karoo from April 3 to 11. Visit the ever-popular Prince Albert Festival, the Klein Karoo Kunste Fees (April 3 to 11) as well as a variety of wine shows, such as Robertson’s Wacky Wine Weekend (June 4) and Calitzdorp Port and Wine Festival (June 13).


The heat, monotonous plains and sparse vegetation of the Karoo intrigued early travellers. Used to lush green fields in Europe the dull veld and absence of good grazing bothered them. The dominant karroid shrubs and paucity of grass feature in almost all descriptive reports. No rain had fallen for almost a year when the poet, Thomas Pringle, wrote: “Not a vestage of green pasturage was seen over the surface of the immense monotonous landscape. Low heath-like shrubbery, apparently as sapless as a worn-out broom, was the only thing for our cattle to browse. No game was to be seen: All had fled apparently to more hospitable regions. Not even a wandering ostrich or bird of prey appeared to break the death-like stillness of this wasteland”. One of the first expeditions to leave the Cape in January1661, reported grazing was so sparse that “a thousand acres would not provide enough food for even one ox”. The Swedish botanist and naturalist, Carl Peter Thunberg, who made three journeys into the interior between 1772 and 1777, stated that the grass of the African fields was so “very thin that bare sand showed between the blades”. In November 1777, after a particularly wet summer, soldier\explorer Robert Jacob Gordon, also an artist and naturalist, described the “broken veld” of the inland plateau, stating that here and there sweet grass was to be found, but mostly the land was covered with “half Karoo, half grassveld and cruel sour grass”.


In December 1797, John Barrow, an English statesman, writer and secretary to Lord Macartney, travelled into the interior to reconcile the Boers and indigenous tribesmen. He described “strong clayey soil”, and “fine grass”, yet, he said, the land was “destitute of wood or bushes”. In July 1803, lured inland by tales of copper and gold, Willem Van Reenen, described the interior as having “reddish clay soil overgrown with vygesbosje”. In the same month artillery officer Paravincini de Capelli and Governor J W Janssens travelled into the interior “where only little bushes grow.” Also, in 1803, Dr Martin Heinrich Karl Lichtenstein, a German physician and naturalist, stated grass hardly grew in the interior and consequently it was difficult to find fodder. Pure grass, he said was a rarity. Oxen fed on thinly scattered forage and heath. In 1812, English artist, naturalist and explorer, William John Burchell observed that no true grass was to be found”, others wrote of “grass on elevated areas”, and of low bushes “uniformly interspersed with grass” near Richmond.


In 1815 Reverend John Campbell was sent by the London Missionary Society to inspect the Cape’s mission stations. He travelled to Bethelsdorp, Grahamstown, Graaff-Reinet, Pella, Klaarwater and Kamiesberg and stated that the country was “covered with heath”. “Grass appeared only here and there.” Another traveler reported seeing herds of springbok feeding on the low bushes but added that “there was not a blade of grass near Middelburg nor any between Richmond and De Aar”. In June 1823, George Thompson, who built a huge fire near Leeu Gamka to ward off lions, found the Karoo “dismally parched up” and “only fit for human residence during a few weeks in the year if it rained”. He observed that the ground near Middelburg was arid, miserably parched and poor” but added, that 30km north west of Colesberg the soil “looked more fertile and was covered with fire grass” Despite Thompson’s gloomy conclusion tenacious stock farmers lived in this harsh area. Burchell visited a semi-nomadic farmer during his epic (1811-1815) journey. He accompanied the man to his miserable hut. “His only food was mutton, without bread or any kind of vegetables. His sheep were numerous and thriving, though they fed on nothing but bushes. There were no cattle because the Karoo does not produce pasture. “On a scale of civilisation he would be at the bottom, perhaps even below zero.”


Peter H Sidey, died on August 2, 1804. He was 59. His grave stone was raised by the Cradock Teetotal Society “in memory of his usefulness and consistency”.


Naturalist Andrew Steedman travelled through the Karoo in the 1830s and stayed at the home of a Nuweveld farmer named Boonartie. His family had been driven from a previous farm by Bushmen who had plundered the stock and attempted to shoot the shepherds with poisoned arrows. In the Nuweveld area the family was plagued by predators. The Boonarties were hospitable people, said Steedman, but he found their house “a picture of misery”. The thatch of one room had completely disappeared. He wrote that wind and rain penetrated through the shattered and dilapidated roof to such a degree that it was difficult to keep candles burning”. Steedman reported that low stunted bushes were thickly scattered on the plains but that between Nouport and Colesberg low, sandy hillocks were covered with grass. The Scottish hunter, explorer, Roualeyn Gordon Cummings, in 1850, stated that South Africa was a parched country, arid and without a blade of grass. The lack of good grazing on the arid plains hampered the movement of these explorers.


The 19th century traveler, G A Farini, felt he had arrived in Hell as he adventured across the Karoo by train. No rain had fallen for two years and he thought “the sun was trying to make up for lost time”. He rated the region as “most terrible, arid, parched-up, kiln-dried, scorched, baked, burnt, and Godforsaken place” he had ever seen. When told that rain had not fallen in other districts for 12 years he said: “I feel sure Hell cannot be far off.” Farini did not like the Karoo and felt it could never be anything else but a “hopeless desert” but Lord Randolph Churchill, who also travelled across the Karoo by rail, had a much more discerning eye. He stated the Karoo as ‘far more hospitable and nourishing than the uninstructed tourist could ever imagine”.


Scottish surgeon, explorer and ethnologist Andrew Smith (later Sir), is considered the father of zoology in S A because of the many species he described on his hinterland travels. He was ordered to the Cape in 1820 and sent to Grahamstown to supervise the medical care of soldiers. Two years later he was appointed district surgeon in Albany. There he started the country’s first free dispensary for indigent patients. Smith was a good doctor, and whenever possible he indulged his interests in natural history and anthropology. He kept copious notes of his trips to Namaqualand, the land beyond the Orange River and Natal, as well as of the customs of Xhosas, Bushmen and other people he met. In 1825 Governor Lord Charles Somerset appointed him as the first Superintendent of the South African Museum of Natural History in Cape Town. Smith met the young Charles Darwin when The Beagle touched at the Cape in May 1836. He showed Darwin slate formations and gave him some rock samples. The two corresponded for quite some time and Darwin often mentioned Smith in his writings. Smith married his housekeeper Ellen Henderson in 1844 and converted to her Roman Catholicism.


In 1900, during the Anglo-Boer War, Captain Llewellyn J. Phillips, commander of a South Wales Borderers Company, was en route Cape Town by train. He wrote: “At Beaufort West I got into the same carriage as Rudyard Kipling, a very affable man. He is not at all the sort of fellow you would imagine from description of those who made abortive attempts to interview him. He seemed greatly interested in all the Volunteers and in South Africa in general. When we got to Fraserburg Road, there was a company of the Welsh, so he got out of the carriage, and was immediately surrounded by about fifty ‘Tommies’. He seemed to glory in conversing with them. I never saw any hero-worship at Beaufort West, but it seemed to have leaked out that he was travelling by that train and the entire community – old, young, white, black and yellow, crowded into the station to get a glimpse of him. I received two bottles of laudanum from him and administered the first dose this morning. When I told the man from whom the medicine had come, his eyes gleamed with appreciation.”


During the Festive Season people in Cradock were treated to awesome menus at the Schreiner Tea Room. These were prepared and served by new owner Tony Jackman, a passionate cook, career journalist, playwright, and food columnist. Many follow his blog Sliver\Jackman’s Slice of Life at Tony has become a top attraction as anyone seeking a tasty meal or snack in Cradock find their way to the Schreiner Tea Room. It was a long road that led Tony and his wife, Di, to this place. They first arrived in Cradock by chance more than two decades ago, then wandered off to fill the intervening years with lifestyle writing, here and abroad, with discussion of the theatre and the writing of his own plays. These include the acclaimed, An Audience With Miss Hobhouse and others which cover weighty matters such as the disparity between rich and poor, atrocities of the Anglo-Boer War and the feud between Olive Schreiner and Cecil John Rhodes. “Cradock, brought me to Olive Schreiner, led me to research her life and writings, to think about her beliefs and what she felt mattered. It led to my writing plays about her, the time she lived in and the issues of her day and how these affect our world. Cradock gave me a lot, but now it has claimed me,” said Tony.


The Karoo thorn tree is “a star” of the South Africa Section at Kew Gardens. This tree, formerly the Acacia karroo , but renamed Vachellia karroo, in 2005 when Australia claimed “acacia” for their wattles, explains Graaff-Reinet historian, Andrew McNaughton, in Karoo Connections. “This is odd because ‘acacia’, derived from Greek, means ‘thorny tree’, and Australian wattles don’t have thorns.” The Karoo thorn trees, with their lacy leaves, dark bark, and sweet-smelling yellow puff ball flowers are icons of the hinterland. They do a splendid job of protecting the land and enriching the soil during their comparatively short 30 to 40-year lifespan. The Karoo thorn tree has a nitrogen-fixing fungi attached to its roots, and this increases fertility around each tree. Research, done at Dohne Research Station, has proved that plants that thrive in the shade of these trees, become more palatable and productive. Vervet monkeys, which are excellent seed dispersers, can live entirely from thorn trees. They eat the nutritious leaves, flowers, bark, and the delicious sweet gum. Early settlers used this gum in cooking and to sweeten deserts. The trees, which are all-in-one supermarket for browsers and grazers, have allowed kudus to expand their foraging range. In winter, the tree drops protein-rich pods which are enjoyed by many animals.


Ecologist Dr Sue Milton says the thorn trees increase during frost free times when temperatures rise, rainfall increases and when there are higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In severe droughts they decrease. “Neverthelsss, even when these trees die they leave the earth a better place. Rotting timber attracts insects, which become part of the food chain for birds and small mammals. Fallen branches trap seeds and create a protective microclimate for new plants. Dead trees stop soil erosion along drainage lines and dry riverbeds. No matter whether living or dead, these trees provide shelter for animals: protection from predators, shade and act as windbreaks. Early hinterland travellers used the long white thorns as sewing needles and naturalists used them to pin specimens.


Looking for a book on the Karoo or specific historic tome? Well then McNaughton’s Bookshop at 7 Church Street, Graaff -Reinet, is the place to be. This family-owned bookstore, established in 2007, has an atmosphere all of its own. The shop’s shelves are stacked with bestsellers, books on current affairs, history, geology, ecology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, cookery, travel, poetry and childrens’ books. And, if the one you are looking for is not there, they will offer to try to find it for you.

Wit is like caviar; it should be savored in small elegant proportions, and not spread about like marmalade – Noel Coward