Tankwa Karoo National Park in South Africa

Accommodation in Tankwa Karoo National Park

Product NameRoom TypeRATINGPrices
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Elandsberg Cottage (CO2/4) from: ZAR 1185
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Informal Camping (CK15) from: ZAR 120
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Tanqua Cottage (FA8) from: ZAR 1185
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Varschfontein Cottage (CO9) from: ZAR 685
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Elandsberg Cottage (CO2/4Z) from: ZAR 1185
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Tanqua Guest House (GH4) from: ZAR 1185
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Tanqua Guest House (GH2) from: ZAR 685
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Formal Camping (CK6) from: ZAR 295
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP De Zyfer Cottage (C04/6) from: ZAR 685
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Elandsberg Cottage (FA6) from: ZAR 1490
Tankwa Karoo National Park - SANP Paulshoek Cottage (CO6) from: ZAR 685

Tankwa Karoo National Park

As luminous clouds of dust swirl through the scarred landscape, a Karoo tortoise patiently ambles around in search of a succulent coral aloe. A lizard basks in the sun while suricates and mongoose share the arid plains with orb-web spiders, centipedes and leggy toktokkies.The 80 000 hectare Tanqua Karoo National Park, proclaimed in 1986 and still in a development stage, is at present in a veld recovery phase and it will be some time before the original vegetation re-establishes itself. Even so, after the occasional shower, the park erupts into a dazzling display of flowering succulents. With an average rainfall of 80mm a year, even a scant shower is reason for celebration. Nomadic pastoralism first brought sheep into the succulent Karoo about 2 000 years ago, and cattle some 1 500 years later. The European pastoralists (trekboere) who moved northwards from the Cape Peninsula in the 18th century were nomadic, moving with their flocks to suitable grazing. In the 19th century the succulent Karoo became the first biome used for settled European pastoralism (Milton et al. 1997). The extremely arid summers however make much of the succulent Karoo unsuitable for settled pastoralism, even now when boreholes provide perennial water and forage can be imported from other areas (Milton et al. 1997).The duration and temperature of the growing season clearly separates succulent Karoo from other biomes. The Tanqua Karoo is one of the most arid sections of the Karoo. Isohyets of mean annual rainfall (mm) for the Karoo indicate that the Tanqua Karoo National Park falls into the 0-100mm range (Venter et al. 1986), with 25% of the mean annual precipitation falling in summer. The mean July minimum temperature is 5,7°C, and the mean January maximum temperature is 38,9°C. The highest average maximum temperatures and wind speeds occur from November to March and from October to March respectively. Acocks (1988) describe the Tanqua Karoo (VT 31b) as “terribly tramped out, and eroded down to the bare shale”. The better conserved sections he described as a short succulent Karoo with many of the mesembs being of the stemless type; with non-succulents also found, and Stipagrostis obtusa, even becoming abundant after good rains. Annuals and geophytes are numerous but rarely seen (Acocks 1988). Milton et al. (1997) describe the vegetation structure VT31b as very sparse Shrubland and Dwarf Shrubland, with succulents on shallow soils, and grass and ephernerals on sandy alluvium. The dominant taxa in these areas are: Augea, Cephalophyllum, Grassula, Pleiospilos, Psilocaulon, Hereroa, Ruschia, Sphalmanthus, Sceletium, Tetragonia, Rhinephyllum, and non-succulents: Acacia karroo, Galenia, Hermannia, Lycium, Osteospermum, Pteronia, Salsola, Stipagrostis, Samari and Zygophllum..As a recovering scientific park, the current visitors to the park are usually people from the botanic, zoological and ecological fraternities. There is no tourism infrastructure in the park, although there are a couple of privately operated bed and breakfasts on the parks’ periphery. For campers and people loving the outdoors, in the park there are 3 very historical houses offering only a roof to stay under and drinking water close by. Food parcels, picnic baskets, braai packs and braai wood can be arranged. Any entrance to the park is at the discretion of park management. The park’s contact number is +27 27 3412389, The Tanqua Karoo National Park The Tanqua Karoo National Park is designated as a Scientific National Park, and as such offers no visitor facilities. The park is not open to the public as a rule, but through direct contact with the park management, special entry permission can be requested. However with panoramic views over semi-desert landscapes bursting into a flower paradise during August and September while the spectacular Roggeveld mountains lurks on the horizon and the Rhenoster River flowing through the park, this is a magnificent part of South Africa nobody want to miss. Only two Southern African regions have been bestowed the honour of designation as Biodiversity Hotspots by Conservation International. One is of course the Cape Floral Kingdom, and the other the Succulent Karoo. For those whose image of the southwestern Karoo is a shimmering wasteland to be endured as briefly as possible en route to Cape Town or Johannesburg, this may come as a surprise. Though the remarkable endemism and diversity of the Succulent Karoo flora (at its most spectacular from August to October) is its most renowned aspect, the Karoo as a whole naturally has a great deal to offer the birder. The Park protects one of the most starkly beautiful tracts of the Tanqua Karoo and is well worth visiting for several reasons, among them its koppie-studded, moon-like landscape, diversity of succulent plants, fine Karoo birding and, perhaps most notably for hardened birders, above-average chance of finding the enigmatic Burchell’s Courser. A dense population of Black eagle breeding pairs are found, and will be seen circling the sky, while the chancers can tackle the cliffs for closer sights of the nests and nestlings. From the top of the Roggeveld Mountain one can even look down and watch them hunting Klipdassies. Taking a night drive don,t be surprise finding the endangered aardvark which occurs in a dense population throughout the park. The park is criss-crossed by a number of vehicle tracks, most of which are easily negotiable by two-wheel-drive. There are also two 4x4 tracks available to compliment the magnificent views throughout Tanqua Karoo. The Park’s management currently welcomes visitors, on the understanding that no modern facilities are provided, except for the few prehistoric camping facilities, and that prior permission is obtained from Park Management at Tel. 027 341 2389. However, please don’t let courser-ambition get the better of you, as should the presence of any birders result in any potentially negative impact on the park, such access may become restricted in the future.Birders will probably want to concentrate their efforts along the track running parallel to the park’s southern boundary, and easily accessible from the Tanqua Guest House. Burchell’s Courser is seen fairly regularly on the patches of bare, burnished gravel along this road, and was even seen with chicks in spring 2001. Burchell's Courser is a poorly known and notoriously tricky bird: it may be absent altogether in some years, and even when present requires considerable effort to spot. The best techniques are to drive along slowly, stopping now and then to scan promising-looking expanses of gravel, and to keep a very sharp eye out for odd-shaped birds flying over. Strangely, we have picked up most of the coursers we have seen in the park this way! Double-banded Courser also occurs here. A bird that appears to reach the southern limit of its regular range in the Tanqua Karoo is Karoo Long-billed Lark, which becomes very much commoner as one enters Bushman Land to the north.WHY THE CONSERVATION OF TANQUA KAROO?
  • It has a unique environment gradient from the top of the Roggeveld escarpment in the east to the Cedarberge in the west.
  • It is the most southerly explored environment where the Black Rhino has previously being seen in its natural habitat.
  • It is also the most southerly turning point of the migrating routes for antelope like the Springbuck.
  • The migrating corridor for succulent plants is found through Tanqua Karoo.
  • Two temperature regimes are included in Tanqua Karoo National Park.
  • Summer- and winter rainfall is included in Tanqua Karoo National Park. Birding the Tanqua KarooWith no less than 18 endemics almost wholly restricted to it, the Karoo is an essential destination for any birder visiting southern Africa, as well as a potential source of exciting new species for hardened locals.Consequently, the accessible south-western corner of the Karoo – a low-lying, mountain-bound section of the Succulent Karoo biome known as the Tanqua Karoo, after the river that bisects it – has received a great deal of birding attention. Here, in sparsely populated semidesert just two and a half hours drive from Cape Town, the majority of the Karoo specials are easily accessible in a day’s outing from the city. The famous stretch of white, dusty R355 from Karoopoort through Eierkop to Skitterykloof (the latter popularly but erroneously known as "Katbakkies" – the true Katbakkies Pass lies 15 km to the west) has been intensively birded as has already received detailed treatment in such accounts as The Birds of the South-Western Cape and Where to Watch Them (Cape Bird Club, 1995) and Essential Birding in Western South Africa: Key Routes from Cape Town to the Kalahari (Struik, 2000). Our purpose here, however, is to draw attention to some lesser-known areas north and west of the R355, which have proved to supply superb birding. Notably, a number of sought-after species, usually associated with the less accessible Bushmanland region to the north and difficult to find or absent at the traditional Tanqua Karoo sites, appear to reach the south-western limit of their regular range here. We also describe some highlights of the Tanqua Karoo National Park, a much overlooked yet fairly accessible and strikingly beautiful protected area north of the Tanqua River. Lastly, we suggest some practical itineraries for tackling a trip to the Tanqua and combining it with a more extensive tour of the arid west, and describe some of the excellent accommodation options now available in this region. Larks, Eremomelas and the P2250 For those unfamiliar with the Tanqua Karoo, the stretch of R355 regional road linking Karoopoort, at the south-westernmost corner of the Tanqua Karoo, to Eierkop and Skitterykloof provides access to a good selection of Karoo endemics. Beyond the Skitterykloof turn-off, the R355 continues northwards to Calvinia through a lonely and very beautiful stretch of semi-desert, bounded on the west by the dramatic skyline of the Cedarberg Mountains. Conveniently, however, even day-trippers can add an attractive extra few Karoo specials and enjoy some great landscapes by continuing a more manageable distance north. Twenty-five kilometres north of the Skitterykloof turn-off, a minor road, the P2250, heads off northeastwards towards the distant towns of Middelpos and Sutherland. We consider this unassuming regional road to be perhaps one of the finest for birding of the southwestern Karoo, particularly in spring, when the scrub is alive with displaying, nest-building and chick-provisioning birds. The initial stretches are relatively heavily vegetated and resemble the familiar R355; however, before long the bushes grow further and further apart. Stretches of gleaming gravel appear, punctuated by the occasional clump of spiny Hoodia, a fly-pollinated succulent decorated in spring by droopy and foully malodorous pink flowers. Approaching the two larger watercourses crossing the road en route to the larger Tanqua River, not far to the north, and break the monotony with their dense Acacia karroo thickets. Passing Tanqua River the P2250 runs alongside the Rhenoster River for about 15km, the latter 10km already included in the park. Continuing northwards from the National Park, the P2250 will take one over the Roggeveld escarpment climbing the one track Gannaga Pass on to Middelpos. Gannaga is a truly spectacular pass, rising precipitously up through 700 m of Roggeveld escarpment in a 6km stretch of dramatic switchbacks which may not, perhaps, suit the particularly fainthearted. The rewards are superb views of the great, hazy basin of the Tanqua Karoo below. Perhaps the most conspicuous species along these arid stretches is Tractrac Chat, a gravel-plains specialist with a short-tailed, dumpy jizz. The commonest bird of the adjacent scrub is usually Rufous-eared Warbler, a noisy, neurotic and beautifully marked endemic of southern Africa’s arid west. Spike-heeled Larks are also particularly common here, as well as Thick-billed, Karoo and Red-capped Larks. Karoo Lark is particularly easy to find in spring, when its rattling call is heard everywhere. The commonest seedeater in the area is usually Yellow Canary; however, nomadic species like Black-headed Canary and Larklike Bunting periodically invade the area. The latter can be particularly abundant at times, and is generally present much more regularly than further south in the Tanqua Karoo. Coveys of Namaqua Sandgrouse, another erratic visitor further south, flush up at intervals from the roadside. Especially in winter and spring, Ludwig’s Bustard may be present in some numbers and are best spotted in flight, while Karoo Korhaans occur year-round. Pairs or small parties are occasionally seen within sight of the road, although their true density is only revealed at dawn, when their atmospheric frog-like duets drift across the scrub. Greater Kestrel, a scarce bird further south in the Tanqua, is fairly regularly seen along the P2250, as well as the commoner Pale Chanting Goshawk, Rock Kestrel and the occasional Black-breasted Snake Eagle or Martial Eagle.Karoo Eremomela, a curiously localised and sometimes tricky Karoo endemic, is remarkably common along here. Look especially along the shallow drainage lines 4-7 km from the R355, always remaining alert for its two calls (a high-pitched, pulsating whine, somewhat like the tightening of a rusty bolt, and a Spike-heeled Lark-like krrr-krrr). Small groups of this social and cooperative-breeding species follow each other through the scrub, popping up at intervals to let forth a volley of whines. The highly nomadic Black-eared Finchlark, usually considered a Bushman Land special, may well be a regular visitor to this region. In 1996, they bred in the Tanqua Karoo National Park (see Africa: Birds & Birding 2(1): 74), and in spring 2001 invaded the Tanqua Karoo once again. In this exceptional season, they occurred and probably bred right down to Eierkop at the Tanqua’s southern edge; however, they occurred at highest densities along the P2250, and patchily in the Tanqua Karoo National Park (see below). When breeding, aerially displaying males are easy to locate, looking more like giant, floppy black butterflies than birds. In flight, only their dangling white legs break the pure black of their underwings and bodies. Small groups tend to land frustratingly concealed in the scrub; the best technique is to walk slowly up to the spot, and wait quietly until a foraging bird potters into view in a gap between the bushes. As the day heats up or once you have exhausted the possibilities of the gravel plains and scrub, you may wish to make a stop at the first or especially the second Acacia-lined watercourse, the latter crossing the P2250 27.6 km from the R355. These supply all the expected Karoo thicket species, such as Pririt Batis, Cape Penduline Tit (also in the adjacent lower scrub), Titbabbler and White-backed Mousebird. Just beyond the second watercourse, a turn-off to the left, signposted ‘Tanqua’, takes one 12 km further to the Tanqua River and Tanqua Guest House. The Tanqua Guest House makes an excellent base for exploring this area and the adjacent National Park; however, the river does lie on private land, so if you wish to visit for the day please obtain prior permission from the landowners, Alewyn and Esther Burger (tel. 027 341 2366). Namaqua Warbler, which in the Tanqua Karoo occasionally also occurs into Acacia thickets far from water, is very common and fairly easily seen in the mixture of reeds and Acacia thicket densely lining the Tanqua River. This riparian strip is also one of the more reliable sites in the Tanqua Karoo to look for Dusky Sunbird, a highly nomadic desert sunbird that only occasionally ventures south to the Eierkop-Skitterykloof area. The Tanqua River is dammed just beyond the Guest House, rather startlingly creating a substantial waterbody which hosts varying numbers of waterfowl and waders, perhaps most characteristically South African Shelduck and Avocet. Ouberg Pass and on to Sutherland Heading eastwards from the National Park, a potentially confusing network of roads works its way over the Roggeveld escarpment and on to the town of Sutherland, whose one-horse appearance belies its astronomical fame (as yet more literal than figurative, given that the new SALT, or Southern African Large Telescope is presently under construction here, and when complete will be the largest single telescope in the southern hemisphere). These are beautiful, remote roads, worth driving for their solitude and landscapes alone. However, if a birding objective is more acceptable, then Ouberg Pass does admirably. Ouberg is a truly spectacular pass, rising precipitously up through 600 m of Roggeveld escarpment in a series of dramatic switchbacks which may not, perhaps, suit the particularly fainthearted. The rewards are superb views of the great, hazy basin of the Tanqua Karoo below, and excellent birding. Ouberg Pass is possibly the most reliable place within striking distance of Cape Town to see Rock Pipit (knowledge of its call is essential), and is also a good site for other Karoo escarpment birds such as Sickle-winged Chat, Pale-winged Starling and, together with the plateau beyond, Cape Eagle Owl. The latter can be looked for any time from dusk onwards, simply by scanning the roadside telephone poles. Cape Eagle Owls can be unexpectedly common in many mountainous Karoo regions; though do beware of the occasional Spotted Eagle Owls venturing out of their favoured copses of exotic trees. Planning Your Visit When To Visit Spring is best: birding it at its peak from August to October, when the region may also unpredictably burst into flower. However, the majority of the specials (with the possible exception of Black-headed Canary, Ludwig’s Bustard and Black-eared Finchlark) are accessible year-round with a little effort. Itineraries & Approaches Those approaching the Tanqua Karoo from Cape Town will find that although it is certainly possible to visit the areas described here in a (long) day trip from Cape Town, this really requires a desperately early start and making a weekend of it is far preferable. The R355/P2250 junction is 103 km from Ceres, and takes over three hours to reach from Cape Town. Coming from the east, an attractive option is work your way down into the Tanqua over Ouberg Pass, having first taken the tarred R354 from the N1 towards Sutherland. The Tanqua Karoo also makes an excellent start to a Bushman Land trip: the R355 can be followed north all the way to Calvinia. The road surface is generally excellent and the scenery superb, but please make sure that you’re adequately prepared for the lonely drive (see below). Roads Please take care when driving in this region. The road gravel is sharp and often loose, and a great deal of caution needs to be taken with corners and sudden stops. Furthermore, please give some thought to your fuel and water requirements, bearing in mind that there are no towns in the Tanqua Karoo proper, and the closest refuelling points are Ceres, Sutherland Middelpos and Calvinia. Those with thirsty engines may consider packing a (full) jerry-can to guard against potential concerns over birding detours. Client Comment:"Just had the most amazing weekend on the south western border just outside the Tankwa National Park - typical Karoo vegetation - a bush every 10 metres or so - incredible sunset and sunrise. Sort in the middle of a valley with the Cedarberg in the west and the Roggeveld in the east - almost dessertlike in some places." - Byett Family May 2003