Exploring the Klein Karoo: Oudtshoorn, the Cango Caves and De Rust
There is something old and wild about the Klein Karoo. It feels so preserved, so remote, so unchanging. Travelling past fields of ostriches and tobacco farms, you can forget that the world has kept spinning over the last few decades. It’s a subtle but powerful kind of magic.
It was the past that brought me there. For years, I had wanted to see South Africa’s oldest tourist attraction: a prehistoric natural marvel buried in the dark depths of a mountain.
The Cango Caves sat, patiently, on my bucket list. Until now.
Entering the ostrich capital, Oudtshoorn
Wedged between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains, the town of Oudtshoorn can be found in the semi-desert region of the Klein (little) Karoo in South Africa's Western Cape. With the Outeniqua area slowly re-greening and recovering after a devastating fire swept along its slopes, the drive through from the Garden Route involves a series of winding passes and dramatic views. With an early tour booked at the Cango Caves, we passed through the mountains in the gentle morning light, some of their fire-eaten sign boards still evident and slowly being replaced.
Given its size and remote location, Oudtshoorn has managed to build quite a reputation for itself. In South Africa, it’s synonymous with ostriches, an annual arts festival, and the ancient caves in the surrounding mountains. It’s the biggest town in the Klein Karoo, and a popular stop for tourists.
Oudtshoorn had its heyday during the Victorian era ostrich boom, where the wealth gained by selling fashionable ostrich feathers allowed farmers and traders to build “feather palaces” on the back of their profits.
Today, traces of this success are visible on a slow drive down the main road. Many of these stately buildings have been preserved and converted into modern day offices, their filigreed iron balustrades, stone walls and corrugated roofs reminders of the town’s glittering history.
Inside the Cango Caves
The area’s cavernous limestone attraction is a short distance from town, where it has been existing quietly for millennia. The 5km cave network is long, thin and grand, with around a kilometre open to the public. The first 600 metres or so is the most easily accessible, and can be visited on the standard “heritage tour”. More ambitious cave climbers can continue on in the “adventure tour” (hint: not me).
While descending the first staircase, the scale of the space hit me: it was a massive hall, ringed by frozen waterfalls of stone. The ceiling shimmered slightly in the dim light, its variations in colour and texture clear even from my spot on the distant ground. When the cave was discovered in the 1780s, the first (modern) explorer who entered this hall had to navigate down a sheer rock wall in near darkness, with only a small candle to indicate what he had found. We had dim electric lights, and it was still so dark. So silent.
Then the tour guide turned the lights on fully, and began to sing “Amazing Grace”. As her clear notes hit the cave walls, the natural acoustics of the hall were revealed, gently bouncing the tune around us. That moment alone was worth the trip for me, and we were still in the first chamber.
As we walked deeper into the caves, the humidity began to increase. I'd heard it said that the caves remain a constant 18 degrees Celsius year-round, but the air definitely felt different as we ventured along. The route took us round towering columns, which formed when the ground-dwelling stalagmite eventually met the hanging stalactite, and to viewing points that showed what the natural cave floor looked like, far below. Yes, there were bats.
Some parts of the cave are still growing, with tiny water droplets splashing the floor and hanging limestone icicles slowly extending their reach. They grow millimeters every year, which is difficult to comprehend - some of the largest structures have taken hundreds of thousands of years to reach their current size. The first evidence of human activity dates back only 80,000 years.
The caves definitely let you know your place.
A stop over in De Rust
After contemplating my fleeting existence, lunch was in order. Next stop: De Rust.
If Oudtshoorn was a town, this was a village (can I use the word 'dorpie' without offending anyone with my big-city vibes?). De Rust's main street has all you need though - coffee shops, cute gift stores and whole lot of homemade Karoo deliciousness.
We stopped off at the Village Trading Post, which beckons you inside with signs proclaiming the wonders of its dessert selection. There is a restaurant section serving vegetarian-friendly breakfasts, salads, sandwiches and cakes. I went all in with an open sandwich made with roosterkoek (a traditional barbecued bread), and delicious roasted vegetables served with onion preserve. Jiislaaik.
The Village Trading Post lives up to its name with shelves of locally produced and carefully sourced goods, from homemade rusks to jams, sweets, nuts, spice mixes and oils, as well as a gift shop in the back of the building with jewellery and home décor pieces for sale. My favourite find was a jar of onion marmalade with a label declaring the ingredients to be onions, vinegar, sugar and “baie liefde” (lots of love).
Next door lies a farm stall selling local crafts, art, homewares, baked goods, toys and snacks. All along the road are testaments to De Rust's creative residents: from wall murals to quirky signage and giant animal sculptures, it's clear this is an arty place.
In the folds of Meiringspoort
A short drive away, on the fringes of the Swartberg mountains, lay our final stop: the Meiringspoort Waterfall. Travellers enroute to larger towns can stop here for a quick dip in the clear pools before carrying on with their road trip. I wasn't keen for a swim, but I was up for a hike.
As it turned out, I didn't need to hike at all: Meiringspoort has a well-maintained picnic area and even bathroom facilities (seriously, they were planting flowers next to the car park when we visited). The walk to the towering waterfall took about five minutes and barely warranted the running shoes I had packed in my suitcase in anticipation. I appreciated the extra grip a few minutes later though, when raindrops began to fall on the smooth stone.
The drive out was dramatic: the slopes of the mountains seem to be curving and bending like layers of foam, with clear evidence of how they were formed visible in the rock face. Crossing low bridges over rivers in the deep valleys, it was easy to see how this area can be a victim of flash floods. After a few minutes, the rough mountains gave way once again to farmland. So many extremes coexist here.
The day was over, but I still felt like I needed to see more. There were so many other road signs pointing to places I've never been... what's Prince Albert like? Can I go on a meerkat safari? I heard there is, incredibly, a wine route out there somewhere?
I started this journey with a desire to cross something off my bucket list. But now, I think I might just add a few more items.
Tips for visiting Oudtshoorn and De Rust:
Oudtshoorn is best reached by car - it is around an hour's drive from George (the nearest town with an airport) and four and a half hours from Cape Town. There are also coach tours available if you’re not keen on the drive. De Rust is half an hour's drive away, and the Cango Caves is around the same distance.
The area has quite extreme temperatures and varying periods of rainfall and dry heat - it can be over 30 degrees Celsius in summer and the winters can dip below 10, so pack and prepare carefully.
The Klein Karoo is an Afrikaans-speaking region, but English speakers can get around easily as most people are bilingual. Most tourist attractions have signage in English, although smaller cafés and more local spots may only have Afrikaans labels and sign boards.
Tickets to the Cango Caves can be booked online in advance by emailing the reservations team (contact details are on their official website) - big coach tour groups can fill up all the slots, so plan ahead if you can or are visiting in a busy holiday period. The standard “heritage tour” takes an hour and involves minimal physical effort or tight spaces (just a few stairs and open, paved walkways) while the longer “adventure tour” requires climbing and crawling through tunnels (if you’re claustrophobic, skip this one). There is a life-size replica of some of the smallest spaces in the reception area, so you can double check you'll fit before attempting the adventure tour.