The gravel road that leads to Vlakfontein Farm begins with a nondescript turn, tucked off a country highway. The road was just good enough for my compact VW Polo rental car, though at times I was struggling through muddy patches or skidding across stones. The original plan was to follow the instructions Peter and Clare Barnes-Webb, the retired farmers of Vlakfontein, gave me — a simple enough set of turns and landmarks once I had left the freeway. But I took a wrong turn and was instead using my phone’s GPS for the rest of the way, before I lost cell reception. During the hour-and-a-half trip on that gravel road, I saw only two other cars. Most of the scenery flitting by was like the photo below: small mountains (koppies in Afrikaans) and sparsely populated fields filled with low brush and hardy grass. In the area around the farm, sheep farming is king, and thousands of sheep roam freely behind taut barb-wire fences. In other words, it was a classic Karoo scene.
The Karoo is a vast semi-arid landscape that covers 40% of South Africa and huge tracts of the Northern Cape Province (the largest province by area). Despite the relative lack of rainfall and the desert-like views, the Karoo supports large grape, lucerne (alfalfa), wool and maize industries. Farmers can survive out here both because of the open land available and vast groundwater supplies. For instance, on Vlakfontein and its neighboring farm, Grootfontein, groundwater supplies all the drinking water and even supports a small poplar and cedar forest.