A desert is a tough sell for a vacation. "Come to nothing" is not a slogan ever likely to draw amusement-park crowds. Which is why most visitors to South Africa, steered to Kruger National Park in the northeast and to the coastal vineyards of the southwest, often don't notice the country is half scrub. That two-hour flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town? That was the desert.
Or deserts. South Africa has three: Namaqualand, the Kalahari and the Karoo. Namaqualand and the Kalahari both extend into neighboring countries, but the vast Karoo hundreds of miles of dusty plains, barren mountains and rocky canyons stretching across the central hinterland is South Africa's alone. As a former frontier for European colonists, it is a place thick with history and bloody legend.
The start of any Karoo tour is the south coast. Hire a good car, check the spare tire (roads are good but service stations can be hours apart), and head inland. Once you breach the mountains that line the coastline the Outeniqua, the Baviaanskloofbeit or the Swartrugreng you're in the Karoo. Roads run straight to the horizon, the sky is cloudless and the mountains are a sequence of blues and ambers.
A good base is Graaff Reinet, the Karoo's prettiest town and the fourth oldest European town in South Africa; 220 of its buildings are national monuments. To stroll down Parsonage Street or Parliament Street is to walk through another era. The buildings' styles vary from the thatch, whitewash and green shutters of the Cape Dutch to ornate Victorian villas hugged by luminous bougainvillea even the pharmacy is unchanged since the turn of the last century. Many houses have been converted into hotels. Best is the six-room Andries Stockenstrom Guesthouse on Craddock Street. In her high-ceilinged, 1819 manor house, award-winning chef Beatrice Barnard serves up Karoo haute cuisine: ostrich-liver paté, smoked kudu with sesame water and loin of Karoo lamb on potato rösti. Room rates are $94-107 per person; tel: (27-49) 892 4575.
Many of the bigger houses are now museums where you can study the Karoo's harsh history: the Great Trek, when the Boers left Cape Town for the interior in 1835-40; wars between Europeans and Africans, particularly Zulus; wars among Europeans (the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902); the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and Boer mythology. Not all the area's troubles are past. There's more than a hint of enduring apartheid in the town's layout: colonial mansions for whites in the center, tin shacks for coloreds and blacks on the outskirts. And there's a lingering antipathy toward the British: you still hear tales of Afrikaners refusing to serve Anglos at remote Karoo gas stations. But that Twilight Zone feel Nevada meets the Deep South is part of the fascination of this area of South Africa.
You're also here for the landscapes. Just outside Graaff Reinet is the Karoo at its most awesome: the Valley of Desolation. Formed by millions of years of wind erosion, the valley is a spectacular collection of rock towers and plunging precipes that evoke the Wild West. Though there are few people, it's far from empty. Eagles soar over the cliffs, and in the valleys you can see springboks, buffaloes, tortoises and mountain zebras.
For a peek into animal history in the area, take the road north out of town, then a left on the dirt track to Nieu Bethesda. There, at the foot of Lootsberg Pass (just follow the signs), you'll find the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, the world's best record of the Permian period (250 million years ago) when saber-toothed, tiger-sized lizards called gorgonopsians preyed on herds of herbivorous dicynodonts, which had tusks and tortoise-like beaks. Nieu Bethesda has other attractions. The Owl House, decorated with finely ground multicolored glass, was the home and life's work of "outsider" artist Helen Martins, and it's now a museum. Around it has grown a small community of artists and other refugees from modern living, including André Cilliers, who moved to Nieu Bethesda from Cape Town when even that laid-back city became too much, and now serves up home-made goats' cheese, smoked kudu salami and delicious honey ale at his Two Goats Deli and Brewery. Time your visit for spring (September-November), when the desert blooms with orange and pink flowers, or autumn (March-May), when the figs are ripening. You'll never skip desert again.