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Look at any decent map of South Africa, or fly across it, and there’s no missing the impressive, arid expanse of the Klein Karoo. But missing out the Klein Karoo is precisely what so many South African travellers aim to achieve. What a tragic omission! Here in the vast but somehow hidden heart of the country are found some of South Africa’s most archetypal landscapes – her flat-topped koppies and rolling vlaktes clothed with scrubby bossieveld, her rocky valleys and dry riverbeds lined with acacias, alive with birdsong and the sensual throb of horny insects.
Commonly dismissed by the unknowing as “hot, flat and boring”, to the discerning traveller the Klein Karoo is, more often than not, nothing of the sort. With its countless rocky outcrops and exquisitely preserved fossils, the region provides an ideal outdoor classroom for those interested in the deep history of Life and Earth. One hundred million years of geological time are recorded here by a succession of ancient sediments some ten kilometres thick! Geologists can trace the paths of 300 million-year-old ice sheets, followed by cool southern seas where early aquatic reptiles frolicked and fished. The Karoo is famous among palaeontologists for its abundant remains of terrestrial vertebrates from the Permian Period (about 255 million years ago) whose petrified skulls and bones litter the rocky slopes of many a lonely koppie. Among these marvellous extinct beasts were fearsome, sabre-toothed predators and lumbering, dim-witted plant-eaters that lived 30 million years or more before the first dinosaurs. They included the direct ancestors of modern crocodiles, turtles and mammals, and probably ours too! Accumulations of carefully crafted stone tools bear witness to Stone Age human occupants of the Karoo margins stretching back a million years or more.
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