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Karoo:  A Changing Landscape

The Karoo desert lies in the Northern Cape in South Africa and is a semi-desert region made up of flat scrublands and grasslands, interrupted by ridges of dolorite rock and conical hills.

In such a vast expanse whose physical geography has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, it would be a reasonable assumption that there is not much to do or see where the average population density is 2 people per sq km. 

But immediate impressions can be deceiving to say the least.  A closer look and it is obvious the Karoo is a weird and wonderful place punctuated by old colonial settlements, much unchanged since the days of the first settlers in the mid-1700’s (or trekboers as they are known in Afrikaans).  Along with the large indigenous Khoisan population, the culture of the Karoo is unique in many ways.  It is testament to a life gone by where the progressive hand of freedom and change that marked the end of apartheid and which the rest of South Africa experienced seems to have very much past the Karoo by.

Given the ruptures and general instability that a rapidly changing social, economic and political environment has precipitated in the post-apartheid era in South Africa, especially in urban centres where outdated hierarchies change rapidly and whose ultimate fate is uncertain, the Karoo represents a hark back to a pre-independence era.  To an idyllic way of life that essentially remains unchanged since the time of the first white settlers. 

The outwardly serene and idealised way of life in the Karoo sits uneasily with the problems that great and unprecedented change has brought to the rest of South Africa.  Until the transition to more stable and concrete social, political and economic structures are complete there, life in the Karoo poses discomforting questions about the relative superior value of this seemingly stable and almost crime-free environment – Where old racial hierarchies and attitudes can be said to be very much in place, if not politically then certainly both socially and economically.

To this deep sense of ideological and personal unease is added the looming sense that the chaotic modern post-apartheid South Africa – with all its instability and incongruities – may be about to prematurely sweep like a hurricane into the Karoo itself in the very near future. For the Karoo is about to undergo the largest unprecedented change since the introduction of the railway in the mid-19th century that will see the landscape and its way of life transform forever. 

Firstly there is the construction of the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) radio telescope, recently awarded largely to South Africa and whose the 3000-dish array of radio telescopes capable of probing the furthest depths of the Universe is projected to be fully operational by 2024.

The second force for change is far more controversial.  According to the US Energy Info Admin (EIA), the Karoo sits on potentially the fifth largest deposit of shale gas in the world.  If extracted, it could potentially meet South Africa’s energy needs for over 4 centuries.  But the process required to extract the gas, known as hydraulic fracturing – or more commonly ‘fracking’, is extremely controversial. The Karoo is also the centre of renewed interest in uranium mining to feed a new generation of proposed nuclear power plants in South Africa.  Detractors of both claim that the effects on the local environment could be devastating.

Uncertainty taints the Karoo and all its residents who have enjoyed a peaceful and archaic way of life up to now.  The only certainty is that in the next decade life will be transformed, for better or for worse and it is all but likely that the current way of life will change forever, the indeterminate consequences of which create a dark cloud of uncertainty and a journey into the unknown for this archaic, pre-apartheid and largely idyllic existence in the Karoo.

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