The Little Karoo’s boundaries are sharply defined by mountain ranges to the west, north, and south. The road between Uniondale and Willowmore is considered, by convention, to form the approximate arbitrary eastern extremity of the Little Karoo. Locally, it is usually called the Klein Karoo, which is Afrikaans for Little Karoo.
The Little Karoo is separated from the Great Karoo by the Swartberg Mountain range. It is a 290-km-long valley, only 40–60 km wide, formed by two parallel Cape Fold Mountain ranges, the Swartberg to the north, and the continuous Langeberg-Outeniqua range to the south. The northern strip of the valley, within 10–20 km from the foot of the Swartberg mountains is least karoo-like, in that it is a well-watered area both from the rain and the many streams that cascade down the mountain, or through narrow defiles in the Swartberg from the Great Karoo. The main towns of the region are along this northern strip of the Little Karoo: Montagu, Barrydale, Ladismith, Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn, and De Rust, as well as such well-known mission stations such as Zoar, Amalienstein, and Dysselsdorp.
The southern 30– to 50-km-wide strip, north of the Langeberg range, is as arid as the western Lower Karoo, except in the east, where the Langeberg range (arbitrarily) starts to be called the Outeniqua Mountains.
This area was explored by European settlers in the late 17th century, who encountered the Khoisan people as the original inhabitants of this area. The latter called the Swartberg Mountains kango meaning "a place rich in water". The Cango Caves in the Swartberg Mountains are named after this Khoisan word.
The Little Karoo, and especially Oudtshoorn, became synonymous with the ostrich-feather industry in the 1880s. The resulting "feather millionaires" built Victorian "Feather Palaces" all over town, using the red rocks belonging to the Enon Conglomerate, and related Kirkwood Formation, to build them. These grand red palaces and other buildings in Oudtshoorn can still be admired today.
The Little Karoo can only be accessed by road through the narrow defiles cut through the surrounding Cape Fold Mountains by ancient, but still flowing, rivers. A few roads traverse the mountains over passes, the most famous and impressive of which is the Swartberg Pass between Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo and Prince Albert on the other side of the Swartberg mountains in the Great Karoo. Also, the main road between Oudtshoorn and George, on the coastal plain, crosses the mountains to the south via the Outeniqua Pass. The only exit from the Little Karoo that does not involve crossing a mountain range is through the 150-km-long, narrow Langkloof valley between Uniondale and Humansdorp, near Plettenberg Bay.
The Swartberg Pass was built, with convict labour, between 1881 and 1888 to provide an all-weather road connection between the southern Great Karoo, and Oudtshoorn (and from there to the sea). The Swartberg Pass is not tarred and can be treacherously slippery after rain. It also becomes impassable after heavy snowfalls on the mountain, a not infrequent occurrence in winter.
- Ride an ostrich in Oudtshoorn
- Visit the nearby Cango caves