cape town tour

Donkeys - the surprising key feature of South African history

Donkeys - the surprising key feature of South African history

When one thinks of South Africa, the kind of animal that springs to mind most readily is probably a lion, giraffe or rhinocerous - probably not donkey!

Donkeys were part and parcel of the early history of the country, used for grinding corn in mills and moving supplies and goods around. What's interesting is that they have remained part of the country's culture. 

The people known as the Karoo Karretjiemense own donkeys that pull carts. These carts carry all their possessions, because like their ancestors, the Khoekhoen and the San, the Karretjiemense are always on the move. They move between the sheep farms of the Great Karoo where they have worked for more than a hundred years as sheep shearers and continue to do. Their travels take them through the provinces of the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape.

The Karretjiemense can be compared to travellers who move from campsite to campsite with their caravans, setting up camp each time. In the past farmers used to allow the Karretjiemense to set up camp on their farms during shearing time. Recently, however, few farmers allow them to camp on their farm. The Karretjiemense camp on empty land next to roads or on any land they can find that does not belong to farmers. The donkeys graze freely in the area close to the camp. Donkeys, unlike horses, can eat a varied diet consisting of grass, shrubs and leaves. Therefore they survive very well in the semi-arid Karoo where there is little grazing.

Every donkey that belongs to a family has a name. It is the job of the youngest son in the family to name a foal that has been born. The Karretjiemense would not be able to live as they do without their donkeys that are very valuable to them. Donkeys are hardworking, intelligent and easy to manage when they are well cared for and appreciated.

You can visit the Karretjimense and their donkeys at the Eseltjesrus Donkey Sanctuary near McGregor: we'd recommend staying at Tanagra Wines who offer six beautiful self-catering cottages in birder-friendly surroundings under clear Karoo skies from R1 100 per room per night.


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We’re an ethical private travel planning company focused on Southern Africa.

We offer ready-made and also customised holidays and journeys across this unique region of the world.

When our clients travel with us, they are assured that their travel spend is directly supporting local African companies that offer sustainable products and services, both in terms of people and planet.


Our logo is an image of a skull found in the Rising Star Cave System in Gauteng, South Africa in 2013. It was named ‘homo naledi’, meaning ‘human of the stars’.

The cave system has so far given rise to the remains of over 15 individuals, making it the largest hominid fossil remains site ever discovered.

Travelling to Southern Africa is truly a return to the source of humankind, to Where It All Began.

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