African folklore: the mermaids of the Karoo

One of the most fascinating fireside tales in South Africa is the legend of the mermaids in the Karoo. The Karoo is a vast semi-desert area that covers much of the western half of the country – and is divided into the Groot Karoo (which means the ‘large’ Karoo in Afrikaans) in the north, and much more fertile, smaller Klein Karoo of the south – where many a local claims to have spotted a mermaid combing her hair alongside a mountain rock pool.


The legend seems far more plausible when you consider that 250 million years ago the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was completely underwater! When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley that’s nestled between the Swartberg, Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains – where mountain springs trickle into the rock pools, and carve out the underground caverns that are said to provide sanctuary for this mythical creature.

The Cango Caves at the foot of the Swartberg, about 30kms out of Oudtshoorn, are a great place to stop for a visit on your mermaid-hunting expedition down the well-known Route 62 that travels through the Karoo. Surround by the dripping stalactites and stalagmites of the caverns, it’s easy to imagine a fish-tailed beauty taking refuge in this ancient rock formation. Explorers have uncovered rudimentary tools and hearth sites in the mouth of the Cango Caves, indicating that our ancestors knew about this underground wonder-world as long as 80 000 years ago.

The Klein Karoo was the home of the Khoi-san people, and rock paintings have been discovered that depict fish-tailed humans – suggesting that the legend of the Karoo mermaid has been around for centuries. It makes sense that a tribal people, living in one of the driest parts of South Africa, would have a sea creature as part of their mythology – a reminder, perhaps, of the importance of water as a resource that has always been precious.

It has been argued that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting rather depict swallows, which are also associated with rain. Shamans of the San tribes, who were a spiritual people, would have often conducted ceremonies to call down rain from the heavens, to parch the dry earth of their homelands. African mythology sparkles with tales of water spirits and creatures!

Today, you can see the Khoi paintings of mermaids for yourself near Eseljagtspoort, which is also outside of Oudtshoorn. There is a popular story, that in 1875, a farmer from Molensrivier, was told a story by an old bushman, and he wrote scribbled the tale down to share with family and friends. The bushman explained that beneath the waters Eseljagtspoort, evil water spirits lurked, and took the form of a woman, luring passersby. The woman would then grab the curious onlookers, and drag them down in the depths to a watery grave.

Could this sinister water woman be another one of the mermaid of the Karoo legends?

Another story is that during the Oudtshoorn floods of 1996, when people, animals and property were almost flushed away, that the spirit of the Karoo mermaid is in fact that of a flood victim who was washed out to the desert.

Traditionally, the mermaid is a symbol of both destruction and creation. It is a well-known sailor’s tale that sighting a mermaid means that violent storms are blowing in. As a symbol of the feminine life force, the mermaids of the Karoo could not be more at home – when the rains soak the arid plains, the Karoo bursts into life and colour, with succulent plants flowering in bright cheerful displays that attract photographers and tourists.