The Karoo large igneous province, formed at c. 183 Ma, is characterized by the presence of voluminous basaltic intrusive complexes within the Karoo Basin, extrusive lava sequences and hydrothermal vent complexes. These last are pipe-like structures, up to several hundred metres in diameter, piercing the horizontally stratified sediments of the basin. Detailed mapping of two sediment-dominated hydrothermal vent complexes shows that they are composed of sediment breccias and sandstone. The breccias cut and intrude tilted host rocks, and are composed of mudstone and sandstone fragments with rare dolerite boulders. Sandstone clasts in the breccias are locally cemented by zeolite, which represents the only hydrothermal mineral in the vent complexes. Our data document that the hydrothermal vent complexes were formed by one or a few phreatic events, leading to the collapse of the surrounding sedimentary strata. We propose a model in which hydrothermal vent complexes originate in contact metamorphic aureoles around sill intrusions. Heating and expansion of host rock pore fluids resulted in rapid pore pressure build-up and phreatic eruptions. The hydrothermal vent complexes represent conduits for gases and fluids produced in contact metamorphic aureoles, slightly predating the onset of the main phase of flood volcanism.