Monday, June 26, 2017

Graaff-Reinet - a gem discovered

Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo Heartland is often referred to as the Gem of the Karoo.  Spending a long weekend in the town just again proved to me that this gem isn't one buried deep under ground somewhere but rather has been unearthed and is mesmerizing those that get to visit it.  Located in a horseshoe created by the Sundays River and totally surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is situated about three hours north of Port Elizabeth and the perfect long weekend destination or at least a must stop for those on their way from the interior to the coast.

Coming in from the south you pass through typical Karoo Heartland landscape on your way to Graaff-Reinet.  Wide open spaces, mountains in the distance, windpompe, Angora goats in the fields - big sky country at its best.  Arriving in Graaff-Reinet you immediately know you are in something bigger than a one horse town where the horse is dead.  There are more shops than most Karoo towns, more people, more cars and there definitely isn't a tumbleweed blowing down main road on a Saturday afternoon.  In fact, you know you are in Graaff-Reinet when you get to the top of the main drag and find yourself facing the very impressive Groot Kerk, completed in 1887 and designed based on the Salisbury Cathedral in England.

If I'm going to a place I like to know what I'm going to do but also keep enough time aside to explore and discover the things not included in my plans.  This trip was no different.  Arriving early Friday afternoon we headed straight to Camdeboo Cottages where we were booked in for the weekend, unpacked our stuff and kicked off our shoes.  If it was up to the KidZ we would have stayed right there for the whole afternoon for them to watch tv (Chaos Boy) and hit the swimming pool (Miggie).  Unfortunately for them, we had other ideas.  Having planned a walk through town for Saturday and a visit to the Camdeboo National Park on Sunday, I browsed through the Graaff-Reinet visitor guide to see what we could still do on the Friday and came up with the Obesa Cactus Garden. 

I've been to Graaff-Reinet a few times but have never had the chance to visit Obesa.  Word has reached my ears of how big the cacti are but seeing truly is believing.  Owner Johan popped his head around the corner when we arrived, probably to make sure we didn't speak in an American accent - referencing a sign at the gate making it clear he doesn't support Donald Trump - and pointed us towards the path through the garden.  Obesa is nothing like my little cactus garden at home.  They have over 7000 species of plants in the garden and nursery, raise about 35 000 plants every year and stock well over 2 million.  Seriously impressive.  Even more impressive is the size of some of the cacti along the path through the garden.  The garden was started in 1970 with some of the cacti literally dwarfing us as we walked past. No kidding.   

Saturday morning after a quick breakfast it was time to put on the walking shoes and explore Graaff-Reinet's historic heart on foot.  The best spot to park your car is right in front of the tourism office where you can grab a map of the town along with any additional information you think you may need.  The tourism office is located inside the Old Library Museum which Chaos Boy really enjoyed as they have a very good collection of fossils on display.  In addition to a number of museums and Groot Kerk, other historic attractions worth visiting include a number of other churches, the Drostdy Hotel, Victoria Hall - the town's City Hall - and the angel statue War Memorial.  In actual fact, Graaff-Reinet has more than 220 heritage buildings, more than any other town in South Africa.  Best of all, most of them are all within walking distance from each other. 

Our first stop though was at the antique shop next to the tourism office.  Not to browse or buy antiques but rather to see what is said to be the oldest cake in South Africa. Yes, you heard me right.  The oldest cake in the country.  The cake was baked in 1902 (making it only four years younger than the oldest cake in the world) for a 50th wedding anniversary and is on display on a mantelpiece along with some original photos.  The KidZ weren't really impressed and just wanted to know if you can still eat it, before wandering away again. 

Graaff-Reinet has as much as seven museums (could be six, could be eight, but I counted seven on the Graaff-Reinet Tourism website) and we decided that to keep the KidZ's whining to a minimum, we would only go to another one of them.  The obvious choice was Reinet House.  Reinet House is the quintessential Graaff-Reinet museum and is located inside the old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage built in 1812.  The museum houses a variety of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  In the backyard there's also a working watermill... Ok, so it wasn't working when we were there as they are busy restoring the machinery.  But you know what I mean.

Another very interesting feature at Reinet House is the old Black Acorn grape vine in the backyard.  Planted in 1870 by Charles Murray, it is said to be the oldest living grape vine in South Africa.  A few years ago the vine got a bad case of fungal rot and a big part of it had to be cut away, but it survived and still persists. 

Saturday afternoon we decided to compromise with the KidZ and spent some time around the tv, pool and braai area at Camdeboo Cottages.  Just to make sure everybody stayed happy and long faces are kept to a minimum.  

Sunday morning it was time to hit the outdoors and enjoy nature.  The weather was perfect, the sun out but not too warm and we headed out on the R63 past the Nqweba Dam to the Camdeboo National Park's game viewing area.

Although the game viewing isn't anywhere close on par to Addo, it's still a great opportunity to spend a morning game viewing.  The alternative is to book an evening game drive with oom Buks Marais at Karoopark Guesthouse.  We opted for the self drive option though.

The park has about 19 km of gravel roads and consts of typical Karoo plains.  Other than Cape Buffalo ( x ) , which we unfortunately didn't get to see, the park is also home to eland , black wildebeest ( ✓ ), gemsbok ( ✓ ), red hartebeest ( ✓ ), blesbok ( ✓ ) and springbok ( ✓ ).  We also got to spot some Cape mountain zebra ( ✓ ) but even though we were in the park the same time as some friends we didn't get to see the caracal (rooikat) ( x ) they did.  The park also boasts a healthy bird list of over 240 bird species.  Unfortunately the dam level is quite low at the moment so you don't get very close to the animals on the water's edge while the bird hide was also not that busy on the day.  With birds that was.

The highlight (and must do) of any visit to Graaff-Reinet is the Valley of Desolation.  The best times to be there is early morning or late afternoon around sunset, and we opted for the latter of the two.  We made sure we arrived nice and early the afternoon to allow some time to do the 1,5 km Crag Lizard Trail which allows for stunning views of the rock formations, the valley and Karoo plains beyond.

The Valley of Desolation itself truly is one of the iconic Eastern Cape attractions.  The basic explanation of what the Valley of Desolation is is that it consist of dolerite pillars rising up to 120 meters from the valley below.  The rock formations were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years and stand stark against the background of the Karoo plains.  


This time of year though the sun sets behind the mountain and isn't quite as spectacular as in summer, so after watching it from an alternative view point we headed back down towards town, just in time to see the horizon set ablize as we hit the bottom of the mountain.  The perfect end to the perfect long weekend in Graaff-Reinet.  Till next time Gem of the Karoo.  

We spent the three nights we were in Graaff-Reinet at Camdeboo Cottages and I really feel we hit the jackpot with this spot.  Camdeboo Cottages offer both a Bed and Breakfast as well as a Self Catering option with accommodation offered either in their historic cottages or en-suite bedrooms.  It's also located very close to the centre of town with a few restaurants right around the corner and the closest supermarket only a few blocks away.

We stayed on one of their nine 19th century Karoo style self-catering cottages with more than enough space for us and the KidZ.  The cottages have fully equipped kitchens so we did our own thing food-wise, Chaos Boy could watching TV while Miggie and I tried to play cricket on the cobblestone courtyard behind the cottages.  That didn't work out very well, but it does offer safe parking under carports and behind a locked gate.

As I've mentioned, Camdeboo Cottages also offer breakfast as well as dinner, but we opted to braai every evening at one of the braai spots next to the swimming pool.  Literally 25 meters from our cottage.  We sommer ate right there next to the pool and I just had to smile every time another guest heading to dinner walked past and sniffed the air.  Nothing like the smell of braaivleis.   Although Miggie did try out the swimming pool the weather was a tad chilly but it would be a great spot to cool down on one of those hot summer days in the Karoo.

Next time we visit Graaff-Reinet as a family I know where we'll be booking again.   

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