Monday, August 28, 2017

A couple of surprises in the Camdeboo National Park

No visit to Graaff-Reinet will be complete without a visit to the Valley of Desolation yet I wonder how many people actually realise that the Valley of Desolation is located within the Camdeboo National Park, which actually reaches all the way around the town, and that you can also go game viewing in the park.  On our long weekend in Graaff-Reinet we spent our Saturday exploring the town's historical heart on foot and kept the Sunday to explore the Camdeboo National Park.  The plan was to spend the Sunday morning doing some game viewing, head back to Camdeboo Cottages, where we were staying, for lunch and some R&R before aiming to the Valley late afternoon for sunset on the mountain.    

The entrance to the game viewing area is just past the turnoff to the Valley of Desolation and takes one straight into a typical Karoo landscape of low Karoo bush and grassland, mountains in the distance and the Nqweba Dam on the other side towards tow, and big skies.  Lots of big skies.  The park has about 19km of gravel roads which we found to be in a very good condition and no problem for the Polo to navigate.  

The Camdeboo National Park isn't quite Kruger or Addo, but if you are in the area and enjoy game watching then it's well worth a drive through.  The Game viewing area is home to buffalo, which we unfortunately didn't encounter on this trip, and game species like eland, black wildebeest, gemsbok, red hartebeest, blesbok, springbok and mountain zebra.  Friends of ours in the park the same time than us even spotted the elusive rooikat (linx) near one of the waterholes.  Our timing seemed to have sucked and we missed it.  The park is also home to over 240 listed bird species of which we did spot a few so I imagine the twitchers would love the park. 

After a quick picnic at the park's picnic site, which we had all to our own, we took a drive to the bird hide next to the Nqweba Dam.  The dam level is quite low at the moment which means not a lot of animals or even birds around.

After a bit of kicking our feet up at the guesthouse, we took the road out to the park again in the late afternoon and made our way up the mountain towards the Valley of Desolation.  After a stop at the toposcope lookout it was time to show the KidZ what the Valley looked like.  I've been up here many times over the years and it never gets old.  Ok, just wait.  The Valley is old, over 200 millions years old, but I mean I never get tired of it.  Hahaha....     

It is an awe-inspiring feeling standing there looking at the towering dolerite columns with the vast Karoo stretching out beyond.  The dolerite pillars rise up to a height of up to 120 meters and were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years.  It's hard to explain the beauty of the place and not everybody who visits "gets it", but the Valley of Desolation is a truly special place.

I made sure we got there early enough to go for a walk along the Crag Lizard Trail, a 1,5 km sircular trail that shouldn't take you more than about 45 minutes to walk.  I want to say the only reason I did it was to go and find the Geocache located just beyond the turning point, but for the first time I got to see more of the Valley of Desolation and some of the further columns which you don't get to see from the main view point.  We made it back just in time for the sun to start setting and found that it was disappearing behind the mountain and not over the valley as it does in summer. Darn!

We quickly hopped back in the car and made our way a bit down the mountain to an alternative lookout point I was told about on my last visit, making it just in time as the sun disappeared over the distant mountains.

And with that sunset our long weekend in the Gem of the Karoo also came to an end.  So what do we take home from the weekend?  That Graaff-Reinet is the perfect weekend destination for people living in the Eastern Cape with a variety of historic and natural attractions to keep you busy with during your stay.  I also came to the conclusion that people from the interior passing through and heading to the coast and don't realise what they are missing.  But that really goes for anybody who hasn't had the opportunity to explore Graaff-Reinet and the Camdeboo National Park.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A historic walk around Graaff-Reinet

History buffs totally love Graaff-Reinet, what with it being the oldest town in the Eastern Cape (fourth oldest in South Africa) with about 220 listed historical buildings.  Best of all, you can see just about all the best ones on a relatively short walk around town.  And obviously, that is what we did otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it.  

We parked our car in front of the Graaff-Reinet Tourism office, grabbed a map from the friendly staff in the office and set off up the road towards the church with our first stop being Auty Ira's Antique shop and the oldest cake in South Africa.  Next up is the imposing Groot Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) at the top of the main road.  The church was built between 1886 and 1887 with the design based on the lines of Salisbury Cathedral in England.  Stone to build the church was obtained locally.  The church seats 1,250 people and has a steeple of just over 45 meters high.  An interesting feature of the church is that it has a chimney, not something you see every day.

The next stop right behind the Groot Kerk is the Victoria Hall and War Memorial.  The Victoria Hall is the "new" Graaff-Reinet town hall and was built in 1910.

In front of the Town Hall in the Mayor's Garden stands the "Victory Peace Angel", a war memorial erected after the First World War to honour the gallant Graaff-Reinet men who had lost their lives in the war.



Graaff-Reinet boasts a number of very good museums representing the town's history, most of them housed in historic Cape Dutch buildings.  These museums include the Urquhart House Museum (built somewhere between 1806 and 1821), Old Library Museum (built in the mid 1800's) and the Old Residency Museum (built somewhere between 1819 to 1831) and were all along the circle route we walked through town.

Because we had the KidZ with us and didn't want to end up with two bored whiny teenagers, we decided to only go to Graaff-Reinet's flagship museum, Reinet House.  The museum building used to be the Dutch Reformed Church parsonage and was built in 1812.  The typical Cape Dutch H-style building was home over the years to Rev Andrew Murray and his son Charles until his death in 1904 before it became a boarding establishment for girls wishing to train as teachers and renamed Reinet House.

   The museum was established in the 1950's and houses a fine array 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.  The Mill House with a working water wheel was under restoration when we were there so unfortunately I couldn't show the KidZ how it works.  In the back garden of the museum is an old Black Acorn vine that was planted in 1870 by Charles Murray. A big piece of it had to be cut away some time ago due to fungal rot but the plant still survives.

The last stretch of our walk took us up Parsonage Street past the John Rupert Little Theatre (originally the church of the London Missionary Society) and to the Drostdy Hotel on the main road.  The hotel is located in what used to be the office and residence of the local landdrost/magistrate.  The building was built in 1804 and first became a hotel as early as 1878.  These days the Drostdy Hotel is a five-star hotel with accommodation in the adjacent Stretch’s Court.  

By now the KidZ had enough of walking although we literally only walked around one big block and it was time to head to the car that was now just down the road again.  Walking around Graaff-Reinet and visiting all these magnificent historic buildings one is grateful that there are still people out there that care for the history and heritage of towns like this.