Looking down on the horseshoe-shaped town of Graaff-Reinet from the vantage point of the Valley of Desolation surrounded by the arid starkness of the Karoo’s Camdeboo National Park, the outline of this age-old little town rises up to greet you.
With the Sneeuberg Mountains in the distance and set in the fold of the Sundays River, the griddle-pan streets stretch forth, culminating at key points such as the gothic-inspired Groote Kerk or the third oldest Drostdy in South Africa, now the Drostdy Hotel, clearly visible.
The seats of government and God directly opposite each other.
Graaff-Reinet is said to be the fourth oldest settlement in South Africa - after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam. It’s quite a site - this oasis amidst the Valley of Desolation - the Eastern Cape’s oldest town that is home to some 200 national monuments.
It’s a town in the middle of nowhere. A town built around the triumph and tragedy of war rooted on the pillars of law and religion. Sounds like most of the world’s issues today.
Yet here stands Graaff-Reinet, testament to its outpost status and a convergence of the old-fashioned with the modern. Peaceful, charming and not a hint of strife.
Walking its wide streets, wide enough so that ox-wagons could make full turns back in the day, it’s clear this isn’t your run of the mill sho’t left escape. Streets lined with stone-cobbled canals that ensured the town’s daily supply of water, a system still in effect in neighbouring Nieu-Bethesda as we would soon discover. In case you hadn’t noticed the Karoo is semi-desert, water is like gold under these conditions and through the likes of the Anglo-Boer War, the Great Trek and discovery of gold and diamonds further north, this little town continues to stand tall.
And a walking tour of the town is a must. It lets you absorb and ponder Graaff-Reinet’s role in South Africa’s history. See, an escape to this secret part of SA is rooted in the historical and natural heritage unique to the Karoo, not forgetting the delicious Karoo food delights. It’s mostly about a way of life you’ll not easily find replicated anywhere else in world. Yet it hearkens to such old-world charm you’ll be happy to immerse yourself for a good few days.
A few days spent tapping into the slower pace of life, to unwind and settle. There's a kind of serene surety about it. Pretty much the same way the dusty, dry Karoo earth knows it will eventually find rest, despite being tossed and swayed by the warm winds of this valley.
Here are our suggestions of things to do and see:
1. Must stay at the luxury Newmark Drostdy Hotel
The third oldest Drostdy in South Africa and a national monument, this recently revamped 5-star hotel is a window into opulent Karoo living.
Since 1805, the Drostdy building has been a hub for the small town of Graaff-Reinet and continues to bring locals and visitors to its doorsteps. A team of renowned South African experts have exemplified the best of this historic destination through its luxurious and modern facilities, at surprisingly affordable rates of R1 590 for two people sharing a standard room - click here to check availability and rates.
It first opened its doors in 1977, having previously served first as a Magistrate's Court and then as a private home – but it quickly established its reputation as one of the finest heritage hotels in the country.
DHK Architects, international interior designer Stephen Falcke and acclaimed landscape architect Jan Blok’s have ensured the Rupert’s Drostdy Hotel from its wide range of stays to its Kromm’s Inn building, the De Camdeboo Restaurant, extraordinary vinotech and wine-tasting shop as well as art gallery, have successfully incorporated the country style of the Karoo with a mix of Cape Dutch and Victorian-style heritage.
Upon arrival, this monument makes a remarkable statement. Once inside, seemingly complex touches applied to each themed communal space manage to skirt a potentially cluttered look to create a styled and inviting atmosphere in a rather extraordinary fashion.
Outside the surrounding gardens of natural plants, passage ways through to the cottages lined with lemon trees lead the way into the dining area, verdant vines crawl up freestanding structures along flourishing herb gardens.
Natural details incorporating elements of the Karoo such as antelope horns as ornate wall fixtures, cow-hide rugs on the floor add a rustic touch to each of the 48 rooms – all mingled with soft hues of sky blues and floral themed textiles and art depicting the succulents and foliage of the area.
The rooms are carefully constructed with antiques interspersed quite nonchalantly, for instance the workstation in my room was formerly a wash table with a circle cut out of the wooden top. I imagined the enamel or porcelain wash bowl that was cradled where my laptop now rested quite easily on the wooden lid. And yet all manner of plugs including double USB ports were conveniently located just above the desk as well as alongside each bedside table. Charming and convenient.
A stunning, checkered bathroom with a stand-alone tub, walk-in shower is the stuff forever-homes are made of with soft linens and a leisurely couch offering a decadently fresh and relaxing space to retire to each evening.
From the hotel concierge who seems to be on call 24/7, even when the wi-fi goes awry in the middle of the night, to the inviting staff of the Camdeboo Restaurant, you could not ask for a lovelier spot to base yourself.
2. Must eat at De Camdeboo, with upcoming exclusive wine pairings
This fine dining in-house restaurant of the Drostdy hotel, De Camdeboo Restaurant serves up local Karoo cuisine with authenticity and style. Real Platteland hospitality as they put it. Let's face it, Karoo food and lamb in particular happens to be the stuff of legends and this restaurant does not leave you wanting.
On the evening we were there, we enjoyed a wine tasting evening hosted by renowned Anthonij Rupert winemaker Dawie Botha. Paired with delectable dishes incorporating all cuts of meat as well as kudu, venison being another speciality, with creative seafood dishes included too, such as chili squid.
SEE: Karoo food 101: Where to eat what and why
The hotel has an impressive collection of wines, including its vinotech which hosts some of the most expensive wines available in the country - such as a 1998 Chateau Margaux for R18 000 a bottle. But the wines sold at the estate are not meant to price you out of the experience with the Protea range of Shiraz or Pinot Grigio priced at around R 50 to R60 a bottle - which is styled with a beautiful print on it to encourage recycling.
3. A taste of the Karoo Withond at Reinet House
Named after Dutch Governor Cornelis Jacob van de Graaf and his wife Cornelia Reynet, the town acted a stopover for weary travellers and during the late eighteenth century it was a bustling trading centre hub.
Filled with many historical homes, of particular interest is Reinet House – Home to the Duminy of the town. This is just a short 4-minute walk from the Drostdy Hotel, as part of the wider Graaff-Reinet walking tour I mentioned. As we walked the streets our guide David McNaughton shares with us how the two most important homes of the town, that of the minister and that of the governor faced each other on the main street – enforcing the purpose of the settlement meant to bring law and order to the country.
David began guiding with his father some 20 years ago, so he really has some interesting anecdotes and a well-preserved understanding of the history of this town to share.
Reinet House, as the Old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage is where Andrew Murray from Aberdeenshire, Scotland once lived. Built in 1811 under the guidance of Cape architect Louis Thibault, this impressive H-shaped six gabled Cape Dutch Homestead was one of the first restoration projects in Graaff-Reinet. After Murray's death in 1866 the parsonage was occupied by his son Charles until his death in 1904. By 1906 the building was being used as a boarding establishment for girls wishing to train as teachers, and it was then that the late Miss Helen Murray, a sister of Rev Charles Murray, and for many years principal of the Midland Seminary, named the house 'Reinet House'.
Reinet House is also famous for its water wheel and ancient fruit bearing vine, as well as the display of Laubser dolls manufactured during the World War. The locally distilled Withond Witblitz produced out back is also a draw-card. Here David treats his tour group to a first-hand introduction to the Withond. Be warned, it's potent and you get to leave with a little souvenir to remind you of the blazing Graaff-Reinet moment.
4. Urban legend of the Dutch Reform Groot Kerk at night
Fashioned to be a replica of the Salisbury Cathedral, it was completed in 1886. The impressive stone church, designed by architect J Bisset, is said to be one of the best examples of early Gothic style architecture in South Africa. Its 150ft or 45m tall steeple is central to a Graaff-Reinet urban legend. Locals say that because the fundamentals of God and church were always strongly enforced in the town, others tried to imply satanism was also at work in the building of the church, eluding that the devil is in the details, supposedly scaring the townsfolk into being good and faithful servants.
The legend goes that at night when the light hits the steeple in just the right way, the shape of Lucifer is supposed to be seen in the shadows cast by the turrets on either side. This pic is an attempt to capture the legend. It's all in the details of an active imagination it seems.
5. Take a prickly walk through Obesa Nursery
Strange but true - this little Eastern Cape town is home to the largest privately-collection of cacti, succulents and aloe in South Africa. Obesa nursery, owned by a rather eccentric Johan Bower is a prickly affair to navigate but a delight to photograph. If you happen to catch Johan on a good day he'll give you a bit of history to his unique collection - but much like his nursery he is a prickly character, whose optimism for a racist-free SA gets a bit lost in translation and is heavily peppered with profanity. I can highly recommend popping in to take a peak though.
6. Spa treatment at the onsite Africology Spa
As lovely as the hotel itself, retreating to the onsite spa is good therapy. While it is often difficult for one spa to differentiate itself from another - this task rests largely on the shoulders of the therapist who adds the defining touch. And this was definitely the case. Having 30-minutes of back, neck and shoulder therapy was just perfect as I lost sense of time and woke up utterly relaxed and wishing it was more like an hour. The spa has three treatment rooms, including one couples room - so booking is essential.
The Drostdy is also aspiring to the trend of from farm, or garden to spa treatment.
Guests can choose the ingredients to be used in the treatments they receive, from the Drostdy Hotel garden or to witness the raw plant materials used in their treatment. Things like fresh Aloe Ferox leaves blended by your therapist with organic honey produced in the area as a herbal wrap. Or a facial massage with a combination of honey and beeswax, enhanced with Shea-Butter and hydrating hyaluronic acid - all used to create a sense of pure, organic healing.
7. Sundowners in the Valley of Desolation
Just 14km from the hotel you'll find yourself in the desolate area of the Camdeboo National Park - home to the Natural National Monument The Valley of Desolation.
As I stood overlooking Graaff-Reneit, feeling the winds cool my cheeks, flushed from the short walk to get to the top view point, David shared that between 1790 and 1800 the Bushmen prevented Dutch entry into the Sneeuberg north of Graaff-Reinet. Tthe decade of their last stronghold in the area, he says.
The thing about being a nomadic people and being most brazenly wiped-out of the lands you call home, means there is often is very little trace of your existence. However, The Khoisan and Bushmen tribes of South Africa have left an indelible impression with their exceptional rock art scattered across the country including in Camdeboo - these form part of David's Bushman Rock Art Tour, which we unfortunately did not have time for.
Listening to David talk about the area, the Karoo's cradling of special sediment factors that speak of the super-continent Pangaea and of course interesting Khoisan stories of how they tormented the Dutch farmers with "a taste of their own mutton", it's hard not to let the natural beauty wash over you, reinforcing the notion that in a country as diverse as South Africa our heritage runs far deeper than mere Drostdy's and man-made steeples.
I felt the strong pull of Nature in all its glory around me. Symbolically inhaling and exhaling deeply, it felt like the perfect place to leave all that is unwanted. All that is destructive. All that needs to be left behind in the Valley of Desolation.
Take David's most memorable moment as a guide... similar in nature.
"My favourite memory is without a doubt experiencing the arrival of a spectacular thunderstorm one summer afternoon after intense heat, dust and drought.
'We clambered into the car and drove a few kilometres out of town to meet the ominous clouds gathered for battle out west above the parched plains.
'"At first one could only hear the distant rumbles of thunder and the occasional crack of lightning. Soon however we could feel a light breeze which was filled with the fragrance of a relieving curtain of rain which was falling on a backdrop of blue ridges on the distant horizon. This was accompanied by more intense rumbles of thunder and flickers and flashes of light…
"The gusts of wind then became more urgent and pressing and gathered dust before it, and we were soon enveloped by the rapidly advancing phalanx of rain and the drumming of raindrops on the car roof…
Since we cannot stop the storms from coming, the surety is in knowing it too will pass...essential pillars to building our SA heritage.
The road to Graaff-Reinet from Port Elizabeth Airport is a dusty, three-hour drive – and might be a good road trip cheat if you’re wanting to explore the Friendly City and surrounding Nelson Mandela Bay as part of your itinerary.
But for locals taking a shot left road trip from either Cape Town or Johannesburg - which ultimately equates to your time spent in air and the time it takes to drive there – this, is a Karoo meander worth having.
Tours and Transfers:
For a walking tour of note or tailored transfers to the neighbouring towns or reserves contact David McNaughton of Karoo Connections on 082 339 8646
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