It’s not often that we get to venture out of the Western Cape on a road trip with our young kids. Anything more than a couple of hours in a car is usually a nightmare waiting to happen. However, when friends invited us to join them on a 665km trip upcountry to their hometown in the Karoo for a weekend, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
I’m ashamed to say that this was my first trip to the beautiful surrounds of Graaff-Reinet. I’m not exactly sure why I had never visited this culturally-diverse part of the country before, but one weekend in the fresh Karoo air, with my children roaming free in the dusty soil of the Camdeboo, and we were all left longing for more time to unwind and enjoy this authentic country way of life.
I can see why this town is referred to as the ‘Gem of the Karoo’, because, as if tucked away behind rolling hills and Karoo koppies, Graaff-Reinet seems to sneak up on you. One moment you are oblivious to the unchanging landscape with unspoiled terrain and beautiful mountainous vistas and suddenly… a bustling town appears in the middle of nowhere.
Driving through this Eastern Cape ‘dorpie’, you can’t help but feel transported to a different time and place. Historical buildings, restored pre-Victorian homes and a collection of museums, monuments and galleries line the streets. The ‘Groot Kerk’ in the centre of town is a famous landmark as well as the Drostdy Hotel, built in the 1800s, which stands proud as an iconic building and has become a drawcard for tourists and locals alike to this area.
We were hosted by a close-knit family with strong Karoo roots that run deep in Graaf-Reinet and surrounds. This really gave us a fresh perspective on small-town hospitality and relaxed country living. Instead of feeling like outsiders from the city, we were embraced like old friends… in a suburb where you still chat to your neighbour over the fence, where everybody knows your name, and where a small family gathering quickly turns into a community event.
They were our tour guides for the weekend, taking us into the dusty streets of Graaff-Reinet and atop the landmark hillsides to explore all that the town has to offer. We feasted like part of the family and visited with friends and relatives in their home and at their local church where we were welcomed in true country style.
Steeped in History
There certainly is much to be seen and experienced here in the fourth oldest settlement of South Africa. If you’re looking for a history lesson, then you’ve come to the right town because Graaff-Reinet boasts at least four key museums, each with a charming tale to tell.
We decided to venture into Reinet House where we admired the many antiques and interesting period displays. Some of the highlights included a wagon collection and a fascinating cellar display that takes you into a toy room, dentist’s office and more.
You will be spoiled for choice here, from the Old Library Museum to the Military History Museum as well as museums that house comprehensive fossil and rock art collections from the area. Specialised history tours are also available in town which will take you through significant locations to gain deeper insight into the livelihood of the people and rich heritage that gives this town its magical allure.
Graaff-Reinet also has much to offer in terms of its wildlife and outdoor exploration. The Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park is a highlight if you are visiting for a weekend. Just a few minutes hike up from the parking area at the top of the mountainside and you can take in the sweeping views of the valley that extend as far as the eye can see.
Mighty dolomite columns are also positioned in the centre of the valley – although weathered by the elements, the columns stand tall at almost 120m above the valley floor.
At the other end of the hillside, you also have a bird’s eye view over the entire town of Graaff-Reinet. Shaped like a horseshoe, the town is nestled at the foothills of the Sneeuberg mountains and in the curl of the Sundays River… hence the iconic shape that can only really be appreciated from an aerial viewpoint. And it certainly is a sight to behold!
For the daring, the area boasts a number of adventure sports that include rock climbing, power kiting, adventure biking, 4 x 4 trail driving and more.
We opted for something that required far less adrenalin and enjoyed a leisurely drive through the reserve where we could experience the fauna of the area first hand. The reserve is home to 12 species of large game and 225 bird species and we were not disappointed because within the first few minutes we were greeted by the powerful kudu and eland… as well as multiple troops of Vervet monkeys!
After two blissful days in the Eastern Cape, it was time to prepare for the long haul back to the Mother City. Upon our departure, we were greeted by a sea of faces who had come to bid us all a safe trip. We thank our gracious hosts for the memorable stay and we hope to smell the fresh curry leaves from Ma Edie’s garden sometime soon again!