Graaff Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa, is in the heart of the Karoo, the vast semi-arid interior of the Cape Province behind the ring of mountains along the coast. If you want to deepen your understanding of South Africa then linger for a few days in the Karoo – it is quite unlike anywhere in Europe.
The Dutch Reformed Church was loosely based on Salisbury Cathedral and dominates the High Street in the town. Behind lies the main shopping street, quiet in the evening sunshine.
Cape Dutch architecture is stunning and the very interesting museums are housed in historically important buildings such as Reinet House, the Old Residency, the Old Library, and Urquhart House. In these museums you can enjoy Cape Dutch furniture, fossils from the surrounding countryside, early photographs of the town, and stories of the Anglo-Boer War.
There are two wonderful art galleries in Graaff Reinet which you must visit! The Jan Rupert Art Centre is housed in a building used as a place of worship in the 19C by the Mantatees, a refugee Sotho tribe. It was refurbished in 1986 by Dr Anton Rupert. This year a stunning, world-class exhibition of Jean Lurçat tapestries and pottery is on show. The Hester Rupert Art Gallery is home to a permanent display of South African art and sculpture, with artists such as Gregoire Boonzaier.
The tourist office provides information about the history of the town – take the time to just wander along the quiet streets lined with old homes and cool verandahs perhaps decorated with broekie lace ironwork, water channels in the streets, and hibiscus, flamboyant, or bouganvillea everywhere.
South Africans enjoy eating and there are excellent restaurants in Graaff Reinet: the Drostdy Hotel, Polka Restaurant, the Coldstream Restaurant, and our favourite breakfast and coffee stop – Our Yard. Karoo lamb is legendary! Stay in one of the many self-catering houses or apartments, use the local butcher or farm fresh shop – you won’t regret it!
Even if you aren’t a gardener do visit the Obesa Nursery, one of only three such nurseries of this size in the world – it is extraordinary!
Nieu Bethesda is a small hamlet north of the town and a thriving artistic community. The drive through the Karoo is stunning (be sure your tank is full – there is no petrol station in the hamlet) and Helen Martin’s Owl House is a unique experience.
The Camdebo National Park surrounds Graaff Reinet and includes several walks and hikes. The grandeur of the Karoo and vastness of the Valley of Desolation will remain with you and long after you have left the scent in the air, the vastness of the landscape, and perhaps the soughing of the wind will return to you.