If you love history and beautiful old buildings, you’re going to love Graaff-Reinet in South Africa's Eastern Cape. The town has more than 200 heritage sites, so there’s lots of history to be explored. If you love nature, you’re in luck too, given that the town is surrounded by 195 square kilometres of national park. Here is a list of the best things to do in Graaff Reinet.
The Dutch Reformed Church
When you visit Graaff-Reinet, it’s impossible not to notice the extravagant Dutch Reformed church that dominates the northern end of the main street. Given the town’s long history – it was established in 1786 – it’s no surprise that this isn’t the original church, but in fact the fourth. Built from grey sandstone quarried nearby, it opened for services in 1887. The Victorian pseudo-gothic style is reminiscent of Salisbury Cathedral in England, making it perhaps the grandest church in the whole of the Karoo.
There are more than 200 national monuments and memorials in Graaff-Reinet and it’s worth visiting at least some of them. Reinet House, which used to be the Dutch Reformed church parsonage, now houses collections of silver, kitchen equipment, medical equipment, clothes and dolls, among others. I found the dolls from the Laubscher doll factory in Graaff-Reinet between 1914 and 1927 fascinating to compare to what was being produced in Europe at the time. The Old Residency diagonally across the street from Reinet House houses the William Roe photo exhibition, a fascinating collection of late 19th century photographs. There are also collections of old cameras, gramophones, giant music boxes still in working order, and a roomful of historical guns. If you want a break from colonial history, visit the Old Library Museum in Church Street for some insight into the lives of slaves and the Khoi, as well as transformation history and displays about political activist and Pan African Congress founder, Robert Sobukwe, who was born and buried in Graaff-Reinet
Camdeboo National Park
Camdeboo National Park was proclaimed as a National Park under the management of South African National Parks on 30 October 2005. Following an extensive process of negotiation and discussion between government, conservation groups, and concerned stakeholders, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, announced the intention to proclaim the park in the area surrounding Graaff-Reinet. This was made possible by the World Widelife Fund in South Africa (WWF-SA), which donated the 14500 hectare Karoo Nature Reserve to be the centrepiece of the project. A public consultation process was followed to decide on the new name for the park, culminating in the choice of Camdeboo National Park.
The Karoo Nature Reserve was established in 1979 when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund recognised the urgency for conservation measures in the Karoo biome and listed this action as a world conservation priority. The vision for the future is ultimately to link Camdeboo National Park with Mountain Zebra National Park, protecting a huge diversity of plant and animal species. This will assist in the conservation of the endangered Cape mountain zebra. The idea is to create a single mega-conservation area over 120km in length and including up to 520 000 hectares of land under conservation, to be accomplished in the main by public/private partnerships.
Early history of the park includes use of the area by early, middle and later stone age people. Evidence of occupation by these people can be found in the form of stone age industry sites on the south eastern plains of the park. Artefacts found in these sites include bored stones, percussion-made hand axes, scrapers, blades and grinding stones.
Khoisan hunters and herders left evidence of their occupation during the late stone age in the form of rock paintings in the eastern section of the park.
The Inqua tribe occupied the park area during the mid 1600's, grazing their vast herds of cattle and fat-tailed sheep on the apron veld from the Camdeboo River near Aberdeen, across the Sundays River to Agter-Bruintjieshoogte near Somerset East.
White farmers settled on the Camdeboo Plains and Sneeuberg in 1770, introducing merino sheep and angora goats, as well as exotic plants. Over the years overgrazing and the effects of exotic plants have resulted in soil erosion and an increase in woody species or unpalatable plants. Until the park was first proclaimed as a reserve in 1979, it was used as a town commonage with tenants grazing their livestock and contributing to overgrazing and erosion of some areas.
The Valley of Desolation
Don’t miss a visit to the Valley of Desolation, particularly attractive when the rocks turn warm shades of ginger and apricot in the dwindling sunlight of late afternoon. Take the tarred road from the entrance gate on the R63 just 5km from town. Since this is part of the Camdeboo National Park, you may see wildlife like kudu or Cape mountain zebra along the way. Your first stop is the toposcope, where you can walk up a koppie to get a view over the town and the dam. Then continue to the parking area a kilometre or two further on. Leave your car and walk to various viewpoints over the Valley of Desolation to see the result of volcanic activity and erosion over millions of years. Marvel at the steep cliffs and dolerite pillars climbing 120m from the valley floor, look out over the plains of the Camdeboo, or walk the short Crag Lizard Trail.
See the Nqweba Dam
Nqweba Dam, which used to be called the Van Ryneveld Dam, was built in 1924. It’s fed by the Sundays River and covers some 1000 hectares. To make the most of the dam and its environs, go birding (it’s a good place to find water birds, including flamingos), picnicking, fishing in the angling zone (you need a permit from the SANParks office) or canoeing and windsurfing from the spillway at the Graaff-Reinet Boat Club.
Visit Obesa Cactus Nursery
As the global climate continues to change, and water becoming a scarce resource, these zerophytic plants continues to become ever more popular both here and abroad. Mostly, the species we offer are water wise and easy to keep. They simply take care of themselves, provided the growing mediums are well drained and the quantity of light exposure is correct. As with most plants, some requires more sunlight and others less. They are thus maintenance free relying only on natural rainfall. Contrary to general consensus, they are highly adaptable to higher rainfall areas as well. Most of them are not frost sensitive.
Currently we stock around 5500 species, on the 7 hectare estate. Some of these rare and protected species are available to view, but kept as a collection, and thus not for sale. I would say that 80% of what we keep is for sale, and the rest for conservation and propagation purposes. The range includes caudiciforms & bulbs; miniature and adult cacti (both columnar and globular); Aloes and associates from Africa and Madagascar; various hardy trees (succulent and otherwise); various small and large succulents from all over the globe, such as Apocynaceae; Asclepiadaceae; Mesembryanthemaceae (Vygies); Yuccas; Dasylerions; Beaucarneas, Agaves and some Medicinal plants.
Eat Karoo Food
Karoo food is famous and rightly so, so treat your tastebuds at some Graaff-Reinet restaurants. Think Karoo lamb, heartwarming meat dishes and those queens of vegetables, the pumpkin and sweet potato – and, of course, malva pudding. We ordered bobotie and lamb shank at Pioneers in Parsonage Street, and browsed the fascinating old photos of Graaff-Reinet as we waited. Visit our other blog where we list the best restaurants in Graaff Reinet here.
Stay over in Graaff Reinet
Wilfred and Valerie welcome and invite you to their beautifully restored Karoo house set in a country garden of Graaff Reinet. Rietjiesbos B&B will surprise and delight you. Valerie's attention to detail as well as her Graaff-Reinet breakfast with eggs from a local farmer, local home-made jams and coffee from the local roastery will make you come back time and again to this accommodation venue in Graaff-Reinet.
The rooms lead onto the garden where you can relax or have a braai in the shade of two majestic trees. Rietjiesbos Bed & Breakfast is a 15 minute walk from the nearest restaurants. The art galleries, museums, beautiful churches and national monuments in Graaff Reinet are also within walking distance. Your vehicles and trailers will be safe behind off-street parking.