Graaff Reinet - The Jewel of the Karoo

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Monday, 16th October 2017

Graaff-Reinet may not be the easiest place to get to, but is well worth the journey, writes Kevin Ritchie.

THE HUGE church stands
four-square in the middle
of the town. It stands
on the site where the
Reverend Andrew Murray, the
Scottish minister who did so much
for the Dutch Reformed Church
would preach.
When this church, the
fourth, was built, its designers
were inspired by the Salisbury
Cathedral. The size, the shape
impose four-square on the comings
and goings of Graaff-Reinet, the
jewel of the Karoo. Andrew Murray
jr, his son, would take over where
he had left off – and preach from its
Murray sr apparently had his
rectory built in front of the old
drostdy, so the local landdrost
would have no doubt about who was
who in the balance between church
and state, almost 200 years ago in
the Eastern Cape.
Off to the side is the quaint
Graaff-Reinet Club, one that would
borrow from the gentlemen’s clubs
of the era, but which hasn’t aged
nearly as well as its namesake in
It was the discovery of
diamonds that catapulted Graaff-
Reinet’s economy from being
merely the merino capital of the
country to a vital thoroughfare on
the road to the diamond fields. The
diggers would order everything
they needed through Port Elizabeth
which would then be transported
The club’s a bit shabby these
days, but a fascinating time capsule
into the days of yore. If you do
nothing else, get a pint in the bar
under the biggest assortment of
arms and other weaponry seen
outside of a museum or the officers’
mess of a frontier regiment.
The rest of the square and the
streets leading off it to the south,
are a revelation. Clean, refurbished
with a visible energy. There’s a
craft-beer brewery, hipster eateries,
home products, wool and more wool
shops, museums. It’s a far cry from
other important regional towns,
such as neighbouring Cradock or
Grahamstown and Queenstown
further east, which manage to fall
off the abyss of the genteel poor
to the torpor of abject poverty,
interspersed with hopelessness.
Perhaps the Rupert family have
much to do with the rebirth of the
town, particularly Johann Rupert
and the company’s investment into
the history Drostdy Hotel and its
fabulous revamp.
The hotel has been in operation
since 1878 when it was known as
Kromm’s Hotel and marketed as a
boutique hotel for travellers and
those wanting their jangled nerves
It started life though as the
official residence of the landdrost
in 1804 and latterly, as a local state
house for visiting luminaries,
especially governors of the Cape
Today, there are is an eclectic
mix of 48 rooms, some painted
out like the cheek by jowl houses
of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, some
standard, others suites; a spa, a
cigar lounge, a delightful à la carte
restaurant, the Camdeboo, a library
and an art museum.
The furnishings are modern and
luxurious with a deep reference
throughout to the old Karoo;
riempie benches and old, original
wooden cupboards in the rooms to
the unexpectedly tasteful mounted
horned skulls of the kind of plains
game you’d find in the area.
The service is what you’d
expect of a boutique hotel in
the platteland, enthusiastic and
unpretentious though at a higher
level than others because of the
tourism and hospitality academy
that has also been established in the
The manager of the hotel,
Janus Schoeman, though sets new
benchmarks in terms of attention
to detail and sheer work ethic, with
a pedigree that began at the Pezula
in Knysna before being honed at the
Oppenheimer’s Tswalu and Knysna
Graaff-Reinet is a place to come
and dream. It’s a traditional South
African country town, beautifully
nestling in the surrounding hills.
The air is clean, this close to the
as yet unspoilt Karoo, but the true
gem awaits less than 15km north,
the Camdeboo National Park.
There, as you drive up the
winding road leaving Graaff-
Reinet behind, you come to a
look-out point where the Valley
of Desolation lies immediately
ahead and beyond the plains of
Camdeboo, so flat and so open, it
feels like you can see right into the
The valley, sheer cliff faces
rising 120m up from its floor has
been likened to a natural cathedral.
It was designated as a scenic
national monument in 1935 and
if you time your drive up to the
top for sunset, with a couple of
sundowners in your picnic basket,
you’ll see just why it has been so
popular with lovers, hikers and
photographers for ages.
Graaff-Reinet might not be
the easiest place to get to but the
journey is certainly worth it.

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