Graaff-Reinet. – I was asked a while ago to walk Traveller24 through one of our country’s oldest towns, once described as the prettiest in all of Africa by David Livingstone himself – Graaff-Reinet.
‘Set in the heart of the stark and beautiful semi-arid Karoo and completely surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth oldest settlement.
Founded in 1786, it is now a center for tourism, agriculture and game farming, with a closely guarded history and cultural past that sets it apart. I stepped back in time with local guide Chantelle Marais for a walking tour to learn more. Who better to bring the streets to life with her anecdotes and knowledge, than a Karoo Girl with the area firmly embossed on her passion.
The town has at least 220 heritage sites meticulously listed in celebration of a bygone era. Cape Dutch, pre-Victorian and quaint Karoo style homes that now hold a rich collection of museums and galleries. It is easy to see why David Livingstone once called Graaff-Reinet ‘the prettiest town in all Africa’.
Here are ten that warrant a closer look.
1. The Dutch Reformed Church
Situated in the center of town, this is the fourth church to be built on this site. A replica of the Salisbury Cathedral, this impressive stone church can house up to 1000 people and even has a fireplace – not that its ever been used. Designed by architect J. Bisset, the church is said to be one of the best examples of early Gothic style architecture in South Africa, was completed in 1886 and has a steeple 150 feet tall. A local farmer is said to have cut, prepared and donated all the stone for this remarkable building, in that alone a accomplishment.
2. The Old Library Building
For many years the town library and now home to a museum that houses the impressive Lex Bremner fossil collection which will thrill any amateur paleontologist, as will the reality that the Camdeboo region was once an inland sea. Also Lucas Borman Furniture, reproductions of rock art by Townley Johnson and an exhibition on the life of charismatic and eloquent founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe, who was born and is buried in Graaff-Reinet.
3. Reinet House
This old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage is where Andrew Murray and his family 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. Famous for its water wheel and ancient fruit bearing vine, as well as the display of Laubser dolls manufactured during the World War and the locally distilled Withond Witblitz produced out back. It’s a true look at life in this era.
4. Urquhart House
This beautiful home has a front neoclassical Cape style gable with a plastered anchor and numerous floral stars on it. It is named after Mayor Urquhart who was in office here from 1915 to 1931. Urquhart House now houses the genealogical records of the area and has a collection of Victorian furniture on display as well as a period peach-pip floor in the kitchen.
5. The Victoria Town Hall
This large Renaissance style red brick building is set behind the Dutch Reformed Church and dates back to 1911. It was built to honor the ‘great and glorious reign of Queen Victoria’. One of its claims to fame is that before electricity the hall was lit by a gas plant capable of providing 400 lights, the largest of its type in South Africa.
6. The John Rupert Theatre
Also of Graaff-Reinet origin is billionaire Anton Rupert who has helped restore many old buildings in this charming town. One of them is the oldest church building in town – although it no longer operates as a church. This was once the old Coloured Missions Church on Parsonage Street and was renamed after his father before being handed over to the town council and for local theatrical performances.
7. The Drostdy Hotel
This historic Cape Dutch building dates back to 1806 and once served as a local seat of government for the VOC. Over the decades it has undergone many structural changes and has recently been renovated to a point of pride and is reopening for guests in November 2014. It includes the Stretch Court, a collection of carefully restored Karoo cottages, once homes of emancipated slaves, now serving as accommodation.
8. The Hester Rupert Art Museum
When Magistrate Andries Stockenström donated a piece of land and six windows it was for a Dutch Reformed missionary church to be established. The corner stone was laid in April 1821 and the church was finished later that year. In 1965 it was rescued from being torn down, restored it to its former glory and transformed into an Art Museum with an impressive collection.
9. St James Anglican Church
The oldest original Church in Graaff-Reinet and was founded by Reverend William Long in 1845 and it is here that the town’s first pipe organ was inaugurated.
10. A more modern look.
Whilst meandering through the tree-lined streets you will come across antique stores and shops to explore, among them Reinet Antiques, Die Smous, Windmill Junction, Anette Oelofse Mohair Shop and The Old Pharmacy. Also Made It, a craft store with an eye catching yard bomb on the tree outside.
Not on the walking tour, but a reminder that no visit to Graaff-Reinet is complete without paying respect to the great anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe, who’s modest grave is found on the outskirts of town. As is the execution site of Gideon Scheepers, Boer scout, hero and commanding officer during the South African War.’
Practical advise: Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring along bottled water, a hat and sunblock.
Book a guided walking tour through the historic center of Graaff-Reinet with Chantelle Marais aka Karoo Girl, a qualified tour guide for the Eastern Cape who specializes in tours in the region.