A historic walk around Graaff-Reinet

History buffs totally love Graaff-Reinet, what with it being the oldest town in the Eastern Cape (fourth oldest in South Africa) with about 220 listed historical buildings.  Best of all, you can see just about all the best ones on a relatively short walk around town.  And obviously, that is what we did otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it.  
We parked our car in front of the Graaff-Reinet Tourism office, grabbed a map from the friendly staff in the office and set off up the road towards the church with our first stop being Auty Ira’s Antique shop and the oldest cake in South Africa.  Next up is the imposing Groot Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) at the top of the main road.  The church was built between 1886 and 1887 with the design based on the lines of Salisbury Cathedral in England.  Stone to build the church was obtained locally.  The church seats 1,250 people and has a steeple of just over 45 meters high.  An interesting feature of the church is that it has a chimney, not something you see every day.

The next stop right behind the Groot Kerk is the Victoria Hall and War Memorial.  The Victoria Hall is the “new” Graaff-Reinet town hall and was built in 1910.
In front of the Town Hall in the Mayor’s Garden stands the “Victory Peace Angel”, a war memorial erected after the First World War to honour the gallant Graaff-Reinet men who had lost their lives in the war.

Graaff-Reinet boasts a number of very good museums representing the town’s history, most of them housed in historic Cape Dutch buildings.  These museums include the Urquhart House Museum (built somewhere between 1806 and 1821), Old Library Museum (built in the mid 1800’s) and the Old Residency Museum (built somewhere between 1819 to 1831) and were all along the circle route we walked through town.
Because we had the KidZ with us and didn’t want to end up with two bored whiny teenagers, we decided to only go to Graaff-Reinet’s flagship museum, Reinet House.  The museum building used to be the Dutch Reformed Church parsonage and was built in 1812.  The typical Cape Dutch H-style building was home over the years to Rev Andrew Murray and his son Charles until his death in 1904 before it became a boarding establishment for girls wishing to train as teachers and renamed Reinet House.

   The museum was established in the 1950’s and houses a fine array of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  The Mill House with a working water wheel was under restoration when we were there so unfortunately I couldn’t show the KidZ how it works.  In the back garden of the museum is an old Black Acorn vine that was planted in 1870 by Charles Murray. A big piece of it had to be cut away some time ago due to fungal rot but the plant still survives.

The last stretch of our walk took us up Parsonage Street past the John Rupert Little Theatre (originally the church of the London Missionary Society) and to the Drostdy Hotel on the main road.  The hotel is located in what used to be the office and residence of the local landdrost/magistrate.  The building was built in 1804 and first became a hotel as early as 1878.  These days the Drostdy Hotel is a five-star hotel with accommodation in the adjacent Stretch’s Court.  
By now the KidZ had enough of walking although we literally only walked around one big block and it was time to head to the car that was now just down the road again.  Walking around Graaff-Reinet and visiting all these magnificent historic buildings one is grateful that there are still people out there that care for the history and heritage of towns like this.

Graaff-Reinet – a gem discovered

Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo Heartland is often referred to as the Gem of the Karoo.  Spending a long weekend in the town just again proved to me that this gem isn’t one buried deep under ground somewhere but rather has been unearthed and is mesmerizing those that get to visit it.  Located in a horseshoe created by the Sundays River and totally surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is situated about three hours north of Port Elizabeth and the perfect long weekend destination or at least a must stop for those on their way from the interior to the coast.

Coming in from the south you pass through typical Karoo Heartland landscape on your way to Graaff-Reinet.  Wide open spaces, mountains in the distance, windpompe, Angora goats in the fields – big sky country at its best.  Arriving in Graaff-Reinet you immediately know you are in something bigger than a one horse town where the horse is dead.  There are more shops than most Karoo towns, more people, more cars and there definitely isn’t a tumbleweed blowing down main road on a Saturday afternoon.  In fact, you know you are in Graaff-Reinet when you get to the top of the main drag and find yourself facing the very impressive Groot Kerk, completed in 1887 and designed based on the Salisbury Cathedral in England.
If I’m going to a place I like to know what I’m going to do but also keep enough time aside to explore and discover the things not included in my plans.  This trip was no different.  Arriving early Friday afternoon we headed straight to Camdeboo Cottages where we were booked in for the weekend, unpacked our stuff and kicked off our shoes.  If it was up to the KidZ we would have stayed right there for the whole afternoon for them to watch tv (Chaos Boy) and hit the swimming pool (Miggie).  Unfortunately for them, we had other ideas.  Having planned a walk through town for Saturday and a visit to the Camdeboo National Park on Sunday, I browsed through the Graaff-Reinet visitor guide to see what we could still do on the Friday and came up with the Obesa Cactus Garden. 

I’ve been to Graaff-Reinet a few times but have never had the chance to visit Obesa.  Word has reached my ears of how big the cacti are but seeing truly is believing.  Owner Johan popped his head around the corner when we arrived, probably to make sure we didn’t speak in an American accent – referencing a sign at the gate making it clear he doesn’t support Donald Trump – and pointed us towards the path through the garden.  Obesa is nothing like my little cactus garden at home.  They have over 7000 species of plants in the garden and nursery, raise about 35 000 plants every year and stock well over 2 million.  Seriously impressive.  Even more impressive is the size of some of the cacti along the path through the garden.  The garden was started in 1970 with some of the cacti literally dwarfing us as we walked past. No kidding.   
Saturday morning after a quick breakfast it was time to put on the walking shoes and explore Graaff-Reinet’s historic heart on foot.  The best spot to park your car is right in front of the tourism office where you can grab a map of the town along with any additional information you think you may need.  The tourism office is located inside the Old Library Museum which Chaos Boy really enjoyed as they have a very good collection of fossils on display.  In addition to a number of museums and Groot Kerk, other historic attractions worth visiting include a number of other churches, the Drostdy Hotel, Victoria Hall – the town’s City Hall – and the angel statue War Memorial.  In actual fact, Graaff-Reinet has more than 220 heritage buildings, more than any other town in South Africa.  Best of all, most of them are all within walking distance from each other. 

Our first stop though was at the antique shop next to the tourism office.  Not to browse or buy antiques but rather to see what is said to be the oldest cake in South Africa. Yes, you heard me right.  The oldest cake in the country.  The cake was baked in 1902 (making it only four years younger than the oldest cake in the world) for a 50th wedding anniversary and is on display on a mantelpiece along with some original photos.  The KidZ weren’t really impressed and just wanted to know if you can still eat it, before wandering away again. 

Graaff-Reinet has as much as seven museums (could be six, could be eight, but I counted seven on the Graaff-Reinet Tourism website) and we decided that to keep the KidZ’s whining to a minimum, we would only go to another one of them.  The obvious choice was Reinet House.  Reinet House is the quintessential Graaff-Reinet museum and is located inside the old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage built in 1812.  The museum houses a variety of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  In the backyard there’s also a working watermill… Ok, so it wasn’t working when we were there as they are busy restoring the machinery.  But you know what I mean.

Another very interesting feature at Reinet House is the old Black Acorn grape vine in the backyard.  Planted in 1870 by Charles Murray, it is said to be the oldest living grape vine in South Africa.  A few years ago the vine got a bad case of fungal rot and a big part of it had to be cut away, but it survived and still persists. 
Saturday afternoon we decided to compromise with the KidZ and spent some time around the tv, pool and braai area at Camdeboo Cottages.  Just to make sure everybody stayed happy and long faces are kept to a minimum.  

Sunday morning it was time to hit the outdoors and enjoy nature.  The weather was perfect, the sun out but not too warm and we headed out on the R63 past the Nqweba Dam to the Camdeboo National Park’s game viewing area.

Although the game viewing isn’t anywhere close on par to Addo, it’s still a great opportunity to spend a morning game viewing.  The alternative is to book an evening game drive with oom Buks Marais at Karoopark Guesthouse.  We opted for the self drive option though.

The park has about 19 km of gravel roads and consts of typical Karoo plains.  Other than Cape Buffalo ( x ) , which we unfortunately didn’t get to see, the park is also home to eland , black wildebeest ( ✓ ), gemsbok ( ✓ ), red hartebeest ( ✓ ), blesbok ( ✓ ) and springbok ( ✓ ).  We also got to spot some Cape mountain zebra ( ✓ ) but even though we were in the park the same time as some friends we didn’t get to see the caracal (rooikat) ( x ) they did.  The park also boasts a healthy bird list of over 240 bird species.  Unfortunately the dam level is quite low at the moment so you don’t get very close to the animals on the water’s edge while the bird hide was also not that busy on the day.  With birds that was.

The highlight (and must do) of any visit to Graaff-Reinet is the Valley of Desolation.  The best times to be there is early morning or late afternoon around sunset, and we opted for the latter of the two.  We made sure we arrived nice and early the afternoon to allow some time to do the 1,5 km Crag Lizard Trail which allows for stunning views of the rock formations, the valley and Karoo plains beyond.

The Valley of Desolation itself truly is one of the iconic Eastern Cape attractions.  The basic explanation of what the Valley of Desolation is is that it consist of dolerite pillars rising up to 120 meters from the valley below.  The rock formations were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years and stand stark against the background of the Karoo plains.  
This time of year though the sun sets behind the mountain and isn’t quite as spectacular as in summer, so after watching it from an alternative view point we headed back down towards town, just in time to see the horizon set ablize as we hit the bottom of the mountain.  The perfect end to the perfect long weekend in Graaff-Reinet.  Till next time Gem of the Karoo.  

We spent the three nights we were in Graaff-Reinet at Camdeboo Cottages and I really feel we hit the jackpot with this spot.  Camdeboo Cottages offer both a Bed and Breakfast as well as a Self Catering option with accommodation offered either in their historic cottages or en-suite bedrooms.  It’s also located very close to the centre of town with a few restaurants right around the corner and the closest supermarket only a few blocks away.

We stayed on one of their nine 19th century Karoo style self-catering cottages with more than enough space for us and the KidZ.  The cottages have fully equipped kitchens so we did our own thing food-wise, Chaos Boy could watching TV while Miggie and I tried to play cricket on the cobblestone courtyard behind the cottages.  That didn’t work out very well, but it does offer safe parking under carports and behind a locked gate.
As I’ve mentioned, Camdeboo Cottages also offer breakfast as well as dinner, but we opted to braai every evening at one of the braai spots next to the swimming pool.  Literally 25 meters from our cottage.  We sommer ate right there next to the pool and I just had to smile every time another guest heading to dinner walked past and sniffed the air.  Nothing like the smell of braaivleis.   Although Miggie did try out the swimming pool the weather was a tad chilly but it would be a great spot to cool down on one of those hot summer days in the Karoo.
Next time we visit Graaff-Reinet as a family I know where we’ll be booking again.   

The Graaff-Reinet church – looking rather ghostly

The last two months have been an absolute blur. Don’t ask me where it went, I just know it’s gone and I am exhausted.  But things are getting back to normal and hopefully I will get my blogging mojo back as well.  The pictures from our Graaff-Reinet weekend is lined up and just waiting for the words to be added.  In the meantime here is one I took of the Groot Kerk at the top of the main drag into through town taken after dark.  Looks kinda haunting, doesn’t it?

Somerset East’s whiskey bar in a church

I’m not much of a drinker preferring to do the sacrilegious thing of making beer shandy by throwing lemonade into a perfectly good beer.  But I am known to enjoy a good beer or wine tasting so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I’m doing a post on a place where you can do a spot of whiskey tasting.  As long as I only need to taste.  But this isn’t sommer any place, it’s a whiskey bar inside a church and can be found at Angler and Antelope Guesthouse in the Karoo Heartland town of Somerset East.
 
The church building is the town’s original Roman Catholic church building and was built in 1906.  Named after St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the church was built with funds raised by local Catholics and aided by contributions from the Catholic Diocese of Port Elizabeth.  The presbytery next to the church was built for the first priest of the congregation in 1925 and is used as the guesthouse’s family cottage today.  The last Roman Catholic priest to serve in St Francis was Father Michael Scully.  He used to ride around town on his bicycle and was always willing to help others, especially if you happened to have a spot of Irish Whiskey in the house.  I’m sure if Father Scully was still around he would give the pub with its collection of over sixty malt whiskeys his blessing.  The pub isn’t open to the public so if you want to try it out you will have to book into Angler and Antelope or at least make a special arrangement with owner Alan Hobson.
 
Just for interest sake, Father Scully grew his congregation in Somerset East during his time here to such an extent, that they outgrew the little church of St Francis.  A second church was built in Paulet Street, but this soon became too small as well.  The new Roman Catholic Church in Beaufort Street was built, but sadly Father Scully died in February 1997 at the ripe old age of 80, and did not see its completion.
 
Thanks to Angler and Antelope for the historic information added to this post.

Hofmeyr’s pink church

Most Karoo towns have a historic church with a church tower that keeps an eye out over it.  The Karoo Heartland town of Hofmeyr is no different…  or perhaps it is.  Why? Because it has a pink church tower standing out above the town.  The Dutch Reformed Church in Hofmeyr was built in 1875 and at some stage went pink.  It definitely didn’t go pink for breast cancer awareness because it happened way before that but whatever the reason it looks very cool.

The Dutch Reformed Church in Somerset East

Somerset East’s historic Dutch Reformed Church stand on the main drag through town at the intersection with Beaufort Road.  After the village of Somerset (with the East only being added 30 years later) was established, a need started to arise for a church.  The corner stone of the church was laid in 1830 and it was completed in 1833.  The church in it’s current form is the result of extensions made in 1870 with only    a few of the original walls still remaining.  In front of the church stands a statue to Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr who was the dominee (reverend) of the church for over 40 years. 

Cradock Moederkerk

Driving through the Karoo Heartland town of Cradock the other day I just couldn’t help but to stop and snap a few pics of the “Moederkerk” in town.  I’ve played around with a couple of effects and this is what I came up with. Oh yes, and what is a post without a little bit of interesting historic info?
 
The first Dutch Reformed congregation (and also the first church) in Cradock was established in 1824.  The present building was completed on the original site as the first church in 1868.  The building’s design was based on St. Martins-in-the-Field on Trafalgar Square in London.  At the  opening ceremony the builder refused to hand over the door keys as he hadn’t been paid everything owned to him (sounds familiar?).  Appeals when out to those in attendance and an amount of money was raised on the spot, enough to satisfy the builder.  During the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) the church roof was used as a lookout post by the British troops who garrisoned the town. as it was the highest spot in town. 
 

The church in Salem

A quick detour from the N2 between Nanaga and Grahamstown to Kenton-on-Sea took me through the village of Salem for the first time in ages last week.  I didn’t have time to explore much but I did stop for a quick photo of the front of the church while parked next to the cricket field.
 
Salem was founded by the Sephton party who formed part of the 1820 British Settlers who settled in this district.  The name comes from the bible and means “peace” with the local application referring to a reconciliation between sects.
 
The original church was built with mud blocks and thatch and was consecrated in 1824.  This was replaced by a stone structure in 1832 and it was this building that served as refuge for women and children during the Frontier Wars. 

Die Groot Kerk and the fireplace

Spending a night in Graaff-Reinet recently I made sure I popped by the Dutch Reformed Church (Groot Kerk) on the Monday morning to see if I could actually get into the church.  The cornerstone of the church was laid on 12 April 1886 and it cost what was then a staggering 7,500 pounds.
  
The inaugural service took place on 11 of September 1887 with 2 000 people attended the service.  People must have come from far and wide to attend.  I wonder how many were there purely cause they were curious to see it.  Anyhow.  One of the interesting things about the church is its ecclesiastical collection silver.  During the time that Reverend Andrew Murray was in Graaff-Reinet the church acquired 14 valuable items of old Cape silver.  Because of their exceptional value they are only viewable in pictorial form.
 
One of the other very interesting facts about the church is that it has a fireplace situated in the vestry.  It is said to be the only such fireplace in a Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.  Because of this the church also has a chimney.  I wonder how many locals even know this.   The fireplace though has never been used.

Anybody visiting Graaff-Reinet and wanting to visit the church can do so from 9am – 4pm from Mondays to Fridays.