Koffiebus and Teebus on a moody day in the Karoo

The Karoo Heartland has a unique beauty which I have really learned to appreciate more and more as I have gotten older.  If you’re a forest or beach person then the Karoo may not be for you, but if big skies and open spaces feed your soul then there is no better place.  One of my favorite Eastern Cape Karoo Heartland landmarks is the Koffiebus and Teebus mountains outside Steynsburg.  Although there are many similar Karoo koppies throughout the whole region, the fact that there is a thick one (the coffee pot) and a thin one (the teapot) next to each other like this is quite noticeable.  

Beware the Warthog

 
Being from the Eastern Cape we all know that there are areas where you have to be very careful driving at night.  Unlike our friends in the Big Smoke it’s not robbers and highjackers we have to be careful of, but rather Kudus.  These big antelope jump fences up to 2 meters tall and come and browse on the side of the road after dark, often jumping into the road and colliding with cars when they get startled by the bright lights.  Because of this Kudu warning road signs is a regular sight on the roads of the Karoo Heartland.
But lately, a new sign has stuck its head out.  A Warthog warning sign.  Now warthogs don’t jump fences, for that their legs are way too short.  But they do burrow underneath and they can often be seen on the side of the R75 road towards Graaff-Reinet from Port Elizabeth.  Hence, Beware of Warthog signs. 
For some reason, I just want to sing, “Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase. Hakuna Matata! Ain’t no passing craze…” when I drive past them. Go figure…

The road is long…

When I downloaded this photo of me sitting in the road near Jansenville in the Karoo Heartland from my camera onto the laptop and saw it, the first thing that came to my mind was “The road is long…” from He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother by The Hollies.  The tune, melody, words, everything.  It’s probably also the best description of my life lately.  Between work and personal life it’s been busy, busy, busy with lots of time spent on the road and driving my desk when I’m not, catching up on admin.  I wouldn’t have it any other way though because I love what I do, but in the process blogging was the one thing that was left on the luke hot back burner.  There just hasn’t been much for blogging and I really need to make a plan to change that.  But a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step and the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  So at one stage or another, I need to get back into blogging and this is as good a time as any.  I posted for the first time in over six weeks on Port Elizabeth Daily Photo earlier this week and its time to get Firefly the Travel Guy going again after this break.  So, “The road is long, With many a winding turn…”

The oldest cake in South Africa

One of the first things Karoo Girl asked me when she heard I was going to visit her home town of Graaff-Reinet, was if I was going to go and see the oldest cake in the country.  Now I know most of Graaff-Reinet’s attractions, but the cake was a first for me.  She directed me to aunty Ira’s Antique Shop next to the Graaff-Reinet Tourism info office and that is where we headed on the Saturday morning of our visit before taking a walk around town.
Once there we took a slow walk through the antique store and marveled at all the beautiful pieces and nic nacs before I found the cake on the mantle piece in one of the front rooms.  Nothing spectacular till you look at the date 1902, making it 115 years old (this being 2017), making it only four years younger than the oldest cake in the world.

The cake was baked for the Golden Wedding Anniversary of Franz Te Water and Caroline Theodora Muller who got married on 5 April 1852 with the cake being baked in 1902.  The fancy decorations that was originally on the cake, as per the photo, is no more, but the cake is intact.  Apparently it was found in an attic in town.  Unfortunately Karoo Girl wasn’t with me to tell the whole story, which she relates as part of her walking tour of the town.  
Frans te Water and Caroline Theodora Muller on their Golden Anniversary
The cake isn’t something that is written about in guide books or tourism brochures, and the kids just had a quick look before heading outside, but I found it really interesting and definitely part of the town’s rich heritage.  It just shows that there are often so much more to discover in a place than what is in the guide books.  Look around, explore and investigate.  It’s always worth it.
I did a quick bit of research on Frans te Water and Caroline Muller and found the following:
Name Frans Karel te Water 
Born 13 August 1824 – Brussels, Belgium  
Died 18 December 1913 (89 years old) – Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape, South Africa 
His first wife was Jacomina Jacoba Jansen van Rensburg, born in Graaff-Reinet 3 December 1814, they got married on 7 December 1848, but she passed away aged 36 in 1851. 
He then married Carolina Theodora Muller on 5 April 1852.  She was born in March 1828 in Beaufort West and passed away 1 June 1904 in Graaff-Reinet aged 76.
They had 9 children:
  1. Hendrina Helena Adriana te Water, b.16 May 1853, Graaff-Reinet, d. 9 Sep 1938, Cape Town (Age 85 years)
  2. Willem Jacobus te Water, b. 1855, The Netherlands, d. 1855, The Netherlands (Aged 0 years)
  3. Thomas Nicholas German te Water, b. 6 Jun 1857, Graaff-Reinet, d. 23 Oct 1926, Cape Town, (Age 69 years)
  4. Adriana te Water, b. 15 Jan 1859
  5. Frans Karel te Water, b. 1 Sep 1860,  d. 22 Sep 1890  (Age 30 years)
  6. Willem Jacobus te Water, b. 17 May 1862
  7. Karel Theodorus te Water,  b. 24 Aug 1864
  8. Palmyra Hortense Felicite te Water, b. 20 Nov 1866
  9. Jacoba Muller te Water, b. 26 Jan 1869, d. 1965  (Age 95 years) 

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?

Pizza, World Famous in Nieu-Bethesda

The Karoo Heartland village of Nieu-Bethesda is weird and quirky, but in a nice way.  It has a lot of interesting nooks and crannies which include a couple of fascinating attractions, authentic Nieu-Bethesdian accommodation and slightly off the regular type of mainstream restaurants and eateries.  When you pass a little restaurant with a sign saying Bruno’s Alfresco Pizzeria with the added tagline of “World Famous in Nieu-Bethesda… then you know you want to check it out.  It also helps that I really love pizza.

 

So the quirkiness of Bruno’s start with the fact that they are only open on a Friday evening.  At first I was surprised but then I understood why.  Nieu-Bethesda isn’t the busiest of villages and there are a number of spots to eat at so they avoid being empty most nights and became the Friday night hangout.  Bruno’s really is as authentic Southern Italian as you will get and with the eccentric Italian Swiss chef and owner Brunno at the wheel you, you are assured of the best thin based pizza in town.  World Famous, in Nieu-Bethesda.
As we were a decent sized group in town for a meeting the Monday morning, a special request to open on the Sunday night for us was granted and I was glad it was.  Not a lot of pizza places around where you can stand at the kitchen chatting to the cooks preparing the pizza or where you can peek into the pizza oven just before sticking your camera halfway in just to be shoo’d away because it’s time to take the pizzas out.  No well drilled conveyor belt from a fast food pizza joint in the city.  No, local ladies making the pizza just the way they were trained by Bruno.  Mine was delectable.  Their special for the night, Kudu Salami Pizza.  Highly recommendable if you are in town.  
But, and this is a big but and I can’t deny, that wasn’t all.  Bruno had a surprise up his sleeve.  I heard rumours of a secret underground wine cellar.  Just stories or the truth?  I was told to ask Bruno himself, so I did.  He chuckled and there was a glint in his eye.  Yeah! Let’s go.  The wine cellar isn’t just a regular spot to store wine.  It literally is an underground space that feels like it’s straight from a movie set.  Bruno had it built as a wine cellar but after a flood filled it up with water a few years ago he hasn’t really kept wine down there.  He did show us a little something standing around the one corner and we got to taste the fruits of this little something afterwards.  Or rather what came from the fruits that went in there.  I can understand why he doesn’t sell it.  It’s a special little something for special visitors and we were special.  We got to see his wine cellar on a personal tour after all.   

Going digital at the Owl House

The last time I was at the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda I got a nice picture of a gent standing in contemplation between the cement figures.  On this visit to the village I was at the Owl House with two friends and colleagues and I really thought there would be a good chance to catch one of them in deep contemplation at some stage.  Curse the digital age… Bwhahahahahaha…. The best I got was while one was taking a picture to post to Instagram and the other was taking a selfie. I love it!!!! They’ll probably put out a hit on me when they see this post.

Why have you never visited Nieu-Bethesda?

It feels like most people I speak to about travelling in the Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape have been to Graaff-Reinet, yet many didn’t venture much further to also visit Nieu-Bethesda.  Nieu-Bethesda truly is a very special village located barely 30 minutes from Graaff-Reinet and have a truly off the beaten track feeling to it.  I say off the beaten track because that is literally what it is.  No tar roads in the village, no street lights, no ATM, no petrol station and no night life other than crickets in the dark and the cow you have to swerve out for when it suddenly appears in your headlights.  What the village does have are tons of character (the good kind), history, interesting nooks and crannies, even more interesting people, good food and nostalgia that will stick to you like blackjacks to wool socks long after you have left.
I was going to do a long and detailed post about Nieu-Bethesda but decided that my pictures could easily do most of the talking.  For the rest you will have to visit the village yourself to discover.
Nieu-Bethesda, a town of Karoo landscapes, history, owls, dirt roads and (rusting in) piece

Not a tarred road or street light in sight where a traffic jam means two cars reaching an intersection at the same time perhaps twice a day
Nieu-Bethesda is one of the few places that still have leivore (farrows) with water flowing in them
The Owl House is what put Nieu-Bethesda on the map and well worth a visit
The late Helen Martins spent most of her life in the town and the latter part of it transforming her ordinary Karoo home into a place of colour and light.  Over the years she and her assistant Koos Malgas, used concrete and glass to create a multi-coloured house and fantasy garden.  In the Camel Yard visitors will find statues of owls, camels, wise men and much more and one can literally get lost In your own thoughts trying to take all of this in.  Shortly before her 79th birthday, Helen Martins committed suicide by drinking caustic soda.  It is said that at the time her eyesight was failing because of damage from ground glass and that depression was getting the better of her.  
Doesn’t matter how many times I visit the Owl House, there is always something different to discover or some new angle to photograph 
One can’t simply visit Nieu-Bethesda and not buy one of the hand made cement owls being sold outside the Owl House.  I still have the owl I bought on my first visit to the village in my garden.
The Nieu-Bethesda cemetery has graves dating back to the early days of the village with the one of Helen Martins with its cement owl headstone standing out 
The Karoo is famous for the fossils found there and Nieu-Bethesda seems to be right in the thick of things when it comes to fossil records.  The Kitching Fossil Centre in the village is well worth a visit.  The guide shows visitors how they clean the rock off the fossils and do a walking tour to the river bed to show you fossils in the rocks.
If you really want to learn more about fossils, Khoi San artifacts and rock paintings then you have to visit Ganora Guest Farm a little outside the village.  Ganora has one of the biggest private fossil collections in the country in their fossil museum and if they ever established a Jurassic Park in the Karoo then I would want to be with owner JP Steynberg as he knows everything there is to know about the prehistoric animals found in that area. 

Yes, that is the fossilised skull of a very small dinosaur

Don’t think that a tour through the Ganora Fossil Museum would be a boring affair

The Karoo Heartland is known for it’s amazing hospitality and farm stays are becoming more and more popular.  At Ganora our little group were just in time to help bottle feed the hanslammers (hand reared lambs).  Not the kind of experience that us city slickers are used to or get to do every day.  
My visit to Nieu-Bethesda was way too short, taking up only a Sunday afternoon and Monday morning before the meeting I had to attend.  Way too little to explore and experience properly.  One needs at least a weekend, arriving on the Friday afternoon and leaving on Sunday after lunch, to have a chance to get to know the town properly and visit at least a few places.  If you do want to know more, do check out this very comprehensive list of things to do in Nieu-Bethesda on the ECTOUR website. 

When it rains in Nieu-Bethesda

A couple of weeks ago I headed up to Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo Heartland with a colleague for a tourism meeting.  En route we encountered the Fish River in full flow at Jansenville, puddles and pools next to the road approaching Graaff-Reinet and a very wet village at our destination.  The word Karoo comes from the Khoi language and means Place of Thirst, very appropriate for this arid region.  So it’s not often that you see puddles of water in the road throughout the village.  Something I photographed with pleasure.
But puddles in the road wasn’t what drew the oohhhh’s and aaahhhh’s from us though.  It was the Gats River that runs through the village.  It wasn’t just running strong, it was running very high as well.  So high in fact that it was over the low water bridge.  Seeing all this water in this arid region totally made up for the fact that there wasn’t any sunshine and blue skies to take nice pictures, which was part of the mission for the two days we were in town for.  Tourism meeting and nice pictures to use to promote Nieu-Bethesda and the Karoo Heartland.  
My companion on the trip, who is also a part-time mermaid, just couldn’t get enough off all the water.  Luckily she didn’t let her legs get wet, otherwise we could still be looking for her somewhere downstream.