The “Pearl of the Karoo” is rightly named: Graaff-Reinet has more historical monuments than any other town in the country and is located in the middle of a national park.
The predominantly Burmese settlers, who pushed further and further east at the end of the 18th century, expected the loop of the Sunday River, which resembled a wagon train, to offer them protection from the regular attacks of the native Xhosa.
In the center of the small town of just under 40,000 inhabitants, two hundred buildings in the Cape Dutch or Victorian style are recorded, several of which have been converted into museums: The Old Library, built in 1847 as a library, now houses the tourist information office and a museum with a collection of historic clothing, replicas of San rock paintings, Karoo fossils, paintings, and a number of interesting historic photographs. Reinet House (built in 1812) was once the parsonage of the Dutch Reformed Church and is considered a prime example of Cape Dutch architecture, with a select collection of 19th-century furniture, kitchen utensils, children’s toys, and other household items. In the courtyard you can see a working water mill, while the world’s largest grapevine grows in the building’s garden.
The Old Drostdy, once the seat of the colonial administration’s magistrate, has long housed the hotel of the same name. Behind the main building is Stretch’s Court, a small cobblestone street with seven cottages that once served as slave quarters. In the mid-19th century, Captain Stretch bought these houses, divided the area into lots, and sold them back to (free) mixed ethnics and people of color. Finally, in 1966, they became the property of the “Association of Historic Buildings of South Africa,” which completely restored them and donated them to the hotel. Contemporary South African art within historic walls is on display at the Hester Rupert Art Museum.
Graaff-Reinet’s Groot Kerk dates from the late 19th century and was modeled after Salisbury Cathedral in Britain.
The city’s history from the point of view of the so-called Vortrekkers is also reflected in several monuments and statues in the city area.
For example, the Andries Pretorius Monument commemorates the Boer leader from Graaff-Reinet, who is depicted leaning on the wheel of an ox cart with his gaze directed northward.
Camdeboo National Park almost completely surrounds Graaff-Reinet and is divided into four distinct landscapes: The bizarre Valley of Desolation in the west, a game reserve and the Nqweba (former Van Ryneveld) Dam in the north, and the mountainous area in the southeast.
The southeastern part is characterized by the typical hilly landscape of the Karoo. This area is little developed and therefore habitat for mountain zebra, riverine rabbit, klipspringer, duiker and other antelope species. Several shorter and also multi-day hiking trails lead through the area.
Nqweba Dam forms the largest bird sanctuary in the Karoo, with 225 species including great crested grebe, yellow-billed geese and even flamingos. The dam itself is also popular with water sports enthusiasts such as canoeists, surfers and anglers, who mainly catch perch, carp and catfish here.
Although wildlife such as zebras, buffalos and also various antelope species are found throughout the nature reserve, an approximately 10-kilometer-long circuit has been laid out north of the Van Rynveld Dam, which can be accessed by car. There is also a picnic area halfway along the route.
The main attraction of the national park is undoubtedly the “Valley of Desolation”. The well-signposted approach itself is already an experience, but one should drive in the early morning or later afternoon, as the light then provides for particularly dramatic views from the vantage point to the Graaff-Reinet several hundred meters below and the Camdeboo plain.
Prominent in the panorama is the cone of the “Spandau Koppe”. Several short hiking trails lead to various viewpoints of spectacular rock formations of dolerite columns, which owe their formation to weathering erosion caused by abrupt temperature changes and precipitation fluctuations over millions of years.