By Keri Harvey
“Everything I need is right here,” says Gordon Wright, “Graaff-Reinet is bustling, beautiful and inspiring to live in.” As South Africa’s fourth-oldest town, it’s an eclectic mix of African and European cultures, which can be seen in the architecture of the buildings and the rich heritage of the place. It’s cosmopolitan and definitely not quiet.
Gordon was an investment banker and moved to Graaff-Reinet two years ago to live a more authentic life with his wife and two sons. “I wanted my boys to grow up riding their bicycles in the street,” he says. So when he found Andries Stockenström Guesthouse “by pure chance”, his dream of indulging his passion for cooking took flight. Now so do some of his guests, who come from as far as Johannesburg and Cape Town for monthly dinners at his acclaimed Gordon’s Restaurant.
“Cooking is my first love,” says Gordon. “I always heard foreigners asking for real South African food, so that’s what I do. My menu is exclusively Karoo food and I only source my ingredients locally. Here, organic is a way of life, so food has good flavour and is excellent quality.” Gordon’s signature dish is Cape Wild Hare—hare is commonly eaten in Europe but not in South Africa, yet it is thoroughly Karoo food. It’s served slow roasted, infused with herbs, honey and whisky.
Graaff-Reinet may be a Karoo town, but it’s no ‘dorp’. It’s vibey and eclectic, with a mix of cultures and languages. The town is littered with over 300 national monuments—more than any other town in South Africa. Most of these are private homes and virtually all are in pristine condition. In town there is the historic Reinet House and the Drostdy to see, intricate Porcupine Quill House, the world’s largest living grape vine, the Obesa cactus and succulent collection with over 4 000 species, and the Jan Rupert Art Museum, housing one of the finest collections of Pierneef paintings in southern Africa.
The town is completely surrounded by nature reserve and wildlife. There’s the Camdeboo National Park conserving the towering dolerite columns of the Valley of Desolation. There are also fossils and rock paintings to see, along with Anglo-Boer War engravings. Just out of town you can do everything from picnicking to paragliding, mountain biking to microlighting, and there’s theKalkkop meteorite impact crater to visit too.
“Graaff-Reinet is truly the gem of the Karoo,” says Gordon. “It has so much to offer—history, heritage and the great outdoors. The people live authentically, and they still walk around at night because they can. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Neither can Peet van Heerden, a sixth-generation farmer on Doornberg near Nieu Bethesda. “The area is remote, so living here can be difficult, but the beauty of the place and the close community are magic. There are just so few of us that we all have to get on because we are all dependent on each other.”
Nieu Bethesda has a tiny population of just 70 in the town, and about 800 people live in the township Pienaarsig next door. While many renowned artists, sculptors, ceramicists and playwrights live in the village, Athol Fugard is certainly the most famous. His Road to Mecca is centred around the famously eccentric Owl House and its creator Helen Martins. In her Camel Yard she created a fantastical world from cement and glass, which has become the icon of the town. Now over 15 000 visitors a year marvel at her whimsical figures.
Started in 1878 when a church was needed for surrounding farmers, Nieu Bethesda lies against the backdrop of Compassberg, part of the Sneeuberg mountains. Sneeuberg is also the name of the local brewery that produces three varieties of ale, served with homemade goat’s cheese and pickles. Just across the road is renowned artist Albert Redelinghuys’s maze and labyrinth —one to lose your head and the other to find it.
Right next door to the Owl House is the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, with a fossil field lying right in the heart of the town. Peet adds that it’s “very enlightening to see that half the world is actually under your feet”. To get a wide-angle perspective on Nieu Bethesda, take a donkey cart ride through town with Jacob van Staden and listen to his stories—some of which are true.
Peet says what makes Nieu Bethesda special is that it’s “a laid back town where everybody has their own way of doing things. The town is extremely tolerant and non-judgemental of people’s preferences, so everyone can be completely themselves. That’s the magic. People embrace each other.
“But the big heartsore is joblessness,” says Peet. “Many farms have been bought by foreigners, so labourers no longer have work.”
PPC sponsors the Owl House and is implementing a project to create cement figures around the town. So soon there may be a cement priest in the graveyard or a permanent teacher standing near the school. Another project is the establishment of a metal foundry on Doornberg farm, where the public can do metal work. An Athol Fugard festival is also planned for later in the year.
Peet smiles and says: “The best kept secret about Nieu Bethesda is that there just are no secrets. That’s the nature of this town.”
For Grahamstown, its secret may lie in the landscape. It’s the meeting place of the arid Karoo, rugged Amatola mountains and lush coastal belt. World-renowned photographer Obie Oberholzer says he draws inspiration from this landscape for his work. “For me it’s also one of the most beautiful towns in South Africa,” says Obie. “The combination of colonial architecture, historical buildings and landscape just make it for me. There are interesting characters in town and a good, unpretentious cultural mix, so there’s always subject matter for photographs. And, for better or worse, the Rhodes University students add colour to the place.”
Obie describes the vibe there as “adventure in a small town, because you don’t have to go far to find something interesting”. It’s not just the “slightly offbeat people of a cute frontier town” that are of interest. The City of Saints, named for its 54 churches, has diverse attractions.
Walking down High Street, there’s the majestic Cathedral of St Michael and St George at one end and Drostdy Arch at the other—the entrance to Rhodes. There is a unique craft shop there. TheObservatory Museum houses a Victorian camera obscura, and there’s also a Natural Science Museum—complete with an Egyptian mummy and dinosaur, and a History Museum depicting the origins of the people of the area. The oldest postbox in South Africa and the oldest family-owned newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, are also in Grahamstown—as is the oldest fish: the coelacanth, rediscovered by Prof JLB Smith when it was thought extinct.
Obie says it’s a must to look down on the town from the surrounding hills, and at the same time see the 1820 Settlers National Monument and Fort Selwyn, both on Gunfire Hill. Wonder at the toposcope on Mountain Drive, which shows the distances to important places in the country, and then amble through the old artisans’ quarter in town to see Settler architecture. The Grahamstown Art Studio, housed in a section of André Brink’s previous home, displays over 800 pieces, while the annual National Arts Festival showcases hundreds of plays, musicals and exhibitions—it’s the biggest after Edinburgh.
“The town is really full of artists and writers and interesting people,” says Obie, “and some interesting watering holes too.” Or you could tipple on African mead at Makana Meadery, where you can also buy your very own bee suit. Or just honey, if it suits you better. Something for everyone, eccentric or plain.
For more information visit the respective websites: www.graaffreinet.com,
www.nieubethesda.co.za and www.grahamstown.co.za.
Where to Stay
Andries Stockenstrom Guesthouse. Situated in Graaff-Reinet, this 4-star guesthouse is a culinary oasis, where food is a passion. Bedrooms are cosy and with comforts and extras to pamper. Tel. 049-892-4575 or visit www.asghouse.co.za
Villa Reinet Guest House. Come to Graaff-Reinet for a much-needed breakaway, and experience the natural rhythm and beauty of the Karoo. Villa Reinet is a great base from which to explore the area. Tel. 049-892-5525 or visitwww.villareinet.co.za
Avondrust B&B. Caring hosts, Nico and Hanniki Hattingh, welcome you to the heart of Graaff-Reinet. Avondrust is an imposing guesthouse and B&B with gracious living as its philosophy. Tel. 049-892-3566 or visit www.avondrustbnb.co.za
Shamwari Game Reserve is home to Africa’s Big 5. It’s malaria free and situated in the Eastern Cape.Luxury safari accommodation is offered in 7 different lodges on this private game reserve. Tel. 041-407-1000 or visit www.shamwari.com.
Addo Elephant Back Safaris and Lodges’s fully-fenced game conservancy is malaria-free. Expect a once in a lifetime safari adventure, where you are at one with nature and following in the footsteps of the ancients. Tel. 042-235-1400 or visit www.addoelephantbacksafaris.co.za.
Lalibela Game Reserve offers game drives amongst the Big 5 in a malaria-free area just half an hour from Grahamstown and an hour from Port Elizabeth. Tel. 041-581-8170 or visit www.laibela.co.za.
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is a birders paradise and is home to the Blue Crane, from where it takes its Xhosa name, Kwandwe. The lodges offer sophistication and style in an area steeped in history and biodiversity. Visit www.kwandwereserve.co.za.