Driving into the sleepy town of Graaff-Reinet is like taking a step back in time. Nestled in a horseshoe bend of the Sundays River, the “gem of the Karoo” was established in 1786. This makes it the 4th oldest magisterial district in the country. Lined with small businesses, coffee shops and art galleries, the streets of Graaff-Reinet are wide enough for two oxwagons to pass by one another. David Livingstone, the famous explorer, once travelled through Graaff-Reinet and called it “the prettiest little town in all Africa.” We quite agree – it’s hard not to be taken in by its charm and authenticity.
Whether you’re just passing through after a visit to Samara Karoo Reserve or staying a few nights, there are plenty of things to do in Graaff-Reinet. To whet your appetite and to help you make the most of your time in Graaff-Reinet, we’ve highlighted a few of our favourites.
1. Explore the town centre on foot
Despite being easily accessible from both Johannesburg and Cape Town by car along national highways, Graaff-Reinet has retained the quiet rural charm of a town that can readily be navigated on foot. There’s not a single traffic light here, and the wide streets lined with Jacarandas (blooming a vivid purple in Spring) are positively begging to be explored.
You can wander from your hotel or B&B along the likes of Bourke, Cradock and Stockenstroom Streets and marvel at the pretty houses – a fine mix of Cape Dutch, Karoo and Victorian architecture – and their surprisingly lush gardens.
Your stroll might turn into an unexpected lesson in multiple facets of South Africa’s history. With over 220 heritage sites, Graaff-Reinet has the most national monuments of any other town in the country. A visit to the Old Library Museum offers a chance to see the Lex Bremner fossil collection, Rock Art exhibition and Stone Age Collection, as well as the Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe Permanent Exhibition.
Make sure not to miss the architecture of the Dutch Reformed Church, or Groot Kerk, which commands the full attention of the main road. The structure is truly mesmerising, and the space is a prime example of an important aspect of Afrikaans culture and tradition. Another standout is the Reinet House Museum, a stately building in whose courtyard a Black Acorn grapevine that was planted in 1870 still grows today.
If you would prefer a guided tour, there are several excellent tour guides. David McNaughton of Karoo Connections is a history nut with a particular penchant for Boer War stories. Chantelle Marais, aka Karoo Girl, also offers walking tours of the town.
2. Toast the sunset at the Valley of Desolation
A trip to the world-renowned Valley of Desolation is a must when considering things to do in Graaff-Reinet. A tar road offers easy access to the panoramic viewpoint, which is located within the Camdeboo National Park which encircles the town. The entrance gate to the park is a short 5 km drive away from the town centre.
The Valley of Desolation is impressive at any time of day, but it is at its most magnificent in the late afternoon as the golden hour turns to sunset. Watch as the Plains of Camdeboo stretch out from the base of towering dolomite columns. Not even pictures do this view justice – so make sure it has a spot on your bucket list.
3. Dabble in some art and culture
Meander down Church Street and pop your head into a gallery or two. For an intimate glimpse into the town’s history, visit the Hester Rupert Art Museum. The building in which the museum sits was destined to be demolished to make way for a petrol station in 1965. Luckily it was saved from this fate and turned into a museum on the condition that renowned South African artists donate a representative piece of their work to support the preservation of the building for posterity. This makes for a small but important artwork collection.
A more modern option is the Imibala Gallery, which often runs dynamic exhibitions with a percentage of proceeds going to charity. The gallery is located on the premises of the Drostdy Hotel, which offers luxury accommodation in Graaff-Reinet. The hotel also comprises a restaurant, wine shop and Africology spa.
4. Support local businesses
Whether it be a meal or a souvenir you are after, there are plenty of local businesses you can support in the area.
Hello You (52 Somerset Street) offers great easy meals and cakes with an outdoor seating area for warm days. The award for best views goes to the Coldstream Restaurant (3 Church Street). Housed in the northern wing of the historic Graaff-Reinet Club building, the Coldstream serves food overlooking the stately Dutch Reformed Church.
For small gifts, try one of the many shops selling mohair – a traditional Karoo fibre. Windmill Junction (right next to Hello You) sells a broad selection of shoes, homeware and baby gifts. If you’re after a rather more substantial purchase, you can’t beat Aunty Eira’s antique shop Reinet Antiques (15 Church Square), specialising in Cape furniture and bric-a-brac. Fans of mid-century modern design will enjoy nearby Lot 44 (44 Somerset Street), which occasionally also stocks local produce from cheeses to fresh bread. For bookworms, McNaughton’s Bookshop (7 Church Street) is a must – this family-run business stocks many genres but with a focus on tomes with a Karoo flavour.
5. Encounter spectacular wildlife
Although not as well-known as the more celebrated parks of Kruger and Madikwe, the Great Karoo was once home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, from migrations of springbok hundreds of thousands strong, to the iconic elephant, rhino and lion.
Centuries after these animals were last seen in the area, conservationists are attempting to bring them back. The Camdeboo National Park, surrounding Graaff-Reinet, is a great place to see plains game and the occasional buffalo. For a real safari experience, however, nothing beats a private game reserve. The most notable and successful of these is Samara Karoo Reserve, a 40 minute drive from Graaff-Reinet, where cheetah, zebra, elephant, lion, giraffe and many other species roam freely. Activities on offer include game drives, guided walks, wilderness picnics, conservation activities and an open-air star bed.
Header image credit: Drostdy Hotel. Other image credits (in order of appearance): ECTours, Cypress Cottages, Emma Jude Jackson, De Kothuize, KarooSpace.co.za x 2, Imibala Gallery, Elsona Studio, Samara Karoo Reserve x 4.