If you love history and old buildings, you’ll love Graaff-Reinet in South Africa's Eastern Cape. The town has more than 200 heritage sites, so there’s lots of history to be explored. If you love nature, you’re in luck too, given that the town is surrounded by 195 square kilometres of national park. Here are 12 things to do in Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo.
2. Visit the museums
If you want a break from colonial history, visit the Old Library Museum in Church Street for some insight into the lives of slaves and the Khoi, as well as transformation history and displays about political activist and Pan African Congress founder, Robert Sobukwe, who was born and buried in Graaff-Reinet (see point 8).
3. Explore the Camdeboo National Park
For more about this park, see my post Camdeboo National Park: the ultimate guide.
4. Visit the Valley of Desolation
5. See the Nqweba Dam
6. Visit the Obesa cactus nursery and garden
Take an adventurous walk along the marked path around the garden (just avoid the prickles) and you’ll be amazed at the variety and number of them. In some places the cacti are so big they even create shady areas. When we visited, some were on the verge of flowering and it occurred to me how colourful the garden must be when many of them are in bloom.
Ask Johan how many different species there are in his garden and nursery and he’ll tell you that last time he counted was 2012, when it was 7200. Then he realised counting was all about testosterone and ego so he hasn’t counted since then although he has continued to propagate new species. It’s the largest private collection in the world.
Quite a character, Johan is interesting to talk to, with strong opinions on everything from politics to religion and racism to Americans. He has a sign on the entrance gate saying, ‘Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?’ He figures if you don’t get it, you’re too dumb to care. Another sign deeper in the nursery points more strongly to his annoyance with everyone who voted for Donald Trump, so lose that American accent before your visit! And if you’re sensitive about swearing, don’t engage him in conversation because every sentence is peppered with a few f-bombs.
7. Find the monument to the Jewish pedlars
Eventually I found where it used to be, but the plaque itself was in pieces at the foot of the rock on which it was once mounted. It was sad to see it uncared for, no one noticing or bothering that it was broken. [Update October 2020: I'm thrilled to hear that a new monument has now been erected on this site to replace the broken one.] Luckily, I noticed a similar plaque near the old vine at Reinet House (see point 2).
8. Visit Robert Sobukwe’s birthplace
In Umasizakhe township you can see the house where Pan African Congress founder Robert Sobukwe was born. His grave in Kroonvale cemetery was restored in 2014. Talk to Khanya at the Tourism Office in Church Street if you want to visit these two sites, tel 049-8924248. For a three-hour walkabout tour of the township to learn about Xhosa language and culture and visit a local project, David McNaughton of Karoo Connections is your man.
9. Eat Karoo food
10. Stay over
11. Find fossils
12. Take a day trip to Nieu Bethesda and the Owl House
Note: Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of everything there is to do in Graaff-Reinet. Apart from the heritage, eco-tourism and culinary routes I’ve touched on here, there’s also an art route, adrenalin sports and walking tours of the town. Pop into the tourism office in Church Street if you want to explore any of these in more detail.
If you're looking for a treat experience, go on an Eastern Cape safari at Samara Game Reserve in the Karoo, about 25km from Graaff-Reinet to see animals like elephant, lion, buffalo, cheetah, mountain zebra, giraffe and aardvark.
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