The huge church stands four-square in the middle of the town. It stands on the site where the Reverend Andrew Murray, the Scottish minister who did so much for the Dutch Reformed Church would preach.
When this church, the fourth, was built, its designers were inspired by the Salisbury Cathedral. The size, the shape impose four-square on the comings and goings of Graaff-Reinet, the jewel of the Karoo. Andrew Murray jr, his son, would take over where he had left off – and preach from its pulpit.
Murray sr apparently had his rectory built in front of the old drostdy, so the local landdrost would have no doubt about who was who in the balance between church and state, almost 200 years ago in the Eastern Cape.
Off to the side is the quaint Graaff-Reinet Club, one that would borrow from the gentlemen’s clubs of the era, but which hasn’t aged nearly as well as its namesake in Kimberley.
It was the discovery of diamonds that catapulted Graaff- Reinet’s economy from being merely the merino capital of the country to a vital thoroughfare on the road to the diamond fields. The diggers would order everything they needed through Port Elizabeth which would then be transported north.
The club’s a bit shabby these days, but a fascinating time capsule into the days of yore. If you do nothing else, get a pint in the bar under the biggest assortment of arms and other weaponry seen outside of a museum or the officers’ mess of a frontier regiment. The rest of the square and the streets leading off it to the south, are a revelation. Clean, refurbished with a visible energy.
There’s a craft-beer brewery, hipster eateries, home products, wool and more wool shops, museums. It’s a far cry from other important regional towns, such as neighbouring Cradock or Grahamstown and Queenstown further east, which manage to fall off the abyss of the genteel poor to the torpor of abject poverty, interspersed with hopelessness.
Perhaps the Rupert family have much to do with the rebirth of the town, particularly Johann Rupert and the company’s investment into the history Drostdy Hotel and its fabulous revamp.
The hotel has been in operation since 1878 when it was known as Kromm’s Hotel and marketed as a boutique hotel for travellers and
those wanting their jangled nerves soothed. It started life though as the official residence of the landdrost in 1804 and latterly, as a local state house for visiting luminaries, especially governors of the Cape colony.
Today, there are is an eclectic mix of 48 rooms, some painted out like the cheek by jowl houses of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, some standard, others suites; a spa, a cigar lounge, a delightful à la carte restaurant, the Camdeboo, a library and an art museum.
The furnishings are modern and luxurious with a deep reference throughout to the old Karoo; riempie benches and old, original wooden cupboards in the rooms to the unexpectedly tasteful mounted horned skulls of the kind of plains game you’d find in the area.
The service is what you’d expect of a boutique hotel in the platteland, enthusiastic and unpretentious though at a higher level than others because of the
tourism and hospitality academy that has also been established in the town.
The manager of the hotel, Janus Schoeman, though sets new benchmarks in terms of attention to detail and sheer work ethic, with a pedigree that began at the Pezula in Knysna before being honed at the Oppenheimer’s Tswalu and Knysna Simola.
Graaff-Reinet is a place to come and dream. It’s a traditional South African country town, beautifully nestling in the surrounding hills.
The air is clean, this close to the as yet unspoilt Karoo, but the true gem awaits less than 15km north, the Camdeboo National Park. There, as you drive up the winding road leaving Graaff-Reinet behind, you come to a look-out point where the Valley of Desolation lies immediately ahead and beyond the plains of Camdeboo, so flat and so open, it feels like you can see right into the future.
The valley, sheer cliff faces rising 120m up from its floor has been likened to a natural cathedral.
It was designated as a scenic national monument in 1935 and if you time your drive up to the top for sunset, with a couple of sundowners in your picnic basket, you’ll see just why it has been so popular with lovers, hikers and photographers for ages.
Graaff-Reinet might not be the easiest place to get to but the journey is certainly worth it.
The easiest, and quickest, way to get to Graaff-Reinet is to fly to PE and travel north through some of the most beautiful landscape imaginable.
Jansenville, 70km south of Graaff-Reinet, is worth a stop just because, not even to fill up. Otherwise you can get to Graaff-Reinet down the N1 from Gauteng, turning off at Colesberg down towards Nieu-Bethesda.
From Cape Town you can take the N1 to Beaufort West and then turn off down to Graaff-Reinet. They’re long trips, but that’s half the fun.