The Camdeboo’s Cathedral Of Mountains ~ One of South Africa’s oldest towns, Graaff-Reinet, is known for its quaint collection of 19th century historical Cape Dutch and Karoo architecture and as you navigate your way through the quiet streets, a big stoep, shutter-covered windows and charming broekie lace fretwork, are always up for admiration.
But when you travel about 15 km north from the town another architectural style beckons you closer while the wind whispers, ‘come have a look’.
The Camdeboo’s Cathedral Of Mountains
It is a type of architecture that has its roots firmly planted in what once, 250 million years ago, was a flood plain and over the years the style developed as erosive forces shaped and reduced the landscape into the Karoo we know today, into the Valley of Desolation that was declared a national monument in 1939.
This geological masterpiece, with its natural and godly architectural features, is hauntingly mesmerising when you stand atop a viewpoint to admire the gaping chasm that cuts through the Camdeboo Mountains. Dolerite columns shoot from the valley below and it tower to the heavens preaching history of more than a 100 million years when volcanic eruptions forced molten rock through the sediment.
One with the crag lizards – also the name of the short hiking trail at the Valley of Desolation – you scurry from rock to rock and viewpoint to viewpoint to soak in the panoramic views over Graaff-Reinet and the vast Camdeboo Plains.
It grabs you by the chest and drains out the noise when you find yourself eye level with soaring eagles, completely in awe of the natural phenomenon that has stood the test of time.
The typical landscape of semi-arid dusty plains with its desert plants challenge your Karoo perceptions as the magnetism of the Camdeboo, a Khoi word for ‘green valley’, draws your attention to the abundance of colour.
But down below, sprawled over 19 405 hectares, the rest of South Africa’s second smallest national park with its thorn trees, dwarf shrubs and the unforgiving summer temperatures, quickly remind you that the area speaks fluently Karoo.
The park has a diverse spectrum of wildlife, from the Cape mountain zebra and Cape buffalo to other game animals such as springbok, kudu, red hartebeest and gemsbok.
It is also a birder’s paradise with over 250 species, including globally and regionally threatened species like the blue crane and Karoo Korhaan, and the park also boasts a few rare sightings of the Temminck’s courser, African grass owl and the back-chested snake eagle to name a few.
The Camdeboo is filled with nature’s best architecture; masterpieces formed over time and it lies within the stretches of the open road, in the squeak of windmills, nestled in the succulent flora, between animal hooves kicking up dust and from the valleys below to the clouds above speaking in tongues of thunder and lightning.
Things to keep in mind when visiting Camdeboo National Park
5 km from Graaff-Reinet (the entrance to the Valley of Desolation is 15 km from town).
Visitors can enjoy self-guided game drives on the park’s clearly marked roads. The game viewing area and Valley of Desolation’s gate entrance times vary between opening at 06:00 and closing at 20:30 (depending on the season). Keep in mind that while the opening time of the two sections of Camdeboo National Park are the same, the Valley of Desolation section closes half an hour later than the game viewing area.
Where to stay:
If you are after an off-road adventure, look no further. With two off-road trails you can put your bundu basher in low range and explore every bit of Camdeboo National Park.
The Koedoeskloof Trail (accessed via the Valley of Desolation) is graded 3-4, takes about 3 hours to complete (but add some extra time to enjoy the scenic vistas) and is the definition of rough and tough.
The Driekoppe Trail is easier and can be done in a 2×4; it offers views of the Camdeboo plains, you can also follow the stream bed to a waterfall and there is an optional circular hiking trail if you feel like tackling the road on foot as well.
Tie your hiking boots’ laces in double knots and discover the Valley of Desolation on the Crag Lizard Trail (1.5 km, 45 minutes).
At Spandaukop, you will find the Eerstefontein Day Trail with the option of a 5 km, 11 km, or 14 km route and the Gideon Scheepers Trail is an hour-long walk, starting at the Gideon Scheepers Monument and ending at Barbergat.
Other facilities in the park:
Due to the park being near the town of Graaff-Reinet, there is no shop onsite, however you will find firewood at park’s reception.
You can visit the Valley of Desolation and enjoy its viewpoints, birdwatching on Nqweba Dam at the Khwalimanzi bird hide and water sports such as canoeing, windsurfing and fishing (permit should be obtained) are allowed in certain areas.
The South African National Parks’ conservation fee applies when visiting Camdeboo National Park.
Other things to while visiting Graaff-Reinet
As one of the oldest towns in South Africa it is easy believe that the town has more than 200 heritage sites, including memorials and national monuments.
One such place to visit is the Reinet House that houses items from yesteryear, there is the Dutch Reformed Church making a statement in the middle of the town with its Victorian pseudo-gothic architecture, the most photographed church in South Africa and also Robert Sobukwe’s house that can be visited on a walking tour of the township. The town is also a haven for art lovers with numerous galleries that can be explored on foot.
A giant South African flag made up of millions of coloured desert plants is in progress and being established on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet. But if plants tickle your fancy a visit to the Obesa Cacti Nursery should be in order; it is the largest private collection in the world and there are more than 7000 different species.
Restaurants & Events worth knowing about
If you’re wondering where to go for a bite you can firmly address the hunger pangs at one of the town’s restaurants, like Polka, Coldstream, Drostdy Hotel, Pioneers and Blue Magnolia where you’ll find more than just Karoo lamb.
And if you happen to be in the area towards the end of May, get ready for some wine-tasting during the annual Stoep Tasting Wine Weekend when about 50 wine estates present their best to the public who walks – wine glass and map in hand – from one tasting to the next.