Stargazing, like whisky, is an acquired taste. It takes patience, an appreciation of subtle nuances and enough time to fully become involved in either activity. Stargazing while drinking whisky? Well, that might just be the path to travel enlightenment.
Graaff-Reinet, the Gem of the Karoo, offers some of the best star gazing in the world with enough space and an atmosphere conducive soaking up some of the radiant cosmological wonders that the Southern Hemisphere’s heavens have to offer.
Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest town in South Africa and home to some of the most superb examples of Cape Dutch architecture. The town also boasts over 220 heritage sites which is more than any other town in South Africa. Yep, Graaff-Reinet is something of a living museum.
Established in 1786, the town was named after the Governor van der Graaf and his wife Reinet. It has four remarkable museums which hold the secrets of the past and include photographic memorabilia, firearms, artwork and fossils. Graaff-Reinet is world renowned for the many pre-dinosaur fossils found in the region.
Things to do in Graaff-Reinet
The Camdeboo National Park
Early explorers were in awe of the vast herds of game that wandered the area. Of these, the most common were springboks and many are still farmed in Graaff-Reinet today. Camdeboo National Park offers game viewing trips which end with a bushbraai at the lapa. The bushbraai consists of sundowners and a traditional Karoo meal. Due to the isolated nature of the area, it is one of the primary spots to indulge in stargazing(and whisky drinking). Cambedoo National Park is home to six species that cannot be found in the world-renowned Kruger National Park. These are springbok gemsbok, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, berg kwagga and blesbuck.
If you want to take part in a truly South African experience then take a township tour. Experience Graaff-Reinet’s townships Kroonvale and Umasizakhe in the two hour walk with your guide. The founder of the Pan African Congress, Robert Managaliso Sobukwe grew up in the township and you pass his house along the way. On top of that, a visit to a local family completes the tour where you can enjoy a cooldrink and roosterbrood- a small bread baked on an open fire. The people of Umasizakhe demonstrate the Xhosa culture and sell handmade goods giving the tour a definitive African flavor. Ask your Guest House to book your tour.
The Valley of Desolation also called The Cathedral of the Mountains.
This ragged cliff face is a piece of geographical awesomeness situated within the Camdeboo National Park and is the result of volcanic forces of nature over a period of millions of years. Against the backdrop of the Great Karoo plains pillars of dolerite ascend 120 meters from the floor of the valley. The Valley of Desolation is known for leaving visitors more than a little awed.
The Karoo mountain flora and fauna are impressive and nature lovers will enjoy the chance to check out black eagles circling above. For the hiking enthusiasts, the Crag Lizard Trail starts at the Valley parking area and continues for about one and half kilometers through the Valley viewpoints. Even for the untrained hiker this walk is only about 45 minutes long and can be enjoyed by both novices and experts. The panoramic views of the landscape are unrivalled and the best time to enjoy the scenery is late afternoon when the sun drenches the reds of the rocky towers.
Agave Factory Tour
The Agave plant was introduced into South Africa within the last century and a half and flourishes in the Karoo. Agave Distillers were the first distillery to produce a spirit similar to tequila outside of Mexico. Hear about the process and have a taste of this home grown version of tequila. Homegrown tequila is equally good at facilitating stargazing so you might want to buy a bottle.
The Dutch Reformed Church
Found in the centre of town, the Dutch Reformed Church is a replica of Salisbury Cathedral in England. Which is interesting in itself. It was the fourth church to be erected on the same spot. The first church to be built burnt down before it was finished in 1799. The second was completed in 1880 and was torn down in 1822 due to the increasing congregation.
Open air services were held while the third church was being built. It was completed in 1823 and had a thatched roof. The Dutch Reformed Church that stands there today was opened in 1887. This church owns also apparently owns extremely valuable silverware.
The Graaff-Reinet House Museum Complex
If you love old buildings and are something of a history sleuth, then you’ll love this complex.This complex comprises of four historical buildings. There is Urquart House, the Old Library, the Old Residency and Reinet House all of which offer historical insight into the town of Graaff-Reinet. Reinet House was built in 1811 and is famous for its spacious rooms, high ceilings and yellow wood floors. The museum is a great example of Cape Dutch architecture and on exhibit are dolls from the First World War as well as antique furniture.
The Reinet House includes the Mill House, Wagon House and the famous Black Acorn grape vine which was planted in 1870 and still flourishes today. Reinet House is also home to locally brewed Witblitz which is distilled once a year at the annual Withond Day. Urquart House dates back between 1815 and 1821 and was once the Clegg’s Midland Hotel and houses farm equipment.
The Old Library houses a Bushman rock art collection, a fossil collection of Karoo reptiles and a costume collection consisting of clothes from the turn of the century. The Old Residency houses a collection of sporting rifles as well as memorabilia from the Anglo-Boer War as well as a variety of antique musical instruments.