One way to get more out of a holiday is to head further afield than you otherwise might. LARA SAGE did exactly that in the Karoo in South Africa, and found a fascinating region that’s now more easily accessible.
The Karoo is a semi-desert interior area of South Africa notable for its extremes of temperature and its low rainfall (the name is thought to mean “big thirst”). It extends across parts of the Western and Eastern provinces of South Africa, and, while on first encounter it may seem desolate and unforgiving, delve deeper and you’ll find enormous variety – geological, historical and botanical.
There are many historical towns in the Karoo, but none as widely acclaimed as charming Graaff-Reinet. A visit here is greatly enhanced with a raconteur like David McNaughton from Karoo Connections. He enthusiastically took us around the town (which contains over 220 heritage sites – more than any other town in South Africa) and its surrounds, explaining the checkered history of African tribespeople, Dutch settlers, British colonialists and Boers. Early adventurers, explorers, hunters and travellers are said to have unanimously denounced it as a frightening place!
Today, the old town has new paintwork and some well-maintained museums. A stroll along the quiet streets reveals many examples of magnificent Cape Dutch, Victorian and local Karoo architecture.
The Drostdy was built in 1805 and has operated continuously as a hotel since 1867, playing a significant role in the cultural, civic and agricultural development of the town – not to mention tourism. A recent restoration has revived the property, and in 2017 it was named one of South Africa’s Top 10 hotels on TripAdvisor. The comfortable and appealing rooms are laid out almost like a small village, reached via a maze of external courtyards, and the à la carte menu and wine list are superb.
Staying at the Drostdy also allows you to give something back. The hotel runs as part of the Tourism College, which allows women from underprivileged backgrounds to study the hospitality trade; they’re then given a year’s training within the hotel, and, once qualified, a path in the industry is assured.
Out & About
Graaff-Reinet is growing in its number of trendy coffee shops, homeware and antique stores, making it a destination to spend some time pottering in. One must-visit is the Obesa Nursery, where a man’s passion for cacti and succulents has evolved into a garden wonder. Just out of town, the Valley of Desolation is unfortunately named; viewpoints provide breathtaking panoramas of rock formations (piled dolerite columns) against the backdrop of the plains of the Great Karoo, a landscape produced by erosive and volcanic forces of nature over 200 million years. The area is renowned for its pre-dinosaur fossils.
A short drive away is Nieu-Bethesda, and the infamous Owl House, a museum of concrete sculptures and crushed-glass walls that has an unusual and controversial backstory surrounding the woman who created the artworks and her life in this remote place.
The Karoo used to support vast herds of game, but years of sheep and goat farming saw the flora of the region become fragile and depleted. Recently, private game reserve owners have made concerted restoration efforts to this end; for example, 350km of internal fencing have been removed, and animals such as the eland, gemsbok, rhino, cheetah, red hartebeest, cape buffalo and giraffe have been reintroduced for eco-tourism.
Privately owned and operated by a South African family, Mount Camdeboo (around 60km from Graaff-Reinet) is a massive 14,000-hectare property, where protection of heavily poached rhinos and endangered cheetahs is key. The cheetah isn’t one of the “Big Five” – it’s a slight animal, vulnerable to leopards and lions who will kill it to reduce competition for prey. It was a special moment for us to see this feline basking in the sun. There are only a few rhinos and cheetahs on the property, but the numbers are growing. We also saw countless tortoises, their shells weathered from age. But it’s mostly the breathtaking landscape that will steal your heart, for the plains of the Cambedoo turn a kaleidoscope of pastel shades whenever the light changes.
The reserve’s three Karoo homesteads welcome guests. Eating is a highlight here; the meals are exemplary – an array of courses, each artfully plated, with the wonderful feeling of eating at a family-friend’s home, or dining at your grandparents’ table. (Don’t miss the crème brûlée with spun sugar!)
A game fence surrounds two of the manor houses and safari tents through which the Milk River meanders, with guests free to explore the area on foot, or get active on the 1.6km circular running track. Also, a visit to this reserve isn’t complete without driving to the most incredible sundowner spot, aptly named “360”. And you can discover some of the more inaccessible spots in the mountain tops via an unforgettable scenic helicopter flight with Fly Karoo.
In Africa, it’s not uncommon to see places become run down, their cultural value overshadowed by development. Graaff-Reinet is now “back on the map” as a viable holiday destination, thanks in part to the recent collaboration of these key players:
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Cape Town on certain days. From there, fly to Plettenberg Bay (Cem Air) and on to the small airstrip of Graaff-Reinet (Plett Air Safaris); or, it’s a six-hour scenic drive from Cape Town.
BEFORE AND AFTER
I recommend a stay in Cape Town to begin; Newmark has properties at the famed V&A Waterfront (newmarkhotels.com). From Graaff-Reinet, you can catch an onward flight with Plett Air Safaris to Kwandwe, a “Big Five” game reserve in the Eastern Cape (kwandwe.com).
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