My partner and I like visiting little South African towns, or “dorpies” as all and sundry call them. Steeped in history, they never fail to enchant with their architecture, food and slower pace of life – a welcome respite from hectic city life. They are the soul of the country.
In November, on impulse, we decided to visit the Great Karoo for the first time. We wanted a town that best captured the spirit of the country’s interior, and so we settled on Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape. We salivated at the thought of cycling on the open roads, inhaling lungfuls of clean air.
Two weeks later, we landed at Port Elizabeth Airport, flush with excitement. Meanwhile, we had researched Graaff Reinet. We knew that it’s the fourth oldest town after Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam. We also knew it was home to more national monuments than any other town in South Africa. We knew it was called the Gem of the Karoo.
While at the airport our enthusiasm was blunted: the airline forgot to load our bicycles onto our plane. Two hours later, with the glitch sorted, we finally climbed into our rented car and hit the road. A 224km trip awaited us.
The road was open and the ride peaceful. Rugged mountains and scraggly trees rushed past us. Our first stop was in Jansenville, a small town in the plains of the Camdeboo, just north of the Klein Winterhoek mountains, for some refreshing coffee and – to prove that we were truly in the Karoo – some delicious biltong. After exploring the town on foot for a few minutes, we got back on the road.
Hours later we drove over a large, old bridge crossing a bone-dry Sundays River – the crippling drought had done its worst – to finally reach Graaff Reinet. At the entrance of the town, we saw a Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Museum, an appropriate honour for a great man from the town.
We were greeted by well-preserved Victorian houses, a huge gothic Dutch Reformed Church in the middle of town, coffee shops, museums, galleries and an assortment of small-town stores. For the next four days we stayed at the Drostdy Hotel, a five-star boutique hotel in the middle of town.
Graaff Reinet is a true gem. For the best view of the town one must get on a private game drive to the top of the Camdeboo National Park for sundowners. On the other side of the park is the Valley of Desolation with vertical cliffs and towering columns of ancient dolerite, giving the place a tranquil, otherworldly quality. From the top of this valley it seems as if you can reach out and touch the clouds.
While cycling around town, we spotted Our Yard Roastery and Cultural Shop, an institution, apparently. It’s the perfect place to relax if you like coffee, great food or art. On the premises there is also Johannesson Craft Liquor Merchants with a breathtaking range of craft gin and beer.
If you have some time, I’d recommend heading to Nieu Bethesda, a nearby village at the foot of the Sneeuberge Mountains. It’s charming in its quaintness. We visited The Brewery and Two goats Deli Brewery that specialises in craft beer, cheese, honey and various meats, including a to-die-for smoked kudu salami. The place is a one-man show and the products cannot be found anywhere else. Talk about artisanal originality.
Our trip to Graaff Reinet proved once again that exploring any destination, whether big city or small town, is better done on a bike. We saw a lot by simply pedaling around. A few days later, nourished by the sights and all the yummy artisanal goodies of the Karoo, we packed our bags and bikes and rejoined the rat race in the city.
by Mabila Mthanti