Graaff Reinet, the historical little town in the Eastern Cape, is the most delightful combination of small-town wonderful and golden countryside. Take a meander through the mists of time with me; to a time where streets were wide to accommodate ox-wagons, game wandered freely across the plains of Camdeboo and farmers, well, they farmed much as they do today. The town itself has grown and modernised while still retaining its old-world charm as South Africa’s fourth oldest. The architecture, including the unmissable NG Kerk, is incredible and visitors can choose from a selection of traditional venues including the restored Camdeboo Cottages and Drostdy Hotel for a few nights’ comfortable rest. Just strolling through the jacaranda-lined streets instils a sense of small-town bliss for a road-weary traveller. Take a walking tour of Graaff Reinet if you don’t want to miss a single treasure. Once you’ve freshened up, you’ll want to get out and explore the countryside, which includes superb scenery, private game reserves and the beloved Valley of Desolation at the Camdeboo National Park. Be prepared for golden and grey vistas, South African wildlife and some of the best sunsets in the Southern Hemisphere! Don’t discount this special Karoo town when planning your trip across South Africa. Here are five of my favourite moments from just 36 hours of exploring…
GAME DRIVE AT MOUNT CAMDEBOO
Just a short drive from town, you’ll find yourself in another world: the world of Mount Cambedoo. A place where cheetah laze under a tree, the vulnerable mountain zebra gallops the golden plains and the rare white rhino may just be closer than you think!
Our game drive started with a sighting of six rhino, moms and calves, just grazing within sight of the lodge – they were covered in red dust from a mud bath and completely unperturbed the vehicles. Our lucky streak continued as we were fortunate to spot a cheetah napping away after a hearty meal, and mountain zebra, before finally settling on a mountaintop to enjoy a golden sunset and a sundowner before heading back to the lodge for our al fresco dinner. That’s when things really got unforgettable. A Karoo traffic jam!
Our guide spotted some fresh rhino droppings on the mountainside road and, as we turned a corner, in the fading dusk, there he was: a beautiful, real-life rhino – just metres in front of us. What a moment. Hardly bothered, although incredibly insistent that he take his time, we did what anyone would do in a traffic jam: creep along and wait; although, the sights and sounds where a darn sight better than any gridlock I’ve ever seen! We spent 45 minutes following this rare and endangered creature, the hardest part was putting my camera away and staying in the moment, because you know that something like this will never happen again and you don’t want to witness it from behind a lens.
MOUNT CAMDEBOO is a private game reserve outside Graaff Reinet that focuses on the conservation of vulnerable and endangered species such as the white rhino, cheetah and mountain zebra. In addition to game drives, guided walks and stargazing, the reserve also offers accommodation in the form of three manor houses, a secluded cottage and a safari tent camp.
FLY KAROO OVER THE VALLEY
Where to begin? A helicopter flip over the ancient Valley of Desolation will leave you feeling both dwarfed and invigorated, somewhere between being awed by nature and thrilled at a heli-trip over, what could very easily be, Jurassic Park. You could expect to see dinosaurs wandering the plains of the valley! The Valley of Desolation has formed over 100 million years and is a sheer spectacle of 120m high Dolerite cliffs and columns. Fly Karoo offers an exhilarating flip over the valley and the Camdeboo National Park with beyond-breath-taking views. This short trip provides a birds-eye view of Graaff Reinet, the Ngweba Dam, the Valley of Desolation and the Camdeboo National Park. This is a must-do for first-time and returning visitors to the Karoo Heartland.
FLY KAROO is Graaff Reinet’s first helicopter charter service, offering scenic flights which enable visitors to Graaff Reinet to visit popular sites in the surrounding areas. Charters are also offered to nearby locations such as game lodges and Port Elizabeth airport.
DINNER ON THE MOUNT
The sun sets at its own special pace in the Karoo, sliding gently towards the distant mountains and turning the light that special golden colour that feels unique to the Karoo Heartland. It’s magical and romantic. Couple this lovely light and fresh summer air with an al-fresco dinner at Mount Camdeboo and you have a recipe for an unforgettable Karoo experience. Following an afternoon spent game viewing and realising how close the wildlife is to your cosy dinner table, makes this doubly special. And here’s a not-to-well-kept secret: the Karoo folk really know how to cook! The talented chefs at Mount Camdeboo have taken inspiration from South African cuisine and recipes that date back to the early Cape settlers, reinventing old favourites with a light, contemporary touch.
STAYING IN GRAAFF REINET
An overnight stay (or three) in Graaff Reinet will reinforce the feeling of having stepped back to a time when porches were deep, floors were wooden, and hospitality was as warm as the wide streets in mid-summer. Graaff Reinet has a number of converted and restored guesthouses and hotels complete with superb cuisine, crisp linen and first-class service. As there is so much to see and explore in, and around, Graaff Reinet, settle in for a few relaxing days, unpack your bags and allow the folk of the Karoo Heartland to take good care of you. Next time, I’ll spend more time explore the museums and architecture.
SUNSET AT THE VALLEY
I’ll never tire of sunsets at the Valley of Desolation. Once you’ve seen the valley from the air, you can truly appreciate how vast and magnificent it is. However, sitting at a picnic bench, sundowner in hand and watching the rock formations change from fiery orange to black silhouettes against a navy sky is one of the surest ways to experience everything that is special and unique about the Karoo. In that dusty golden light, you can see forever.
Wonderful news for the preservation of our rich Karoo Heartland culture and heritage is the newly formed Walter Battiss Foundation in Somerset East.
Walter Battiss was a South African artist, who called Somerset East and Karoo his home, and is generally considered the foremost South African abstract painter, known as the creator of the quirky “Fook Island” concept.
Born in 1906 in Somerset East, Battiss travelled extensively and his open-minded approach perhaps shocked more conservative viewers in his lifetime. He has been described as the “gentle anarchist” with a joy of life, appreciation of beauty and sensual treatment of the human form.
The Foundation wants to ensure the Walter Battiss legacy in perpetuity, and become a self-sustainable entity. The foundation is inspired by what Battiss stood for, and wants to create an awareness within an individual to be able to express themselves through art. The Walter Battiss Art Museum boasts the largest permanent exhibition of his artworks.
The Karoo is an open and honest place, consisting of outstretched plains and a massive sky spun across its desert-like landscape. In a way it looks like a straightforward, uncomplicated country that doesn’t hide much. Drenched in sun and soulfulness for a large part of the year and, stretching itself like a never-ending runway, an empty palm promising nothing but space and time to dream, the Karoo does, however, has its own unique way of taking visitors by surprise.
Allowing the seasons and the weather to fill its vast expanses, it’s easy to be absorbed by the rhythm of the seemingly noiseless but pulsating, vibrating, beating heart of the landscape. But on your wanderings you might just pass a mountain – blue and hazy in the distance but earthy and tortoise-shell textured up close; drive by a clump of aloe vera succulents or prickly pear trees and, suddenly, as you continue your apparently plain-sailing journey, find a place unexpected and appearing as out of nowhere.
Nieu-Bethesda is one of these surprising places: a few kilometres outside of Graaff-Reinet, as you turn off the N9 and follow the road swirling into and through hills and cone-shaped rock formations like massive beehives, you will find, folded inside the flanks of the Sneeuberge like a sophisticated secret, a village of wonders.
This place, with its untarred roads and complete lack of streetlights, provides enough space for stuff that dreams are made of and endless possibilities. At night, the stars are clearly scintillating in the sky above a town devoid of lights. From this village’s dust and quietude magic reinventions appear constantly. This is one of those spots where people make do with their dreams, make viable their visions; where conjuring ideas into a concrete reality is a necessity. A hamlet that provides a blank canvas to tie many to and bring about more of themselves.
It happens in various ways, of course. People spin their own stories, their own shapes, be it in clay, or paint, or food, or drink, or running B & Bs with beautiful names that reflect the different aspects of the town: Zonnenstrahl (Ray of Sunshine), Meerkat, Aandster (Evening Star), Klein Geluk (Small Happiness), the Brewery Loft, the Outsider, the Water Tower (originally a water tower, then turned into a a Buddhist meditation room, these days a place to rest and dream), Starry Nights, The Cow Jumps Over The Moon and the Bethesda Tower.
In The Brewery and Two Goats Deli’s yard on the outskirts of town, a bed swings noiselessly from chains between trees. An outdoor bath stands close by, facing the hills towards Kompasberg.
Here the bees are alive and well and happily buzz around visitors. A perfect place in which to forget about the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats; to sway for a while within the unique cadence of a place untouched by life’s frenetic haste.
In the backyard of the Owl House, Helen Martin’s cement statues, like a fantastical, stationary exodus, bears witness to a pilgrimage. A personal, inward journey of pain, of longing for purpose, of forever reaching for the light which here she made concrete and universal in her own way. Surrounding the sculptural crowd on their way to Mecca, a fanfare of words and letters are twisted in the wire fence and are uttered in the sounds of the wind that resonates its way, like a voice forever searching, through the narrow throats of beer bottles like glass flutes. A small universe of things seemingly unsaid but sculpted in forms and shapes as meaningful as the words snaking through the wire hedge. Inside the Owl House light and colour and shadows and a regular dose of sunshine dance in a daily wake on shy, shuffling feet through the house and fall in shafts, like stardust, through the rooms of Helen’s home.
Outside local people sell copies of her owls – eyes wide like all-knowing children – and mermaids with mosaic fish tails and the children greet strangers as they pass, dancing and playing in the patterns the strangers’ footprints leave in the dirt roads.
As you enter the town, the imposing Dutch Reformed church towers above everything. White, huge, baked and bleached and white-boned in a bold and blazing sun, it seems to guard the small village. Strict and pertinent, it keeps a close eye on the goings on, its bell resting like a silent promise in the clock tower.
In the third floor, top room of The Tower, in the community art centre’s backyard, an immaculate round bed fills the space, covered with a ‘love quilt’ made at the project. As one reaches the top floor, spiralling upwards, you expect a princess at the window and a grinning prince trying to scale the wall outside but it’s only Athol Fugard’s donkeys one can see, happily munching on grass and afternoon brightness next door at the Waenhuis.
In the entrance of the Waenhuis the escaped princess awaits visitors: frozen in the brown, bronzed, arm-less torso of a mannequin, she seems ready to cast a spell on visitors as they enter. A southern hemisphere Venus de Milo, dressed in a leafy skirt, a pink feather headband and pearls around her neck. Because, if you are lucky enough to be visiting here at the end of July, you might be celebrating Christmas in July, 1920’s with a Touch of Pink (2017’s theme). Here in the Waenhuis every corner has a story to tell.
O’ Keeffe and Kahlo spring to mind as sudden splashes of colour and the definite, deceptively simple lines of natural materials, of wax and wood and bone serve as a viewfinder, as a reminder, a link to the landscape surrounding but also pervading the people and their art. And as a visitor, the echo of equanimity, as if cut from the hidden depths of desert cloth, will call you back time and time again.
Because, as mentioned, the Karoo is a magical place: seemingly arid but wonderfully resourceful and rich. Next to the dusty streets of Nieu-Bethesda, the water from a spring on a plateau above the village flows through the old stone water furrows. Don’t be surprised if you see a pink feather boa – Priscilla Queen of the Desert-esque – floating autonomously over scrub and bush or dangling carefree from a quince hedge; if you are invited to come and shop at the Honesty Stoep or if you come across Roesemaat (Rust’s Mate) an old, rusty shell of a car. Here the passing of time is celebrated, nearly everything gets recycled or decorated and celebrated.
Exploring the Karoo is a journey of delicious discovery. It allows you to dance with your dreams in the dust; serenade with the stars; let your imagination run havoc; shake life’s turbulence from you. Where you can discover a place where worlds happily trespass upon each other: the old and the new; the past and the present and maybe even glimpses of a possibly hopeful, more tranquil future.
We invited blogger, Anje Rautenbach of Going Somewhere Slowly to spend 24 hours with us in Bedford, Karoo Heartland.
There’s something irresistible about roses. Maybe it’s the royal connection or the carefully layered petals, the intricate swirls, the care that goes into growing it or perhaps it is the smell; perhaps the reasoning behind its irresistible nature lies in that moment of anticipation, of gently grabbing the rose by its stem, lowering your head, and then breathing in the sweet scent of serenity.
Bedford knows all about the irresistible nature of roses, in fact, when a group of South African Old Rose enthusiasts attended the World Heritage Rose Congress in France in 2009, they were inspired to develop an Old Rose sanctuary in South Africa to reserve and perpetuate the valuable genetic traits of South Africa’s old roses which were brought to the Cape of Good Hope from the early 1600s onwards.
What was an idea in 2009 became a reality and it bloomed in 2012 when the SA Rosarium, located in Bedford in the Eastern Cape, was officially launched at the World Rose Congress. Five years later and the Rosarium – with its numerous unique heritage roses – has become a must-stop spot for visitors and a colourful sight to see, unmanicured, unpretentious and quite unbelievable; especially during Bedford’s annual Garden Festival.
When you stop and smell the roses it quickly becomes clear that Bedford is a garden town. Residents live close to nature with their fingers in the soil, their beings in the present, their hearts of hospitality in their smiles and with an eco-mindedness that inspires change. You’ll find flowers, trees, herbs and vegetables in the community, at businesses, in home gardens and even at the Duke of Bedford Inn, an elegant Victorian hotel; locally grown, from the chef’s garden to your plate.
Bedford is a garden town but there’s more to it than just the gardens.
Over the years, with the right amount of sunshine, love, care, warmth, fresh air, time and space – all key ingredients to keep plants in a pristine condition – the town has grown. And not necessarily in size, but in heart.
Over the years Bedford has grown and attached itself onto the hearts of visitors as a town that leads by example; a town focused on recycling, a town focused on uplifting and empowering the community, a town focused on teaching, a town focused on mindfulness, a town focused on going forward yet staying true to their humble roots.
Over the years, and after more than a decade of Garden Festivals, Bedford has grown into a town – a destination – you have to experience, you have to indulge in, you have to feel.
4 THINGS YOU MUST FEEL IN BEDFORD:
Eagle Hout Padstal
The Eagle Hout Padstal is well-known for its restaurant, nursery, gift shop, eco-brick and herb garden and for handcrafting solid wood furniture – a talent that has been passed on from generation to generation. But of course, there’s more to it than what you see from the outside. There is also another passion present: recycling and upcycling. At Eagle Hout they recycle anything from cans to plastic to fibre optic cables (which get innovatively transformed into droppers for fences, walkways etc.)
The Apprentice Deli
From dainty sweet treats to wholesome meals, The Apprentice Deli has it all. A passion for food is ever-present in this Hope Street restaurant, plus in true Bedford-style, they also play a strong role in uplifting the community as it provides hospitality training.
Thrive in Bedford
Thrive in Bedford is a new addition to the town but the idea behind it is not new but a dream that blossomed into reality. Thrive is a collaboration of holistic nurturing facilitators – Kim, Cathy and Suzie – who believe in making sustainable lifestyle-shifts to nurture and nourish mind, body and soul. Thrive in Bedford offers workshops and retreats where you can learn more about food and nutrition, gardening, creativity, mindfulness and yoga.
The best time to visit Bedford is during (or around) the annual Garden Festival when private gardens – which have been nurtured and nursed during the year – are open to the public, such as Maasström Farm, The Long Garden, The Cooks Garden at Albertvale Farm, the Township Gardens and 8th Durban Street. The Rosarium is open to the public throughout the year, but the best time to visit is around October and November. The Chef’s Garden and the Caltex Bio Garden at the Duke of Bedford Inn can be viewed throughout the year and offers guests the opportunity the learn more about how to turn your backyard into nutritious food. Another point of garden interest not to miss during your visit is the Eco-brick and Herb Garden – an upcycled garden from a green construction method – at Eagle Hout Padstal.
For accommodation and dinners, put the Duke of Bedford Inn on your Bedford itinerary and you can also enjoy breakfast and lunch at The Apprentice Deli, Sugar Shack, The Village Farm Stall and Eagle Hout Padstal. To take a piece of Bedford home with you, visit the Hope Street businesses, all part of the Duke of Bedford Inn’s hotel courtyard or Eagle Hout Padstal, which also sells plants. If you find yourself in Bedford during the last weekend of the month, visit the Bedford Morning Market (on Saturdays).
We invited blogger, Anje Rautenbach of Going Somewhere Slowly to spend 24 hours with us in the Karoo Heartland village of Jansenville. Below, she shares her adventure with us.
Atop the gentle slope of a hill in the Karoo Heartland I hit the pause button on life as the sun is in the process of its final curtain call over Jansenville.
Surrounded by a 360-degree view of wide open spaces I take it at all; a 116-year-old stone structure packed with precision rests guarded behind me while the angora goats graze below with golden rays lighting up their pearly white curls. Under my feet the semi-arid Karoo soil nurses the Noorsveld into shrubs and succulents of green noors rockets while a sugar bird wiggles its beak into a bright orange aloe flower reaching for the sky. In the distance a farmer kicks up a trail of dust on a road less explored, to my right a camera captures the serenity one click at a time and to my left a family peeks over the edge of the hill to their town beneath as the sun dips behind a sea of mountains.
I pause a bit longer; I’ve driven through Jansenville numerous times, I’ve had coffee here and filled the car up with petrol, but it took one sunset, atop a hill with an old Anglo Boer War Fort behind me, to realise that Jansenville is more than just a pit stop, it is a town to be experienced.
8 Things to Experience in Jansenville
The South African mohair industry boomed ever since the first Angora goats were introduced to South Africa in 1838 from Turkey; today South Africa produces more than half of the total world production and a great majority of mohair originates from the Eastern Cape and Jansenville in particular. Visitors can visit the International Mohair Museum to learn more about the history and the process from shearing to product. There is also a shop selling mohair goods at the museum.
Ark in Karoo Farm Stall
Farm stalls are usually the heartbeat of any Karoo town and Ark in the Karoo is no different. This recent addition to the town is situated in one of the oldest buildings in Jansenville that dates back to 1897 and carries Karoo hospitality from farm to table with a menu filled with artisanal treats and a great selection of local products from biltong, to homemade rusks and even art.
Sid Fourie Historical House
The yellow 1940-art-deco house greets you as enter Jansenville and it used to be the home of Mayor Sid Fourie. While the bedroom, working desk and other trinkets from Mayor Fourie can still be viewed, the house also contains numerous historical pieces and a hall of fame dedicated to Jansenville’s achievers and pioneers from all walks of life.
Back in the day (and still possibly now) Karoo towns, and its communities, usually developed from and evolved around the Victorian churches with its intricate details of spiral tops, large, carved wooden doors, impressive pipe organs, a clock, bell tower and a few pigeons. Jansenville’s Dutch Reformed Church dates back to 1881 and holds the Dutch family Bible of Sid Fourie (rumoured to be the oldest bible of its kind in South Africa) in a glass case.
The Anglo Boer Fort sits atop a hill on the west side of the Graaf-Reinet road on the north of the town and besides its historical value it also offers one of the best views of Jansenville and you can see for kilometers and kilometers in all directions. The rock structure, with its several doorways, well-planned crenelles and also rooms, which could have served as shelter during the time of the Anglo Boer War, can be viewed by appointment.
Explore on foot
Karoo towns are best explored on foot. Stroll around Jansenville and discover the nooks and crannies of this Karoo Heartland town, from the church to the town hall, the general dealer to the roadhouse, the coffee shop to the antique store.
Stay a night
If there is one thing that locals, visitors and first timers to the Karoo all agree on then it is that a day in the Karoo is not complete without spending a night in the Karoo; thanks to the remoteness of the town the cosmos turns into a glittering stargazing mecca when the night settles in. Complete your visit to Jansenville with a farm stay in the area or stay at the Angora Lodge which is also home to the best ribs in town, complete with a bar, swimming pool, braai area and pool tables for guests to enjoy.
Jansenville is more than just a pit stop, it is a town to be experienced.
The Owl House, iconic treasure of the Karoo Heartland’s Nieu-Bethesda is finally set to become a South African National Heritage Site.
This is excellent news for those who have visited or long to visit Helen Martins’ bizarre and beautiful Owl House in the village hamlet of Nieu-Bethesda.
Since the 1980’s and through into the 1990’s, several attempts have been made to have the Owl House awarded the status that it deserves, with it being provisionally declared a National Monument in 1990 and extended in 1995. Now, following a nomination by members of the public to have the Owl House and the Camel Yard declared a Grade 1 National Heritage Site, the wheels have finally been set in motion.
South African National Heritage Resources Agency’s intention to declare was announced at a public meeting held in Nieu-Bethesda on April 11, 2017, as part of the Mayoral Outreach programme, during which the Budget, IDP and other matters of mutual interest or concern were discussed with the communities.
The Owl House, home of reclusive artist Helen Martins, is a place of wonder to anyone who visits. In life, Helen Elizabeth Martins was a shy, retiring figure, rarely seen outside on the streets of Nieu Bethesda. But this recluse was the custodian of a magical inner kingdom that she breathed into life – a monument to Outsider Art. outsider art refers to the often controversial works created by dedicated, if not obsessive artists, who are untrained, and who have not been influenced by any schools, galleries or museums. Outsider artists are mostly self-taught individuals, who in many instances often remain obscure until their deaths.
During the twelve years that she actively worked, Helen Martins created hundreds of sculptures depicting mermaids, camels, pilgrims and bottle-skirted hostesses. She painted the interior of her home in bright colours, overlaid with a layer of crushed glass, making them gleam in candle-and lamp-light.
Today, the Owl House Foundation is the custodian of Miss Helen’s vision, and it is through the foundation’s efforts that the magic of the Owl House can touch many more lives.
Book a stay in Nieu-Bethesda to visit the Owl House