"Graaff-Reinet - anything but desolation" Graaff-Reinet by mke1963

Graaff-Reinet Travel Guide: 46 reviews and 129 photos

Graaff-Reinet, is one of the great Karoo towns in the South African heartlands, sitting in an area known as the Camdeboo. This town, bigger than many Karoo dorps, is the epitome of old, faded frontier posts, yet manages to buzz with energy and passion, unlike many interior places that have, with the passage of time, become sleepy one-horse towns. A town tourism leaflet proclaims "Encounter the Legends", and for once, the marketing people have hit the nail on the head. With a history stretching back to the Permian age fossils and Iron Age settlements through to the first 18th century European farmers, the formation of the European settlement, African-European struggles over the scarce land right up to the birth of the much-loved - yet mysterious - founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe, Graaff-Reinet is indeed a place of legends. They say that you don't see China when you visit Shanghai, England in London, France in Paris, but at Graaff-Reinet you really do see South Africa, both past and present.

When the first European settlers struggled slowly across the seemingly endless plains north of the Baviaanskloof mountains in the 1750s (just 50 years after the first European settlement of the Cape), the sight of so much lush vegetation along the southern slopes of the Sneeuberg mountains must have come as a huge relief, and a number stayed to create farms, some of them developing into bigger towns. The conflicts with the Khoisan and the Xhosa continued with each wanting their share of the scarce good grazing land, and in 1775 the settlers massacred a band of Africans whom they had invited to dinner. Concerned with the increasing strife, in 1786, the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) sent Cornelius van der Graaff, with his wife Corneliua Reinet, from the coast to establish himself as the administrator and tax-collector, and when he arrived he chose a spot inside a full loop of the Sundays river in a deep cleft in the Sneeuberg range. The settlement took on the name Graaff-Reinet, becoming the fourth-oldest European town in South Africa, but the rather tempestuous local people didn't take kindly to officialdom turning up on their doorstep; they had, after all, trudged dangrously for months across plains and mountains precisely to get away from laws, administration and the taxman! In 1795, the landdrost was unceremoniously kicked out of town, and Graaff-reinet declared independence. The upstart little republic didn't last long as the British quickly established a more forceful control as soon as they took the Cape from the Dutch at the beginning of the 18th Century. Almost immediately, the British set about establishing more permanent buildings, and the town became a popular attraction for new waves of settlers. Until the middle of the 18th Century, Graaff-Reinet was the departure point for many of the pioneer trekboers, wanting to escape the suffocating laws of the English, especially given the increasingly remote adminstration of the Cape Colony by London. Even today, some of Graaff-Reinet's most cherished memorials are to those who left the town, not those who stayed.

As the frontiers pushed further east and north, so Graaff-Reinet lost its wild wes (wild east?) status and gradually even fell off the main route to the Transvaal, with the construction of a new direct route through Beaufort West and Bloemfontein. Graaff-Reinet became a market town for a vast area of the Karoo and capital of the Camdeboo, an name that has almost been lost but it now being resurrected with the renaming of the large Karoo Nature Reserve surrounding the town as the Camdeboo National Park (from 1st January 2006), but then probably only beacuse there is already a Karoo National Park at Beaufort West. Then on the 5th December 1924, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe was born in the town. Benjamin Pogrund's biography "How Can Man Die Better" paints a rightfully unflattering picture of the town and the white people of Graaff-Reinet, but presents an excellent picture of the enigmatic man that the apartheid regime feared so much, they passed a law in parliament to detain him longer in isolation. His untimely death, from cancer in February 1978, robbed the country of yet another potential great leader. Today, Mangasilo Robert Sobukwe is commemorated in a room at the Old Library Museum, and his birthplace can be visited in the township of Umasizakhe, on the eastern slopes above Graaff-Reinet. It is perhaps fitting that the townships on these eastern slopes look across the town towards the Valley of Desolation.

Contemporary Graaf-Reinet is a paradox: it remains tranquil, with its shaded streets of old houses - and many more unlisted one that deserve to be - yet has a vibrancy sadly lacking from many Karoo towns. With the history, the legends, the impressive open spaces of the nature reserves and the rich diversity of leisure activities, Graaff-Reinet epitomises the new South Africa. Its biggest struggle these days is perhaps with the legacy of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe.

Next town south-west is Aberdeen, 57km away.

  • Last visit to Graaff-Reinet: Dec 2005
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (25)

Comments (4)

  • Jun 29, 2009 at 1:35 AM

    Pioneers has new owners and has undergone a metamophosis!It has a fantastic ambiance,menu and brilliant hospitality,service.Great food and wine.See pioneersrestaurant.co.za for more.Go to Pioneers for an unforgettable experience.

  • Jun 24, 2006 at 7:54 AM

    Hi Mark, I stayed over in Graaf-Reinet twice whilsts passing through. I ceratainly did not realize that there is so much to do there! Thank you for the tips!

  • May 2, 2006 at 2:59 PM

    is the Lemon Tree restaurant / pub still there and open? Thanks jdekoe@accesswave.ca

  • cleocat's Profile Photo
    Jan 29, 2006 at 3:41 AM

    Lots of nice info. Been to the Cape so many times but never visited Graaff-Reinet.


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