Maverick Life


Graaff-Reinet I — the Gem-Quality Town that speaks its own language and celebrates its history in style

Graaff-Reinet I — the Gem-Quality Town that speaks its own language and celebrates its history in style
Majestic Graaff-Reinet, with the Sneeuberg range in background. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Graaff-Reinet is the kind of Karoo town where you arrive as a visitor – and leave with dreams of returning as a resident.

Guide books will tell a lot about Graaff-Reinet, but it is only on the heights above this exceptional town that one realises why it goes by the name Gem of the Karoo. The circular shape of the Old Town resembles a jewel, set in a bed of flat-topped hills under the biggest skyway in the region.

In many ways, Graaff-Reinet has it all: history, character, charisma, charm and, if you know where to look, some of the finest venison chorizo in the world. The old settlement is still the haunt of the hunter, the explorer, the adventurer, the artist and the innovator.

Nearly surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, blessed with a rich collection of museums, restaurants and art galleries, Graaff-Reinet is the kind of Karoo town where you arrive as a visitor – and leave with dreams of returning as a resident.

There is something in the leafy streets, the quiet courtyards, a rather classy collection of shops, guest houses where they treat visitors like royalty, a revamped heritage hotel and a wide selection of nearby farmstays that makes one feel warm towards Graaff-Reinet.

This is where they brew a killer witblits and tell one helluva stoep-storie when the mood takes them. There are certain parts of South Africa where pure English is spoken. There are other parts where pure Afrikaans is spoken. The Eastern Cape Karoo is, however, where Graaffrikaans is spoken. It’s an intriguing blend of English and Afrikaans, with the odd Xhosa word hurled in for effect.

Budding beauties

Tooling down the N9 and approaching Graaff-Reinet, one cannot help but notice an enormous but isolated white building surrounded by spiky blue-green plants.

Their scientific name is Agave Americana, but the locals just call them garingbome or agaves.

There are thousands of them, some growing in plantation-straight rows, others higgledy-piggledy. Some are chest-high, others could double as tiny pot plants. In the Christmas season, they often sprout tall poles, all festive with greenish-yellow buds and flowers. 

This area is the centre of South Africa’s short but vivid flirtation with tequila production. However, in keeping with international trade laws, only Mexico can use that name. So it was bottled under the brand Agava – 100% Blue Agave Spirit. It was triple-distilled and possessed of a definite kick.

“At first, there were some very angry Mexicans prowling around,” says Tim Murray of the nearby Roode Bloem Farm. 


The local agave plant gets you pickled in more ways than one. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Then, mystery of mysteries, the agave snout beetle was somehow imported to the Karoo but it did not have a significant effect on the local agave population. For a number of reasons, however, the tequila plant was later shut.

But the irrepressible white liquor has now returned. Years later, Tim found a way to produce craft alcohol made from these Mexican plants. His finely distilled Three Agaves spirit is sold at Our Yard in Graaff-Reinet. 

Valley of Desolation   

It’s sundowner time up at the clifftops overlooking the Valley of Desolation, the Plains of Camdeboo and Graaff-Reinet, cupped in the curve of the Sundays River. 

We are presently within the boundaries of the Camdeboo National Park, traipsing about the paths with local historian, guide and bookshop owner David McNaughton. One can see this is his favourite time of the day – in his best space anywhere in the world.

We rock-hop along, admiring the bird’s eye view of Spandau’s Kop, the round, stepped witch’s hat that so defines the views up here.

Kestrels fly like happy thoughts over the krantzes. A Southern boubou shrike begins his song, and a nearby female chirrups her reply. 


Local humour – historian, tour guide and bookseller David McNaughton tries on some faux kudu eyes for size. (Photo: Chris Marais)


The Valley of Desolation and the Aberdeen Flats behind it. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There is the distant throaty rumble of Harley-Davidsons making their way up the winding track to the lookout spot.

David explains that a long time ago, Graaff-Reinet used to advertise the Valley of Desolation as being within walking distance of the town. No one would think of it now. And that’s probably why it got its bleak-sounding name. 

The hardy Graaff-Reinetters would leave early in the morning and reach these heights by midday. They would find themselves in a brutal bowl of heat-trapping, towering rocks. A desolate valley indeed – especially after such a gruelling hike.

Corridor through the Karoo

The R61 skirts the northern foothills and rising peaks of the Sneeuberg Mountains, bracketed by the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock and the Camdeboo National Park outside Graaff-Reinet. 

Back in 2012, a “biodiversity corridor” linking the two national parks was first proposed. The idea grew, as did the number of landowners. Now the Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Protected Environment sprawls over 840,000 hectares in and around the Sneeuberg range, stretching from the R61 in the north to Pearston in the south. 

The land between the parks is all privately owned, mostly livestock farms alongside game farms and private nature reserves. 

The corridor area sprawls over four biomes (grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savanna) and six vegetation types that are home to several rare mammals like aardvark, black-footed cats, African wild cats and honey badgers.


Swart wildebeest in the Camdeboo National Park. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Cool, moist mountains surrounded by arid scrublands yield high levels of plant species found nowhere else. That’s why botanists declared this the Sneeuberg Centre of Endemism in 2009.

It’s also designated as a Globally Important Bird Area, with grassland and Karoo specials like lesser kestrels, martial eagles, Ludwig’s and Stanley’s bustard, the blue korhaan, sicklewinged chat, ground woodpecker, blackheaded canary and Layard’s titbabbler. 

Living in the Past

Being the fourth-oldest settlement in South Africa, Graaff-Reinet has a long and gripping story to tell.

And it does so in many ways: in the well-treed streets of the Old Town, on the shady stoeps where long-time locals gather, at the dinner table, over late nights at The Club and, especially, in four buildings that make up the multifaceted museum complex around Parsonage and Church streets.

To see how the frontier people lived back then, how they farmed and where they cooked their meals (think peach-pip floors and all sorts of innovative unplugged kitchen devices) pop in at Urquhart House.

Should the history of the famous Murray dynasty, Victorian-era dolls, a very large and venerable living grapevine and a nip of Withond moonshine catch your fancy, make tracks to Reinet House.

The Graaff-Reinet Museum Complex is the best-preserved historical repository in the Karoo.

The Graaff-Reinet Museum Complex is the best-preserved historical repository in the Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Old Library Museum is all about fossils, rock art of the First People, artefacts from the Stone Age and exhibitions on colonial slavery and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle hero Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, a son of Graaff-Reinet.

William Roe was the leading photographer of the day, and his excellent monochromes are on display at The Residency, which also boasts a collection of venerable firearms, a music room and a Victorian drawing room. DM

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].

‘Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jason du toit says:

    why on earth are most of those photos in black and white? it’s terrible!

  • Max Ozinsky says:

    Surely you meant that Graaf Reinet is the fourth oldest WHITE settlement in South Africa?

  • ute nolan says:

    I went to that look out spot, with some friends, in’90, on our way to do that circular hiking trail, near Swellendam. So glad we made the detour, it’s the most breathtaking, beautiful view. I stood there, tears rolling down my face. I’ll never forget it., even though I took no photographs. Watched a couple of eagles, saw the countyside beyond. Clouds.. Silence.. Just stood there and felt at one with nature… We dont need buildings, monuments, Natural beauty is all around us.

  • Lesley Young says:

    What a pity you didn’t mention the cacti, and Obesa Nursery, with its HUGE collection of the biggest cacti I’ve ever seen. Also African succulents.

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    Spent a day and night there en route from Durban to Cape Town many years ago. Even then it was charming.

  • Hannah le Roux says:

    So, where is the best venison chorizo sold?

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