Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape

graaff reinet
View onto the Valley of Desolation near Graaff-Reinet.

Graaff-Reinet is the Karoo’s premier heritage town and the fourth-oldest settlement in South Africa.

This is not a town where you arrive, buy an old house and knock it down. Graaff-Reinet is proud of its history, its traditions and its old buildings – and defends it all with great passion.

The best way to first see Graaff-Reinet is from up in the Camdeboo National Park, looking down on the circular-shaped town layout and then swivelling around to take in the whole Valley of Desolation below.

In the 1800s, vast herds of springbok (trekbokken) crossed these plains in the millions, crushing everything afoot.

And then the biltong hunters came. And the “limitless” numbers of springbok dwindled down to a few forlorn souls wandering the plains. But they’re starting to come back now, because game farming and controlled hunting are once again essential players in the Graaff-Reinet economy. Just pop in at the local taxidermist and you’ll be amazed at the array of artfully-stuffed animals on show. It’s a frozen-motion critter gallery of note.

Go with local guide David McNaughton to Mzimhlophe Restaurant in uMasizakhe Township and feast on baked chicken – and tripe specials for the brave eaters in the group. Then visit Market Square, where scenes from the film Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank, were shot.

The jacaranda-flanked Parsonage Street in the middle of Graaff-Reinet is one of the great historical avenues in the Karoo.

With the legendary and newly-revamped Drostdy Hotel at the top and the Reinet House Museum at the bottom, this street is lined with period cottages, antiques shops and original homes. You can stay over in some of the guest cottages and dine well on dishes like kudu schnitzel in a nearby restaurant based in a national monument.

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