Monday, June 26, 2017

Graaff-Reinet - a gem discovered

Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo Heartland is often referred to as the Gem of the Karoo.  Spending a long weekend in the town just again proved to me that this gem isn't one buried deep under ground somewhere but rather has been unearthed and is mesmerizing those that get to visit it.  Located in a horseshoe created by the Sundays River and totally surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is situated about three hours north of Port Elizabeth and the perfect long weekend destination or at least a must stop for those on their way from the interior to the coast.

Coming in from the south you pass through typical Karoo Heartland landscape on your way to Graaff-Reinet.  Wide open spaces, mountains in the distance, windpompe, Angora goats in the fields - big sky country at its best.  Arriving in Graaff-Reinet you immediately know you are in something bigger than a one horse town where the horse is dead.  There are more shops than most Karoo towns, more people, more cars and there definitely isn't a tumbleweed blowing down main road on a Saturday afternoon.  In fact, you know you are in Graaff-Reinet when you get to the top of the main drag and find yourself facing the very impressive Groot Kerk, completed in 1887 and designed based on the Salisbury Cathedral in England.

If I'm going to a place I like to know what I'm going to do but also keep enough time aside to explore and discover the things not included in my plans.  This trip was no different.  Arriving early Friday afternoon we headed straight to Camdeboo Cottages where we were booked in for the weekend, unpacked our stuff and kicked off our shoes.  If it was up to the KidZ we would have stayed right there for the whole afternoon for them to watch tv (Chaos Boy) and hit the swimming pool (Miggie).  Unfortunately for them, we had other ideas.  Having planned a walk through town for Saturday and a visit to the Camdeboo National Park on Sunday, I browsed through the Graaff-Reinet visitor guide to see what we could still do on the Friday and came up with the Obesa Cactus Garden. 

I've been to Graaff-Reinet a few times but have never had the chance to visit Obesa.  Word has reached my ears of how big the cacti are but seeing truly is believing.  Owner Johan popped his head around the corner when we arrived, probably to make sure we didn't speak in an American accent - referencing a sign at the gate making it clear he doesn't support Donald Trump - and pointed us towards the path through the garden.  Obesa is nothing like my little cactus garden at home.  They have over 7000 species of plants in the garden and nursery, raise about 35 000 plants every year and stock well over 2 million.  Seriously impressive.  Even more impressive is the size of some of the cacti along the path through the garden.  The garden was started in 1970 with some of the cacti literally dwarfing us as we walked past. No kidding.   

Saturday morning after a quick breakfast it was time to put on the walking shoes and explore Graaff-Reinet's historic heart on foot.  The best spot to park your car is right in front of the tourism office where you can grab a map of the town along with any additional information you think you may need.  The tourism office is located inside the Old Library Museum which Chaos Boy really enjoyed as they have a very good collection of fossils on display.  In addition to a number of museums and Groot Kerk, other historic attractions worth visiting include a number of other churches, the Drostdy Hotel, Victoria Hall - the town's City Hall - and the angel statue War Memorial.  In actual fact, Graaff-Reinet has more than 220 heritage buildings, more than any other town in South Africa.  Best of all, most of them are all within walking distance from each other. 

Our first stop though was at the antique shop next to the tourism office.  Not to browse or buy antiques but rather to see what is said to be the oldest cake in South Africa. Yes, you heard me right.  The oldest cake in the country.  The cake was baked in 1902 (making it only four years younger than the oldest cake in the world) for a 50th wedding anniversary and is on display on a mantelpiece along with some original photos.  The KidZ weren't really impressed and just wanted to know if you can still eat it, before wandering away again. 

Graaff-Reinet has as much as seven museums (could be six, could be eight, but I counted seven on the Graaff-Reinet Tourism website) and we decided that to keep the KidZ's whining to a minimum, we would only go to another one of them.  The obvious choice was Reinet House.  Reinet House is the quintessential Graaff-Reinet museum and is located inside the old Dutch Reformed Church parsonage built in 1812.  The museum houses a variety of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  In the backyard there's also a working watermill... Ok, so it wasn't working when we were there as they are busy restoring the machinery.  But you know what I mean.

Another very interesting feature at Reinet House is the old Black Acorn grape vine in the backyard.  Planted in 1870 by Charles Murray, it is said to be the oldest living grape vine in South Africa.  A few years ago the vine got a bad case of fungal rot and a big part of it had to be cut away, but it survived and still persists. 

Saturday afternoon we decided to compromise with the KidZ and spent some time around the tv, pool and braai area at Camdeboo Cottages.  Just to make sure everybody stayed happy and long faces are kept to a minimum.  

Sunday morning it was time to hit the outdoors and enjoy nature.  The weather was perfect, the sun out but not too warm and we headed out on the R63 past the Nqweba Dam to the Camdeboo National Park's game viewing area.

Although the game viewing isn't anywhere close on par to Addo, it's still a great opportunity to spend a morning game viewing.  The alternative is to book an evening game drive with oom Buks Marais at Karoopark Guesthouse.  We opted for the self drive option though.

The park has about 19 km of gravel roads and consts of typical Karoo plains.  Other than Cape Buffalo ( x ) , which we unfortunately didn't get to see, the park is also home to eland , black wildebeest ( ✓ ), gemsbok ( ✓ ), red hartebeest ( ✓ ), blesbok ( ✓ ) and springbok ( ✓ ).  We also got to spot some Cape mountain zebra ( ✓ ) but even though we were in the park the same time as some friends we didn't get to see the caracal (rooikat) ( x ) they did.  The park also boasts a healthy bird list of over 240 bird species.  Unfortunately the dam level is quite low at the moment so you don't get very close to the animals on the water's edge while the bird hide was also not that busy on the day.  With birds that was.

The highlight (and must do) of any visit to Graaff-Reinet is the Valley of Desolation.  The best times to be there is early morning or late afternoon around sunset, and we opted for the latter of the two.  We made sure we arrived nice and early the afternoon to allow some time to do the 1,5 km Crag Lizard Trail which allows for stunning views of the rock formations, the valley and Karoo plains beyond.

The Valley of Desolation itself truly is one of the iconic Eastern Cape attractions.  The basic explanation of what the Valley of Desolation is is that it consist of dolerite pillars rising up to 120 meters from the valley below.  The rock formations were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years and stand stark against the background of the Karoo plains.  


This time of year though the sun sets behind the mountain and isn't quite as spectacular as in summer, so after watching it from an alternative view point we headed back down towards town, just in time to see the horizon set ablize as we hit the bottom of the mountain.  The perfect end to the perfect long weekend in Graaff-Reinet.  Till next time Gem of the Karoo.  

We spent the three nights we were in Graaff-Reinet at Camdeboo Cottages and I really feel we hit the jackpot with this spot.  Camdeboo Cottages offer both a Bed and Breakfast as well as a Self Catering option with accommodation offered either in their historic cottages or en-suite bedrooms.  It's also located very close to the centre of town with a few restaurants right around the corner and the closest supermarket only a few blocks away.

We stayed on one of their nine 19th century Karoo style self-catering cottages with more than enough space for us and the KidZ.  The cottages have fully equipped kitchens so we did our own thing food-wise, Chaos Boy could watching TV while Miggie and I tried to play cricket on the cobblestone courtyard behind the cottages.  That didn't work out very well, but it does offer safe parking under carports and behind a locked gate.

As I've mentioned, Camdeboo Cottages also offer breakfast as well as dinner, but we opted to braai every evening at one of the braai spots next to the swimming pool.  Literally 25 meters from our cottage.  We sommer ate right there next to the pool and I just had to smile every time another guest heading to dinner walked past and sniffed the air.  Nothing like the smell of braaivleis.   Although Miggie did try out the swimming pool the weather was a tad chilly but it would be a great spot to cool down on one of those hot summer days in the Karoo.

Next time we visit Graaff-Reinet as a family I know where we'll be booking again.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Graaff-Reinet church - looking rather ghostly

The last two months have been an absolute blur. Don't ask me where it went, I just know it's gone and I am exhausted.  But things are getting back to normal and hopefully I will get my blogging mojo back as well.  The pictures from our Graaff-Reinet weekend is lined up and just waiting for the words to be added.  In the meantime here is one I took of the Groot Kerk at the top of the main drag into through town taken after dark.  Looks kinda haunting, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Looking out the museum doorway

I'm finally busy going through and editing the pictures I took in Graaff-Reinet a few weekends ago and will start posting about our visit shortly.  One of the photos I found was this one of Miggie standing in the door at the Reinet House museum looking up towards the Drostdy Hotel.  She clearly likes being outdoors a lot more than going through museums.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"We still Bezzy for the Moument"

A walk around the Reinet House Museum in Graaff-Reinet recently had me wander into the mill house in the backyard.  They're currently busy with restoration work and a hand written sign on a piece of torn off cardboard caught my eye.  I just had to snicker. Clearly somebody asked one of the Afrikaans workers doing the restoration to just put up a sign so that people don't fidget with the mechanism and this was the result.  No, I'm not being a Grammar Nazi, I just love the simplicity of it .

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Patterns and textures at InniKloof

Hiking to the Waterfall at InniKoof outside Hankey wasn't just about the beautiful views and the waterfalls.  It was also about patterns, textures and colours.  Nature really offers us so much more than the big pictures.  I haven't done a Random ... post for a while so here is one.  Random patterns and textures from the InniKloof Waterfall Hike.





Monday, May 8, 2017

Up(s) and down(s) and into the water at the InniKloof Waterfall hike

Everybody has their travel bucket lists.  I'm no different but because I would still like to do a lot of travelling I have divided mine into International, African, South African and Eastern Cape.  One of the things that has been on my Eastern Cape travel bucket list for a while now is doing the Innikloof Waterfall hike.  Innikloof is situated near the Gamtoos Valley town of Hankey and the hike is done once a month as a guided hike as it crosses private land and a conservation area.  The return walk is about 14 km long and well worth the effort, but don't kid yourself, it's not a walk in the park, like we found out. 

Innikloof was the location of the annual Port Elizabeth Geocaching camping weekend this year and the Saturday was set aside to do the Waterfall Hike.  We could not spend the weekend so rushed out from Port Elizabeth  early morning to join our fellow cachers and InniKloof owner John Wait on the hike.  The first kilometer is an easy stroll down the road to warm up those calves and then the climbing started.  To get to the kloof the waterfall is in you have to literally go over the mountain.  Not around it, not through it, not underneath it, but over it.  The climb from the start wasn't too bad as it was a gradual one and by the time we arrived huffing and puffing at the top we enjoyed fantastic views back the way we came.  After a short walk along the top of the mountain I realised that we had lost Chaos Boy.  He walked ahead of the group when we stopped to take a breather and seemingly took a wrong turnoff.  I seemed to be the only one really worried and after about a frantic 30 minutes the message came along that he had found his way back just in time to link up with the back markers.  Hope he learned his lesson.  

The view down towards where we were going was stunning.  You can see the river as well as a number of waterfalls and cascades below but this was also where the big challenge of the Waterfall Hike started.  Getting down the steep side of the mountain.  It is a descent of engaging one's diff lock, keeping the air brakes engaged and making sure you don't pick up speed too quickly.  Going down here you quickly realise that you will have to come back up and it won't be easy, but that was a hurdle to overcome later cause we started to hear the waterfall below us. 

Once down at the bottom it's like a different world.  The waterfall flows into the dark pool below and being hot and sweaty after the walk there is only one thing to do...

Clothes off, costume on and into the refreshing water.  Always refreshing to be able to swim in a mountain pool like this. 

The Damselfly chose not to swim, but did fill her bottle from the waterfall. 
Nice cold water for the journey back.

Before starting back though John took us a little further down the river to see the falls and cascades we noticed from the top.  Although the stream is a bit low due to the drought it was still a great sight.

A girl and her dog.  Well, actually John's dog but hey, a picture tells a 1000 words. 

Fellow Geocacher Spiesie enjoying the view

As we started our journey back up the mountain side we found the dried out feces containing a lot of bones and fur.  My guess is leopard with the Cape Leopard still found in these mountains.

Just in conclusion.  As I said at the start, the InnKloof Waterfall hike isn't an easy one and not one to just pitch up for in slops and with a towel around the neck.  It's also not just a stroll down to the stream and you need to at least be used to walking a longer distance than just over to the corner shop.  We had a number of non-regular hikers in the group and they all completed it so don't let me scare you off.  I just want anybody considering doing this to be aware of the difficulty.  The views from the top as well as the end destination makes it all absolutely worth it so keep an eye on the InniKloof Facebook Page for more information about their monthly escorted Waterfall Hikes.  Another good suggestion.  Don't just go out for the hike like we had to do, but rather spend the weekend either camping or in a self catering chalet in this beautiful spot outside Hankey.  You won't be sorry.

Disclosure: We went on the hike as part of the Geocaching group and paid our own way.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Drakensberg Amphitheater views

South Africa has two iconic "flat" mountains.  Table Mountain in the west and the Drakensberg's Amphitheater in the east.  It is below the Amphitheater in the Royal Natal National Park that we camped at Mahai during December and like with Table Mountain I just could not get enough of looking up at the Amphitheater.  Well truthfully, not just the Amphitheater but all the mountains around us, but that's what you do when you live in a city by the coast.  Today I just want to share four pictures I took of the Amphitheater with you.  The first was taken from the dam next to the Royal Natal National Park reception area.

Take from the road into the park

The Tugela River

The Tugela River again