Great Places off the Beaten Track in South Africa - Part 2

Places of exceptional beauty and spiritual wonder in South Africa's Great Karoo region.

In my first instalment of this article I took you to two charming and beautiful places in the Western Cape: Pringel Bay on the South Western coast for prime whale watching, breathtaking coastal scenery and a fascinating cave which offered shelter for runaway slaves in the 18th century and the Khoi-Khoi people centuries before that; and Matjiesfontein in the Little Karoo, the country's first ever health resort which played host to the rich and aristocracy of the late 19th century.

Now we move deeper into the interior, to the Eastern Cape side of the Great Karoo.  The following map shows just how vast an area the Little and Great Karoo are.

The Eastern Cape is one of South Africa's most impoverished provinces in terms of average monthly expenditure, but it is also home to some of the country's most spectacular and beautiful scenery.  The Great Karoo, which spans the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape provinces is all too often written off as a dry, dull expanse of land and tends not to be counted amongst South Africa's tourist beauty spots.  However, some of South Africa's most important, interesting and striking historical monuments are based in this vast, dry landscape.  

About 260 miles' drive from Matjiesfontein sheltered by the dramatic Sneeuberg mountain range is the beautiful town of Graaff Reinet, South Africa's fourth oldest Town. Established in 1784 by the VOC Dutch East India Company, Graaff Reinet was named after its first governor Cornelis Jacob van de Graeff, and his wife whose maiden name was "Reynet".  It has the highest percentage of historical monuments in South Africa and a fascinating history.  From the late eighteenth century right up to the arrival of the railway, a century later, Graaff-Reinet was an important and busy trading centre.  In its early years, the town was home to an ongoing and bitter power struggle between the VOC and disgruntled burghers (citizens of the Cape Colony). It was this district, where South Africa's first republican government was proclaimed, which furnished large numbers of the Voortrekkers (Dutch farmers who migrated inland) in 1835-1842.  Because of its historical significance, Graaff Reinet has been extremely well preserved and is home to some of South Africa's most beautiful Architecture.  It has numerous guest houses offering wonderful old world charm and hospitality, but the jewel in its crown is the Drosdy Hotel, the town's former home and offices of the magistrate.  It was built in 1806 and designed by famous French architect Louis Michel Thibault and is a magnificent example of early 19th century Cape Dutch architecture. It is surrounded by pristinely kept grounds featuring a swimming pool area and a beautiful garden.  Each of the 51 rooms is unique in size, shape, colour and decor.  

The town is a joy to explore with quaint buildings and houses and four excellent museums documenting the history of Graaff Reinet as well as the prehistory and rich archaeology of the region.  It also happens to be in the middle of a vast nature reserve, the Camdeboo National Park. Here you will see a diverse range of South African wildlife including the bat-eared fox which locates its insect prey with the use of its unusually large ears, and the community-oriented meerkat, as well as a wide variety of antelope, and if you're lucky, the cape mountain zebra.  Perhaps the most breath taking location of the reserve is the geological phenomenon of the Valley of Desolation with its sheer cliff face and dolerite pillars which rise to heights of 90 - 120 metres. This spectacle is so unusual and spectacular that it was declared a National Heritage site in 1939.  It is part of the valley formed millions of years ago by gradual erosion that is now a small oasis in an otherwise dry and arid region. Popular activities in the National Park include game spotting, hiking trails, horse riding, golf at the beautiful Graaff Reinet Golf Course and water sports on the Nqweba Dam. For those less inclined to getting the heart pumping, a leisurely drive through the Nature Reserve, particularly to the top of the Valley of Desolation offers unforgettable scenery and plenty of stopping points to get out, breath in the crisp clean air and enjoy the endless, incredible silence of unspoiled nature.

 The Valley of Desolation - late afternoon

While you're in the Graaff Reinet area, a trip to the nearby tiny village of Nieu Bethesda is highly recommended. Situated 37 miles from Graaff Reinet, it is as remote as a place can be and much like a journey back in time.  It was established in 1837 and was a bustling community until the 1930's and 40's when it became eclipsed by larger towns in the Karoo which were easier to reach. With only 2 roads in and out of the village, it has no street lights, is about 1 mile long by 2 miles wide, and is home to less than 1000 people. Stone water furrows still line the wide, dusty streets, the imposing Compassberg mountains stand guard over the sleepy streets and the pace of life is quiet, laid back and contemplative.  A visit to this unique time capsule is not complete without a visit to the Owl House, often cited as South Africa's most beautiful example of "Outsider" or alternative art.  Built in the early 20th century, it was an ordinary house and the home of South African artist, Helen Martins.  In the latter half of her life Martins, at odds with and misunderstood by the strict Calvinist community around her, dedicated the rest of her life to transforming her home into an otherworldly wonderland of concrete and ground glass sculptures.  Inside the house, walls and mirrors are encrusted with multi-coloured ground glass with the mirrors placed specifically to catch the light at different times of the day. Outside in the garden (also referred to as the camel yard) biblical wise men and their camels, Oriental saints, mystical symbols and figures, birds and owls, mermaids, monsters and castles made from cement, empty bottles and pieces of glass all face the sunrise in the east, towards Mecca. The Owl house is a breathtaking and unforgettable place which leaves most visitors vowing to return.

The Camel Yard at the Owl House, Nieu Bethesda

South Africa is a magnificent country with far too many attractions to see in just one visit. In my opinion, your trip is simply not complete until you've visited these magical and spiritually enriching places. But don't just take my word for it, go and see for yourself.



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Colin Dovey
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Posted on Apr 18, 2010