Heading East: Graaff-Reinet, Gem of the Karoo

An index to this trip appears on the first post.

March 21, 2016

Founded in 1786, the town of Graaff-Reinet represented a boundary between the known and unknown.  To the southwest was the Cape Colony, but further to the north and east, the cattle herds of the Xhosa roamed.  The city became a launching point for two major initiatives that shaped South Africa: the Xhosa Wars and the Great Trek.  It is also remarkable in two ways for its name.  Cornelius Jacob van de Graaff was the first governor, and his wife’s maiden name was Cornelia Reinet, so the name celebrates both members of the first couple.  It’s also a bit of a challenge for an English speaker to pronounce or recognize in conversation!  The Afrikaans ‘G’ at the start of the word is something of a throat-clearing ‘H’, and the doubled ‘a’ is an extended “ahhh” sound.  You can hear it pronounced at around 45 seconds in this YouTube video.


Ah, South Africa! Even the cacti have perimeter security.

I departed from Beaufort West fairly early, a bit before 8AM.  The first miles of R61 were quite desolate, but I was cheered by the appearance of windmills every few farms, and I saw species of cactus that were more tree-like than anything I’ve seen in the American Southwest.  I stopped at a rest area (tables, but no facilities) that was across the highway from a windmill and a tall cactus.  When no cars were nearby, the air was almost unnaturally still.  The windmill, though, had work to do!  It emitted a series of bangs and rattles as it lifted water from far below into a cistern.  I thought it was quite haunting, so I produced a small video from it.  In no time flat, I had passed from the Western Cape province into the Eastern Cape.  Having approached Aberdeen for many kilometers, I was a bit disappointed that my left turn onto the N9 was just short of the city itself.  I arrived at the Obesa Lodge in Graaff-Reinet just before 10 AM.  I liked the hotel; I had lots of space (two beds!) and a full bathroom to myself.  The hotel uses a lot of bright colors and has a theme for each room.  It sits across the street from a garden center that’s quite pretty, and it’s not a long walk from the best-preserved buildings in the area.

Wasting no time, I strolled a couple of blocks to Parsonage Street.  A quick look at the South African Heritage Resources Agency roster for the city tells the tale: 16 of the sites are found on Parsonage Street!  At one end, you see the Reinet House, originally a parsonage.  At the far end, you see the Hotel Drostdy, a building which started as a one-story building, grew to a two-story Victorian facade, and then returned to a one-story that fit in well with its surroundings.


The Hotel Drostdy’s newest look is an old one. Oversized, rounded gables? Check. Thatch roof? Check. White building with green trim? It must be Parsonage Street!

For my next steps, I just couldn’t help myself.  I’d had a glimpse of the magnificent church at the center of town, and I needed to see it close up.  Four different churches have occupied the prominent, central space in Church Square, and the last iteration is simply breath-taking.  The foundation stone was laid in 1886 for a Gothic Revival design after Salisbury Cathedral.


If it were a cake, I would have gained many pounds. Instead it’s a magnificent “kerk.”

I walked just a little further north to see the Victoria Hall, constructed in 1910.  Once the Anglo-Boer War had been concluded, more traffic took place between Bloemfontein, the former capital of the Orange Free State, and Cape Town.  Graaff-Reinet profited from that interaction, and the massive construction shows the need for a better administrative apparatus to run the city.


If you look very carefully, you may see a central niche for the bust of Queen Victoria.

It is simplest to think of the museum of Graaff-Reinet as being distributed to multiple sites.  Visitors pay an amount that reflects how many of the sites they’ll take in.  Because this Monday was a public holiday (Human Rights Day, commemorating the lives lost at Sharpeville), however, the museums would only be open until 1PM.  I decided to invest in two museums, visiting the Old Residency and the Reinet House.  Both sadly have a policy of no photographs except in outdoor spaces, with an exception involving permission of a curator (see below).

The Old Residency is across the street from Reinet House, but it represents a different kind of museum altogether.  The Old Residency represents a deep dive into particular themes associated with Graaff-Reinet.  The first rooms you enter focus on the career of William Roe, a photographer who was originally trained as an analytical chemist (yay, for my field!) in Europe before emigrating to South Africa.  He was one of the first photographers to reach the growing diamond mines of Kimberly, and he finished his career in Graaff-Reinet.  His equipment and images, dating from near the time of the U.S. Civil War, occupied two full rooms and some additional space.  The next exhibit space centered on a tremendous firearm collection from the local Botha family (this is a very, very common surname for South Africa).  The rifles ranged all the way back to the 18th century.  On the other hand, the music room was home to two particularly nice mechanical players.  One of them worked from music recorded as holes in a steel disk, while the other read from pins on the surface of a rotating cylinder.  The curator was very enthusiastic in demonstrating their operation.  The art collection was rather more limited, but the Residency does showcase the “Little Girl in Blue,” by Alfred Palmer.  Their answer to the “Boy in Blue” shows the daughter of an industrialist admiring herself in the mirror.  Another emphasis area for the museum was the display of items attached to the dam built nearby in the 1920s for power generation.  In brief, the Old Residency resembles the museums found in many small towns; its focus tells you about what the people there find distinctive about their communities.


The Reinet House, a former parsonage and now the home of a great museum.

The Reinet House is pretty remarkable.  The museum began life as a parsonage and then became the home of the Reinet family, but it has been a museum for decades.  The facility suffered a terrible fire in 1980 that destroyed the roof and some of the exhibits, but it has been restored to a remarkable extent.  I started my tour in the cellar, the door of which was framed by two curving stone staircases.  I was happy to find a set of academic regalia from the leadership of the South African Police Academy.  I would love to think that someday my very purple University of Washington regalia could sit in a museum!  The cellar ranges broadly in its clothing displays, from Victorian women’s underwear to the clothes worn by women in the first year or the second year (!) of bereavement.  The back yard of the house has two outbuildings, a mill with water wheel and all its attendant machinery and a wagon shed with attached blacksmith shop.  The wagon shed had some lovely examples, ranging from a ~1900 A.D. full-size kakebeenwa wagon by FC Fourie to ambulance and hearse wagons used in the Anglo-Boer War.


This is a single grape vine, planted nearly 150 years ago.

The grounds of the Reinet House contained two remarkable plants.  One of them was an Australian Banyan tree planted in 1878, and the other was an ancient black acorn vine planted in 1870.  It had reached a 3.1 meter circumference in 1983, when the dead wood had to be trimmed due to a fungal infection.  Next to the vine was a poignant plaque celebrating the Jewish peddlers who had improved the lives of outlying villagers.  The side garden led over to the Urqhart house, which housed the Military History Museum.

The number of period items found inside the Reinet House was really stunning.  If you want to imagine what it would be like to cook a serious meal in the 1800s, look no further than the kitchen, with its displays of pots and pans.  Similarly, the bedrooms are stocked with all the accoutrements of that era, including hip bathers and fillable bath tubs, night stands, bed wear, etc.  The armoire was a really impressive piece of furniture, as I recall.  The museum even tells its own story, with many photographs and new clippings of the 1980 fire.  At least two ancient Bibles, each above four inches thick, can be found in the house.  I really loved a more recent exhibit, showing an architect’s sketch of Parsonage Street.  The curator allowed me to take a photo to share.


In this sketch and watercolor, Don Adair envisions Parsonage Street in an earlier time.

With a few very good hours of museum time, I left some things at the hotel and marched to the main drag for dinner.  Many places were closed for the holiday, so in the end I found myself at Spur, the restaurant built around the Native American theme.  I was famished, and I devoured a “cheddamelt burger” with mushroom sauce and chips.  The waitstaff agreed to take my photo by the metal chieftain art, illuminating a red-painted wall.


Dave with the out-of-place Spur logo

I wandered the town for another hour or so, photographing the church again and visiting an art gallery.  A painting reminded me of the Anglo-Boer war memorial, and the director pointed me down the street.  I trudged west on Somerset, and a trio of men called out to me.  One of them said they wanted money to buy bread.  I said no and kept walking.  The street was simply gorgeous, flanked by Victorian and newer houses in beautiful condition.  The monument, oddly enough, shared the corner lot with a beautiful home.

As I walked, I found myself thinking what a lovely place to retire Graaff-Reinet would be.  The neighborhoods are lovely for a stroll.  Its history is enchanting, and it is not so large as to make driving a frustrating exercise.  What was it that drew me to this place? On my way back to the hotel, I passed the Graaff-Reinet Teachers’ Center.  Though I was a block away, I could hear spirited choral singing emanating from the security shack.


3 thoughts on “Heading East: Graaff-Reinet, Gem of the Karoo

  1. Pingback: Heading East: Dave visits Matjiesfontein | Picking Up The Tabb

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  3. Pingback: Enjoy 28 landscapes in South Africa on your desktop! | Picking Up The Tabb

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