Midsummer in Graaff-Reinet and the place is parched. The local dam is low, the boreholes are being deployed and it seems everyone not currently blessed with air conditioning will have gone limp by lunchtime. But in the early morning cool, South Africa’s fourth-oldest town is a remarkable show of brilliant white buildings, bougainvillea and jacarandas. A lot of jacarandas. It’s like they stole some sexy bits from Stellenbosch and shipped them off to the middle of the Karoo.
Turning around the town
The schools work, the gardens and homes are well-maintained, private enterprise abounds in the form of hundreds of little shops of all kinds, the old buildings are religiously restored and preserved, big projects are on the go, tourists are flooding in, semigration is on the rise, local farmers are buying up dorpshuise and the overall energy is mind-boggling. What is the ‘secret sauce’ of Graaff-Reinet? Part of the answer lies right here on Somerset Street.
“Look, there’s Eira’s place,” says my wife Jules, referring to the home of Eira Maasdorp who, with the help of the late Dr Anton Rupert, was one of the heritage preservation legends of Graaff-Reinet. Her yard is a riot of jacarandas, Australian flame trees, Bougainvillea, a tall palm tree and a Cypress of sorts. It’s Classic Karoo, where everything that can make shade or colour is prized.
Eira was an integral part of the Graaff-Reinet Historical Society in the 1980s, known locally by wags as the Hysterical Society. “Whenever we saw anyone offloading cement and bricks in front of a heritage house, we’d descend on the owners asking all sorts of questions,” she will tell you.
When the municipality made plans to knock down one of the town’s first churches, Eira called businessman Anton Rupert (who also had his roots in Graaff-Reinet) in desperation. He came to the rescue of his hometown.
Eira and others started buying up houses of a certain age in parts of the town that were almost slums. Restoration has made them some of the most sought-after addresses in Graaff-Reinet today.
What sets the town apart is the sheer number of national monuments (more than 220) and the fact that entire streetscapes have been preserved. And now the town buzzes because preservation has attracted new blood. But the late Dr Anton Rupert, and Eira Maasdorp, were not the first or the last champions of Graaff-Reinet.
Down on Parsonage Street between the Drostdy Hotel and Reinet House museum, we meet up with local architect Peter Whitlock. One of his current projects is the restoration of one of the Parsonage Street heritage houses belonging to Johannesburg businessman Peter Curle, who reckons this avenue is the “most historic and attractive street in the whole of South Africa”.
Although there have been a great many individual preservation efforts along Parsonage Street and central Graaff-Reinet, Peter Whitlock credits Dr Rupert with raising a “groundswell of heritage consciousness.
“One of his best initiatives was the Save Reinet Foundation, which helped residents repair the facades of their homes. And that spirit lives on today, in the form of a very effective local heritage society.”
The Rupert family, now headed by Johann, has spent millions restoring old buildings, fixing up the museum and donating land to the Camdeboo National Park, which they helped create. They are also involved with three skills colleges in and around Graaff-Reinet, linked to the Peace Parks Foundation and focusing on hospitality (the SA College for Tourism), conservation (the Tracking Academy) and veld management (the Herding Academy).
The most recent, local Rupert development is the renovation of the Coldstream Restaurant next to the Graaff-Reinet Club in the centre of town. The project is married to the SA College for Tourism, enabling graduates to gain real-world hospitality experience via this beautifully situated restaurant under trees opposite the Moederkerk, as well as at the five-star Drostdy Hotel which they also bought and renovated.
At sparrow’s one morning, we’re out at the local golf course getting strapped into a Robinson helicopter by Franscois Fitzgerald, the pilot for FlyKaroo. This latest tourism feature of Graaff-Reinet is the brainchild of another family of local champions headed up by Hannes van Jaarsveld.
Only when you’re aloft do you get the true perspective on Graaff-Reinet, the oval-shaped settlement surrounded by cinematic landscapes. Here’s Spandau Kop and there’s the Valley of Desolation, the outlines of the Giant Flag project, the horseshoe meander of the Sundays River, to the south the Camdeboo Mountains, to the north the Sneeuberg with its dominating Compassberg peak and Nieu-Bethesda lurking in its folds, to the east the Wapadsberg and right below us is Main Street Graaff-Reinet in all its waking-up drowsiness.
By mid-morning I’ve been dropped off somewhere near the Plains of Camdeboo, and Jules has been whipped away on the Aberdeen road in a 1958 Studebaker Commander – the one with the snazzy fins. But they return to pick me up once I’m done with the photographs.
This is a beloved stretch of Karoo highway for Hannes van Jaarsveld, Big Daddy of a family that has built up a remarkable business network in Graaff-Reinet over the past 20 years.
An icon of the Karoo
Montego dog food has become one of the Karoo’s best known homegrown brands, and started as a bright idea from a bulldog-loving bean counter. Hannes used to be a Somerset East accountant in the late nineties. One of his Graaff-Reinet clients was in the dry-foods industry and, as a dog owner, Hannes knew there was a clear gap in the dog-food market.
His son Johan, who has taken over as managing director now that Hannes has retired, picks up the story. “In the late nineties, there were two kinds of dog food – the cheap brands you could find in any supermarket, and the very expensive imported stuff that you could buy from the vet.”
The vet brands definitely lifted the quality bar. Until they came in there was no such thing as specialised puppy or senior dog food. “My father was convinced there was an opportunity for something that fell in the middle – top quality at an affordable price.” Montego pet food lies at the heart of the Van Jaarsveld enterprises, but Hannes is all about adding value to his adopted town in other ways.
One of his latest projects is Recollection Rides, a huge showroom on the main road, a petrolhead paradise where we find men of a certain age browsing with envy around a display that includes a 1963 split-window hippy Combi, the 1965 VW Beetle, the 1928 Ford Model A Phaeton, the 1922 Wolseley coupé and the 1933 Austin 7.
At the coffee bar in the back, with rare enamel petroliana signs on the walls, we dip into cappuccinos as Hannes tells us, “As a family we love the town, the vibe, the setting. I established this place to draw more tourists and to generate more local jobs.”
A spirit of survival
Town champions also come in the form of storytellers, and here the McNaughtons are at the forefront. In one family you have a local historian, a book seller, three estate agents and a tour guide. The McNaughtons embody the spirit of survival in the countryside, where you often have to set up many income streams.
When book sales are slow, homes are sold. When real estate takes a breather, a touring party comes to town. And as the tide of Graaff-Reinet’s fortune rises, so does the McNaughton boat.
Jack van Niekerk, the manager of Graaff-Reinet Tourism, is based at the Old Library Museum in the main street. As we talk, a steady stream of foreign visitors drifts in and out, mostly looking for food and lodgings. Jack and his team sort them out and off they go, happy campers all.
Part of the great story of Graaff-Reinet is that of the late anti-apartheid struggle hero Robert Sobukwe, another son of the Karoo. His son Dini ran the Sobukwe Trust, a wide-ranging, local-upliftment project until he sadly passed away in June, 2019.
We go with Khanya Mbaile, a tour guide trained by the trust, to Umasizakhe township to see the start-up of the new Sobukwe Museum. On the way back to town, we pass a marble plaque commemorating Graaff-Reinet heroes. Both Robert Sobukwe and Anton Rupert are on the list.
Our last stop is with Mariëtte Burger, editor of the Graaff-Reinet Advertiser, which sells 3 000 copies a week to the faithful. “Our most popular stories are the human-interest items,” says Mariëtte, who has been with the paper since her cub reporter days more than a decade ago. Mariëtte fully subscribes to business mogul Warren Buffett’s belief that community newspapers are crucial to the progress of a country town.
“And if there is one thing I can say about Graaff-Reinetters,” she says, “it’s that they are very proud to live here.”
It certainly shows.