Boom times have arrived in the historic Eastern Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet. But there are still the legends under every brick. We paid a visit to the queen of the Camdeboo…
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za
Those in the know will tell you that a fire pool in a presidential compound is really meant for skinny-dipping in the moonlight after a long day of pressing the flesh. But those really in the know will add that the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet once had its very own dinkum fire pool back in the mid-1800s.
It was called a branddam (fire dam) and it was fed by furrow from the nearby Sundays River. The water may have started off fresh, but historical records indicate that by the time it arrived at the fire pool, it was quite foul. And the local fire brigade were a bit of a joke as well. Dressed in helmets, Wellington boots, knickerbockers and flannel shirts, they would be summoned to the fire by the ringing of the Mother Church bell.
But the magistrate’s office, where all the fire-fighting gear was stashed, was securely locked. So, every time there was a fire they had to break down the door of the office to grab the fire-fighting equipment.
Now the rule was that the town’s two major furrow systems had to be diverted to run as close to the source of the fire as possible. This led to problems with the local homeowners. The resident clock-winder was once sent to divert a furrow to a fire. An old auntie thought he was nicking her water. So she punched him on the nose and chased him off.
I am sitting in an executive suite in Stretch’s Court, part of the newly-revamped Drostdy Hotel in a town everyone lovingly called ‘the Gem of the Karoo’. Reading to my wife Jules from CG Henning’s fabulous Graaff-Reinet –A Cultural History, I am busy culling some anecdotal baubles myself.
Graaff-Reinet is in the middle of an economic boom these days. Unlike the rest of the known world, the Gem of the Karoo has the bit between its teeth and is developing like nobody’s business. The Drostdy, after its stunning two-year facelift, has taken its place as one of the Karoo’s grand-dame establishments. There’s a legend under every brick in Graaff-Reinet. And this town tells its story very well, especially in the form of expert guides Chantelle Marais and David McNaughton.
It’s daybreak. We’re up on Magazine Hill, a low koppie overlooking Graaff-Reinet. The Dutch Reformed Mother Church is looking splendid this morning. “Back in the days of Dutch East India Company rule, the locals declared Graaff-Reinet an independent republic,” says David. “They later also rebelled against the British and, during a stand-off, a group of rebels cut down a large tree and turned it into a wooden cannon by hollowing it out and tying it up with leather straps. They filled the barrel with gunpowder and all sorts of projectiles, including bottles, nails and stones. So when they fired it at the British, it simply exploded. And that was the end of the Graaff-Reinet Rebellion.”
Feisty people, Graaff-Reinetters. My ‘Henning’ tells me there was great voter apathy around here in the old days. In fact, the lowest number of voters turning up for a municipal election is a glorious ‘nil’. Now it’s different. Graaff-Reinet civil society gets up on its hind legs and takes an active interest in the local Camdeboo region. So much so that whenever the pro-fracking lobby arrives in town with its dog-and-pony show, the residents pitch up and make vocal protest.
The anti-fracking cause makes bedfellows of most of the communities around here. That’s why you’ll often see the likes of Chief Daantjie Japhta, former mayor and now leader of the Khoi Inqua Nation, arriving at the town hall in his finery, flanked by his captains.
Back at The Drostdy, I’m in the Cigar Lounge playing Barney Barnato and reading about Regulation 73, concerning the Municipal Commonage. Everyone was allowed to graze up to 15 sheep (or goats) and 16 horses (or cattle) except if you were a butcher – then you could keep 100 sheep. We love our livestock cuts around here, as you may have guessed by now. Along came the ostrich boom in the 1870s, which threw all the rules into a tizz. So they had to come up with Regulation 107, which officially defined ostriches as cattle.
And don’t be fooled by the gentle modern-day Karoo demeanour of Graaff-Reinet. This used to be a frontier town full of dodgy sorts. They established a Drostdy in 1806, so that a magistrate could hold court and the rule of law could be applied to this rough little diamond of a settlement. In 1878, the magistrate moved to another building and a German family turned this gabled edifice into Kromm’s Drostdy Hotel.
The first local newspaper was the Graaff Reinet Herald and, by all accounts, the standard of journalism was very good. However, The Herald crossed the legal line when it tried to publish Charles Dickens’ legendary Great Expectations. The great author had to get a Supreme Court ruling to force the little publication to keep its hands off his book. It is still regarded as South Africa’s first copyright infringement ruling. There have been one or two since, no doubt.
And the local brandy, aah, the brandy. Especially a clear white brandy called Withond. Chantelle Marais tells that it was called Withond because an actual white dog used to guard the moonshiners’ premises. “And it only barked at policemen.”
Withond used to be made at one of the museums, Reinet House. As a tourist you were obliged to buy a small bottle of the ‘brandy’. For my money, however, Withond should carry a health warning and another name: witblits.
Jules and I are now sitting in the Camdeboo Restaurant with executive chef Justin Pillay and hotel GM Kurt Peter. Justin is mad about his job here, especially the chance to source fine venison, great lamb and Nieu-Bethesda stoneground flour. He’s planning a chef’s garden of veggies and herbs and loves his morning walk through the leafy streets to the smartest kitchen in town.
Kurt, a well-travelled man with a lovely sense of irony, says the soft pre-Christmas launch of the hotel was a close-run affair. “I was literally shooing gardeners and builders out the one door as invited guests were arriving by another.” The 48-room hotel is immaculate. More than half the staff complement comes from the SA College of Tourism in Graaff-Reinet. Top graduates come here for a full year’s internship before being let loose on the world of luxury accommodations.
And here’s young David McNaughton, to swoop us off to the Graaff-Reinet Club for cocktails. This is where the Coldstream Guards used to take their ease during the Anglo-Boer (now called South African) War. This is also where I now re-discover a critter I once met on a postcard in Arizona, USA: the Jackalope. The club Jackalope, donated by the Hobson family, is all trophied-up on one of the walls. He’s half-antelope, half-jackrabbit. In fact, you could call him an Antelabbit and no one would mind.
It’s a lovely bit of American tourist nonsense but I do remember it had me going for a while, back in the day.
The next day we’re with Chantelle Marais on a wild and wonderful flurry of game spotting at the Camdeboo National Park and a whirlwind tour of the very large and spiky Obesa Nursery. On the way back to the hotel, she makes a detour at a shop called Elsona Crafts. “I must quickly show you. This is so fantastic.”
Chantelle is right. Elsona de Klerk employs 45 painters and potters and general-purpose crafters in a factory that cannot keep up with the export orders of fabrics, ceramics and handbags. “We depend on each other, so we all treat each other well,” she says.
We’ve heard of the famous Graaffrikaans they speak out here, so that night at dinner we ask David McNaughton for a quick demo. “Clean the rooster so we can sit a tjoppie op die vuur, boet.” Expanding on the subject of local characters from the past, David tells us about a certain vet called Dr Thornton, who lost his leg during World War II. “And he still represented Graaff-Reinet on the squash court after that,” he says. “He used to have a three-legged dog called Pancho that always came with him on his rounds and when he went out to castrate horses. The dog invariably got to eat the proverbial prairie oysters.”
We ask him about the many tourists he takes up to the Valley of Desolation lookout point in the Camdeboo National Park. “I once met a couple who only wanted to be taken to supermarkets,” he says. “They’d walk around slowly, eyeing the produce. They said retail in Graaff-Reinet reminded them of retail in Jamaica. And that the shops of Jansenville (to the south) were very much like the shops of rural Sri Lanka…”
Where to Stay
- The historic Drostdy Hotel offers a five-star experience complete with Nespresso machines and WiFi in the plush rooms. Don’t miss the cigar and Cognac library, or the art gallery.
- In fact there are a number of upmarket places to stay, some of them including feather palaces like Avondrust, the lovely gabled Buiten Verwagten and Andries Stockenström Guesthouse, famous for its food.
- Other popular guest houses include Villa Reinet, Karoo Park Guest House, and De Kothuize.
- There are also excellent self-catering establishments like Kambro Cottages, Camdeboo Cottages and 4 Rothman Street
- Graaff-Reinet also has some fabulous farmstays close to town. Wellwood has great fossil and merino-breeding history. Abbotsbury offers a gracious guest house and Wheatlands is a legendary mohair farm.
Where to Eat
- Blue Magnolia Nursery & Coffee Shop just off Church Square is a great haven for plants, gifts and good, fresh food. The open sandwiches are justly famous.
- The Coldstream Restaurant, right next to the Graaff-Reinet Club on Church Square is popular eatery. Think Karoo lamb and ostrich steaks.
- Polka Café next to the Windmill Junction attracts locals and visitors for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Great food on order and fresh ciabattas baked every day.
- Gordon’s Restaurant at the Andries Stockenström Guesthouse is a slow-food destination where chef Gordon Wright cooks up food sourced from a 40km radius around Graaff-Reinet.
- De Camdeboo Restaurant in the Drostdy Hotel serves sophisticated and delicious food at reasonable prices, showcasing South African cuisine and ingredients.
Where to Play
- This town is lucky enough to have two excellent tour guides who can take you to local attractions and tell you the back stories. Call David McNaughton of Karoo Connections on 082 339 8646 or Chantelle Marais on 071 670 4747.
- If you like succulents and cacti, visit Obesa Nursery. There is even a cactus-lined labyrinth. Those spikes make for a truly mindful walk.
- Don’t miss the Valley of Desolation at sunset, part of the Camdeboo National Park. In fact the whole park is well worth a visit, and a great place to go mountain bike riding.
- There are some lovely shops in Graaff-Reinet, and there’s a clutch of them around the Windmill Junction at the corner of Bourke and Somerset Streets. Don’t miss Elsona Craft near the end of Church Street.
- True to its heritage-rich tradition, Graaff-Reinet has several excellent museums. Don’t miss Reinet House, Urquhart House, the Old Residency, and the Old Library Museum.