Cradled in a crook of the Sundays River, to the approaching traveler, Graaff-Reinet seems like a verdant oasis in the stark surrounding landscape, yet, practically every visitor remarks on its unique old-world character.
Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam), with a higher percentage of buildings having been officially declared historical monuments than is the case for any other city in South Africa. The town has a fascinating history and the region has a most interesting pre-history, all of which are well-depicted and told in four separate museums.
When “de Wiljdgelegen Colonie van Graaff-Reinet" (the far off colony of Graaff-Reinet) was established in 1786, the district covered all the territory from the Gamtoos River in the West to the Great Fish River in the East, and from the Indian Ocean to a few kilometers south of the Gariep (Orange River). This was the fourth district to be proclaimed in South Africa and as a result received a
"drostdy" or seat of local government.
Named after Cornelis Jacob van de Graaf and his wife Cornelia Reynet
it is one of two towns in our country named after Dutch governors. For years it
was a certain stopover for every traveller to the interior. It has experienced
four changes of supreme government (including the proclamation of the so-called
"Republic of Graaff-Reinet" and at times it has been the focal point of insurgence, political tension and border wars along its eastern frontier. It was visited and described by such early travellers as Barrow, Burchell, Lichtenstein and Moffat. Later in the mid-nineteenth century it was one of the starting points for the exodus of the Voortrekkers.
From the late eighteenth century right up to the arrival of the railway, a century later, Graaff-Reinet was a bustling trading center, and in 1865 there were sixty four recognized public
'outspans'. These were essential to maintain the ox wagon transport system, as places to rest, water and feed the oxen. Inns were established at many of the
'outspans' for the convenience of travellers.
Graaff-Reinet has long been renowned for its attractive and well-preserved historical homes and buildings, for which it has been widely acclaimed as the "Gem of the Karoo". In 2005 Graaff-Reinet acquired another distinction with the proclamation of the Camdeboo National Park , making it the only town in South Africa to be surrounded by a National Park. The Camdeboo National Park is a mecca for hikers, photographers and students of flora and fauna. Included in this reserve is the famous and awe-inspiring Valley of Desolation as well as the scenic Toposcope lookout point.
Graaff-Reinet boasts several famous sons, including Lord Somerset, Robert Sobukwe, Beyers Naude, and Dr. Anton Rupert. Robert Sobukwe’s widow still resides here, and ironically the building that once housed the Graaff-Reinet Commandos is now named after the former Pan African Congress leader.
Some interesting facts on Graaff-Reinet:
- When the Boer War broke out at the end of the 19th century, the citizens of Graaff-Reinet fought on the side of the Boers. Extensive vineyards existed at that time, and Graaff-Reinet was well-known as a wine and brandy producing area. Here ostrich farming had a vigorous start and the Camdeboo farming region became popular with the Cape Town butchers long before the town was actually established.
- The broad streets of Graaff-Reinet are due to the fact that ox wagons needed enough space to turn.
- The town lies 759m above sea level.