From our base in Port Alfred our drive to Graaff-Reinet took us approximately three and a half hours. We drove through Grahamstown, home of the famous National Arts Festival, and then onto Bedford which is about the halfway point. The road to Graaff-Reinet surprised us with long straight stretches and mountain ranges to our right. Our journey was broken up with spotting lots of Springbok and numerous warthog running along the side of the road as well as Meerkat. At one point we even came across a Likkewarm strolling slowly across the road but he quickly disappeared into the bush when we got a bit closer to him.
As you approach Graaff-Reinet keep an eye out for the SAPS Training Academy on your left as you drive in. This beautiful building has been restored recently and if you feel like a closer look don’t be afraid to drive in like we did to take some photos. The road into Graaff-Reinet is long and straight and standing at the far end is a beautiful white church and is the centrepiece of this historical town.
We were staying two nights at the Queen Manor Boutique Guest House located on Queen Street not far from the church. As we drove up we were welcomed by Nettie, the owner, who showed us to our rooms. We had a large double bedroom with a very big bathroom with shower and bath. From the front of the rooms you had a view over the magnificent mountains that form part of the Camdeboo National Park. The guest house has a lovely swimming pool with loungers and a braai area as well. In the mornings we could sit and watch the Weaver birds going in and out of their carefully constructed hanging nests.
Once we had got ourselves settled we headed straight off down the R63 in the direction of Murraysburg to the Valley of Desolation in Camdeboo National Park. The entrance to the park is just 5 km outside of Graaff-Reinet adjacent to the Nqweba Dam. Once inside we followed a tarred road up to the first viewing point. From the car park there it’s just a short walk up some steps and a little clamber over some boulders to get to the viewing point. From here you can see right over the top of Graaff-Reinet and the surrounding mountains.
We returned to our cars and continued on from here up to the next car park and then followed the Crag Lizard trail by foot. The path is uneven so decent walking shoes are advised although we saw people in flip flops managing it. As you go along the path there are a few places where you can literally stand on the edge of the cliffs and look out for miles across the Camdeboo Plains. A popular time to do the trip is at sunrise or sunset as you can watch the changing colours of the stunning rock formations. Be very careful if you have young children with you as the drop is enormous so hold onto them tight especially if they have a tendency to run about. If you are lucky you might, like us, spot a huge Eagle soaring through the air no doubt looking for supper.
The guide at the gate to the park advised us that we could also gain access to the game drive, also park of Camdeboo National Park, just up the road without paying any extra. So we drove about half a kilometre and turned right into the Impangele Gate. You can take a leisurely drive through the park and come out the opposite side which is about a 10 km drive. There are no Big 5 here but it’s worth doing if you some time to kill before evening dinner.
Following a number of recommendations from friends on Twitter we ate that evening at Pioneers restaurant. The menu offered typical Karoo dishes as well as other mouth-watering options plus a good selection of wine. Sadly we ate too well and by the time we had finished we were tired and ready for bed. As a note Pioneers also has a bar to the back of the restaurant and is a popular place on a Friday night.
The following day we headed off to Nieu-Bethesda a small town about 60km from Graaff-Reinet. You will notice that the tarred road to Nieu-Bethesda ends about 1 km outside the town acne the reason for this is that the locals didn’t want the road tarred as they thought it would spoil the look and feel of the town. Whether you agree or not be prepared for the dirt road but it is perfectly safe for a normal car.
Now we had heard about the Owl House at Nieu-Bethesda so we headed there first. The story of Helen Martins is quite well known and it is worth reading up on her before you come here. A remarkable lady who clearly led a reclusive life – check out the letters in the museum behind the Owl House which provide some perspective to her life and tragic death. A nice spot to stop for a drink and a bit to eat is to follow the signs to the Roastery and Brewery. They brew their own beers and the menu includes a lovely cheese platter.
Back in Graaff-Reinet that evening we met up with friends and went to eat at a restaurant called Polka another Twitter recommendation. The restaurant is stunning and the food and service excellent. We had lovely steaks with a blue cheese sauce washed down with some excellent red wine.
We wished we could have stayed a bit longer in Graaff-Reinet as we needed more time to go back and explore the Camdeboo National Park further.