48 HOURS IN THE KAROO HEARTLAND
Friday, 13th July 2018
If curling up in front of a fireplace with a glass of red, slippers and a blankie sounds like your idea of a cosy winter’s night, then grab your calendar and start planning because I’ve got the perfect weekend getaway for you!The Karoo with its wide horizons, starry nights, semi-arid vegetation, and unique and extreme climate stretches its dusty arms over four of South Africa’s provinces and there are numerous small towns all within a two to three hour reach from Port Elizabeth.
Each town comes with its own ambiance; Steytlerville is known for its cabaret show and backyard vintage car museum, Bedford is the rose capital of the Eastern Cape, in Cradock you have history, you can track cheetahs on foot and there’s a food and a writers festival and Somerset East is where you can learn and appreciate the art of fly fishing in the warmer months. With so many options, so many activities and so much natural beauty and that warm Karoo hospitality it is difficult to choose, but for this cold winter’s trip, let’s focus on Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda with a foodie stop in Jansenville. Besides, there’s a chance you might even see snow!
SEARCH FOR THE GARDEN GNOMES
If you take the R75 towards Jansenville, just a few kilometres before you reach Mohair central, there are two garden gnomes on the left side keeping a watchful eye on the traffic. If you’re travelling with kids, make a game out of it and see who can spot it first.
Just as you cross the Sundays River and enter Jansenville, make a left to Ark in the Karoo. Jansenville is such a short distance from Port Elizabeth which makes this farm stall an ideal breakfast and coffee stop. They also have home-baked treats and old school candy if you’re in need of some padkos. If time is on your side, you can visit the Sid Fourie Historical House and Mohair Experience Museum in Jansenville.
FIRST UP, GRAAFF-REINET
VISIT A CACTI AND SUCCULENT NURSERY
Visit one of the biggest privately owned Cacti and Succulent nurseries in the world; even if you don’t have green fingers, this will still be a treat. There are about 7 000 plant species - all in the cacti, succulent, aloe and medicinal plant family – at Obesa Nursery and the cacti gardens have often been described as art. Go have a look, and watch out for the mother-in-law’s cushion (golden barrel cactus), you definitely don’t want to take a seat on those spikey thorns.
APPRECIATE SOME ART AND HISTORY
To visit Graaff-Reinet is to take a step back in time; the architecture scattered around town is a true testament of that with old houses with their wooden window shutters and of course, the mother of all churches, the Dutch Reformed Church, centrally located as you enter the town and possibly the most photographed church in South Africa.
Here, history, art and culture is intertwined and you can easily make your way on foot down Church Street and visit a gallery or two like the Imibala Gallery and the Hester Rupert Art Museum that is housed in what is believed to be the fifth oldest building in South Africa. You can also experience Graaff-Reinet from yesteryear by visiting the Reinet House Museum.
Learn more about Xhosa culture by visiting Umasizakhe where you’ll be taken around by a local guide, visit a family for some tea and roosterbrood, see exhibits of Xhosa culture and pass the house where the founder of the Pan African Congress, Robert Managaliso Sobukwe, grew up.
SELF-GUIDED GAME DRIVE
Camdeboo National Park is situated just a few kilometres outside Graaff-Reinet and you can make your way through the park on a self-guided game drive; the area is home to small game and nearly 250 bird species. If you want to see animals in the big five family, venture out in the opposite direction (towards Port Elizabeth) and overnight at either Samara Private Game Reserve or Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, both equally luxurious.
SUNSET AT VALLEY OF DESOLATION
A visit to Graaff-Reinet is not complete without appreciating the sheer magnificence of the Valley of Desolation. If it is your first time visiting, prepare to have your mind blown when you witness the sunset casting its golden light on the dolerite columns that formed millions of years ago. Plus the view of Graaff-Reinet and Spandaukop is unbeatable, and if you’ve never heard your own echo let out a scream, this valley echoes like no other. If time allows it, you can explore the hiking trails in the area or set out on the Koedoeskloof 4x4 trail (you’ll need at least 4 hours to complete it).
GRAB A BITE
It’s the Karoo, it doesn’t matter where you eat because you simply can’t go wrong; they know food and they know hospitality. A few favourites include Maria’s Coffee Roastery for coffee, Polka and Blue Magnolia Coffee Shop for breakfast, Coldstream Restaurant for lunch or dinner, Pioneers Restaurant and Pub for dinner and GRT Brewery for craft beer.
FIND A PLACE TO SLEEP IN GRAAFF-REINET
There’s something for every budget, one guest house as quaint as the next. The National Park has safari tents and camp sites and there are farm stays as well as private game reserves if you want a luxury escape and to be completely surrounded by nature.
ON TO NIEU BETHESDA
PARK YOUR CAR AND START EXPLORING
Now it is time to really slow down. Nieu Bethesda is a small village and best explored on foot. Make your way to the Karoo Lamb Restaurant, pick up one of their maps and start walking. Keep in mind that there is no fuel station or ATM in Nieu Bethesda.
HELEN MARTINS OWL HOUSE
The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda is a masterpiece of sculptures set in cement and a deliberate play of natural elements with human emotions crafted by the hands of South Africa’s foremost outsider artist, Helen Martins. It is truly an experience as you get a glimpse into Helen Martins’ life and the house she grew up, and eventually passed away, in. You can pay with a card at the Owl House and shop for owl souvenirs from the local crafters in front of the owl house.
SEARCH FOR FOSSILS
Go back in time when mammal-like-reptiles roamed the earth, before even the roar of the dinosaur. You can explore fossils from more than 250 million years ago either in Nieu Bethesda at the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre , or on the nearby guest farm of Ganora where there are also bushmen paintings, a fossil exhibit and a fossil workshop for the kids.
THE BREWERY AND TWO GOATS DELI
The Brewery and Two Goats Deli serves a selection of artisan beers, cheeses, salami, coffee and bread. The variety of beers/ales, coffee and cheese are locally produced and these products are best enjoyed on the lawn under a willow tree.
ALSO DON’T MISS OUT ON
Buy something for yourself or a gift at the Blue Cupboard honesty shop, find the rusty old rust-in-peace car at the old church, visit the Nieu Bethesda Art Centre where a group of /Xam artists make the most beautiful items from material, go to the two-in-one post office, admire the sculptures at the studio of Frans Boekooi, shop for literature at Dustcovers Bookshop and stroll around the graveyard.
GRAB A BITE OF THE KAROO
Have some Karoo Tapas on the stoep of Karoo Lamb, get a light meal at oldest restaurant in town, The Vilage Inn and have dinner at the Ibis Lounge or at the Tower Café. There’s also a community-run project, Auntie Evelyn se Plek, where your meal contributes towards funding a soup kitchen for the less fortunate.
You simply have to make time to just sit and watch time go by.
FIND A PLACE TO SLEEP IN NIEU BETHESDA
There are backpackers, guesthouse, camp sites and cosy cottages in Nieu Bethesda and of course, Ganora guest farm just a short drive from the centre of Nieu Bethesda.
DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT STAR GAZING
Light pollution and city lights are a foreign concept here. Even if you can’t name the planets in our solar system and get confused when spotting the Southern Cross, just look up, you’ll be amazed by the glittering Karoo sky.
Find out more www.karooheartland.com