What is Karoo living? A butcher, a baker and a candle-stick maker? Add a collection of restored cars and motorcycles, a grand old Dutch Reformed church and the art of stoep-sitting, and you get quite close. Graaff-Reinet is all this and then some, tied up with a neat little heritage green-and-white bow.
Words: Louzel Lombard Steyn | Photography: Louzel Lombard Steyn
You could say that Graaff-Reinet is like a time capsule; a step back into history where bull-nosed Victorian buildings with large stone verandas, lime-washed facades and stained glass fanlights above grand wooden doors have been preserved, frozen in time. But that’s not the case. Yes, the stone stoeps are stunning and the lime as fresh as the day they first washed it on. But Graaff-Reinet is not stuck in the past – it’s a modern Karoo-life marvel and blueprint for the oft-struggling small towns of the region.
A string of fast-food outlets and a 24-hour Engen garage on the main road – which straddles the N9 – comes standard in any Karoo town these days. The road leads right past the spectacle that is Graaff-Reinet’s Groot Kerk. The place is often only a quick pit stop but one street up in Graaff-Reinet’s historic centre – away from the drive-bys and big trucks – the real hub of town lies. Here, white and green dorpshuisies – most of which offer guest accommodation – sit prettily in the town’s epicurean heart. It contains over 220 heritage sites – more than any other town in South Africa – and has examples of indigenous Karoo, Cape Dutch and Victorian architecture wherever you look. Most of these buildings feature large polished verandas where locals love to linger.
It’s here where the Karoo Wine Club’s Stoep Tasting has been taking place since 2014, when a mere five wine producers first came to town to host tastings on a few businesses’ stoeps.
To understand the allure of a stoep festival, you must first understand the time-honoured art of stoep sitting in the Karoo. According to Karoo Wine Club founder and professional Graaff-Reinet stoepsitter Rose Wright, it’s the epitome of Karoo living. ‘It’s taking time to stop and ponder or plan. Sometimes it’s with a pot of tea early in the morning, or a glass of your favourite vino at the end of a day, either solo or with some company. Stoep sitting is what we country-bumkins do while city folk are contending with traffic in their daily commutes. We start and end most of our days out on the front stoep. It’s our happy place.’
It’s been the secret to the Stoep Tasting’s success. Over the past eight years, the Stoep Tasting has grown from 45 visitors in the first year to being Graaff-Reinet’s biggest business-boosting event, with ticket sales for 2021 capped to curb excessively large crowds. This month, the town is booked to the brim as family of Graaff-Reinet (founders of Montego Pet Nutrition) is now perhaps one of the most beautiful vehicle exhibitions in SA. Here, vintage cars and motorbikes stand buffed and beaming on display. Some of the bikes, including a sexy 1964 BMW R27, one of just 50 ever made in Dover White, stands ‘for sale’ with a hefty price tag.
Manager Urvin Frolik says he prefers the older rides. ‘This DKW 1937 F7 front Luxus Cabriolet is my favourite. It hasn’t got a lot of power… the BMW bike will even outrun it. But it’s got the look, especially with the cap down,’ he smiles, gingerly stroking the machine’s bright blue hubcap.
Restoration is the keyword in Graaff-Reinet; to take what may be broken or neglected or forgotten and to thoughtfully bring it back into the light. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the old Drostdy Hotel. This Cape Dutch beauty has been around since 1804 and has been a refuge since then. My father tells of how his great-grandfather, after riding from Cradock, used to board here with his horse in the 1800s.
Today, upgraded to five-star luxury, it still offers boarding for travellers and their weary animal companions. Not for horses, sadly. Only dogs. And instead of stables, there are elegant rooms with splashes of bright colour on the windows and doors. A quince hedge and green and white facade complete the traditional Karoo picture. And since it’s situated in Graaff-Reinet’s heritage hub, it’s the perfect base from where to experience the town while Stoep Tasting.
My favourite part of staying at the Drostdy, however, isn’t the opulence and thoughtful nods to the region’s flora, fauna and history. It’s the hotel’s genuine commitment to empowering the people of the region. Most of the staff matriculated from Graaff-Reinet’s Volkskool – or the adjacent town’s Jansenville High School – and then received training at the SA College for Tourism, just outside Graaff-Reinet. The Drostdy then serves as the first hands-on practical training ground from where scholars springboard to other opportunities within the hospitality industry the world over. Emile van Rooyen, currently completing his training at the Drostdy, has already been offered a job onboard a cruise ship, for example. He’s not the first – and won’t be the last – to be sent on to great global opportunities from the Drostdy’s ranks.
It’s ongoing , but Graaff-Reinet is a town on a mission to make Karoo life great again. It’s breaking down barriers and integrating a colonialist heritage with its deepest Karoo roots to produce a delightful blueprint for modern-day ‘dorpie’ life. Whether it’s drinking the country’s best vintages at the Stoep Tasting, strolling through town to see the leiwater channels, or marvelling at the remarkable fanlights above quaint old front doors, Graaff-Reinet will take your breath away… then leave you feeling as replenished and restored as the treasured antiques around you.
2021 Stoep Tasting
Thursday 27 May to Sunday 30 May.
Tickets cost R500 pp. Buy online at stoeptasting.co.za
Hike the Valley of Desolation
An easy 2km hike on the Cape Crag Lizard Trail takes you around the Valley of Desolation look-out points. The gate is 5km out of Graaff-Reinet on the R63 to Murraysburg. Open daily from 6.30am to 7pm. R48 entry for South Africans.
Sweet rides, including some for sale. Be sure to visit the Recollection Village across the street, too. There’s an entire room dedicated to the history and transformation of the bicycle.
R30 entrance fee.
082 659 2795
Run or bike the Ouberg Road
A perfect hike or run to get a bird’s-eye view of the town and schools. Follow the road out towards the Valley of Desolation. Turn left onto the gravel road just as you cross the Sundays River, just out of town.
No entrance fee.
This is an initiative to create a protective workspace for physically and mentally disabled people in and around Graaff-Reinet. Shop colourful Shweshwe hair scrunchies and bow ties or laser-cut wooden toys and keepsakes.
049 892 3244
Windmill Junction & Our Yard
Three interleading businesses make up the Windmill Junction, Hello You eatery and Our Yard co-op-style courtyard. Shop stylish products from the Karoo region including leather bags and shoes, homeware and jewellery at Windmill Junction (049 892 2099), and find a curiosity shop and Graaff-Reinet-branded clothing store at Our Yard.
049 891 0337
In front of renowned Graaff-Reinet potter Elsona’s stoep, an entire block of Bourke Street is cordoned off with couches and wine tasting stations during the Stoep Tasting. Be sure to browse her pottery shop for exquisitely made Karoo pottery.
082 855 6776
In Church Road, father-and-daughter duo Bennie and Lisa Botha offer the best of Karoo lamb and venison products in town. Everything is from the region and expertly processed. Try their ‘Babalas Mix’ biltong! Lisa also offers services to process venison for Karoo hunters.
078 456 0918
Delicious small plates – try the slow-roasted beef croquettes or mosbolletjie sandwiches.
065 720 1963
De Camdeboo Restaurant
Exquisite Karoo fine dining at the Drostdy Hotel with dishes such as lamb shank and braised beef.
049 892 2161
Adjacent to the Graaff-Reinet Club. This restaurant is a must on Fridays. Wood-fired pizza and beers on tap.
087 285 4587
The Bavarian German Restaurant & Beer Garden
Another favourite stoep venue at the Stoep Tasting. Owner Michael Smit creates German-inspired Karoo dishes including locally sourced eisbein from Merino Butchery.
083 342 8768
Maria’s Coffee Roastery
Located in Our Yard. The best, freshly-ground coffee in Graaff-Reinet made by local barista Carl Frolik. Carl is the grandson of Urvin Frolik from Recollection Rides.
049 891 0337
Five-star Karoo luxury and dog-friendly at an extra cost of R350 per pup. From R1 150 a room per night if booked directly with the hotel.
049 892 2161
Middle Street Manor
Owned by the Botha family of Venter’s Butchery, Middle Street Manor is a haven where all rooms have their own mini stoeps overlooking the courtyard garden. R475 per adult sharing; single is R770. Breakfast at R75 extra. Small dogs are allowed on request.
049 891 1100