Eastern Cape Midlands | 515km

Valley of Desolation.

GRAAFF-REINET

...a South African holiday town, is laid out in the foothills of the Sneeuberg, where the Sundays River makes a wide, horseshoe bend. Established in 1786 and named after Governor Cornelis van der Graaff and his wife, Reinet, it is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa. With its water furrows and period architecture, Graaff Reinet has largely retained the character of a 19th-century rural town, and has the largest number of proclaimed national monuments of any town in South Africa, such as the powder magazine.

Lining the streets are magnificent Cape Dutch mansions, Victorian cottages with decorative 'broekie-lace' woodwork, a few Georgian houses and flat-roofed Karoo cottages. Among the most outstanding buildings are the H-plan Cape Dutch Reinet House, built in 1812 as a parsonage and now a museum; the Residency (an annex of the museum); and the Drostdy, designed by Louis-Michel Thibault and completed in 1806. Immediately behind the Drostdy is Stretch's Court, a mall lined with quaint mid-19th-century cottages.

VALLEY OF DESOLATION

This scenic natural attraction lies within the Karoo Nature Reserve, which virtually encircles Graaff-Reinet. The 16 500-ha reserve became a reality in 1979 after Dr Anton Rupert, President of the Southern African Nature Foundation (now WWF South Africa), proposed the establishment of a reserve to protect a representative example of Karoo veld. The reserve's most spectacular feature is the Valley of Desolation, where erosion has exposed a dolerite dyke which intruded into the softer sedimentary rocks of the Beaufort Series about 150 million years ago.

Dolerite is more resistant than sedimentary rock, and deep weathering along the cracks and seams has produced jointed dolerite pillars reaching heights of 90-120 m. From the car park, a 1,5-km walk leads to viewpoints overlooking this spectacle and the Karoo plains far below. Also conspicuous is Spandaukop, a conical hill capped with dolerite.

NIEU-BETHESDA

...lies in the fertile valley of the Gats River, a tributary of the Sundays River, in the foothills of the Compassberg. The main street is lined with pear trees and quince hedges, which form the boundaries of the plots. This South African holiday town, founded by the Reverend Andrew Murray, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet, was named after the biblical Bethesda, but later became known as Nu Bethesda and still later as Nieu-Bethesda. Its main attraction is the Owl House, where artist Helen Martins lived as a recluse until her death in 1976.

Considered an eccentric by many, Miss Helen - as she was known - devoted much of her life to the 'search for light and enlightenment'. This search is reflected in the finely ground glass of different colours that covers the walls and ceilings of the house, while numerous mirrors reflect light from candles and lamps in the rooms.

Outside in the Camel Yard are hundreds of cement sculptures of owls, camels, lambs, sphinxes, serpents and figures of naked men and women fashioned by Martins and her assistant, Koos Malgas. Also of interest in the village are the water mills dating back to 1860, and the Dutch Reformed Church, consecrated on 11 February 1905.

MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Situated below the Bankberg, this 8 400-ha park was proclaimed in 1937 to save the Cape mountain zebra from extinction. The park was established with a nucleus of five stallions and one mare, none of which were still alive by 1960. Fortunately, a neighbouring farmer, Mr JH Lombard, had donated 11 animals to the park in 1950, and their numbers increased to such an extent that mountain zebra could even be translocated to other parks and nature reserves.

In addition to the mountain zebra, the park is also a sanctuary to a healthy population of mountain reedbuck, grey rhebok, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, eland, blesbok and kudu. Smaller mammals include klipspringer, common duiker and steenbok, while the carnivores are represented by caracal, Cape and bat-eared foxes and aardwolf. A 42-km circular road leads to Rooiplaat, an area much favoured by game, and along the wooded valley of the Wilgeboom River.

Despite its small size, the diversity of game and the spectacular scenery make this park one of the Eastern Cape's top attractions. There are short nature trails, a 25,6-km three-day hiking trail and comfortable accommodation.

CRADOCK

...is the main South African holiday town in the Eastern Cape Midlands and the centre for the surrounding farms, which are well known for the production of mohair, wool and red meat. The town developed around the fort erected on the farm Buffelshoek in 1813 on the instructions of the British Governor, Sir John Cradock. It was officially named in honour of Cradock on 21 January 1814. One of the town's landmarks is the Dutch Reformed Mother Church, which was completed in 1868.

Built from local sandstone, the neoclassical church, with its Doric pillared portico and imposing steeple, is similar in design to the church of St Martin-in-the Fields in London. One of South Africa's greatest authors, Olive Schreiner, lived in Cradock between 1867 and 1870 in a flat-roofed cottage which has been turned into a museum devoted to her life. Her grave lies on Buffelskop to the south of the town, and can be reached along a 17-km drive.

Another attraction is the Karoo Sulphur Spring on the western outskirts of the town. Water from the mineral-rich spring, which has a flow of 4 500 litres of water per hour and a temperature of 31 C, is fed into a swimming pool.

COOKHO--

...lies on the western bank of the Great Fish River, which demarcated the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony until 1819. One explanation of its name is that it referred to a small stone house used as a shelter for the preparation of meals by British troops stationed along the river. Another interpretation is that the name refers to the hot conditions endured by the soldiers.

SOMERSET EAST

...a charming South African holiday town in the country with oak-lined trees, was laid out on the banks of the Little Fish River in 1825 and named after Governor Lord Charles Somerset. Situated below the Bosberg, the town lies at the centre of a productive sheep and angora farming district. It has several fine examples of Eastern Province Georgian buildings, among them the Old Officers' Mess, built in 1815 by Somerset himself. As a tribute to the South African artist, Walter Batiss, who grew up in Somerset East, the building houses a permanent collection of his art.

Also of interest is the Somerset East Museum, with its splendid rose garden and oak trees. Built in 1818, the stately house served as a residence, a drostdy (magistrate's court) and as a parsonage. The museum, furnished in the style of a late-19th-century clergyman's home, depicts the history of the town and surrounding district as far back as 1770.

PLAINS OF CAMDEBOO

Beyond the Bruintjieshoogte Mountains, the vast Plains of Camdeboo stretch westwards to the Camdeboo Mountains which lie northwest of Aberdeen. It has been suggested that the Khoikhoi name means 'green hollow' or 'green hole', a reference to a hippo pool surrounded by lush greenery. The first loan farms in the Camdeboo were given out in 1770, and in 1785 it was incorporated into the newly proclaimed district of Graaff-Reinet. The author, Eve Palmer, gave a vivid description of life in the Camdeboo in her book, The Plains of Camdeboo (1966).

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