Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam), with a higher percentage of declared historical monuments than any other town 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.
In addition to the built heritage though, Graaff-Reinet's represents a notable example of fine streetscapes with a high urban quality. The late Dr Anton Rupert (and his company, Historical Homes of SA) became a catalyst in the 1970's for widespread community pride, which is one of the town's greatest strengths.
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The town lies 750 metres (2,460 ft) above the sea on the banks of the Sunday's River, which rises a little further north on the southern slopes of the Sneeuberge, and splits into tributaries here.
The 2006 population of the town was estaimated at 62,896.
Graaff Reinet is a flourishing market for agricultural produce, the district being noted for its mohair industry, sheep and ostrich farming. Today, tourism is a major industry.
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 kilometres south of the Gariep (Orange River). This was the fourth district to be proclaimed in South Africa and resultantly 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 centre, and in 1865 there were sixty four recognised 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. Today you will find a vast selection of Guesthouses, Hotels and Bed & Breakfast establishments to suit all needs.
Graaff-Reinet has long been justly renowned for its attractive and well-preserved historic homes and buildings, for which it has been widely acclaimed as the "Gem of the Karoo". Just recently this small town 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 peak Uitkyk, from which paragliding enthusiasts from all over the world come to share the thermals of the vast Karoo skies with the resident Black Eagles.
Graaff-Reinet boasts of 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.
- The Valley of Desolation, a geological wonder of weathered dolerite pillars which is a declared national monument with magnificent views over the Karoo plains.
- The Camdeboo National Park of 200 km², on the outskirts of the town with its interesting flora and fauna.
- Stretch's Court, a picturesque restored street of Karoo cottages with brightly painted shutters and doors.
- Reinet House Museum - a Cape Dutch building, formerly the Dutch Reformed Church parsonage
- The Agave Distillery - a distillery producing tequila from the agave plant.
- The Karoo architecture.
- The Dutch Reformed Church in the centre of the town. This Dutch Reformed Church is the only known church in South Africa and possibly in the world to have a kitchen and a chimney.
- The Drostdy Hotel - A Cape Dutch building erected in 1806 as the local seat of government by the VOC. Currently a hotel.