Travelling between Grahamstown and the towns of Cradock and Graaff-Reinet (the Eastern Cape’s two most-visited Karoo towns), you’ll be heading into sheep-farming country, with the occasional dorp rising against the horizon, offering the experience of an archetypal Eastern Cape one-horse outpost. The roads through this vast emptiness are quiet, and lined with rhythmically spaced telephone poles. Dun-coloured sheep, angora goats and the occasional springbok graze on brown stubble, and you’ll often see groups of charcoal-and-grey ostriches in the veld. Staying on a farm in this region is a highlight.
Cradock, 240km north of Port Elizabeth, lies in the Karoo proper, and makes a great stopover on the Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg run, because of its excellent accommodation and its proximity to the beautiful Mountain Zebra National Park. Some 100km due west of Cradock, Graaff-Reinet is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, and much of its historical centre is intact. Surrounding the town is the Camdeboo National Park. For more of a sense of the Karoo’s dry timelessness, head to Nieu Bethesda, 50km to the north of town.
Mountain Zebra National Park
When the Mountain Zebra National Park was created in 1937, there were only five Cape mountain zebras left on its 65 square kilometres – and four were male. Miraculously, conservationists managed to cobble together a breeding herd from the few survivors on surrounding farms, and the park now supports several hundred.
For game viewing, the park has a couple of good part-tar, part-gravel loop roads forming a rough figure of eight. As well as zebra, keep an eye out for springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest. The introduction of buffalo in 1998 and plans to bring in cheetahs and rhinos add to the wildlife interest, but mean that hiking across the park isn’t possible, since buffalo have a reputation for extreme aggression. There are, however, two waymarked walks near the camp.
It’s little wonder that tour buses pull in to GRAAFF-REINET in their numbers; this is a beautiful town and one of the few places in the Eastern Cape where you’d want to wander freely day and night, taking in historical buildings and the occasional little museum, and having a meal or a drink before strolling back to your accommodation.
Graaff-Reinet has a large population of Afrikaans-speaking coloured people, mostly living on the south side of town, some of slave origin, others the descendants of indigenous Khoi and San who were forced to work on frontier farms. The dry mountains surrounding the town are part of the Camdeboo National Park whose main attraction is the Valley of Desolation, a B-movie name for an impressive site. The rocky canyon, echoing bird calls and expansive skies of the valley shouldn’t be missed.
Robert Sobukwe and the Africanists
Robert Sobukwe and the Africanists
One of Graaff-Reinet’s most brilliant but often-forgotten sons is Robert Managaliso Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Born in 1923, Sobukwe went to Healdtown, a boarding school, then Fort Hare University, where he joined the African National Congress Youth League. After graduating in 1947, he became a schoolteacher and then a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. A charismatic member of the Africanist wing of the ANC – even the ultra-apartheid prime minister B.J. Vorster acknowledged him as “a man of magnetic personality” – Sobukwe questioned the organization’s strategy of cooperating with whites, and formed the breakaway PAC in 1959. The following year he launched the nationwide anti-pass protests, which ended in the Sharpeville massacre and his imprisonment on Robben Island for nine years. In 1969, Sobukwe was released under a banning order to Kimberley, where he died in 1978. Five thousand people attended his funeral in Graaff-Reinet.