Karoo dreaming

Explore the endless vistas of the Great Karoo and be rewarded with spectacular scenery, history and food

INGRID CASSON

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Samara Private Game Reserve

A three-hour drive north of East London in the Eastern Cape, Samara Private Game Reserve reveals a part of the Karoo that’s seldom seen. Fed by a deep, winding river, the reserve’s spectacular violet mountains are home to plenty of game, especially cheetah, which the lodge staff vigorously protect after losing many animals to swelling farmlands around them. Samara’s Karoo Lodge is a grand, single-storey homestead with a huge wraparound veranda and lawns reaching right up to the edge of the bush. At night, stars come close and settle into the folds of the horizon. The main lodge has rooms and a restaurant, while The Manor has four private luxury suites overlooking an infinity pool and water hole. The intimate Mountain Retreat merges a 250-year-old barn and Victorian homestead. Visit www.samara.co.za.

Graaff-Reinet

After down time in the bush, the Great Karoo is well worth exploring for its spectacular scenery and tucked-away towns. Graaff-Reinet should be first on your list. Hugged by a horseshoe-shaped crook of the Sundays River, Graaff- Reinet is the fourth oldest settlement in South Africa and is located within the spectacular Camdeboo National Park. The town’s fascinating trade history is recounted in its four museums and dozens of national monuments. The streets are lined with historic cottages and gardens billow with colourful irises, roses and bougainvillea nourished by the fertile soil and the river.

Explore

The best way to discover Graaff-Reinet is with enthusiastic local tour guide David McNaughton of Karoo Connections. Having grown up in the area, David knows everyone in and everything about the town and is full of fascinating accounts of the area and its characters. His tours include guided trips around town, visits to ancient cave paintings and scenic flights. One of the highlights is the Valley of Desolation, where you will marvel at towering cliffs and pins of rock reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Hike with David through the tufty scrub for inspiring views stretching up to 180km away, then stop at one of the best sundowner spots in the country. Visit www.karooconnections.co.za.

Stay

One of Graaff-Reinet’s best-known institutions is the Drostdy Hotel, built in 1806 as the town’s grand magistrate building. Before you sip a beer in the pretty beer garden (be sure to pair it with their famous bean soup), wander over the old original floorboards and browse the hotel’s priceless antiques. Run by Ricky and Kathy Bianchi (who are also full of stories about the area), the Drostdy’s bedrooms speak of a bygone era, including the cobbled Stretches Court lane with its colourful shutters and frothy bougainvilleas. Visit www.drostdy.co.za. Another well-known spot is Andries Stockenström Guest House, featuring quaint rooms full of history. Food lovers will be won over by the juicy fruit trees, herb and veggie garden. Along with local meat, the produce is transformed into interesting dishes by talented chef Gordon Wright, owner of the guest house with his wife, Rose. Visit http://www.graaffreinet.com/accom/

Eat

There are plenty of great eateries in Graaff- Reinet. Across the road from the town’s majestic, 130-year-old Dutch Reformed Church, Coldstream restaurant (049-891-1181) is shaded by a huge Norfolk pine tree. Since 1875 this has been the meeting spot of the historic Graaff-Reinet Club (look for telling old bullet holes in the wooden bar), but it also serves surprisingly good tramezzini. For something a little more upmarket, Agave restaurant (049-891-0250) is worth visiting for its funky decor as much as for its French-Karoo fusion dishes, such as lamb pie with pea mash.

Nieu Bethesda

The town of Nieu Bethesda, about 45 minutes from Graaff-Reinet, was put on the map by its Owl House (049-841-1733), the intriguing residence of local artist Helen Martins. Her tortured yet inspired thoughts were translated into cement sculptures that still haunt her garden. This self-contained universe – both her garden and eccentric house – still attracts plenty of visitors. But there’s plenty more to Nieu Bethesda. This village hidden within the mountains is a pretty little oasis of fruit trees and paddocks, thriving veggie gardens and a looping river fed by melted snow. The wide, dusty streets are home to just a handful of residents – several are wealthy eccentrics and artists – that have shunned the rat race (they only agreed to have electricity in 1993). Be sure to visit Two Goats Deli and The Brewery (049-841-1602) for lunch. Owner Andre Cilliers makes his own bread, butter, pickles and cheese, which he serves on platters with local kudu salami and plenty of love. Wash it all down with one of his delicious ales, home-brewed with natural spring water.

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