It took us just an hour and a half to descend from Malealea, in the highlands of the Lesotho. At 7:30 am, we cross the South African border at Makhaleng Bridge and take the R56 to the southwest, with Graaf-Reinet as our destination.
By that time, the driver and guide of the Albertrham “Tenk” Engel bus lorry already felt like returning to the Elim where he was born and lived most of his life, in the vicinity of Cape Agulhas. With the progression simplified by the long, flat straights of the Great Karoo, I was stomping on the accelerator.
As the afternoon approached, the suffocating breath of the semi-desert made us forget the freezing cold of the Lesotho.
We soon entered the domains of the Great Escarpment where the Central Plateau of South Africa plunges towards the southern oceans. It is among its imposing cliffs and plateaus that we enter the destination of the day: Graaf-Reinet.
In the Company of David McNaughton
“Tenk” makes the truck unfold through the intersections of the city's geometric grid, until it is immobilized in the hotel parking lot. “Very well, boys and girls, whoever said they didn't want to do anything else can settle down, rest or dedicate themselves to whatever they want.
Those who said they still wanted to leave, wait a little, the guide here is almost there.
We soon found out that we are the only ones in this category. Minutes later, David McNaughton appears in beige-khaki explorer outfits and takes us aboard his van. At a similar time, we felt enormous empathy for him.
David worked in the South African Air Force before starting his tour company in Graaf-Reinet. Passionate about history, he had learned in depth the South Africa, but not only. we speak of Fernão Magalhães, by Bartolomeu Dias and, of course, by Vasco da Gama.
We took the opportunity to clarify with him questions in our partially clouded minds regarding the passage of Portuguese navigators along the coast of their nation: why they never settled there, only further north, in lands of the Mozambique of today.
Camdeboo's Exuberant Fauna and Geology
But we soon found the entrance to Camdeboo National Park. The cicerone's enthusiastic explanation is interrupted by the almost immediate sighting of ostriches, zebras, monkeys, fan goats and different specimens of the resident fauna.
We came from other safaris in South Africa. Enthusiastic about the proximity of a Valley of Desolation, the animals held us back for only a few moments.
From the bottom of the savannah, we climb to one of the plateaus that cut across it. At the top, we admire the vastness of the prairie full of animals. David shows us another vantage point on the edge of a cliff.
From there, we unveil a barrier of columns of dolerites 120 meters high, orange by the last rays of sunset, the same thing that has been repeated in the more than 100 million years of volcanic action and erosion that produced these sculptures.
From those columns onwards, the Great Karoo stretches out of sight, looking even more bleak and inhospitable than the section we'd just arrived from. Lesotho.
And, between the elevation on which we were standing and another on the opposite side, the houses of Graaf-Reinet were almost entirely on the ground floor, installed in a canyon with the profile of an oasis.
Twilight gives way to night. When we returned to the city, Graaf-Reinet was already in his peace. For a long time, this was a rare privilege.
South Africa's Oldest City
At the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, the interior of the South Africa, in addition to being full of wild animals, it was inhabited by warlike tribes, as the San, now also known as Bushmen, were proven long ago.
Still, intrepid Dutchmen eventually ventured into the untamed limits of the Cape Colony.
The Dutch East India Company managed the colony with an iron fist and, all too often, against the interests of its subjects.
Dissatisfied by the permanent repression, successive groups of nomadic Boer farmers, the Voortrekkers, left the coast in search of greater autonomy. Even so the Dutch East India Company did not let them go. Its leaders aimed to expand trade from the colony to the interior where these pioneers took refuge.
So, in 1786, they founded Graaf-Reinet. The village was named after the then governor of Cape Colony, Cornellis Jacob van de Graaf and his wife, Reinet.
Still and always fed up with castrations by the Dutch East India Company, the Voortrekkers the region expelled its administrator, proclaimed Graaf-Reinet independent and asked for direct protection from the Dutch government.
They were then in anticipation of what would come from the Cape Colony. The expected reaction never came to pass as British colonial rivals took it over in the meantime.
As with the Dutch East India Company, the Voortrekkers rejected the British.
Those who persisted in the Cape Colony inaugurated a new epic wave of migrations that became known as the Great Trek and which is due to the current Boer presence in unlikely corners of the South Africa.
British Triumph Over Pioneers
After fierce resistance, the British ended the pioneering Independent Republic of Graff-Reinet. They captured their leaders and sentenced them to death or long prison terms in the Cape Town.
As early as the XNUMXth century, during the Second Boer War, the British made Graaf-Reinet the center of their operations. They returned there to condemn and execute dozens of Boers.
After this troubled period, even though it evolved slowly, Graaf-Reinet proved to be providential for the development of the surrounding area. From the end of the XNUMXth century until the arrival of the railway that connected it to the coast of Port Elisabeth, it had the fame and profit of being a busy commercial hub.
In 1865, it had sixty-four outspans, places where cattle raisers and cowboys could rest and refresh their animals. And remove others from the carts they were following.
Dozens of inns flourished in the vicinity of these outspans and newcomers fit in the most diverse of professions increased the population. In the mid-XNUMXth century, Graaf-Reinet was the most important settlement east of Cape Colony and north of Port Elisabeth.
There he met the Reverend Andrew Murray and his wife, like him, ardent Christians. Certainly enthused by the religious empathy of the meeting, he described Graaf-Reinet as “The Most Beautiful City in All of Africa".
A Small Emblematic City of the Interior
At present, with less than 60.000 inhabitants, Graaf-Reinet does not appear even in the first seventy largest South African cities.
It remains relevant due to its bold presence in the heart of the Karoo, for its agricultural production and livestock raising: merino sheep, angora and mohair goats, ostrich and other species and derivatives.
Even small, Graaf-Reinet is immensely proud of its history. The incredible concentration of national monuments it houses shouts to the winds.
The next morning, it's Sunday. We dedicate it to the secular center of the city, empty of people and peaceful as we never thought possible in the South Africa.
A partner of David gives us a lift to a nearby viewpoint, located on an elevation opposite the previous afternoon.
From there, we contemplate the Dutch Reformed Church, standing out above the leafy vegetation that hides the mostly white houses. We descended from the hill pointing to the church.
We peek inside and ascend to the choir. A group of five believers, four singers and a pianist, rehearse the songs they will sing in a few hours at mass.
Graaf-Reinet is also proud that its huge church is the only one in the South Africa – probably from the world – equipped with a kitchen and a chimney. Whether this was the case or not, our sense of smell told us that, at that hour, they should still be of no use.
The White and Straight Streets of Graaf-Reinet
We return to the outdoors and the sunny but cool day. We walk down Church Street with strategic detours to parallel and perpendicular streets. We keep an eye out for the peculiar architecture of the historic buildings that delimited it, with an obvious origin in the Netherlands at that time, retouched to adapt to the Karoo's climate and environment.
The Drostdy Hotel and Old Parsonage are now the Reinet House Museum. In its genesis, the first was the seat of the city's magistrate, therefore, the seat of the judiciary. The Old Parsonage housed members of the clergy but, over the years, welcomed several other guests.
Wherever we come, street nomenclature is either English or Afrikaans, the language spoken by most white residents of the city and province of Eastern Cape. In one case or the other, less than 10% of the total black or mestizo, with KhoiSan blood (90%).
The Khoisan are a curious ethnic group formed by the fusion of ancient rival groups, the San and Khoi Khoi. Dutch settlers referred to the latter as Hottentots, in an onomatopoeic reference to the oral clicks of their language.
The Linguistic Predominance of Afrikaans
Interestingly, the long Boer dominance has dictated that, in Graaf Reinet, more than three quarters of the black or mestizo population speak now afrikaans instead of English or African mother tongues like Xhosa, Zulu da province of Kwazulu Natal , the KhoiSan dialects.
Similar to what happens in other parts of South Africa, step by step, the immaculate Graaf-Reinet also seemed to us more and more to be a historic privilege. A privilege created and preserved by the white minority, in this case Boer.
We noticed how many empty secular houses abounded, available for short-term rentals to well-heeled compatriots from elsewhere. By contrast, most of the black or mestizo inhabitants lived in well-to-do homes nearby. They seemed out of place in the airy, verdant and refined urban grid in the heart of the city.
Upon arrival, “Tenk”, also a mestizo, who claimed to be a descendant of the pioneers Voortrekkers, alerted us to the fact that we are in the South Africa and we have to be very careful during our exploration of the city, as it did on arrival in Durban, Port Elisabeth, in Cape Town and elsewhere.
Even with cameras around our necks, we didn't experience any problems. The crime persists, however, in Graaf-Reinet. And it is almost always committed by the mixed-black majority who survive on the fringes of Boer or Anglophone prosperity.
Just as it was centuries ago when your ancestors were forced to steal livestock from trespassing European settlers. It has long been part of his past, a unique and prolific past made up of determination, conflict and imposition.