The Se­cret Sauce of Graaff-Reinet

Find out what makes this OID favourite tick


Mid­sum­mer in Graaff-Reinet and the place is parched.

The lo­cal dam is low, the bore­holes are be­ing de­ployed and it seems ev­ery­one not cur­rently blessed with air con­di­tion­ing will have gone limp by lunch time.

But in the early morn­ing coolth, South Africa’s fourth-old­est town is a re­mark­able show of bril­liant white build­ings, bougainvil­lea and jacaran­das. A lot of jacaran­das. It’s like they stole some sexy bits from Stel­len­bosch and shipped them off to the mid­dle of the Ka­roo.

The schools work, the gar­dens and homes are well-main­tained, pri­vate en­ter­prise abounds in the form of hun­dreds of lit­tle shops of all kinds, the old build­ings are re­li­giously re­stored and pre­served, big projects are on the go, tourists are flood­ing in, semigration is on the rise, lo­cal farm­ers are buy­ing up dorp­shuise and the over­all en­ergy is mind-bog­gling. What is the ‘se­cret sauce’ of Graaff-Reinet? Part of the an­swer lies right here on Som­er­set Street.

“Look, there’s Eira’s place,” says my wife Jules, re­fer­ring to the home of Eira Maas­dorp who, with the help of the late Dr An­ton Ru­pert, was one of the her­itage preser­va­tion leg­ends of Graaff-Reinet. Her yard is a riot of jacaran­das, Aus­tralian flame trees, bougainvil­lea, a tall palm tree and a cy­press of sorts. It’s Clas­sic Ka­roo, where ev­ery­thing that can make shade or colour is prized.

Eira was an in­te­gral part of the Graaf­fReinet His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety in the 1980s, known lo­cally by wags as the Hys­ter­i­cal So­ci­ety. “When­ever we saw any­one of­fload­ing ce­ment and bricks in front of a her­itage house, we’d de­scend on the own­ers ask­ing all sorts of ques­tions,” she will tell you.

When the mu­nic­i­pal­ity made plans to knock down one of the town’s first churches, Eira called busi­ness­man An­ton Ru­pert (who also had his roots in Graaff-Reinet) in des­per­a­tion. He came to the res­cue of his home­town.

Eira and oth­ers started buy­ing up houses of a cer­tain age in parts of the town that were al­most slums. Restora­tion has made them some of the most sought-after ad­dresses in Graaf­fReinet to­day.

What sets the town apart is the sheer num­ber of na­tional mon­u­ments (more than 220) and the fact that en­tire streetscapes have been pre­served. And now the town buzzes be­cause preser­va­tion has at­tracted new blood. But the late Dr An­ton Ru­pert, and Eira Maas­dorp, were not the first or the last cham­pi­ons of Graaff-Reinet.

Down on Par­son­age Street be­tween the Drostdy Ho­tel and Reinet House mu­seum, we meet up with lo­cal ar­chi­tect Peter Whit­lock. One of his cur­rent projects is the restora­tion of one of the Par­son­age Street her­itage houses be­long­ing to Johannesburg busi­ness­man Peter Curle, who reck­ons this av­enue is the “most his­toric and at­trac­tive street in the whole of South Africa”.

Al­though there have been a great many in­di­vid­ual preser­va­tion ef­forts along Par­son­age Street and cen­tral Graaff-Reinet, Peter Whit­lock cred­its Dr Ru­pert with rais­ing a “groundswell of her­itage con­scious­ness.

“One of his best ini­tia­tives was the Save Reinet Foun­da­tion, which helped res­i­dents re­pair the fa­cades of their homes. And that spirit lives on to­day, in the form of a very ef­fec­tive lo­cal her­itage so­ci­ety.”

The Ru­pert fam­ily, now headed by Jo­hann, has spent mil­lions restor­ing old build­ings, fix­ing up the mu­seum and do­nat­ing land to the Camde­boo Na­tional Park, which they helped cre­ate. They are also in­volved with three skills col­leges in and around Graaff-Reinet, linked to the Peace Parks Foun­da­tion and fo­cus­ing on hospi­tal­ity (the SA Col­lege for Tourism),

con­ser­va­tion (the Track­ing Academy) and veld man­age­ment (the Herd­ing Academy).

The most re­cent, lo­cal Ru­pert de­vel­op­ment is the ren­o­va­tion of the Cold­stream Restau­rant next to the Graaff-Reinet Club in the cen­tre of town. The project is mar­ried to the SA Col­lege for Tourism, en­abling grad­u­ates to gain re­al­world hospi­tal­ity ex­pe­ri­ence via this beau­ti­fully sit­u­ated restau­rant un­der trees op­po­site the Moed­erk­erk, as well as at the five-star Drostdy Ho­tel which they also bought and ren­o­vated.

At spar­row’s one morn­ing, we’re out at the lo­cal golf course get­ting strapped into a Robin­son he­li­copter by Franscois Fitzger­ald, the pi­lot for FlyKa­roo. This lat­est tourism fea­ture of Graaff-Reinet is the brain­child of an­other fam­ily of lo­cal cham­pi­ons headed up by Hannes van Jaarsveld.

Only when you’re aloft do you get the true per­spec­tive on Graaff-Reinet, the oval-shaped set­tle­ment sur­rounded by cine­matic land­scapes. Here’s Spandau Kop and there’s the Val­ley of Des­o­la­tion, the out­lines of the Gi­ant Flag project, the horse­shoe me­an­der of the Sun­days River, to the south the Camde­boo Moun­tains, to the north the Sneeu­berg with its dom­i­nat­ing Com­pass­berg peak and Nieu-Bethesda lurk­ing

Only when you’re aloft

do you get the true per­spec­tive on Graaf­fReinet, the oval-shaped set­tle­ment sur­rounded

by cine­matic land­scapes. Here’s Spandau Kop and there’s the Val­ley of Des­o­la­tion

in its folds, to the east the Wa­pads­berg and right below us is Main Street Graaff-Reinet in all its wak­ing-up drowsi­ness.

By mid-morn­ing I’ve been dropped off some­where near the Plains of Camde­boo, and Jules has been whipped away on the Aberdeen road in a 1958 Stude­baker Com­man­der the one with the snazzy fins. But they re­turn to pick me up once I’m done with the pho­to­graphs.

This is a beloved stretch of Ka­roo high­way for Hannes van Jaarsveld, Big Daddy of a fam­ily that has built up a re­mark­able busi­ness net­work in Graaff-Reinet over the past 20 years.

Mon­tego dog food has be­come one of the Ka­roo’s best known home­grown brands, and started as a bright idea from a bull­dog-lov­ing bean counter. Hannes used to be a Som­er­set East ac­coun­tant in the late nineties. One of his Graaff-Reinet clients was in the dry-foods in­dus­try and, as a dog owner, Hannes knew there was a clear gap in the dog-food mar­ket.

His son Jo­han, who has taken over as manag­ing di­rec­tor now that Hannes has re­tired,

picks up the story. “In the late nineties, there were two kinds of dog food – the cheap brands you could find in any su­per­mar­ket, and the very ex­pen­sive im­ported stuff that you could buy from the vet.”

The vet brands def­i­nitely lifted the qual­ity bar. Un­til they came in there was no such thing as spe­cialised puppy or se­nior dog food. “My fa­ther was con­vinced there was an op­por­tu­nity for some­thing that fell in the mid­dle – top qual­ity at an af­ford­able price.” Mon­tego pet food lies at the heart of the Van Jaarsveld en­ter­prises, but Hannes is all about adding value to his adopted town in other ways.

One of his lat­est projects is Rec­ol­lec­tion Rides, a huge show­room on the main road, a petrol­head par­adise where we find men of a cer­tain age brows­ing with envy around a dis­play that in­cludes a 1963 split-win­dow hippy Combi, the 1965 VW Bee­tle, the 1928 Ford Model A Phaeton, the 1922 Wolse­ley coupé and the 1933 Austin 7.

At the cof­fee bar in the back, with rare enamel petro­liana signs on the walls, we dip into cap­puc­ci­nos as Hannes tells us, “As a fam­ily we love the town, the vibe, the set­ting. I es­tab­lished this place to draw more tourists and to gen­er­ate more lo­cal jobs.”

Town cham­pi­ons also come in the form of sto­ry­tellers, and here the McNaughtons are at the fore­front. In one fam­ily you have a lo­cal his­to­rian, a book seller, three es­tate agents and a tour guide. The McNaughtons em­body the spirit of sur­vival in the coun­try­side, where you of­ten have to set up many in­come streams.

When book sales are slow, homes are sold. When real es­tate takes a breather, a tour­ing party comes to town. And as the tide of Graaff-Reinet’s for­tune rises, so does the McNaughton boat.

Jack van Niek­erk, the man­ager of Graaf­fReinet Tourism, is based at the Old Li­brary Mu­seum in the main street. As we talk, a steady stream of for­eign vis­i­tors drifts in and out, mostly look­ing for food and lodg­ings. Jack and his team sort them out and off they go, happy campers all.

Part of the great story of Graaff-Reinet is that of the late anti-apartheid strug­gle hero Robert Sobukwe, an­other son of the Ka­roo. His son Dini runs the Sobukwe Trust, a wide-rang­ing, lo­cal-up­lift­ment project. We go with Khanya Mbaile, a tour guide

trained by the trust, to Uma­siza­khe town­ship to see the start-up of the new Sobukwe Mu­seum. On the way back to town, we pass a mar­ble plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing Graaf­fReinet he­roes. Both Robert Sobukwe and An­ton Ru­pert are on the list.

Our last stop is with Mar­iëtte Burger, ed­i­tor of the Graaff-Reinet Ad­ver­tiser, which sells 3 000 copies a week to the faith­ful. “Our most pop­u­lar sto­ries are the hu­man-in­ter­est items,” says Mar­iëtte, who has been with the paper since her cub re­porter days more than a decade ago. Mar­iëtte fully sub­scribes to busi­ness mogul War­ren Buf­fett’s be­lief that com­mu­nity news­pa­pers are cru­cial to the progress of a coun­try town.

“And if there is one thing I can say about Graaff-Reinet­ters,” she says, “it’s that they are very proud to live here.”

It cer­tainly shows.

Reinet House at the east­ern end of Par­son­age Street is one of the town’s main mu­seum sites.

LEFT: The Graaf­fReinet town hall and its sum­mer blooms – this could be a South Amer­i­can set­ting. BELOW: Eira Maas­dorp one of the her­itage cham­pi­ons of Graaff-Reinet.

ABOVE: The oval-shaped cen­tre of Graaff-Reinet and the Nqweba Dam in their Ka­roo moun­tain set­ting. RIGHT: Jo­han Bouwer, es­tate man­ager at Ru­pert Prop­er­ties, at the Drostdy Ho­tel wine shop.BELOW LEFT: Graaff-Reinet has more than 220 reg­is­tered Na­tional Mon­u­ment build­ings.BELOW RIGHT: Stretch’s Court at the Drostdy Ho­tel on the western end of Par­son­age Street.

ABOVE: The Moed­erk­erk, cen­tre­piece of Graaf­fReinet, in the glow of the early morn­ing sun.RIGHT: Franscois Fitzger­ald, the trusty chop­per pi­lot at FlyKa­roo Air Ser­vices. BELOW RIGHT: A 1958 Stude­baker Com­man­der, the Plains of Camde­boo and a bright Ka­roo day – a great idea for a road­trip.

LEFT: The Clan McNaughton, from left, Lynette, David, Matthew, Jenny and An­drew. BELOW: Hannes van Jaarsveld and his lovely old Chevro­let bakkie at Rec­ol­lec­tion Rides.

RIGHT: Graaff-Reinet’s tourism team, from left,Jack van Niek­erk, Khanya Mbaile and Tim Marais. FAR RIGHT: Mar­iëtte Burger, ed­i­tor of the Graaf­fReinet Ad­ver­tiser, “Lo­cals are proud to live here.” BELOW RIGHT: Robert Sobukwe, PAC icon and a son of Graaff-Reinet, in a com­mem­o­ra­tive dis­play at the Old Li­brary Mu­seum.

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