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The Karoo, a semi-desert covering a third of South Africa, is one of the country’s most enchanting areas. In this sparsely inhabited region of baked brown plains, rocky mountain ranges and cobalt skies, tolbos (tumbleweeds) roll down dusty roads between sheep farms the size of small European countries. A tangible sense of the past lingers in the eccentric little dorpies (towns), where family restaurants serve the Karoo’s famously succulent lamb.

Two neighbouring Karoo dorpies are blessed with a surprisingly large helping of art and culture, and are excellent stopping points on a tour of the region. Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda are located in the eastern Karoo, roughly 700km northeast of Cape Town. Although not the only towns in the desert with galleries and museums, they do offer a particularly large helping of art – and it is a pleasant surprise to find these cultural hubs in one of the Karoo’s most remote corners. 

Surrounded by the rugged topography and dolerite columns of the 19,405-hectare Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is known as the “jewel of the Karoo” for its well-preserved historic buildings. Established by the Dutch in 1786, Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth-oldest town and has been a trading centre, a frontier town, a drostdy (seat of local government), and a staging post for the Voortrekkers (pioneering Boers/Afrikaners).

On its tidy streets, cradled in a bend of the Sundays River, are more than 220 buildings designated as national monuments, many of which now house museums, galleries, guesthouses and restaurants. A fascinating mix of styles can be seen on its broad avenues: Cape Dutch, with its distinctive white gables and thatched roofs; flat-roofed Karoo cottages; and shops and houses built by British settlers in the Victorian era, featuring covered stoeps (verandas) and latticework. In the main square, the 19th-century Dutch Reformed Church, one of South Africa’s finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture, surveys the atmospheric town.

A few museums and galleries are located within five minutes’ walk of the main square, notably the Hester Rupert Art Museum, one of South Africa’s finest collections of 20th-century art. Founded by Dr Anton Rupert, a tobacco billionaire, conservationist and critic of apartheid who was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1916, the museum is housed in a beautifully restored early 19th-century mission church, with mostly expressionistic and abstract canvases by South African artists, including Irma Stern and Maud Sumner.

The Old Library Museum, 50m northwest towards the Dutch Reformed Church, is home to a broad collection, ranging from fossils found in the Karoo – including 230-million-year-old reptile skulls – to Khoe-San rock art and a display on Robert Sobukwe. The anti-apartheid struggle hero, founder of political party the Pan Africanist Congress, was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1924.

Interesting museum houses include Reinet House, a grand Cape Dutch parsonage (of the Dutch Reformed Church) with period pieces from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, including cloth dolls and clothing worn by Victorian settlers and Voortrekkers; and the adjacent Old Residency, another refined Cape Dutch house, containing historic firearms and photos of the town in the 19th Century.

Graaff-Reinet also has plenty of the surreal and fun quirks that characterise the Karoo. The Obesa Nursery is one of the world’s largest privately owned cacti and succulent nurseries, with 10 hectares of plants thriving in the arid climate. To relax among the prickles, walk Obesa’s cacti labyrinth. Walking these labyrinths – built from low-lying stones or plants, as opposed to mazes with high walls or hedges that obscure your view – supposedly triggers the creative right brain and engenders a meditative state. 

For a more musical kind of therapy, one of the town’s best restaurants, Ambience, hosts monthly musical soirees. The proprietor, Chris Bouwer, a trained opera singer who has performed across Europe, sings with local guest performers while you tuck into the house speciality of Karoo lamb shank. The restaurant also doubles as an antiques shop; everything is for sale, right down to the salt and pepper pots.

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