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Overview: We spent 2 nights in Graaff-Reinet (pronounced Grawph-Rennet), the jewel of the hot semi-desert Karoo, including self game drives, the Valley of Desolation and a whacky artist's Owl House. We were supposed to be there 3 nights, but we had spent an extra night in Knysna due to my hospital stay.

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Arrival, Town, Karoo NR, Departure
Satellite Photo: See this South Africa satellite map with pushpins and then zoom in at least once.
Dutch Reformed Church Arrival: We arrived from Knysna, travelling (after the coastal mountain pass) along the N9 highway through the hot semi-desert Karoo (Afrikaans for "great thirst land"), which is to say it was flat (with mountains in the distance on our left), arid and boring; reminiscent of Arizona. Along the way, we did try to "rescue" a tortoise crossing the highway, and even though I picked him up and put him on the other side of the road, he decided to cross the road again, back to the side from which he had started! So we stopped again, backed up, and I carried him to the side of the road again.
Graaff-Reinet is a quaint small town in the cleft in a mountain range, on a bend of the Sunday River. It is the fourth oldest town in South Africa, with more than 220 buildings designated as national monuments; the architecture ranges from gabled Cape Dutch houses to flat-roofed Karoo cottages to Victorian villas.
Town: We stayed at the cute Buiten Verwagten B&B ("beyond expectations"), which was a large house with more rooms on the adjacent property. We received a large bedroom at the front of the house. Carol-Ann, the friendly proprietor, had two hairy furless hypo-allergenic Devon Rex cats, one of them a kitten. Susan was all over that! Despite getting his poopy feet on our shirts as we cuddled him, the kitten was very cute (and Carol-Ann immediately washed our shirts).
The B&B also had lounge chairs and a plunge pool that we used the following afternoon, after driving around town to photograph some Cape Dutch architecture.
For dinner we went to No 8, a pub & resto which also had picnic tables out in the backyard, which was nice as the evenings were still warm (the daytime highs were in the mid 30s °C (mid 90s °F). As this was St Patty's Day, our grapetizers arrived dyed green. The food portions were enormous, both Susan's Karoo Lamb Chops and my chicken kebabs; I could only eat 2 of the 4 skewers densely packed with only chicken (the veggies were on the side). On the way out, we gave our leftovers to the street "parking" guy (a local who keeps an eye on the cars), though he seemed disappointed, saying he wanted cash for bread. Right... this after he had specifically asked us to get a "doggie bag" when we went into the restaurant.
After dinner we took a quick drive out of town to look at the stars in the sky, especially the Southern Cross (the southern hemisphere's equivalent to the North Star).
Our tasty lunch the next day was at the Coral Tree, which is inside the Windmill Junction group of buildings.
Windmill Karoo NR: The Karoo NR (not to be confused with the Karoo NP) practically surrounds Graaff-Reinet. After a filling continental breakfast, we drove to the free self-drive game viewing part of the reserve, just on the north edge of town. Given our late morning arrival and forgetting the binoculars, we didn't see too many animals, though we did spot some gemsbox (oryx), black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, ostriches and Vervet monkeys.

Late in the afternoon, just before sunset, we drove to the (also free) Valley of Desolation in the western part of the reserve. On the way up the steep but paved road, we saw dassies (also known as rock hyraxes) on the rocks and black eagles soaring above. Interestingly, the dassie is the favorite food of the black eagle.
We stopped at the Toposcope near the top; it's a great paragliding take-off spot as there are thermal updrafts nearby. More importantly, it has a great view over the town, which sadly makes obvious the dividing line between white and black neighbourhoods: a green tree-filled city centre along the banks of the winding river, and the bleak tree-less outlying brown hills. You guess which race occupies which section.
Valley of Desolation Driving a little further up the hill, we parked and did the shorter walking loop for terrific views into the spectacular Valley of Desolation, which was very reminiscent of the hoodoos near the Grand Canyon. The scenery was particularly beautiful as the sun was setting; Susan's inner photographer came out as she posed me along the cliff edge for some great photos. Then we had to rush back to town before the park gate closed.
After changing at the B&B, we walked to the nearby Kliphuis ("stone house") for a lovely dinner (inc. ostrich fillet) in the back courtyard on a covered porch. This was good, as it rained later during and after our meal! Despite being semi-desert and rarely raining, and despite the day being beautifully sunny, we managed to "bring" the rain with us :-)
The next morning we woke up early, around 7:00, for a pre-breakfast self game drive, this time with binoculars. It was the same self-drive game viewing area, but as it was quite large, we did drive in some new areas of it. We did see more animals this time, including a bouncy baby springbok and baby ostriches!
Owl House Departure: After breakfast, we packed up and left in a circuitous way for Hogsback on the coast, about six hours southeast of Graaff-Reinet.
First we drove an hour north (55km) to Nieu Bethesda to see the whacky Owl House created by local artist Helen Martins. It's her house (and yard) which she filled with colour, crushed glass, giant cement owl statues and other creatures. This was an obsession during the last 30 years of her life, inspired one night as she lay sick in bed and wanted to transform her gray environment.
We ate a light lunch at Two Goats Deli & Brewery, a very casual country place nearby, where in fact more than two goats did meander by. We chatted with some Americans who were travelling on a Rotary Club-sponsored trip, staying with sponsors the whole way.

From there, it was a 3-4 hour drive to Hogsback, via the towns of Craddock, Eastpoort (only 100km from Port Elizabeth where we would later return our rental car), Fort Hare (where a big "black" university, where Nelson Mandela also studied), and Alice (with a big bus depot and lots of tourists en route to other places).
Lunch at Two Goats Deli & Brewery
tasty cheese & meat platter
decent in-house beer
pepper goat cheese log (for the road!)R15

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