Matjiesfontein. – I was married in the tiny Chapel at Matjiesfontein, and even though that was a significant moment in my personal history, this place has a history that far precedes that very day. At a time when railways lines were reaching from Cape Town to Kimberly and Cecil John Rhodes’ vision of a ‘road to the North’, from Cape to Cairo, was very much alive. He was chasing a dream. As was the young Scottish immigrant James Logan, who in 1884 bought a piece of land referred to as ‘Matjiesfontein’
The Lord Milner Hotel with its ’brookie lace’ ironwork and three turrets, which were used as lookout posts by the English during the Anglo Boer War.
A view from the turret towards the village, accommodation and Karoo landscape.
In these early railway days, there were no dining cars to service the passenger’s need for coffee and sustenance on their long journey through the Karoo. Instead The Cape Government Railways awarded catering contracts to halts along the way. Logan had received a contract for Touws River and he saw Matjiesfontein, with its plentiful supply of fresh water, as the next opportunity. He established an oasis for the commuter. Trees were planted, a garden established, Tweeside Lodge and the Hotel built.
Matjies soon catapulted from its rural serenity to a top tourist resort of the time. Here for the first time in the remote Karoo, Logan would cater for the needs of rail travellers as well as supply fodder for their horses.
The Railway line to Cape Town, both the Blue Train and Rovos Rail stop here on their route between Cape Town and Pretoria.
Now fondly referred to as the The Grand Duchess of the Karoo, the Lord Milner Hotel received significant upgrades when hotelier David Rawdon purchased the Matjiesfontein Village in 1970 and the entire village proclaimed a National Heritage site in 1975.
At a glance Matjiesfontein may appear a dusty railway station, but it stands testament to a rich history, exudes warm charm and offers a myriad of things to see and explore. Among them a climb to Katy’s Card Room and the three turrets of the Hotel, exploring Tweedside Lodge and lingering in the haunted formal lounges after dark.
The Transport Museum with its private collection of vintage cars will impress, and a tour of the town in the London Bus will take no more than ten minutes. There’s also the Mary Rawdon Museum under the station where I discover something new with each visit. Among the items an eclectic collection of Victoriana, penny-farthing bicycles, war memorabilia and the terrifying dentist’s chair. Entrance to the Museum is R5.
Yet mostly I recommend walks in the surrounding veldt where some 10 000 troops were camped around the Village during the Anglo-Boer war. There are still remnants such as rusty bully beef and paraffin tins, uniform buttons and buckles to be found around the koppie. While in search of these I find myself escaping to a place where I can almost hear their banter.
Walking the Karoo where the area is cleaner and your soul purer.
A coffee shop offers light meals and drinks are offered in the Laird’s Arms Pub. Resident entertainerJohn will even play the honkey-tonk piano Victorian Music Hall style.
For a further escape into Matjiesfontein I recommended a hike to the tree where Olive Schreiner wrote her novel The Story of An African Farm, published in 1883. A contemplative moment in the tiny Chapel where I was wed and a swim in the crystal clear pool that is always freezing. Also a look at the stars!
Follow the simple guidelines.
Like love locks on European bridges, here the promise of love is carved into cacti in the garden.
Seek out the beauty. Those who say there is no life in the desert, haven’t opened up their eyes.
Growing up in the Free State and holidaying in the Cape, I had driven past the turn to Matjiesfontein many times before a breakdown had me spend three nights here. Forced to stop and listen to the sounds of the Karoo, with nowhere else to go, I absorbed myself into this curious place and with each new discovery let it creep further into my heart.
Now I want to shout it from city rooftops, send telepathic messages to weary drivers, stand on the N1 halting traffic. Come and meet this place of South Africa and learn why Matjiesfontein is well worth a turn off the N1.
Official Matjiesfontein site – www.matiesfontein.com
This article first appeared in Flat White Concepts in December 2013.