Some countries were created for road tripping.
And South Africa is definitely one of them. Especially when the luxury of time allows you to veer off course, leave the highway and explore the lesser-known small towns that give the country character. Where people create enticing and interesting lives, are warm and welcoming and will go out of their way to show you true local hospitality. Four such places that I highly recommend you visit are Nieu Bethesda, Matjiesfontein, Swellendam and darling McGregor.
Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape
Just beyond the Karoo’s historic center of Graaff-Reinet there’s a winding road that leads you about 60 kilometers into the hinterland. At its end you arrive in a small village called Nieu Bethesda. Wide dirt roads and graceful trees play home to this settlement with its neat rows of pretty houses.
Born of a farming community in 1878, here residents have always led a quiet and somewhat sheltered existence. It is only in the past twenty plus years that Nieu Bethesda has gained increased attention for Helen Martin’s Owl House, drawing increasingly more visitors.
Helen was an eccentric and rather sad character who in the latter part of her life, worked tirelessly to convert her simple home into one that resembled a colour-filled fantasy. The inside walls are encrusted with ground glass and the many mirrors catch the light at different times of day while in the Camel Yard statues of men face East. It’s surreal, intriguing and cluttered. Today the Owl House is sensitively cared for and can be visited and enjoyed.
Yet as much as the Owl House may be the draw card, it is not all that’s on offer here. You can indulge in locally grown produce and even buy a giant garden grown pumpkin. Try the craft beer and goats cheese platter at The Brewery, search for fossils in the riverbed and take a donkey cart tour of the town.
The Ibis Lounge offers an excellent selection of coffees and killer breakfasts, while The Karoo Lamb serves traditional Karoo food and has a wonderful selection of handcrafted products for sale.
The air is fresh and warm with the nights cooling significantly to bring incredible views of the dark skies with their bountiful stars, as there are no streetlights here. Numerous accommodation options will offer anything from a luxury guesthouse to self-catering and even camping. Stay at least two nights. More info: http://www.nieu-bethesda.com/ and http://www.nieubethesda.biz/.
Matjiesfontein, Western Cape off the N1 highway
Set 2,5 hours north of Cape Town on the N1 highway that joins the Cape to Johannesburg, Matjiesfontein is a hamlet rather than a town. Consisting of a hotel, railway station, a collection of museums, a strong community and more than a touch of magic.
Its history takes us to a time when railways lines were reaching inland to Kimberly and South African pioneer Cecil John Rhodes held the vision of a ‘road to the North’, from Cape to Cairo. 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’
In these early railway days, there were no dining cars to service the passengers on their long journey through the Karoo. Instead, The Cape Government Railways awarded catering contracts to halts along the way. Logan set one up here, establishing 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. Today fondly referred to as The Grand Duchess of the Karoo, the Lord Milner Hotel still receives visitors in style. Don’t be deceived, at a glance Matjiesfontein may appear a dusty railway station, but it stands testament to a bygone era and holds an undeniable charm. Also offering a myriad of things to see and explore. Among them a climb to Katy’s Card Room, the three turrets of the Hotel and the formal lounges, which are said to be haunted.
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 you will discover an eclectic collection of Victoriana, penny-farthing bicycles, war memorabilia and the terrifying dentist’s chair.
Yet mostly I recommend walks in the surrounding veldt where some 10000 troops were camped around the Village during the Anglo-Boer South African war. There are still remnants such as rusty bully beef and paraffin tins, uniform buttons and buckles to be found around the koppie.
A coffee shop offers light meals and drinks are served in the Laird’s Arms Pub. Resident entertainer John will even play the honkey-tonk piano if you ask. A walk in the garden, time in the tiny Chapel and swim in the crystal clear pool, will complete your stay. More info: http://www.matjiesfontein.com/
Swellendam, Western Cape off the N2
It may be easy to overlook Swellendam as most driving the N2 highway are travelling between Cape Town and the Garden Route, but it would be a great pity to do so. The third oldest town in South Africa, Swellendam was declared a district and appointed a Magistrate in 1743. From here a village grew up where artisans and traders settled. To travellers and explorers, their services were invaluable, as this was the last outpost of civilization when making the slow journey up the East coast in those days.
Today it still offers many travellers a welcome break to their journey, with a variety of accommodation options to choose from, as well as an assortment of restaurants, activities and attractions. Recommendations include a visit to the Drostdy Museum, which offers a comprehensive collection of artefacts, early day residences, a gaol, mill and various outbuildings. A visit is a return to our history.
Enjoy time in the neighbouring Bontebok National Park; the formation of this park saved the species from extinction and you are certain to spot many while there for a drive, walk or picnic. You can even take a swim in the Breede River.
Walk down Swellengrebel Street to the art galleries and coffee shops, taste the handmade Belgian chocolate and look over the selection of gifts and curios. Visit the sheep just off the main road and for the children and those with make-believe in their hearts, spend time at the Sulina Faerie Sanctuary.
There is horse riding, mountain biking and hiking as well as canoeing on the Buffeljachts Dam. Definitely, book a massage at Rain Africa and linger outside the main Church to soak in the details. Dinner can be at Schoone Oordt Country House or the award winning La Sosta Italian restaurant. More at: http://www.swellendamtourism.co.za/
McGregor, Western Cape off Route62
A favourite country village accessed just off Robertson and surrounded by the Langeberg Mountains with Robertson, Bonnievale, Ashton and Montagu as its near neighbouring towns. McGregor is said to be the best-preserved 19th century South African village with its whitewashed reed roof cottages, Victorian and Georgian homes, many of which are available for rent with McGregor Country Getaways.
Every Saturday there’s a morning market in the Square next to the Church, which draws the local community. You need to be quick though, as it starts at 09.30 and is all packed up by about 10. Offering local produce, plants, veg, books, pastries, puppy treats and an opportunity to engage with the residents. For more of the tastes and flavours visit Rhebokskraal Olive Estate or their Villagers Farm Stall for home-made scones and coffee. A fun thing to do is take the Noddy bus village tour with the option of visits to the various art galleries along the way. The artistic offerings are comprehensive with ten venues and experiences listed on their Art Route, including the Edna Fourie gallery.
Get to the Old Post Office turned pub for a whiskey tasting, better still book a visit to the Tanagra Distillery who produce Grappa and a limited amount of Eau de Vie just outside town. If you’re a fan of a great Method Cap Classique bubbly a visit to the beautiful Lord’s Winery is a must. The Temenos Gardens have been drawing people to McGregor since opening with their soul nurturing gardens and idyllic spaces for spiritual meditation. Whatever your belief or ideals, you will find contentment and quiet here.
One of the main attractions in McGregor for me is the Eseljiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, which provides permanent homes and loving care to destitute, retired, abused and rescued donkeys. There are currently about 20 resident donkeys and it is such a pleasure to spend time with them. More at McGregor Tourism.
I read somewhere that ’McGregor is not a place, but a state of mind’ and I guarantee you that is true.
My hope is that this insight into the too often forgotten and smaller places will encourage you to go out there and uncover their unique characters.