Some countries were created for road tripping, and South Africa is definitely one of them. For tops, start by buying a few Tops Online, stocking up on padkos, and checking the car before hitting the open road that leads to discovery.
Road tripping is especially rewarding when the luxury of time allows you to veer off course, leave the highway and explore the lesser-known small towns that give this 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 Nieu Bethesda, Matjiesfontein, Darling and McGregor.
Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape
Just beyond the Karoo’s historic centre of Graaff-Reinet, there’s a winding road that leads about 60 kilometres 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 in 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 drawcard, 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 goat’s cheese platter at The Brewery, search for fossils in the riverbed and take a donkey cart tour of the town. 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/.
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 railway 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 days, there were no dining cars to service the passengers on their long journey through the Karoo. Instead, 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, and Tweeside Lodge and the Hotel were 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 like a dusty railway station, but it stands testament to a bygone era and holds an undeniable charm. Also offers a myriad of things to see and explore. Among them is 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 on 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 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 a swim in the crystal clear pool will complete your stay. More info: https://www.matjiesfontein.com/
Darling, Cape West Coast
Set to encourage exploration beyond Cape Town’s main attractions is Darling in the Swartland. A quaint and progressive village found inland of Yzerfontein on the Cape’s West Coast that first came to history in 1854 when 18 of the farmers in the Groene Kloof area realised they needed a centre from which to enjoy basic services. They collectively bought the farm Langfontein and allocated the land for development.
The date happened to coincide with Governor Charles Henry Darling’s visit to the Cape to open the Colony’s first Parliament. Seeing this as fortuitous timing, he was invited by the Groene Kloof farmers to donate his name to the village and Darling was born. Much change and transformation have taken place since then and today the town may be most familiar to visitors seeking out the wildflowers that carpet the land each Spring.
Also bringing it to repute over recent years is Evita Se Perron where Pieter Dirk Uys aka Evita Bezuidenhout has set up a theatre and museum satirically depicting the country’s political history – and a slow Darling brew that carries the town’s name. But these are just a few of the reasons why Darling is a place with much to offer and should be viewed as a destination and not a drive-through. Quaint coffee shops, Darling Sweets, and walking trails are among them. More info: https://www.hellodarling.org.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, and 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 homemade 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 which produces 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. 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. And don’t forget to pack a picnic or stop at the many farmstalls you’ll encounter along the way.
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