Matjiesfontein: Where the Air is Like Dry Champagne

The R318 from Montagu to Matjiesfontein gently flows through Die Keisie, Burgerspass, and the fertile Koo valley, where fruit and protea flowers are grown, before spilling out onto the barren landscape of the Great Karoo, and joining the N1 that connects Cape Town with Johannesburg. Founded in 1884, Matjiesfontein is easy to miss, as one has to turn off the main road, and most travellers tend to rush past, yet, if one does take the time to stop in this miniscule historic village for refreshments or, better still, an over-night stay, the rewards are endless.

The discovery of diamonds near Hopetown in 1867 led to a flood of fortune hunters making the 700 mile journey from Cape Town to the diamond fields in the interior. This rush in search of personal fortune escalated during the 1886 gold rush to the Witwatersrand, when throngs of people passed through the dry Karoo either under a blazing summer sun, or freezing winter nights. At the time, both road and railway passed through Matjiesfontein, and places to find refreshments or to overnight were nowhere to be found.

In steps Jimmy Logan, whose life story reads like a ‘rags-to-riches’ tale. Upon leaving school, the young Scotsman worked for the North British Railway as a booking clerk, but not satisfied with plodding through life, he went to sea, and when, two years later, on route to Australia, his ship limped into Simons Bay after a storm, he impulsively decided to walk to Cape Town. With only £5 in his pocket he took a job with the recently founded Cape Colonial Railways. His drive and ambition saw him rise from a porter to District Superintendent of the stretch of railway line between the Hex River and Prince Albert Road, in a scant two years.

Stationed at Touwsriver, with Matjiesfontein a mere 55km further along the line, the 21-year-old Jimmy Logan soon spotted a perfect business opportunity. Whilst still working for the railways, he was granted the concession for the refreshment room at Touwsriver station, while also renting the local railway-owned Frere Hotel. Around 1883 he decided to move his family to Matjiesfontein and in 1884 secured the concession for the refreshment room at Matjiesfontein station. The 26-year-old then, step by step, started to build his empire from this small settlement, which at one point included running all the refreshment rooms from Cape Town to Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe), at the same time owning 100,000 acres of farmland in and around the district.

Crediting the dry Karoo air for clearing a chest ailment he had suffered from, he established a Victorian health and holiday resort, which proved popular amongst the rich, famous, and influential people of the time. It is said that many members of the British aristocracy, and even the Sultan of Zanzibar spent some time here. Cecil John Rhodes, and countless political figures of the Cape were regular visitors. The writer, Olive Schreiner, returned on a regular basis, and even wrote her book, My Thoughts of South Africa, here.

It is her ghost that is said to pay regular visits to the Lord Milner Hotel. Upon checking in, I enquired about the ghost and was re-assured, amongst peals of laughter that I would have a good night’s rest, as she only frequents the honeymoon suite.

Matjiesfontein, today, appears to be trapped in a Victorian time capsule. Its history is rich and varied, despite its size. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) a sprawling Remount Camp sat on its outskirts, housing 10,000 troops and 20,000 horses, while part of the hotel was used as a convalescent hospital for British officers.

In its heyday it boasted the longest private phone-line in the country, a main street lit by London street lamps, and the first village to replace gas with electricity, but in 1920, when Jimmy Logan died, Matjiesfontein was no longer the fashionable place it once was, and when it was by-passed by the National Road (N1) at the end of World War II, it fell into complete disrepair and subsequent obscurity.

That is, until the entire village was bought by David Rawdon in 1968. On November 1st, 1970, the refurbished hotel re-opened its doors for business as the Lord Milner Hotel. The various lounges, and countless nooks and crannies are filled with magnificent antiques, which conjure up the feeling of spending a night in a museum, yet without the stuffiness of one. The atmosphere that pervades is one that is friendly and informal.

Matjiesfontein 10

The front of the hotel faces towards the railway station, where, on the day I visited, the Blue Train made a brief stop, and its passengers were welcomed onto the old, red double-decker London bus, which, otherwise, sits forlornly on the open piece of gravel next to the station building. This official tour of the village lasts less than 10 minutes, but is a must and an immense amount of fun, as Johnny’s humour and anecdotes elicit copious amounts of laughter. One of the perks of staying over is that every evening hotel guests are entertained with one of these tours, after which they are encouraged to visit the Laird’s Arms, next to the hotel for some local entertainment and pre-dinner drinks. Dinner itself is served in the hotel’s dining room, and is an exquisite affair. I was pleasantly surprised to find, not country cooking, but food prepared in a creative and innovative manner that can compete with the best restaurants in the world. Head chef, Tronette Dippenaar, describes it as “traditional South African cuisine with a modern twist”.

The Laird’s Arms, which, with Johnny on the piano, can become a rowdy place no matter the hour of the day, is not only frequented by hotel guests, but is rather popular with thirsty travellers too. His bigger than life personality gets patrons singing along with the many tunes that flow out his fingers, and it is worth stopping here just for that experience, although an ice-cold beer or cool drink will definitely soothe a parched throat.

For something quieter and more relaxing, one can go for a stroll through the Raymond Crowley gardens and the small graveyard, at the back of the hotel, across the dry riverbed of the Baviaans River. This is also where one finds the hotel’s swimming pool, which is a gift from heaven on a sweltering summer’s day. A leisurely stroll through town, and a visit to the Transport and Marie Rawdon Museum will not disappoint, but make sure that you pick up an official pamphlet, as it is filled with interesting titbits of information.

 The Lord Milner Hotel

** During my stay at the Lord Milner Hotel I was fortunate enough to meet South African photographer, Ken Gerhardt, and were allowed a privileged glimpse into his latest project.