The original version of this post is in my ‘Flashback’ article in Khuluma inflight mag, Jan 2018 edition
Matjiesfontein in the 70’s was magical. To ten year old me it was picture perfect, frozen in time. On the short High Street stood an ox wagon straight out of my Standard Three history book and next to it a red London bus, just like the one my brother used to push around his bedroom floor.
Following the Forgotten Route
Today, when you exit the well preserved station, you’re met with a cheeky excuse of a main road bordered by a single row of quaint cottages and stores. Recently I returned as a guest of a superb tour outfit known as Wine flies Tours. Their two day Forgotten Routes itinerary began in the Cape Town CBD with an historical walkabout to contextualise the trip. After tea at the legendary Kimberley Hotel on Roeland Street, we drove to the Kirabo wine farm in Rawsonville in the beautiful Breede River Valley for a wine tasting and then proceeded to Worcester about an hour away, to catch the Shosholoza Meyl. The ride took me back to train rides to Simonstown with my Grandmother to see the warships and eat fish and chips in the harbour. This particular journey took us inland, retracing a path forged by the settlers of olde, and through variegated Klein Karoo landscapes until our carriage rolled to a stop at Matjiesfontein Station, about two and half hours later.
Ghosts, a London bus and classic cars
Four decades on, Matjiesfontein feels more like an abandoned movie set, but deserted it certainly is not, for behind the Victorian facades, tourists were browsing at the Old Post Office gift shop, and ordering frothy cappuccinos and creamy milk tart at The Coffee House. At the Laird’s Arms pub, while John Theunissen gave us a tune on the pianola, head barman Joseph Apollis told stories about what it was like growing up in Matjiesfontein. “We played with stoot karretjies (push carts) and cattys, and there were ghosts back then too,” he added as he mixed our G&T’s, perpetuating the legend that the town is haunted. Just then, a trumpet sounded, our cue to board the Beefeater bus for the shortest sightseeing tour ever. The double decker trundled at a snail’s pace past the pink church, the courthouse and jail, the dusty old cricket pitch where the first match took place in 1889, and the Transport Museum housing steam trains, antique bicycles, vintage cars, and, the pride of the collection, two Royal Daimlers from King George VI’s 1947 tour of South Africa. All of that, in ten minutes flat!
The hotel, the history & the heat
Matjiesfontein, one of South Africa’s most cherished National Heritage Sites, sits on the edge of the Great Karoo. Founded in 1884 by Scotsman James Douglas Logan, it was a tiny bastion of Queen Victoria’s England and a thriving colonial enclave. It’s primary attraction was the spa he built where patients with chest ailments came to convalesce in the hot, dry climate. The same building, also used as a command centre during the Anglo Boer War, is now known as the Lord Milner, the iconic hotel on Logan Street, the 300 metre main road that ends as abruptly as it begins. Matjiesfontein’s maintenance and restoration is credited to hotelier David Rawdon (1924-2010) who purchased the entire hamlet in 1975, reversed its decline, and put it back on the map.
Sleepover at Rietfontein Lodge
Wine Flies put us up in Rietfontein Lodge, my accommodation of choice, a 5 minute walk from the Lord Milner. The self catering cottages are simple, rustic and charming, the linen crisp and the atmosphere authentic. And it’s price perfect! At night, you gather at the farmhouse across the veld for a barbecue with incredible homestyle food cooked by Eugenie Theunissen whose family goes back many generations. Her ‘braai’ toasties are the best!
The journey home
After breakfast at the Lord Milner, our road trip resumed, this time via the Koo Valley. Lunch was potjiekos with the farmer-owner of Oom Batt se Winkel, where you’ll feast on unforgettable pumpkin pie and other traditional Afrikaner fare. Next is a stop at the enormous wine emporium Platform 62 in Ashton and then it was on to a lavender farm called Owls’ Rest in Robertson, where they sell the most amazing products made from the flower.
Matjiesfontein is a popular weekend escape clsoe enough to Cape Town for an overnight staycation. This is truly beautiful South African territory, rich in heritage. It’s a good place to breathe in the Karoo air and sooth your city angst. As Eugenie herself says, “it’s ‘rustig’ here, peaceful and quiet”.
If you’re looking for a more interesting way to discover Cape Town and surrounds, you have to explore with Wine Flies. They offer a fabulous interactive experience that takes you back in time and with expert guides like Lord Riaan and his team, you’ll uncover some of the history of the Mother City, do wine tastings in private cellars, take a train ride through the Karoo, discover Matjiesfontein in a unique way, do a country sleepover in a wonderful rustic lodge, a night walk through the town, see vintage cars and a museum and so much.