Exploring the Northern Cape – episode 1, Matjiesfontein Madness!

It’s a scary thing when you realise your eyes are having trouble adjusting to wide open rolling panoramic vistas because you spend too much time staring at little screens! That’s what happened to me on my first night’s stay at Blesfontein, a little karoo farm near Sutherland. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

No Northern Cape story is complete without a visit first to that little Victorian oasis off the N1 – Matjiesfontein.

We set off from Somerset West early on Sunday morning and three padstals (and much more luggage) later, we arrived in this single-road 130 year old privately owned town in the Karoo.

The grand (and haunted) Lord Milner Hotel is the town’s pristine showpiece but there is so much more to explore along the historic road and around the corner! We were warmly welcomed by the self appointed town crier Johnny Theunissen, who entertained us with ghost stories in the old back rooms of the hotel, even propping me up on a chair against a wall to take a photograph with a ghost. I still think it was just a paint stain on the wall – but you be the judge…

While waiting on the open hotel balcony for friends for lunch (that’s another story – just as we were ready to order, the town’s electricity went down so we were moved to the pub to order food – I had a delicious bobotie quiche there!), Johnny ushered me onto his local town bus tour (which took all of 10 minutes) in the old red double decker bus, summoning us with a loud bull horn and regaling us with tales of old, while sharing the town’s colouful history (and referring to his mom as the town owner’s bit of dark chocolate on the side!)

Matjiesfontein is a small privately owned town in the Great Karoo, founded by legendary railway man James Douglas Logan in 1884. The village was bought from the Logan family by acclaimed hotelier David Rawdon in 1968, who returned it to its former glory before he passed away in 2010. It has been in the Rawdon family ever since, meaning the town has been owned by only 2 families in its 130+ years of existence.

Visitors will experience a real step back in time, immersing themselves in living history, as life here is a tribute to the early Karoo, the Anglo-Boer War and Queen Victoria’s England. Guests can explore the historic ambiance of the famed Lord Milner Hotel, its old world charm, gracious servers, and elegant décor – not to mention discovering its ghost stories. You can dine by candlelight in The Hotel Dining Room, served by red-jacketed porters, and feast on local specialities such as Karoo lamb.

Matjiesfontein offers everything that a world-class destination does – yet is wholly unique in the hospitality industry. It’s a place of magic, history and utter relaxation.

If you want to know more about Matjiesfontein, I found an article below which talks about ten (yes, 10!) interesting things you can do there in a day –

”Just three hours outside of Cape Town on the N1, in the heart of the middle of nowhere, lies a town. No wait, scratch that, it’s more like a street than a town. Blink and you may just miss it. But you’d be worse off for it, because Matjiesfontein is unlike anywhere you will ever visit. As if set in another era, Matjiesfontein still holds a grand old appeal with the buildings looking much the same as they would have in 1884 when the town was first established. It may only take you a couple hours to complete the below list but you’ll feel like you travelled back in time. So without further adieu, here are ten things to do in Matjiesfontein.

1. Do the VoiceMap tour

If you do one thing before you visit Matjiesfontein, I recommend downloading the free VoiceMap app (download for free via Google Play or the Apple App Store) and listening to the Historic Tour of Matjiesfontein. This extensive walking tour of Matjiesfontein will give you a surprisingly in depth history of this tiny place. Narrated by the author Dean Allen you will learn about the town’s rich history which includes the very first international game of cricket played in South Africa, one man’s love affair with Queen and country, and the interesting intermingling of war and politics that essentially founded the town. But let me not give it all away. Take a listen for yourself!

2 Visit the Transport Museum

Old cars and wagons sit in the parking lot outside the station and welcome you to Matjiesfontein – beckoning for you to discover more in the transport museum. Car enthusiasts might find the collection a bit on the small side but hey it’s in keeping with the whole appeal of the place! I for one particularly enjoyed walking through the old trains, complete with dining cart. You can even rent out the train for a unique dining experience for groups. Alternatively if you have extra money to spend, book a holiday on the luxurious Rovos Rail and one of your stops could include Matjiesfontein – allowing you to really get into the spirit of this once magnificent railway stop.

3. Take a tour on the red bus

Every afternoon, except Sundays, the town’s loveable tour guide Jon Theunissen (who has lived and worked in the town his entire life) will take you on a laugh-a-minute journey through Matjiesfontein on his very own bus, styled on the red London Double Decker Bus. Lasting ten minutes (at a push) the tour is possibly the shortest hop-on hop-off bus tour in the entire world and we can’t promise that you’ll actually learn anything, but it’s a fun way to see the town and you may even hear the tale of the ghost that haunts the hotel!

4. Stay at the Hotel

Matjiesfontein is perfect for overnight stops or weekend getaways and the historic Lord Milner Hotel provides the perfect place to rest your weary head after a day on the road. Offering a quaint Victorian style with large plush rooms, this grand hotel will truly make you feel like you’ve been transported to another era. Dinner here is also a highlight of any stay with traditional fare such as roast Karoo lamb and springbok fillet on the menu.

5. Poke around the Marie Rawdon Museum

This museum actually claims to be the largest private museum in South Africa. The entrance is located under the train station and leads you into a double story area, comprising of a myriad of interconnecting rooms. The museum is a treasure trove of knick knacks from the Victorian era, originally from the avid collector David Rawdon. As you travel from room to room you will see a variety of antique household goods, clothing, a fantastic camera collection and a variety of machinery and equipment including bicycles, sewing machines and even ancient dentistry chairs and medical equipment.

6. Walk around the gardens

Behind the Lord Milner Hotel you will find the Raymond Crowley gardens. With their rolling green lawns, towering trees, plantation of prickly pairs and reservoir, the gardens make for the perfect place to spend an afternoon relaxing with a book and good ‘ol cuppa tea. Here you will also find the hotel’s swimming pool, looked over by a steel daisy (windmill) and the traveller’s chapel. This cute building simply beckons to any passer by and looks like a great place for intimate weddings or even a quick elopement.

7. Wine and dine in style

There may only be three wining and dining establishments in Matjiesfontein but they are all worth a visit. As mentioned, the Lord Milner Hotel, serves up the tastiest traditional fare in their large dining room while breakfasts here are also not to be missed with a full spread on offer including home made scones. Next door to the hotel, the Laird’s Arms is great for a drink or pub lunch while the cute coffee house is a satisfying locale for those with a sweet tooth.

8. Pick up some memories at the Old Post Office

The Old Post Office is like a beacon in Matjiesfontein – calling to visitors with its stripes of red and white. Today you will find the Matjiesfontein gift shop inside this historic building. Shop from a range of handcrafted gifts including books, clothing and ceramics and take home a memory of the Karoo, while supporting local craftsmen. At the very least be sure to take a selfie outside the post office – the perfect photo op.

9. Plan your next party –

Matjiesfontein is a great destination for hosting a party or wedding. Imagine booking up an entire town just for your gathering! In addition, Matjiesfontein also hosts a number of exciting events every year, including the Anglo-Boer War Weekend as well as some fun music festivals that combine a weekend away with the perfect excuse to let your hair down.

10. Walk it off

Matjiesfontein is surrounded by the picturesque Witteberg Mountains. For those looking to get a little bit of exercise, there are a number of fantastic walks and mountain bike trails through the surrounding countryside. Explore the Karoo on the back of a bicycle or let your legs do the work as you discover craggy cliffs, dry riverbeds and a variety of vegetation. The Witteberg Nature Reserve has five trails to choose from.

Next episode – Sutherland and SA’s Largest Telescope!

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