The first time I experienced the magic of Matjiesfontein, I visited the town to do some writing, following in the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling and Olive Schreiner before me, who had both hidden away in the small Karoo town to pen their masterpieces. I like to think they too favoured the stark lunar landscape of the surrounding Karoo, the cosy fireside of the Laird’s Arms and the tales of merry ghosts playing billiards, to rattle up the muses. That such a small town could hold such great wonder is part of its magic. Perhaps because it is arrested in time, frozen in the elegance of a bygone era that it can so easily transport one out of reality and into daydreams.
History plays a central role in Matjiesfontein. Founded in 1884 by James Douglas Logan, it was originally an insignificant railway halt in the depths of the Karoo. Entranced by the surrounding landscape, Logan created a village seemingly in the middle of nowhere which would make his fortune and become for many a tranquil retreat.
Central to Matjiesfontein’s preserved personality is the Grand Dame of Victorian Architecture, The Lord Milner Hotel, which Logan completed in 1899 and which shortly thereafter served as the headquarters of the Cape Western Command. By that stage, Matjiesfontein had become a fashionable watering place, attracting those seeking relief for chest complaints in the clear, Karoo air; and entertaining distinguished guests.
According to legend, Olive Schreiner wrote her famous book, “The Story of an African Farm” while living in Matjiesfontein. She served dinner to Cecil John Rhodes in her tiny cottage, which still stands today. Logan, a cricket fanatic, entertained most of the early teams visiting the colony. Rudyard Kipling, Lord Randolph Churchill, Lord Roberts, Douglas Haig, Edmund Ironside and Edgar Wallace, among others, stayed or were entertained in the village; all celebrated in their time and still remembered today. Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) is remembered for “borrowing” a hunting dog which he never returned!
A century later and Matjiesfontein retains its magnetic charm. David Rawdon, who purchased the village in the late 1960’s performed extensive renovations and restorations to the property and in 1979 Matjiesfontein was declared a National Historic Monument.
A must-stop destination, Matjiesfontein is only a few hours outside of Cape Town, just off the N1 national highway. Take a trip through town on an old London bus or sip on your wine aboard an original steam train. Just after you have savoured a blood-red Karoo sunset, you’ll hear the sounds of trumpets playing, summoning you to dinner.
The Victorian dining room, where breakfast and dinner is served daily, boasts a few pieces worth a special mention. An antique clock is one of only three in the world, and the unique ceiling detail is supported by a central bronze pillar, a twin of the same found at Buckingham Palace. The service is excellent and the food delicious. Be sure to try the renowned Karoo Lamb Curry!
After dinner, coffee and liqueurs are served in the Royal Lounge. This space portrays the life and style of James Logan, and that of his guests and servants who occupied it over a hundred years ago. The original furniture and antiques are in immaculate condition, and add a fascinating time-worn texture to the existing ambience.
Drink in the warmth and jollity of the Laird’s Arms Pub when you drop in for a merry pint or two, or sip your gin and tonic on the balcony of your suite while you watch the time pass by (or not pass by, in the case of Matjiesfontein!)
There are long meandering walks over the cropped lawns, past the Chapel, across the riverbed, skirting the graveyard and ending at the swimming pool. A low wall and creaking windmill is all that separates you from the vast horizon of the Karoo beyond.
The last time I was in Matjiesfontein, a friend and I stopped over en-route home to Cape Town. We had just finished shooting a film in Johannesburg and were in dire need of some magic. Maybe it was the plump black olives or the round richness of the wine we had been drinking, but we couldn’t resist a secret sunset skinny-dip in that hidden swimming pool on the fringes of the Karoo at Matjiesfontein.
Perhaps it was just something in the air.
Aristocrats from Britain flocked to Matjiesfontein to convalesce from a variety of ailments. The village greatly interested doctors who had previously been sending patients to Beaufort West, but found that the town was too dusty. Patients who were sent to the Nuweveld Mountains were inhaling too much grass dust and pollen.
Matjiesfontein proved to be perfect.
- Matjiesfontein was South Africa’s first health spa. Tweedside Lodge, Logan’s home, was the first private dwelling in South Africa to have electric lighting.
- It was also the first to have flushing toilets!Logan imported London Street Lamps Posts which are still part of the village today.
- During the Anglo-Boer War, Matjiesfontein served as command headquarters.
- James Logan was an expert photographer, an amateur magician, a dentist, a horse-breeder, a boxer and a keen sportsman. The development of Cricket in South Africa owes much to this shrew Scotsman!