The Karoo, with its fresh air, starry nights, and seamless landscapes, recently took the number one spot on my local travel list – and I can imagine that it will remain there for quite a while. I remember visiting the Karoo during my childhood, but it was only a year ago that I was introduced to the one horse town of Matjiesfontein, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since. It’s ridiculously small, but the history is as rich as any other town in South Africa.
If you follow the N1 all the way from Cape Town, Matjiesfontein is an easy find. About 30 kilometres before Laingsburg, you will see a sign that points you in the direction of this small village (and I say village, because you can hardly call 2 streets separated by a railway a town). If you make a left turn here I can assure you, you will be pleasantly surprised.
It was during the long weekend in April that we made our way to a self-catering farm about 10 kilometres from the heart of Matjiesfontein. Being young and not at all phased by time (when I’m on vacation of course), we decided to make a pit stop for a cold one at the famous Lord Milner Hotel before settling in at our home for the next four days. It was around 16:00 and the heat of the day was fading fast, with not many tourists left roaming the street.
Even before entering the hotel there was a joyful sound coming through the windows, and I could hear the last lyrics of ‘My Sarie Marais woon so ver van my af’. I immediately knew we were in for a treat. Once inside we were greeted by Johnny Theunissen, the resident entertainer dressed in a black coat and a top hat. The hotel bar was crammed with interesting people from all over, and Johnny once again had everyone’s attention when he sat down at the 100 year old piano for a medley of your typical Voortrekker songs.
After grabbing a cold beer, we were taken on a personal tour through the hotel, with Johnny as our guide. He showed us around the various rooms of the Lord Milner Hotel, the gardens, and the museum, while filling us in on the story of Matjiesfontein and its history. He told a very believable story about Katie, the ghost in Room 11, and various other hair-raising tales about the so-called haunted hotel and the Anglo-Boer war. I had to hand it to him, he transported me back to 1899 for the full hour we spent there.
It was after a German tourist pointed to a finch nest and Johnny answered with “That sir, is a South African coconut” that I started to take everything he told us with a pinch of salt. But, after a thorough Google session afterwards, I can at least say that everything he told us about the history was true.
The entire town was declared a National Heritage site in 1975, to preserve its rich history. Since then tourists have flocked to Matjiesfontein to stay in the famous haunted Lord Milner Hotel, take a tour through the various museums, or literally experience the ‘Trein na Matjiesfontein’ on the Rovos Rail. If you haven’t been there yet, I suggest you make a whole weekend of it.
Keep these accommodation options in mind when you plan your visit to Matjiesfontein:
The Lord Milner Hotel
If you are lucky enough to get an available room in this historic hotel, I would recommend you take it. It has a certain old-world charm that you won’t easily get anywhere else. Hopefully you will get to experience one of its many ghost stories, while you feast on local Karoo lamb in the Hotel’s dining room.
The Olive Schreiner Cottage
The famous South African author, Olive Schreiner, lived in this cosy cottage for a number of years and you can book it for the weekend.
Keurkloof self-catering farm cottage
We stayed in this cosy 3 bedroom cottage for the long weekend, and it was amazing. The braai on the stoep and the fireplace in the kitchen makes it perfect for winter or summer getaways.
And while you are there, don’t forget to check out these cool places as well:
The Railway station
Whether you got there via the Rovos Rail, or not, the old Railway station of Matjiesfontein is a beautiful building and forms a big part of the town’s history.
When you first enter the museum, it looks like a small showroom with some old cars. However there is a back door leading to a much more impressive collection of vintage cars, bicycles and old steam trains.
The Marie Rawdon museum
This museum boasts a magnificent collection of Victorian memorabilia including household items, furniture, and tools. They have even recreated scenes including a grim-looking dentist’s surgery and a barber’s shop.
Here you can enjoy a pub lunch in a saloon-like environment while you hear all about the connection of Matjiesfontein with South Africa’s cricket history.
Have you visited Matjiesfontein? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments section down below, we’d love to hear from you.