My recent Karoo roadtrip included a night at the Lord Milner Hotel in the historic village of Matjiesfontein.
To explain Matjiesfontein one must put it into the context of South African history as well as some geography to understand the region known as the Karoo.
By the late 19th century the Cape Colony was in the hands of the British after they had wrested control from the Dutch. The Dutch had been in the Cape for almost 150 years so the inhabitants were established and had evolved into what would later be known as the Afrikaner, or Boer, nation.
In 1884 a young Scot bought a farm in the Karoo, on the railroad to the north. He first offered a refreshment service at the station and soon realised that the dry Karoo air was ideal for his asthma, so he built a Victorian spa and health resort.
Matjiesfontein – an oasis in the Karoo
To appreciate Matjiesfontein, one must understand that the Karoo is a forbidding dry region, broken occasionally by flat-topped mountains that always seem to be in the far distance. The Karoo covers most of the central part of South Africa. Loosely speaking, there is the Little Karoo which is a smaller, less arid region not far from the coast, and there is the Great Karoo, very large and very dry. Matjiesfontein is in the Great Karoo.
The station and village were built on the Matjies River, resulting in an oasis of gardens, fountains and spa baths. The resort attracted the cream of English society and was visited by such luminaries as Cecil John Rhodes, Sir Randolph Churchill, the Duke of Hamilton and the Sultan of Zanzibar, among various socialites. The renowned author of ‘The Story of an African Farm,’ Olive Schreiner, lived at Matjiesfontein as it relieved her asthma.
After almost a century under British rule at the Cape, the Boers resisted British attempts at annexing the Boer Republic to the north and the result was the Anglo Boer War, now known as the South African War. During this war, Matjiesfontein became the headquarters of the Cape Command and 12 000 British troops were encamped in the surrounding veld. The hotel was used as a military hospital.
After the war, Matjiesfontein faded into obscurity until a hotelier restored everything in the 60s. The entire village is now a National Heritage Site. The railway station allows for South Africa’s luxury trains – the Blue Train and the Rovos Rail – to stop for refreshments on their trans-Karoo trips.
The gardens are truly an oasis in the Karoo. Sadly, the river is no longer what is used to be and sees little rain these days so underground water is used for the lush gardens.
The Lord Milner Hotel bills itself as a ‘step back in time’- this is true for the atmosphere, the appearance, the history and the very creaky but beautifully grained floorboards of the old buildings. You need only one night and one day to experience everything. The Marie Rawdon Museum, under the station platform in the old gaol, is a treasure trove from the War, the Transport Museum has a variety of fine old cars and railway carriages, the seven-minute guided bus tour includes a ghostly apparition and ends in the bar with a very jolly sing-along.
If your budget permits, stay in the main building, otherwise compromise with a room in the relatively new-ish ‘Motel’ next door with smaller, simpler, rooms. This is an ideal location for a romantic weekend or honeymoon overnight stay, and the hotel is a very popular venue for weddings.
The very pink church
Charming area map of the village provided in every room, along with a useful information guide.