If you take the N1 from Cape Town, and travel straight for 235km, you’ll eventually swing a sharp-right and find yourself in an eloquent Victorian streetscape at the fringe of the Central Karoo. This short 2.5 hours drive transports you a 150 years into the past, plonking you in the time-capsule of Matjiesfontein.
As you drive in, you’ll see the Scottish Saltire and British Union Jack flags paying tribute to the heritage of the town’s founder, James Logan. This railway man built the town as a retreat due to his respiratory disease, providing him a space to breath and relax. And as it had once provided an oasis for Logan, Matjiesfontein continues to provide the same escape for all its inhabitants and visitors to date.
Despite the ripples of hills that surround the town, there is no wasted space. Matjiesfontein is centered on a single-sided street. Opposite the old railway, you’ll see all the necessary stops: the bank, post office, old gas station, hotel, bar and restaurant, with the church, old car museum and cricket pitch just around the corner.
To get a true essence, the Double-Decker Red Bus Ride is an ideal way to see the town. Notoriously known as the shortest guided tour, your 10 minutes will be well-spent looking, learning, and laughing. “We turn to the left, because we can’t go right” is an emblematic quote that sums up the whole route. Along the way, you’ll pass some small landmarks: like the old-gas station with one petrol pump and a price meter measuring in cents, and some bigger points of interest, like the cricket pitch to host the first match between SA and England.
Although the word “antiques” evokes the idea of old paintings, vases, that aunt with a hearing aid, watches, etc. the town homes other interesting relics: like David Rawdon’s vintage vehicles. What initially started as a storage facility for his cars, evolved into a Transport Museum; another contributor to the town’s classic collections.
Towards the end of your route, you’ll pass the pink church — advertised to be a great place to get married, with the bar being a wonderful spot to divorce right after. All jokes aside, the Lairds Arms is a great place to enjoy a pint and pub lunch. Although, for a fully authentic afternoon, we recommend trying the infamous gin cocktails while listening to Johnny clank away at the piano keys, bellowing his best vocals. For something sweeter, The Coffee House is fit enough for the Queen’s blessing; butter up some baked scones and pastries while sipping on tea by the courtyard fountain.
While this is the extent of the culinary choices, the Lord Milner homes the Hotel Dining Room; a kitchen worthy of regular visits due to its incredible fine-dining experience. This would be the ideal spot to tuck into some fresh soup on a cold night, try karoo lamb over candle light, or order anything, every answer would be right. (Clearly this area brings out the poetic side, because did you notice that rhyme). The red-jacketed porters provide warmth beyond your wine, and the friendly staff are always a treat too.
While there are plenty of guest farms and nature reserves close-by, The Lord Milner is sole accommodation in Matjiesfontein. Originally constructed in 1899, the hotel was converted into a hospital during the Anglo-Boer war, with the turret even functioning as a look-out post. After this, however, it returned to its initial inception as a place of relaxation and luxury. Since its renovation and transformation, it boasts an even more prestigious air.
If the pool, sprawls of green lawns, and warm Karoo sun don’t meet your idea of comfort, there is always the indoor escape of the Yellow Room. Here you can kick back, read a book, and enjoy the cool company of Kate, Lucy and the lady in white — the infamous ghosts of the hotel. Despite their cool presence, they’re known to be quite warm and playful, awarding Matjiesfontein the unique title of the most welcoming haunted town in the country.
From embracing all its visitors, to transporting you to a time and place beyond your imagination, Matjiesfontein is truly a bucket-list destination and spot to revisit on any roadtrip.