Follow the road north from Cape Town for 2 and a half hours, travelling through some of the most spectacular scenery and you will reach the historic village of Matjiesfontein.
For some, the idea of travelling for 180 minutes before reaching their destination defeats the object, but felt that I had to include Matjiesfontein under a day trip for the sheer magnetism, breath-taking scenery, which is so different from the rest of the Western Cape and its special place in the history of the area. To miss it is to have missed something unique. The journey is so worth taking, I know you’ll be thanking me rather than chastising me for sending you on a wild goose chase!
Leaving the Franschhoek and Stellenbosch winelands behind you, climb towards the Huguenot Tunnel or the more stunning route of the unforgettable Du Toits Pass. The pass is well worth the visit, although it does add another 11 kms to your journey. The tunnel is one of the most sophisticated tunnels in the world, cutting through four kilometres of mountain. Perhaps go one way on the outward journey and the other way on the return.
Onwards into the Hex River Valley, flanked by the Hex River Mountains which rise to 2,490 meters and are often snow-capped in winter. Here lies an abundance of fertile soil, growing a huge range of crops, fruits and wine.
A number of magnificent passes link the Little Karoo with the Great Karoo and, in particular the Swartberg Pass is considered to be the most spectacular in the world after the Darjeeling Pass in Asia.
On first inspection, Matjiesfontein would appear to be apparently insignificant and remote, set as it is in a wilderness, but on further inspection, its roots are planted firmly in the history of the country and indeed in the continent itself.
1884 saw Matjiesfontein as a tiny railway halt in the depths of the Karoo. The Government Railways had reached the Kimberley diamond fields by then. As was the way, no dining cars were available on the trains and when they stopped to fill up with water and coal, the passengers went in search of their own sustenance.
Recognising the potential for creating a “watering hole”, a young Scotsman, James Logan, purchased land and set about his ideas. The happy outcome is Matjiesfontein.
Fashionable people of the time, such as Rudyard Kipling and Lord Randolph Churchill visited, to take in the “air”. It was felt beneficial for people with chest complaints, being warm, clear and dry. Logan was a cricket fan and enjoyed bringing teams to stay here. The village boasts a large grassy field, down next to the Transport Museum, which was once a cricket pitch. The first international game of cricket played in South Africa was here on this very field.
What to see on your visit? Well, arriving in Matjiesfontein is rather like stepping into a time warp! Turn of the century, that’s 20th century, Victorian splendour with the majestic Lord Milner Hotel taking centre stage.
The golden age of grace and elegance are alive and well and living here with up-to-date facilities which take nothing away. Take your pick of lunchtime venues, either at The Lord Milner, or next door in the Laird’s Arms Victorian pub. The Coffee House also provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, all of which can be taken in the pretty courtyard.
Perhaps you might like to take a tour of the village on the double-decker London Bus, which makes a daily tour, complete with a bus driver who doubles as the witty narrator. John also takes you on tours of the Lord Milner Hotel.
The original Post Office is still in operation and helpfully houses the Curio shop for souvenirs, along with sundries that might have been forgotten by the hotel guests!
Take a visit to the museums and immerse yourself in a time long past
The Karoo National Park houses a terrific array of Springbok, Wildebeest, Deer, Ostrich including the magnificent Black Eagle and the shy Eagle Owl. Five tortoise species also find their home here, which is the most in any conservation area in the world. Take the Fossil Trail, or discover the Bushmen drawings.
Time seems to lazily roll by in this quiet, little backwater. Take a step off the hectic treadmill that is today’s life and spend time in an altogether more peaceful age. Soak up the atmosphere and the air and let it gently easy away your stresses and strains. You won’t be disappointed!
Helen Palmer is the author of the website http://www.magical-cape-town-vacations.com , whose family's love of Cape Town was spawned some 30 years ago, when her aunt moved there to live. Regular visits and a genuine love of travel persuaded Helen to share her passion. Grab a copy of the special report, “Where to Find Nelson Mandela in Cape Town" at http://www.magical-cape-town-vacations.com/palmers-cape-town-club.html