In 1884, young immigrant Scot, James Logan, purchased land at “a place calledMatjesfontein“, an insignificant railway halt in the depths of the Karoo. Today also known as Matjiesfontein Village. The Cape Government Railways had, by then, reached the Kimberley diamond fields, and – following Cecil Rhodes’ vision of the “road to the North”, his dream of a Cape to Cairo line – was extending into the Zambezi hinterland. Logan, whose meteoric rise was based on an energetic and meticulous efficiency, had been awarded the government catering contract at Touws River, which lies within the vast spaces of the Karoo.
In those days, dining cars were unheard of, and – aware that travellers needed sustenance on those interminable journeys to the interior – Logan saw the potential of this remote Matjesfontein halt. He had already found the Karoo air beneficial for his weak chest; and, entranced by the lunar majesty of the landscape, resigned his post and set about creating a village, seemingly in the depths of nowhere, which would make his fortune and become for many what John Buchan (remember “Prester John” and “The 39 Steps”?) would have recognised as a “Temenos” – a special place of the spirit.
Logan purchased the farm Matjesfontein and, with his thoroughly commercial instincts, three others which possessed plentiful water. He created what an enthusiast describes as an “Oasis”; planted trees (inevitably including the ubiquitous pepper) and a garden; built his own still-surviving residence, Tweedside Lodge; and established the famous Hotel Milner which was conveniently completed in 1899, and shortly thereafter served as the Headquarters of the Cape Western Command.
By early 1899, Matjiesfontein had become a fashionable watering place, attracting those who could afford to seek relief for chest complaints in the clear, bright air, entertaining distinguished visitors, some of whom were more parasite than patron. Lord Randolph Churchill is still remembered for “borrowing” a hunting dog which he never returned.
Olive Schreiner lived in her own cottage here for five years and published the book “Story of an African Farm”, which brought her instant fame and an income to last her a lifetime. Olive later became one of the first voices of feminism in South Africa. Today her small three-roomed cottage is a landmark in the village; Logan, a cricket fanatic, entertained most of the famous early teams visiting the Colony. Rudyard Kipling, on his first call at the Cape, made a special journey inland specifically to visit her. During the Boer War, Matjesfontein supported a base hospital, and Logan offered five of his villas as convalescent homes for soldiers.
Virtually all the British Army commanders – Lord Roberts, Douglas Haig, after his post as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF in France, and Edmund Ironside (Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 1940) – stayed or were entertained in the Village. Edgar Wallace – ex-trooper, war correspondent, thriller writer – sent his superb “Unofficial Despatches” from there.
All celebrated in their time and, even now, some are still remembered.
But why, a century on, does this little village still retain its strange magnetism? It lies in what, to the superficial traveller, must be a wilderness; so remote, apparently so insignificant. And yet, it retains its own unique, very civilised mystique. It is at the very core of this country’s history, holding a personality, an integrity and a sense of the past, which even the most transitory visitor may perceive, however dimly.
On the fringe of the Grand Karoo, the Lord Milner Hotel, the last authentic vestige of Victoriana, sits in all its past glory as a “must” stop on the N1 national highway linking Cape Town to Johannesburg and the northern part of South Africa. The Lord Milner’s 58 guest rooms have been well maintained over the years and a high standard of service upheld.
The esprit de corps of the courteous staff, the clean crisp air and the warmth of the atmosphere surrounding the Hotel, makes for a relaxing and revitalising stay. A pond, fountains, a riverbed and beautiful lush gardens can be seen around the hotel and guest rooms. Along with the blood-red sunsets, remarkable fauna and flora and its age-old traditions, Matjiesfontein and the Lord Milner Hotel gives itself to the ultimate tranquil escape.
There the former throughway between Cape Town and Kimberley crossed Matjiesfontein in front of the Village, one can see, between The Lord Milner Hotel and the Matjiesfontein Railway Station, a large open space that, according to history, was used as parade grounds during the Anglo-Boer War by the British Regiments that were stationed at Matjiesfontein.
In later years, regiments making nostalgic anniversary visits to Matjiesfontein used the same grounds to hold their parades and flag ceremonies.
The Union Jack is raised daily at the entrance of Matjiesfontein, on the turret of The Lord Milner Hotel and on a hill close to the airstrip.
Although Matjiesfontein promotes total rest and relaxation, business can be conducted in quiet lounges. The recently established Transport Museum, featuring old vintage cars and trains, can accommodate large corporate functions and wedding receptions, in its spacious double storey interior. A beautiful garden separates the Museum from renovated train cabins. Each compartment in the cabins is available for guest accommodation. Spacious restrooms with showers are located by the cabins.