Matjiesfontein and the Lord Milner Hotel – Karoo
I was recently invited by the Mc Grath group to spend an evening in Matjiesfontein, at the Lord Milner Hotel. I LOVE the Karoo, so I was super excited to explore this little village, rich in history and heritage. Firstly, I thought that Matjiesfontein was a town, then they said it was a village and when we got there, I realized it was really only one little strip of road. Matjiesfontein is TINY, friends. I was so charmed by this little community – population 320. There is one hotel, one motel, a bar, a coffee shop and well, that’s pretty much it. Some of the original buildings like the post office and the little bank had been converted to museums some time ago. The entire village is a national monument. Why?
This tiny village, on the fringe of the Great Karoo, was founded in 1884 by legendary railway man, James Douglas Logan. Immerse yourself in living history; life here is a tribute to the early Karoo, the Anglo-Boer War and Queen Victoria’s England. Wikipedia says: Originally, Matjiesfontein was only a small depot and farm, however a Scotsman by the name of James Douglas Logan, who was superintendent of this stretch of railway, bought land at Matjiesfontein, moved there because of his weak chest, and opened a refreshment station for the passing trains. This was so successful that the business soon formed the nucleus of a growing village. Logan was unintentionally very influential in South African history as he had secured the catering contract for the railways through his friend in parliament, James Sivewright, and discovery of the corruption involved led to the fall of the first government of Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes in 1893
The double-storey Milner Hotel was built in 1899 by James Logan, in the early stages of The South African War. The hotel was used as a military hospital during the conflict with British forces and the hotel turret was then used as a lookout post. Some 10 000 troops were camped around the village during this time. James Logan, founder of Matjiesfontein, died in 1920 and is buried in a little cemetery 10 kilometres from Matjiesfontein. His tomb is located next to the grave of George Lohmann, a famous English cricketer who spent the last years of his life in the Karoo.
In 1968, David Rawdon, hotelier par excellence whose claim to fame includes establishing Rawdons Hotel at Nottingham Road, the well-known Lanzerac Hotel set in the Stellenbosch vineyards, the Marine Hotel Hermanus, and The Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet, purchased Matjiesfontein Village. After performing extensive renovations and utilising the wealth of antiques gathered during his world travels, David reopened the hotel in 1970, renaming it The Lord Milner Hotel.
The extravagant Royal Lounge portrays the life of James Logan and other famous Victorian personalities who occupied or visited the village over the last century. The grandeur of Matjiesfontein stretches back to a heyday when the village was a fashionable health spa that attracted visitors from all over the world, including Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), Cecil John Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling and of course, Olive Schreiner.
And you know what? You will completely understand why so many literary greats and artists were so attracted to this village, and why you will be too. It’s a popular wedding venue (because you can literally hire the entire town) and I’m definitely going back with the kids. They will LOVE the transport museum, old courthouse, the lush gardens, pools, open space, fresh air and the museum. We did a night tour of it, and I was scared near to death. Not to mention all the ghost stories. Do yourself a favour and google “most haunted building in South Africa.” Yeah, they only told me that part on the bus. I was legit terrified you guys.
Please visit this quaint little community. You will absolutely love it. Be sure to take the old London bus tour for the shortest tour in the history of mankind, and a completely hilarious experience. Johan Dippenaar (hotel manager, fire chief, police captain, museum curator and I forget what else) is an incredible host and you simply must spend some time with him and hear all the insanely cool stories. You feel special just being there, and you’ll never forget it.