Who would've thought time travel could be so easy! No need for warp drive engines or any of that space time continuum nonsense... all you need to do to subtract a century or so from today's date is leave Cape Town on the N1, drive north-east for around three hours and hang a right when you see the Union Jack fluttering on the corner. Quite simple really...
The small slice of Victorian South Africa that still survives in the heat of the Great Karoo owes its existence to an ambitious young Scotsman who first settled the town of Matjiesfontein in 1883 to provide meals to rail passengers travelling between the Cape colony and the goldfields of the Transvaal. That was well before the days of the BJ's dining car of course.
The secret of his success, so the story goes, is that passengers stopping in town for lunch would pay for a three-course meal, but Logan would serve the first course (soup) so scalding hot that the train was ready to leave long before passengers could finish the starter and move on to the main course.
The hospitality these days is far more welcoming and makes the village an excellent stop-over for holidaymakers doing the 'great trek' to and from the coast.
The town has been a stalwart of the N1 since the 1970s, when it was a requisite stop for honeymooners and travelling families, and although the station wagons and soap-covered cars may be a bit less frequent nowadays, the town still retains every ounce of the charm that made it a popular Victorian health resort in its 19th century heyday.
Right side of the tracks
For a town that is little more than a single 300m-long street, there's a surprising amount to see and do in the town, and a sloooow wander down the picture perfect Logan Street is an excellent way to pass the afternoon.
From the collection of classic cars and train carriages (one was the hiding place of an early Finders Keepers R1-million) in the Transport Museum to the replica Victorian bank in the reception area, strolling through town feels much like stepping through Alice's looking glass into the 1890s. In contrast to the bleak railway houses on the opposite side of the tracks, the line of Victorian buildings look almost like cardboard cut-outs against the stark Karoo landscape, but a step inside any of the buildings reveals that they have been kept as authentic as possible.
Apart from the quaint coffee shop (in the old general store) and the Victorian pub - the Laird's Arms - the most intriguing spot in town is the Marie Rawdon museum. An eclectic collection of Victorian nick-nacks, it can probably lay claim to having the world's largest collection of ceramic bed-pans in the world. It's a varied jumble of everything from Boer war memorabilia to 1950s dentistry equipment and is a great place to spend an hour or two.
Another experience not to be missed is the guided tour on the town's only 'public transport' - a bright red 50's-style London bus. Complete with a "guide/entertainer" recounting the town's history along the way, the five-minute tour on a London bus through the Great Karoo has to rate as one of South Africa's most surreal experiences.
The bus eventually wheezes to a halt outside the town's main attraction - the grandiose Lord Milner Hotel. Day visitors not lucky enough to be spending the night here will have to content themselves with a peek through the front door where the sweeping Victorian staircase, flanked by swathes of plush velvet curtains, sweeps visitors into the hotel beyond.
Up the stairs and down the creaky hallway (this building dates back over a century after all) are the hotel's 14 beautifully furnished rooms, each decorated in a grand Victorian style. They may be showing their age slightly, but what they lack in modern amenities ? you won't find a TV in your room, just an old push-button radio offering Radio-Twee-Duisend ? they more than make up for in character. Forgive the uneven floorboards and rattly sash windows and you'll be charmed by how the hotel has retained its identity through the years.
And charm the hotel certainly has in bucketloads. Although the Victorian decor may not be everyone's cup of Earl Grey, it's hard not to be swept away by the feeling of stepping back in time. Nowhere more so than in the grand dining room, where old-time Karoo favourites (the roast lamb alone is worth the drive) are served by doylied waitresses who are as much a part of the hotel as the carved wooden ceilings and embossed crockery. It's old-fashioned food and old-fashioned service, but you wouldn't want it any other way.
So whether you're coming to 'take the air' as the Victorians did or merely breaking the monotony of a cross-country N1 trip for a few hours, the quaint village of Matjiesfontein is well worth a stop-over. Just make sure you stay long enough to finish the soup?
For more information...
- Matjiesfontein is situated 240kms from Cape Town on the N1 freeway. Alternatively, the Shosholoza Meyl 'Trans Karoo' train stops at Matjiesfontein as it travels between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
- To find out more about the town, visit www.matjiesfontein.com or contact the hotel on (023) 561 3011.
- Rooms in the hotel start from R260 per person per night. Self-catering accommodation and additional rooms are also available.