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Jo'Burg Days: The Two Matjiesfonteins - A Study In Contrasts

“The only indication of a landing strip was the windsock flying - juicy and fat-bellied - in the strong coastal wind. As the small company plane approached the area, the first indication of a change in the landscape was the flat-topped mountain. Rising so unexpectedly out of the featureless terrain, copper-coloured buttresses glinting in the morning sun it was immediately the focus of all eyes….’’ Barbara Durlacher again displays her magical ability, possessed of all good travel writers, of making you want to go and see the places she describes.

The only indication of a landing strip was the windsock flying - juicy and fat-bellied - in the strong coastal wind. As the small company plane approached the area, the first indication of a change in the landscape was the flat-topped mountain. Rising so unexpectedly out of the featureless terrain, copper-coloured buttresses glinting in the morning sun it was immediately the focus of all eyes. This mountain ridge is the demarcation line between the coastal plain and the colder, wetter Bokkeveld plateau.

Over the millennia erosion has created the dry sandy plains that lie between the workaday towns of Vredendal and Lutzville, Vanrhynsdorp and the start of Van Rhyns Pass. Giving rise to the curious name of “Knersvlakte” old-timers claimed that the name came from the sound of wagons grinding over the pebbles, rather like the grinding of teeth (“kners”) but in reality the origins of so many of the names in this area are lost in antiquity. Nearly impossible to translate, many originate from the Nama language which has never been written down.

Now these dry plains form a dramatic introduction to the floral kingdom on the high plateau. The steep climb up the winding pass would have been a strenuous journey 100 years ago, and today when one reaches the tiny village of Nieuwoudtville, the lack of all obvious amenities causes acute disappointment.

Largely overlooked by the rush of progress, this is a place where time has stood still. The few buildings in use in the village comprise a small and very basic hotel, a butchery, a rather under- stocked shop, and a stone church with an imposing steeple. These, together with a few secluded houses, form the nucleus of a once prosperous farming community. Only the large gabled Victorian house converted into a craft and coffee shop, with the sign "Indigo" shows signs of activity and life.

This area, known as the "Bokkeveld" has a very different climate to the coastal plains of Namaqualand. Prevailing winds from the sea drop their moisture as they reach the plateau and the deep, rich soils stay damp and cool for a large part of the year. The hot dry lands closer to the ocean are perpetually scoured by the salty winds; the soil is poor and thin, and crops grow with difficulty. Here shallow rooting annuals, the famous "Namaqualand daisies" and hardy succulents survive, but after good winter rains this desolate area is transformed into one of the wonders of the world. Colourful daisies bloom everywhere and tiny succulents, protected and hidden during the summer months by the heat-reflecting white quartz pebbles, show their hidden flowers. In contrast, the cool moist climate of the plateau has provided the conditions needed by a different genus. Known as the 'floral bulb kingdom of the world' an incredible wealth and variety of bulbs grow on the Bokkeveld plateau. Researchers list over 3000 species of unique plants endemic to this area.

If one visits here after good winter and spring rains, the abundance and beauty of the flowers is breathtaking. Not surprisingly, botanists and flower lovers are happy to make the long journey when the fields are in flower, but accommodation is scarce and must be booked months in advance. So, if the winter is dry and the flowers fail to bloom, it can be a disappointing and wasted journey for visitors.

This had been an exceptionally dry year and the lands stood bare and empty. There were no flowers. Expecting tractor/trailer rides through fields buzzing with bees and full of colour and scent, enjoying the delicate and varied blossoms, our anticipation turned to disappointment. As we left the tarred road on the outskirts of the village, the overflowing ditches and slippery mud told their tale. The heavy rain we had encountered coming up the pass had done its work, and whilst we would not see any flowers, it foretold that some weeks later, the fields would be filled with colour.

What to do instead? No trailer rides, no walks amongst the flowers while examining the fragrant blooms. However, there was an alternative. Entering the farmlands, we reached a low stone barn. Instead of the trailer ride a hearty farm lunch waited, welcome on a squally, windy day.

"Come into the warm, make yourselves comfortable" our hostess Lana van Wyk said, welcoming us with outstretched hands as we climbed from the coach. Once inside, the savoury smells of good farm cooking, a glass or two of local wine, a warm fire and a comfortable chair soon put us at our ease.

The small sandstone barn, cosy in the inclement weather, soon filled with chatter and laughter. Soft lantern light brought out the charm of the unpainted walls and simple furnishings. The reed ceilings, hand-hewn joists and beams testified to the use of local materials and labour. Dried flower heads filled the empty feed troughs, a worn leather satchel hung from a nail; an old school slate lay on the dresser. On the pine shelves a chipped enamel coffee pot and a battered colander alternated with brightly coloured bottles of preserved fruits.

Sensing my interest, Lana said "Many years ago the "knegte" (or as she translated it, the 'slave' of the farmer) became overseer. He was given this place to live in and made it comfortable. He lived happily here for a long time."

She continued. "Later the barn was used as the farm school. The overseer lived in two rooms, classes were held in the larger middle room, and the children's horses waited in the back. My grandfather told me that when classes were over they used to race home bareback."

Resuming her chat after serving the steaming bowls of barley and vegetable soup, she said, "My husband and I didn't want it to stand empty, so decided to convert it. We sell our farm produce and light meals. Day visitors can always get a meal here, especially as there is only the coffee shop in the village. Campers sit here to chat and have a drink when cold and rain make tent life mierable; you know how people like to take things easy on holiday. Usually they get together and have a nice braai (barbeque) at night. Providing a hot meal during the day makes a nice change for the ladies. They don't have to cook for the family, we do it for them," she laughs.

The converted barn carries an unmistakeable aura of life in former times. The unpretentious rough and ready lifestyle has a certain charm, while the surroundings still give a faint idea of life over a hundred years ago. The Van Wyks have also provided modern self-catering accommodation. Across the field, shining in the fitful sunlight after the rain are several white washed Cape Dutch farm buildings. Well insulated against heat and cold under their caps of thatch, these two and three bedroomed cottages are the ideal alternative. Simple bathrooms, electricity, and well-fitted kitchens as well as ample space for youngsters to play, they are all a visitor needs for a quiet country retreat. Closer to the barn, a secluded quiet camping area with ablution facilities completes the simple but attractive complex. Matjiesfontein is an ideal stopover for campers, 4x4 drivers, mountain-bikers, hikers and flower enthusiasts and those wanting a restful break in the country.

One cannot help comparing this simple farm with the Victorian village of the same name on the main road to Johannesburg. At first sight, the Lord Milner Hotel standing foursquare against the rocky koppies seems incongruously out-of-place. Like a faded snapshot, the Victorian buildings doze in the bright sunlight. The fine, dusty leaves of the pepper trees rustle in a hot breeze blowing from the barren veld. The elegant tiered fountain tinkles it's tiny tune into the emptiness. Seemingly frozen in time, the railway signal remains in the 'Up' position waiting for a train that never comes.

In 1883 an enterprising young Scot named Jimmy Logan obtained the concession from the Cape Railways to operate a refreshment stop at this watering point on the main line to the interior. After the steep climb up from the coast through the Hex River Mountains, the steam trains needed to refill their water tanks for the long journey across the Karoo.

The newly discovered diamond fields were bringing streams of travellers to Kimberley. By ox-wagon, cart, coach and train they passed through Matjiesfontein on their way to the riches they hoped to find in the 'blue ground' of the Kimberlite pipes. A few years later, after the discovery of gold, these numbers swelled to a flood, some venturing as far as Rhodesia. These were the people who patronised the Lord Milner Hotel and made Jimmy Logan a wealthy man.

Today there are no happy crowds of visitors alighting for a drink and a meal before the long stretch north. The leisurely pace of far-off days has gone with a puff of the desert air. A few days break in the comfortable hotel enjoying the health benefits of the dry climate and pure clean air is no longer de rigueur. Well-dressed Victorians no longer fill the hotel with their talk and gossip. Happy evenings around the piano enjoying a singsong are over; but memories remain. When James Douglas Logan died in 1920, Matjiesfontein was no longer the fashionable resort it had been. Quietly it began to decline until, by-passed by the National Road at the end of WWII, it sank into obscurity.

But run-down and shabby though it might have been, it never lost its potential. The imaginative Victorian spirit with which Jimmy Logan had imbued it was still there, awaiting the right sort of exploitation. This was when, in 1968, David Rawdon bought the village and started his labour of love and restoration, which has resulted in the present-day charming period village and hotel.

The hotel, an elegant double story edifice with three castellated towers, each with its own flagstaff, is in tip-top condition. The Union Jack and two South African flags snap in the breeze. The fashionable Victorian ironwork known as "broekie lace" decorating the front wall and balconies shines white in the sunlight. Inside, an imposing mahogany staircase leads to the comfortable bedrooms. Heavily padded armchairs chairs wait for an occupant. A portrait of a shawled, lace-capped dowager hangs on the wall. The bouquet of wax flowers under a glass dome, although faded and wan, recalls front parlours of long ago.

The unpretentious boarding house or "loesieshuis" adjacent to the hotel provides charming alternative accommodation. A well-stocked shop doubling as the post office tempts the visitor with its many treasures. The sunny courtyard mews at the back of the hotel overlooks well-kept lawns surrounding the small swimming pool. Doves coo in the trees, the warm breeze whispers through the leaves, and peace and quiet envelopes the historic Victorian village. An air of secure immutability, spiced with savoury smells from the coffee shop and kitchen lure the traveller to stay overnight. Parked in front of the hotel is a lovingly restored vintage Model 'T' funeral hearse with gilt embellished windows. In the nearby transport complex are displayed a red London bus, vintage train, and several cars, a wistful reminder of a more leisurely age.

During the Boer War a vast Remount Camp, with 10 000 troops and 20 000 horses was established on the outskirts of Matjiesfontein, and rusty bully beef and biscuit tins can still be found littering the veld. During the latter part of the war, part of the hotel served as a convalescent hospital for British officers, and its central turret became an armed lookout post.

Occasionally parties of steam train enthusiasts from Cape Town arrive. Dressed in Victorian finery, they flock to enjoy a convivial weekend, with fine foods, good wines and much good cheer. This unique resort, only 240 kms from Cape Town and 1000 metres above sea-level, with air like dry champagne, still offers an excellent selection of accommodation and plenty to see and do. An adjoining sheep farm has 4x4 trails and walks. As an alternative stopover for travellers using the N1 between the Witwatersrand and the Cape Matjiesfontein provides a comfortable overnight stay, a small window into the past, and a chance to relax for a few hours. For those with less time to spare, the attractive coffee house offers light meals and refreshments.

With acknowledgements to the brochure of the Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein for information on Jimmy Logan.

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