I don’t think many people can say that they have spent a night alone in one of South Africa’s most haunted hotels, and yet, no lies, I was the only guest at Matjiesfontein’s Lord Milner Hotel, when I stayed there the first time. Driving with a huge freight from Cape Town, severe rain, wind and hail forced me to break my journey after a mere 230 km, take the first available turnoff, and look for shelter.
As I am sure many a traveller journeying from Cape Town to the interior before me, I re-secured my load, checked in and wandered over to the Laird’s Arms with its historic saloon-like atmosphere. It is here that I first met Johnny and learned that the energetic Scottish railway man, James Logan’s 1884 building is never truly empty – even guests who check in as the only guests, are never quite alone.
That night I heard the footsteps and voices in the passage extending from the staircase and the early Karoo, Anglo-Boer War, and Queen Victoria’s England become very much alive.
I have since visited Matjiesfontein at every chance I get – each visit again a feast for my imagination – making me no stranger to that bastion of Victoriana beyond the platform. I am always treated byto an old world charm of red-jacketed porters, Karoo lamb, and Johnny’s fingers clambering ‘Trein na Matjiesfontein’ until the honky-tonk escapes through open windows into the Karoo night and I try to drink enough wine so that I can smile at the ghosts.
As I have always arrived by car, I wanted more than anything to recapture the romance and atmosphere of a bygone era and travel by rail, aboard the fabled Rovos Rail, through the haunting barrenness of the Great Karoo to reach this fringe, where the Lord Milner appears as if out of nowhere.
As luck would have it, the McGrath Collection invited us to Dean Allen’s launch of “Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein”. The book explores in detail how Matjiesfontein was created and how Logan developed this little Karoo town into a renowned health resort, attracting the rich and famous, including South African novelist Olive Schreiner and England cricketer George Lohmann.
Again my visit to this magical place allowed me to be set back in time and Matjiesfontein, a feast for the imagination, made me ponder on the importance of maintaining our colourful heritage.
South Africa has a very tricky history: we house colonialism, disrespect for indigenous cultures, wars and the world-renowned Apartheid. But we also house liberation and freedom and respect and accolades of moving beyond the past, into a beautiful future. Together.
In many ways, buildings like the Lord Milner Hotel increase the attractiveness of cultural heritage sites in South Africa and improve the living environment for its residents. Arriving at Matjies, since beautifully refurbished by the McGrath Collection, reminded me again that guys like Rhodes and Kruger are part of our history, as are Mandela and King Shaka.
Matjiesfontein is a symbol of colonialism, yes, but I love our diverse histories. I like to see the whole picture. I don’t want the good or bad reminders to be hidden – they are all part of who we (and I) are today.
Words: Daréll Lourens