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Touring SA's Forgotten History

By J.F. Kloppers

To some, Matjiesfontein may be the one-horse town that died after the main highway was rerouted around it, but to others with patience and time to spare, it’s a treasure trove of buildings and memorabilia.

We were on The Forgotten Route, a two-day whistle-stop tour of some of the characters and buildings that helped shape South Africa's rich history in the Western Cape province.

Setting off from the Cape Town Tourist Information office, we walked across cobblestones in Greenmarket Square. We heard him before we saw him, on the steps of the Town House: Lord Riaan Renke dressed in top hat and braces.

Greenmarket Square dates back to 1696 and was originally known as Burger Watch Square. It’s the central point from which the landscape of Cape Town was mapped out.

Walking through the Company’s Garden, Lord Riaan painted a picture of the life and times of two controversial giants, Cecil John Rhodes and James Douglas Logan.

We stepped back in time to enter the hinterland to meet explorers and diamond miners. But first we needed a passport; after all, we would be crossing the imaginary line that locals call the boerewors curtain.

At the Kimberley Hotel, pictures were snapped and stuck into passports that would be stamped at places of interest along the way. In the 1800s, this hotel was the starting point for prospectors with diamond-studded dreams who headed east on horse-drawn carriages.

Watching Table Mountain shrink, Lord Riaan described how ox wagons had negotiated the sandy Cape Flats near Bellville. This expanding town grew up around a village called Twelve Mile Stone, the exact distance from the centre of Cape Town that could be travelled by ox wagons.

Passing through the Huguenot Tunnel we bypassed the country’s third oldest town. Paarl is named after the granite rock which shines like a pearl after rain. Below the tunnel is Wellington situated in Wamakersvallei.

From the N1 we took a right to pass through Rawsonville before being warmly welcomed at Kirabo Private Cellar. It was harvest time, the air rich with the “angels share” as black grapes fermented in plastic vats.

Fifth-generation owners Karen and Pieter le Roux produce a series of distinctive red wines. Merlot, petit-verdot, cabernet sauvignon, we tasted them all but it was Cupcake, a blend of merlot and shiraz that created a stir. Served with cake baked with juice from the grapes, Cupcake is a light, off-dry, red wine with a slightly sugary and berry nose. Inspired by their children, it’s for the young at heart with a zest for life.

But the Shosholoza Meyl would not wait and so, crossing Honeymoon Bridge and the Breede River, we boarded the train. The windows were filled with wall-to-wall mountains and vineyards as we chugged through the engineering feat of a 14km long tunnel, built by the French in the 1970s.

Emerging into the dry veld, we soon arrived at Matjiesfontein to be greeted with a welcome drink and music spilling from a gramophone.

This colonial oasis appears frozen in its Victorian-era glory days and filled with glamour, mystique, magic and ghosts. It also boasts being the first town in South Africa to have a flush toilet and a private phone line.

After settling in and taking a swim, we met in the Laird’s Arms. No time for boules as John Theunissen called us to board the London double-decker bus for a bizarre tour of the town. In a heartbeat it was over, followed by a loud, dramatic tour of the hotel’s private rooms, honky tonk music in the Laird’s Arms, a Klein Karoo lamb braai, of course, and a bottle or three of Kirabo wine.

In a jolly mood, Lord Riaan bedazzled us with constellations, ghost stories and a tour of the Mary Rawden Museum, the biggest private museum in the country. Returning to the hotel there was no sign of ghosts.

After a hearty breakfast, our journey back to the present began with a stop at the railway museum before stopping at the graveyard of legends, 10km from Matjiesfontein. It’s another 10km to Logan’s farmhouse, Tweedside Lodge, marked by white pillars built for Queen Victoria’s visit.

Saying goodbye to James Logan and his empire, we passed Loganda Lodge in Touws River, opened by him after his resignation from the railways.

Taking a left from the N1, we passed through Bijstein Nature Reserve before descending into the Koo Valley. At the family-owned Oupa Batt se Winkel, which has been serving the local people since 1915, Hannetjie Augustine demonstrated how to make biltong. Inside the store, strips of meat hang inside a drying box. Out back are trays of fruit drying in the sun, turned by hand each day, one at a time.

Lunch was enjoyed in a house next door, and what a spread it was – potjies of shin and veggies on a table laden with vetkoek, salads, pickles and jams. Next up, scrumptious desserts – enough to feed an army.

Reluctant to leave, we moved on, but not far before stopping to capture the scenery on Burgers Pass. Originally known as Koo Pass, it was re-christened in 1957 to honour the indefatigable Mr Burger and his fervent passion to create a road link between Montagu and the N1.

Next stop was Kingna brandy distillery on the outskirts of Montagu. “Just when you think you’ve gone too far,” according to Ruan Hunlun.

Taking us on a tour of the cellar, Ruan removed a bung from a barrel releasing the rich aromas of fruit at work since 2009. Mouths watered as we then tasted brandy paired with chocolate.

The name Kingna represents the river that runs through Montagu joining the Keisie River to flow through Cogmanskloof towards Ashton.

One last stop at the Anglo-Boer War fort, perched on a tunnel above Route R62, the world’s longest wine route. Cheers!

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