A Karoo story of another kind, by Robert Jaentsch

Dedicated to Tim Bruwer who awakened an almost forgotten but cherished memory of the Karoo …

There are two main routes for travelling by road from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa. You can take the N1 highway via Bloemfontein or the N12 via Kimberley. On this occasion we travelled via Kimberley.

A mighty interesting town is Kimberley. Nearly everyone knows about the Big Hole, also known as Kimberley Mine. It has an area of 38 acres at the surface, is 790 feet deep and nowadays is about half full of water. Between 1871 and 1914, 25 million tons of earth was excavated from it yielding fourteen and a half million carats, or roughly three tons, of diamonds.

Not everyone knows it was on a farm owned by the De Beer brothers and in 1871 they sold it for £6,000, after diamonds had been found. By 1892 Kimberley had a tent encampment of 50,000 diggers and it was plain to some that consolidation had to come. Enter a young man from London’s east end, named Barney Barnato, and a vicar’s son from Bishops Stortford, in England, named Cecil Rhodes. They each began buying up small claims. Eventually Rhodes bought out Barnato and the remaining small claims to form De Beers Mining Company, which to this day controls the distribution of most of the world’s diamonds.

Perhaps even less known is that when the Boer War started in October 1899, the Boers, in a series of daring raids, besieged the British garrison at Kimberley and also those at Ladysmith and Mafeking. It took the British over 200 days to liberate those garrisons and it was at Mafeking, during the siege, that Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scout movement. In the early stages of that war the Brits, with their scarlet tunics and conventional war tactics, were no match for the Boers, in their Khaki drabs using guerrilla warfare tactics. That war was the most costly of all wars fought by Britain up to that time. They sent 500,000 men from most countries of the Commonwealth and it took two and a half years and a parched earth policy to subdue 35,000 Boers.

Kimberley sits at the eastern edge of the Karoo, a semi arid desert region that extends through much of central South Africa. The drive from Kimberley to Beaufort West is the South African equivalent of crossing the Nullarbor. It’s by no means so far but is similar because there is so little evidence of civilisation along the way. By one o’clock we were beginning to feel hungry and thirsty for the Karoo is a hot place to travel through, especially in summer. Though I stopped at every small congregation of buildings in the hope of finding sustenance there was nothing at all that would satisfy a vegetarian. Did I mention that Mrs J is a vegetarian?

At a place called Matjiesfontein we turned off the main road to fill the car with petrol. As far as we could see it comprised a railway station, post office, two petrol bowsers, a couple of fine two story houses, a scattering of cottages and the splendid Lord Milner Hotel which seemed so completely out of place here at the southern edge of the Great Karoo. After refuelling we walked along the only street to the hotel and stepped inside to see if it was possible to get something to eat and drink. The entrance foyer had a tessellated tile floor that was a work of art, an ornate ceiling of several different kinds of timber and a grand mahogany staircase that took you to the upper floor. Stepping inside you knew immediately this was pure luxury, but what was it doing out here in the desert?

At three o’clock in the afternoon we were the only patrons in the dining room and serving lunch had finished. It was cool and elegant with an unmistakably Victorian ambiance, furnished with antiques of the period and with the faintest fragrance of lemon balm in the air. A waitress in a servant’s dress of black with white cuffs and collar and a pale blue bonnet on her head courteously showed us to a table. We asked if they had anything that was cool and refreshing and suitable for a vegetarian. We were so hungry we’d have been grateful for Marmite on toast but when the waitress returned with bowls of chilled carrot and orange soup we could hardly believe our eyes. It was like being in some sort of time warp. Half an hour ago we were driving through a hot, desolate landscape, now we sat in the cool comfort of a sumptuous Victorian dining room being served chilled carrot and orange soup. How had it happened? The soup tasted so good and was so refreshing we each had a second bowl. As we drove out of Matjiesfontein towards Cape Town we promised ourselves we would stop here again on our return journey.

When the Cape Railway from Cape Town to Kimberley was being built, a Scotsman, one James Logan, was given the concession to supply food at the stations along the route. He suffered from a bronchial condition and found this benefitted from the warm, dry climate at the edge of the Karoo and was astute enough to recognise that many well heeled folk in Europe who suffered from similar complaints could benefit in the same way. He purchased Matjiesfontein farm, built a water pumping station there and turned it into a lush, green oasis with sculptured gardens, fountains, duck ponds, tennis courts and a swimming pool with luxurious villas to accommodate his wealthy guests. In 1899 he built a luxury hotel opposite the railway station and named it the Lord Milner after the Governor of the Cape Colony. His timing was a bit off for by the time it was finished the Boer War was under way and it became a military hospital and headquarters of the Cape Western Command with 10,000 British soldiers living in tents on the farm.

When the Boer War ended the Lord Milner became a fashionable and favoured holiday retreat and spa for those with the money to enjoy it, because of its salubrious climate, its luxurious appointments and the excellence of its food, wine and service. Randolph Churchill, Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling were frequent visitors and, Edgar Wallace, war correspondent, then crime writer and author of the original King Kong, sent his Boer War dispatches from there.

When James Logan died in 1920 Matjiesfontein began a slow decline that continued until the 1960s when South African entrepreneur David Rawdon bought the entire village and restored it to its former Victorian elegance.

On our return journey we stayed overnight at the Lord Milner so we could step back in time and enjoy the very best that the Victorian era could offer. After an enjoyable lunch we spent a relaxing afternoon just exploring all that was on offer that we had missed on our first visit and lazing about to take it all in. And it took some taking in, all this man made beauty and luxury in this desolate desert setting.

Dinner was formal and for me that meant a jacket and bow tie. Mrs J wore a loose fitting floral print dress that covered her from neck to ankles, the closest approximation to Victoriana from her holiday wardrobe. Of course no self respecting gentleman and woman would be seen in public without a hat in Victorian times and the hotel provided us with these. The three course dinner was excellent, with crisp white tablecloths, monogrammed fine china crockery, and real silver cutlery. I had the Karoo lamb, which South Africans will tell you is the best there is. Dessert was served from a trolley so that the senses of sight and smell could influence your choice, so much more satisfying than a description on a menu card. After dinner we walked again in the gardens and they were devastatingly romantic in the cool, clear, crisp, night air of the Karoo and a sky in which the stars twinkled with a clarity never matched in a city.

Next morning, after breakfast and before we departed, we walked through the veldt on the other side of the railway station. Amidst the delicate colours and sweet scent of the wild flowers which bloom from the merest sprinkle of summer rains, I tried to imagine the scene when it was inhabited by 10,000 British troops. A reflection of the sun caught my eye and I kicked at it, then bent and picked up a spent brass cartridge case from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. For years it stood as a reminder of an enchanted visit back in time to the Victorian era in that most unlikely place at the edge of the Karoo.





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