Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein

A Journey into the past in darkest Africa To Matjiesfontein we go.

We were invited by Michael Pownall of PMR Group to stay at the famous Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein. It is in the deep Karoo, straight up the N1 motorway - direction Johannesburg - and while it seems further because the countryside keeps changing, is a really reachable two and a half hour drive from Cape Town, through some of the most beautiful scenery of the Western Cape. OK, the Karoo, which you reach after about one and a half hours, is very dry scrubland which can only sustain some sheep farming but it is high, the air is clean and pure and the nights sparkle with stars. Even on a wintry day, there was much to see and enjoy. In summer it will be hot. As one of John's family friends used to say, "Once you leave the Cape, its miles and miles of bloody Africa". He lived in Kenya, so he knew the continent very well. But driving long distances in the past was very tedious in the slow transport they had then
There are not many places to stop for lunch on the way up once you have left the winelands, so we made a quick stop at Steers for a burger and chips outside the little town of Touwsrivier, which used to be a junction for steam trains
The road off the N1 into Matjiesfontein
This is a classic Karoo Kopje (aka mesa) with a stand of gum trees which the trekkers planted for some shade. And the ubiquitous round water reservoir
Bright orange Spring gazanea daisies on the side of the railway line and on some of the roads. But, in our drought this year, they are sparse and are only growing where there is dew. It hasn't rained here for a while
We reach Matjiesfontein (meaning Friends’ fountain)
The Lord Milner Hotel was built by James Logan from Scotland, who stopped here in the 1880s and spotted the fact that the trains which had just begun to run to the North of the country and stopped at the small station here to take on water, did not offer food or drink to the passengers, so he decided to supply them, first with a small pub and later with this large and imposing hotel. He picked up a lot of trade from the gold and diamond rushes and during the South African War there was a large encampment of British across the way. He became rather rich. And a tiny village was born around the hotel for his staff, his friends and his guests
The very helpful and friendly receptionist Stephanie Appolis
We were given room 19 initially, right in the middle on the front, with our own terrace
Light and well decorated, with its own bathroom
The front hallway from the landing
One of the public rooms
The back terrace with a fountain and Peruvian Pepper trees, full of noisy male weaver birds making their spring nests for the wives. He weaves, she looks, if she doesn't like it, she tears it apart and he has to make it again. Happy wife, happy life
A side entrance to the terrace
Leafy and cool
There is a larger pond in the back gardens
Many rooms are on the garden side
There is a tiny chapel for weddings, and they do get quite a few as they have many rooms
Inside the chapel
George Rawdon and his son David owned Matjiesfontein for many years and made it what it is today. It was and still is famous. If you travel down from the north, it makes a very good overnight stop
The dry Matjies riverbed
A Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra) in the garden
One of the side roads next to the hotel, with some cottages
The old Court House
The Transport Museum which has two Royal Daimlers from King George VI’s 1947 tour of South Africa, which he undertook accompanied by the Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret
There are lots of bygones everywhere
The very short main street which has the train station on the left and the hotel on the right. Hotel parking is in the middle of the square
This was the old coffin wagon
And the trains do stop at Matjiesfontein
This was the Shosholoza Meyl, a passenger train which travels between Cape Town and Johannesburg - supposedly a regular train, but with the chaotic state of our state run railway, it is somewhat erratic. It has some sleeper cars and some seated carriages
The hotel is full of beautiful old antiques and several of these alabaster busts, all from the period when the hotel was built at the end of the 19th Century
Antiques on the first floor landing
The imposing stairway to the upper floors. The dining room door is on the right hand side
Lovely to sit and have some tea on the terrace
Right next door is the small pub, The Laird's Arms, where in the evening you will find Johnnie Theunissen entertaining guests on the piano with a sing song, He does very good impressions of our past presidents. And perhaps one of the present incumbent?
Patricia Lacoton of PMR Group management company with Eugene McKeet, the Laird's Arms barman
Eugene, the very friendly barman
Inside the pub, it does feel very authentically British
The dining room being set for dinner. We were given a table near the fireplace and were very glad of it, as the nights are quite cold in the Karoo in winter. That impressive cast iron barley sugar pillar seems to hold up the dark wood vaulted ceiling. Lynne grew up in some old Victorian hotels and this has exactly the same feel.
The dinner menu for Sunday 27th August
Linda Louw, one of our waitresses, she was so friendly and helpful
As was this lovely lady, Sharon Ackerman, with her lovely smile. They are very well trained
Teresa, one of the hotel cats, loves to come and sit on your bed, if you let her
We were moved before dinner as we had found our original room rather noisy; it was directly above the dining room and its loudspeaker which plays monotonous muzac. The hotel manager was very accommodating and offered us three different luxury rooms. This is the one we chose, at the back of the hotel and very quiet
We had a small dressing room. We should mention that the bed linen at the Lord Milner is top quality percale, it crackles and is lovely to sleep under. The hotel has three stars, so there is not a hospitality fridge in each room, nor are there TVs. But the beds are excellent, the bathrooms spacious and we were very, very comfortable
Candle lit dinner. The hotel was nice and busy for a Sunday night
Lynne chose the Avocado and shrimp salad for her starter, nice and fresh, very small prawns, but a good dressing
John had the Avocado gazpacho with two rather cremated prawns on top. We both ordered a glass of the House white wine at R30. It was from Rooiberg and was rather ordinary. We think they might need a new supplier of house wine
For mains John had the seared Springbok which came with a vanilla and butternut purée, (very sweet), a potato fondant and a good red wine jus. It was nicely pink inside and tender
Lynne had the Grilled Laingsburg lamb chops. Three on the plate, cut a bit thin but tender with good flavour, as Karoo wild herb fed lamb should be. This had a purée of potato and pumpkin, a light ratatouille, fresh baby carrots and some lamb jus
Oh, they do make very good chips
We ordered a bottle of the Spier 1692 Cabernet Sauvignon at R154 a bottle to drink with the main courses. It is a classic cassis driven cabernet, lightly oaked, juicy and absolutely made for juicy meat dishes
The hotel at night
We popped into the bar briefly to see what was going on
And so up to the room to do a little work on our computers; we have to try and produce MENU before Thursday and we have a lot to cover this week. However the Wifi was rather weak
One of us worked at this table
The other at this small marble topped table
The  hallway in our suite; bathroom first after the small table; dressing room, the nearest door
Another bedroom, with its bathroom down a short staircase
After a good night's sleep, we wandered down to breakfast at 9
We will continue this story next week, we have so much more to show and tell

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