Matjiesfontein owes its existence to one single person who had the vision and mission to create something from nothing in the middle of nowhere. This man was James Douglas Logan, a Scot, born in 1857 and arrived by accident in South Africa when his ship was wrecked near Simonstown in the Cape Peninsula. He found work as a porter at the Cape Town Railway Station and later became district superintendent. He married Emma Haylett and bought in farm in the Karoo, called Tweedside, sunk some boreholes and planted fruit trees, against the advice of some local farmers, and made a huge success of it. At the same time Logan was involved in developing Matjiesfontein as a recuperating facility for suffers of respiratory problems. But this was not the end of Logan; he had some more plans up his sleeve! He was also the proud owner of the longest private telephone line in the country connecting Tweedside and Matjiesfontein.
And still Logan pressed forward. He discovered some big subterranean water reservoirs in the vicinity of the village and with a water pipe system fed the village and the railway station with water – steam trains need a lot of water to operate and Logan saw the need and the gap. If you take a walk in the village and cross the mostly dry creek you will stumble upon the first reservoir near the sparkling blue swimming pool.
On the cards for Matjiesfontein was a tennis court, a golf course and a cricket pitch as cricket was the main sport at the time in England. In 1901 Matjiesfontein hosted a cricket match between South Africa and England. Logan also toured England with is very own cricket team with its very own interesting story!
Still Logan pressed forward to put Matjiesfontein on the map. Thanks to him it was the first village in South African that had electric lights and a waterborne sewerage system. As an excellent destination marketer interesting names that visited Matjiesfontein, after arriving by mail boat, was Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill and the sultan of Zanzibar. Local names of the time that you will recognize is Olive Schreiner, who rented a house next to the hotel, Cecil John Rhodes and Lord Roberts during the Anlgo Boer War.
The present-day hotel was erected by Logan as a hospital and the turrets were used as lookout posts during the Anglo Boer War. He also raised his own mounted corps, at his own expense, and was wounded twice in the war. James Logan must have been a wealthy man as all these projects required, apart from vision, lots of money.
In 1968 Dawid Rawdon bought the property and put in a huge effort to renovate the hotel to its former glory and opened it in 1970. He was also the brain behind The Drostdy Hotel in Graaff Reinet and the Lanzerac in Stellenbosch. This will also then explain the car in the museum branded with the word Lanzerac – I was wondering about this. In the plus/minus 130 years of existence the town was owned by only two families!
Matjiesfontein is an unexpected step back into time in the middle of the Karoo and a welcome relieve to break the monotony of your trip and worth to explore.
Feel free to listen to Dr Dean Allen on VoiceMap as he takes you on a walking tour through the village and share some interesting titbits.