Matjiesfontein is a tiny settlement in the Western Cape beside a railway line in the Great Karoo of South Africa. Nothing indigenous grows taller than your shin, the days are blisteringly hot and the nights make you reach for a blanket. When I stayed there forty years ago, it was a decaying ruin trying to keep up pretences so gentlemen had to wear socks to dinner. Where has this place come from, and what has it become?
Matjiesfontein South Africa
As far back as recorded history goes, indigenous Khoekhoen hunters stopped at a perennial spring to gather wild sedge to weave sleeping mats. By the early 1860’s they were accustomed to prospectors filling their water casks on their way to seeking diamond fortunes in Kimberley. These pioneers called the place ‘Matjiesfontein’ meaning the spring where they make mats. It was of little interest to them and they were soon on their way again.
Within ten years Kimberley diamonds as big as fingernails were exchanging hands for small fortunes. The Cape government wanted its share of the action. The Prime Minister drew a straight line on the map between Cape Town and Kimberley. ‘Build a railway,’ he ordered. ‘Make the first watering station one day’s journey distant.’ At first Matjiesfontein was little more than a primitive railway depot. But there was more to come.
Where there are diamonds, greed follows. One James Logan was politically connected and obtained the catering contract for the rail service by granting favours. The Cape Government fell on its sword while Logan prospered. His next step was to build a grand hotel beside the fountain so passengers could overnight in the style they could afford. In no time at all a small town with every modern convenience grew up around it.
Wealthy Cape Town citizens began to flock to Matjiesfontein South Africa to soak up the miracle water under the shade of imported trees they believed was a sure-fire cure for rheumatism. In reality, it was probably the dry climate although the locals kept mum. In the early 1970’s diesel replaced coal as locomotive power. Trains no longer stopped at Matjiesfontein for water. A new highway bypassed it. Its customers lost interest and the settlement seemed doomed.
In 1975, the South African government declared Matjiesfontein a national monument and curious tourists began visiting again. Those fortunate to own a piece of history began renovating their Victorian buildings to create a living museum in a time warp. Looking back, it is cause to wonder why this piece of paradise 250 kilometres from Cape Town took so long to become the perfect place to listen to a pianola.