Luxury train rides, historic stops – South African history explored.

We decided to visit the quaint, historic railroad town of Matjiesfontein after our safari at Aquila, for research purposes of course!  (I plan to take my parents there by train from Cape Town, for an overnight stay at the gorgeous Lord Milner Hotel, sometime.) As my grandfather was a station master at several railway stations around South Africa and my mom spent a lot of time on trains as a little girl, it will be a great trip down memory lane for us all.

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The town of Matjiesfontein originally owes its existence to the Cape Government Railways, and to the route that their founder, Cape Prime Minister John Molteno, chose for a railway line that would connect Cape Town’s port to the diamond fields of Kimberley. The Royal Commonwealth Society (1898) records that in a meeting with his consulting engineers, the Prime Minister called for a map of Southern Africa to be brought to him and, taking a ruler, drew his pen along it from Cape Town all the way inland. He handed the map back to the engineers, instructing them to build the railway accordingly.
The line rapidly extended inland, and a station was built at Matjiesfontein on 1 February 1878. At the time, Matjiesfontein was a small depot and farm stop.  The then superintendent of this stretch of railway, James Douglas Logan, bought land at Matjiesfontein for health reasons and opened a refreshment station for the passing trains. This was so successful that the business soon formed the nucleus of a growing village.  A town was laid out in the 1880s and purchased in 1968 to be preserved for its Victorian charm.
The name is derived from a decorative waterside plant (Cyperus textilis) used by the local Khoikhoi people to weave baskets and sleeping mats, to make rolled twine and for use in the construction of their homes. The town was declared a National Monument on 12 September 1975the railway station on 15 December 1989 and the cemetery on 23 September 1994.[.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the transportation museum was already closed.  Typical of the warmth of small town South Africa, the security guard happily opened this beautiful museum filled with classic cars and old trains, when we expressed out interest in a tour.  After quenching our thirst at the only bar in town – where the staff still wear traditional, vintage “Downtown Abbey” style hotel uniforms – we were back on the road to Cape Town.
No trip through any small town in South Africa is complete without an obligatory snack stop at the local butcher, for a good supply of delicious biltong (similar to beef jerky but OH SO MUCH better!) and droewors (dried sausage – equally delicious!).  In Touwsriver we discovered that they also stocked another rare delicacy – fresh curried mince vetkoek (fritters).  I sat on the sidewalk in the heat of the afternoon and enjoyed every bite of this much longed for South African treat, so reminiscent of my South African childhood. Under the bluest of african skies, we sat and watched the locals hang out and visit with each other – mothers carried babies in the traditional style: wrapped in blankets, tied straddled across their backs; and we laughed at the universal guy on his fancy bicycle trying to find a date – chatting up all the lovely ladies who passed by.
The drive was another gorgeous journey of contrasts – from the arid semi-desert of the Karoo to the lush, sprawling greenness of the Breede River Valley vineyards. We decided to overnight in the beautiful town of Paarl in the heart of South Africa’s wine  country.  We found a great B&B – the Cape Valley Manor, ordered pizza and enjoyed a lovely dinner outdoors in a fabulous Cape rain storm, sitting underneath a garden umbrella  – sipping a very delicious local Chardonnay.

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