South Africa: Four Small Inland Towns To Visit

Published 22 June 2016

Dawn Jorgensen

In South Africa, the luxury of time allows you to veer off course, leave the highway and explore the lesser-known towns that give the country character. Four such places that I highly recommend you visit are Nieu Bethesda, Matjiesfontein, Swellendam and McGregor.

Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape

Best for: Art enthusiasts and star gazers

Just beyond the Karoo’s historic center of Graaff-Reinet there’s a winding road that leads you about 60 kilometers into the hinterland. At it’s end you arrive in a small village called Nieu Bethesda. Wide dirt roads and graceful trees play home to this settlement with its neat rows of pretty houses.

Born of a farming community in 1878, here residents have always led a quiet and somewhat sheltered existence. It is only in the past twenty plus years that Nieu Bethesda has gained increased attention thanks to Helen Martin’s Owl House.

Helen was an eccentric and rather sad character who in the latter part of her life, worked tirelessly to convert her simple home into one that resembled a colour-filled fantasy. The inside walls are encrusted with ground glass and the many mirrors catch the light at different times of day while in the Camel Yard statues of men face East. It’s surreal, intriguing and cluttered. Today the Owl House is sensitively cared for and can be visited and enjoyed.

Yet as much as the Owl House may be the draw card, it is not all that’s on offer here.

You can indulge in locally grown produce and even buy a giant garden grown pumpkin. Try the craft beer and goats cheese platter at The Brewery, search for fossils in the riverbed and take a donkey cart tour of the town.

Matjiesfontein, Western Cape off the N1 highway

Best for: History and transport buffs

Set 2,5 hours north of Cape Town on the N1 highway that joins the Cape to Johannesburg, Matjiesfontein is a hamlet rather than a town. Consisting of a hotel, railway station, collection of museums, a strong community and more than a touch of magic.

Don’t be deceived, at a glance Matjiesfontein may appear a dusty railway station, as it stands testament to a bygone era and holds an undeniable charm.

The Transport Museum with its private collection of vintage cars will impress, and a tour of the town in the London Bus will take no more than ten minutes. There’s also the Mary Rawdon Museum under the station, where you will discover an eclectic collection of Victoriana, penny-farthing bicycles, war memorabilia and the terrifying dentist’s chair.

Yet mostly I recommend walks in the surrounding veldt where some 10000 troops were camped around the Village during the Anglo-Boer war. There are still remnants such as rusty bully beef and paraffin tins, uniform buttons and buckles to be found around the koppie.

A coffee shop offers light meals and drinks are served in the Laird’s Arms Pub. Resident entertainer John will even play the honkey-tonk piano if you ask. A walk in the garden, visit to the tiny Chapel and swim in the crystal clear pool, will complete your stay.

Swellendam, Western Cape off the N2

 Best for: Wildlife spotters and thrill seekers

It may be easy to overlook Swellendam driving the N2 highway travelling between Cape Town and the Garden Route, but it would be a great pity to do so.

The third oldest town in South Africa, Swellendam was declared a district and appointed a Magistrate in 1743. From here a village grew up where artisans and traders settled. To travellers and explorers, their services were invaluable, as this was the last outpost of civilization when making the slow journey up the East coast in those days.

Today it still offers many travellers a welcome break to their journey. Recommendations include a visit to the Drostdy Museum, which offers a comprehensive collection of artifacts, early day residences, a gaol, mill and various outbuildings.

Enjoy time in the neighbouring Bontebok National Park; the formation of this park saved the species from extinction and you are certain to spot many while there for a drive, walk or picnic. You can even take a swim in the Breede River.

There’s horse riding, mountain biking and hiking as well as canoeing on the Buffeljachts Dam.

McGregor, Western Cape off Route62

Best for: Local food and animal lovers

A favourite country village accessed just off Robertson and surrounded by the Langeberg Mountains with Robertson, Bonnievale, Ashton and Montagu as its near neighbouring towns. McGregor is said to be the best-preserved 19th century South African village with its white washed reed roof cottages, Victorian and Georgian homes.

Every Saturday there’s a morning market in the Square next to the Church, which draws the local community. You need to be quick though, as it starts at 09.30 and is all packed up by about 10. Offering local produce, plants, veg, books, pastries, puppy treats and an opportunity to engage with the residents. For more of the tastes and flavours visit Rhebokskraal Olive Estate or their Villagers Farm Stall for home-made scones and coffee.

After dining on home-made treats, visit the Old Post Office turned pub for a whisky tasting, better still book a visit to the Tanagra Distillery who produce Grappa and a limited amount of Eau de Vie just outside town. If you’re a fan of a great Method Cap Classique bubbly a visit to the beautiful Lord’s Winery is a must.

A main attraction in McGregor is the Eseljiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, which provides permanent homes and loving care to destitute, retired, abused and rescued donkeys. There are currently about 20 resident donkeys and it is such a pleasure to spend time with them.

I read somewhere that ’McGregor is not a place, but a state of mind’ and I guarantee you that is true.

Hit the road on your own South African road trip with our Garden Route & Safari Journey.

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