The Road to Prince Albert

The plan was not to dally in the Western Cape, where so much is already familiar, but head for Mokopane in Limpopo – SA’s northernmost province and the furthest from Cape Town – as quickly as possible.  I’ve never been there and, of SA’s nine provinces, know least about it.  But the first stop is Prince Albert, a Karoo town that has always fascinated me but never visited.

But first, Akela must go to the vet.  In 10 years, she’s only been ill once before but she’s limping slightly as though she has pulled a ligament.  A thorough investigation by the vet found nothing wrong, but it’s still worrying because she is obviously uncomfortable.

The route from Elgin to Worcester along the R321 takes one across the huge Theewaterskloof dam, which has a perimeter of 82 kilometres, and through the town of Villiersdorp.  (The R45 takes one over Franschhoek Pass and is part of the Three Passes route that all visitors to Cape Town should explore.  The other passes are Helshoogte outside Stellenbosch and Sir Lowry’s Pass above Somerset West.)

Theewaterskloof Dam with Villiersdorp in the top rughthand corner

This route enters Worcester at its back door.  And the initial impression of a third world town!  Thank goodness we needed to stop to buy a media card and USB connection or card reader for the camera, otherwise we would never have seen anything of Worcester.

I haven’t been in Worcester for 20 years and it’s certainly no third world town!  A quick look at CapeInfo’s population page shows that it’s the third most populous municipal area in the Western Cape with shopping to match.

What surprised most though were the streets lined with beautifully preserved historical buildings away from the main street.  When we do return to the Western Cape, this will be one town worth exploring in more detail.

And for one used to the grandeur of Table Mountain, I was surprised by the awesome mountain ranges surrounding Worcester.  It was already a hot and hazy midday, but I can imagine them in the early morning and evenings, when their colours will change in the crisp light, or snow-capped in winter in the even crisper light.

Thinking of winter always reminds me of the first time I met Otto Stehlik (Protea Hotels’ chairman) some 30 years ago.  He bemoaned the way Capetonians complain about weather… “winter in the Cape provides many days which can only be described as Champagne Weather.”  So true!

Leaving Worcester surrounded by it mountain peaks, the road north impresses with mountains that almost seem to be lying on their sides.  All the mountains of the southwestern Cape were formed by the folding of the old Richtersveld mountains (north of Cape Town and no longer existing) which were formed 800 million years ago.  Table Mountain was formed between 250–540 million years ago but its present shape is about 60 million years old.  (Mount Everest was formed 40 million years ago; the Alps in Europe ‘only’ 32 million years ago.)

Isn’t this place just too amazing?

Next is a compulsory stop at Matjiesfontein just before Laingsburg – it is a step into another world.

The brainchild of a Scottish immigrant, James Logan, Matjiesfontein Village with the Milner Hotel opened in 1889.  The Cape Railways had extended as far as Kimberley, and travellers needed somewhere to eat and refresh — dining cars did not exist.

Matjiesfontein became a fashionable watering place, attracting those who could afford to seek relief for chest complaints in its clear, dry air, and entertained many distinguished visitors. Lord Randolph Churchill is still remembered for “borrowing” a hunting dog which he never returned.

Olive Schreiner lived in there own cottage here for five years, writing “Story of an African Farm”. Today her small cottage is a landmark in the village. Rudyard Kipling, on his first call at the Cape, made a special journey inland specifically to visit her.

No doubt, the Anglo-Boer War boosted Logan’s fortunes when it supported a base hospital and 12,000 troops were garrisoned there.

In the late 1960s, David Rawdon, hotelier best known for Lanzerac Hotel in Stellenbosch and the Marine Hotel in Hermanus, purchased the whole Village. After extensive renovations, Rawdon re-opened the property in 1970 and renamed it The Lord Milner Hotel.

Matjiesfontein - Lord Milner Hotel and a village caught in a 1900's time warp

The road north opposite the Matjiesfontein turnoff leads to Sutherland — SA’s coldest town and home to the giant telescopes that gaze into space.  Now that’s somewhere else I still want to visit.

And then on to Prince Albert Road – a railway station that also marks the turnoff to this typical Karoo town about 30 minutes from the N1.  Then it’s another mountain range — the Swartberg — that imposingly lines the horizon as one approaches the town nestled in its valley.

Approaching Prince Albert I had a sense of deja vu — there is a gap in the mountain range behind the town, with more mountains behind the gap.  There is a village in the spectacular Gorge de Verdun (Europe’s largest canyon) in southern France with an almost identical setting… I just cannot remember the name.  (Would someone like to help?)  There, a large cross is suspended in the gap, giving the village almost pilgrimage status.

Prince Albert at the foot of the Swartberg

The first stop was the info office, where there was some confusion about where we were going to stay.  The tourism officer was away and the office was staffed by a newbie.  A local who popped in helped with a few numbers to call — and cautioned me not to mention that one of the animals was a wolf!

Ten minutes later we were following Merle to a house she thought would be ideal — Elle editor Jackie Burger’s house, for R170 the night.  Now this promised to be something special — Jackie is one of those rare people who combines great depth with style.  Grounded.  Other houses I’ve loved staying in were two in Arniston belonging to architect/professor Ron & Davina Kirby and artist Alice Goldin.

Kanniedood, Jackie Burger's charming and so appropriate Karoo getaway.

Kanniedood (can’t die) – which takes its name from an indigenous aloe – is set in a large indigenous garden.  It’s a simple yet very comfortable Karoo cottage – perfect to absorb a little bit of Prince Albert’s charm. This is just an overnight stop but the stoep did beckon as a place to while away time, contemplating the engraved tablet fixed to the wall or the stars which fill the sky so brightly at night.

But no time to enjoy it now, in 90 minutes I’m meeting a really great friend I haven’t seen for 20 years, Elaine Hurford — property agent, author, house restorer and one of the brightest sparks I know — and I still needed to explore a bit of the town.

And Prince Albert did exceed expectations.  It made me think of a more authentic, less pretentious version of Franschhoek, an oasis in a much harsher environment. It also reminded me of Stanford’s dedication to maintaining its built heritage.

Prince Albert has one of the prettiest main streets of any town in the Western Cape

Elaine couldn’t believe that I would make Prince Albert just an overnight stop, but it was a stop that convinced me to return and discover more.  Maybe the Olive Festival at the beginning of May?

She made a very valid point about Capetonians lack of enthusiasm (or is it awareness) for the Karoo — they will happily drive the 5-6 hours to Knysna and Plett for a weekend, but rarely consider 3.5 hour trip to Prince Albert.  Maybe that’s what has kept the town special.

Although I hadn’t seen Elaine for about 20 years, it felt like catching up with a friend I’d seen just a few weeks previously — except for all the catch-up.  She moved to Prince Albert after a brief visit returning to Cape Town from Grahamstown.  She restored a delapidated old farm house on the edge of town and turned it into a much sought-after guest house and acclaimed national monument. And today she’s the Pam Golding property agent in the town.

Now that’s what makes a visit special — discovering a new destination and an old friend.

For more on Prince Albert, click here.

One response to “The Road to Prince Albert”

  1. Not sure who I was more excited to see, Carl, or his two “dogs” one of which of course is no dog, but a beautiful, gentle, ladylike grey wolf! Dogs have always been my favourite people and now that I’ve met one, even briefly, wolves are too. I would love to paint Akela one day and add her to my website. Having read much about dogs – and wolves – and animal behaviour, it was fascinating to meet a wolf in person and hear Carl’s stories about life (12 years so far) with a wolf. Their high intelligence and intense loyalty to their pack leader are two outstanding characteristics. I wish you all well on your journey – and perhaps you’ll come via Prince Albert on your way home?

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