Great Places off the Beaten Track in South Africa - Part 1

If you're looking for an unforgettable visit to South Africa you'll want to visit some of its lesser known gems.
South Africa has always been a popular tourist destination despite its troubled past and reputation for crime. It is a country of intense beauty and contrasts; hot summers and relatively mild winters (although the high lying interior can get very cold); and rich and varied cultures. Like any country popular with tourists, the well-known attractions can get overwhelmingly busy, especially in high season which is December to January in the Southern Hemisphere. If you're looking for a holiday that doesn't involve fighting your way through crowds and queuing for hours, read on.

1. Pringle Bay

Just 1 hour's breathtaking drive from Cape Town International Airport is the seaside village of Pringle Bay. Named after Rear Admiral Thomas Pringle in 1797, it is famous for its rugged rocky shores and the cave, "Drostersgat", which was used by prisoners and runaway slaves as a hide-away in the 18th century. The cave is on private land and it is difficult to find. Entry can only be gained by lowering yourself down by rope between the slanting rock walls - not recommended for the faint-hearted or anyone uncomfortable with confined spaces. Despite this, the caves show evidence of human habitation dating back to the early Khoi-Khoi people.

For a less treacherous experience, Pringle Bay is one of the country's best locations for whale watching from June to December every year. This can be done from land or for a truly spectacular experience, from boat with regular boat trips offering reasonable walk-on fares. The species of whale you'll see is the southern right whale, so named because it was once considered the "right" whale to hunt. Their numbers were depleted to near extinction and they became a protected species in 1935. Since then their numbers have increased, but they are still listed as endangered. In addition to these incredible creatures you'll see plenty of dolphins, which are abundant in South African waters.

Pringle bay is something of a haven for artists, actors and film makers. It has a vibrant atmosphere and is surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty. It is well enough known to have a good range of accommodation, good restaurants and amenities but a well enough kept secret to retain its sleepy charm.

2. Matjiesfontein

The historical village of Matjiesfontein (pronounced "mikeesfontain") is nestled in the hauntingly beautiful and desolate landscape of the Little Karoo. 260 km (about 160 miles) away from Cape Town the scenery is astonishingly different from the lush green vegetation and mountainous landscape of the southern and south western coast of South Africa. Matjiesfontein started life as a humble railway siding on a remote farm, and was purchased in 1884 by James Douglas Logan, a Scotsman with a keen sense of entrepreneurship. Logan also purchased 3 other farms with plentiful water supply, enabling him to plant abundant trees and a garden for his residence, Tweeside Cottage. He established the Hotel Milner, which was completed in 1899 and was to become the Headquarters of the Cape Western Command during the Boer War shortly thereafter.

By early 1899, Matjiesfontein had sprung up as if by magic. Logan imported all building materials along with experienced Scottish and Irish stone masons, most of whom stayed on and built other villages in the surrounding area. He had built the country's first ever health resort benefiting from the dry, clean air of the Little Karoo. It played host to aristocracy from around the world and the wealthy and distinguished of South Africa.

During the Boer War Matjiesfontein supported a base hospital, and Logan offered five of his villas as convalescent homes for soldiers.  The settlement continued to thrive after the War under the guidance of Logan, but gradually fell into decline after his death in 1920. In the late 1960's however, it was purchased and lovingly restored to its former glory by David Rawdon, a man whose entrepreneurial foresight and focus matched that of Logan.  It was declared a National Monument in 1979 and continues to this day to be one of South Africa's crown jewels - a beautiful and fascinating piece of history.  

The entire village is now a resort offering old world charm and hospitality at the Lord Milner Hotel as well as beautifully appointed self-catering cottages.  Many of the original pieces of plant and machinery along with many other relics from the early days of the settlement can be seen at the Marie Rawdon Museum.

Both of the above places are within easy striking distance of Cape Town and the surrounding winelands, which certainly deserve time and attention even if they are amongst the most popular and therefore the busiest tourist spots. When you've taken in the sites and scenes of Cape Town and enjoyed tasting world class wines in exquisite settings, Pringle Bay followed by Matjiesfontein are excellent getaways.  From there a meandering trip into the Great Karoo is highly recommended, and I'll discuss some of the must-see spots in this incredibly desolate but beautiful region of the country in my next instalment.


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Akum Tsewole
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Posted on Feb 28, 2011
Erik Van Tongerloo
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Posted on Mar 27, 2010