We arrived at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein with the storm in Cape Town chasing us down the N1. With dark clouds amassing and dusk falling, the scene was set. As we pushed open the heavy wooden doors to the hotel, there it was. That staircase. With that red carpet. Straight out of that cult horror movie, The Shining.
Lord Milner Hotel is one of the most haunted hotels in South Africa (check out my list of the other six most haunted hotels in South Africa here). I was there to investigate the rumours of certain guests that have refused to leave. I am not talking about ones that get defiant when the pub closes or can’t bear the thought of room service coming to an end. Rather ones that have been known to float down corridors, rattle doors, play cards, appear in windows and stare forlornly from turrets. Never has an assignment held so much intrigue and slight foreboding. After all, one can be full of bravado about staying at one of the most haunted hotels in South Africa until night falls. Then suddenly going to your room alone becomes almost a dare. With jokes about “If the lights are turned off, then you know” – and you hear yourself breath a sigh of relief to see that they are still turned on. Then of course you don’t shut the door behind you for fear that some unseen force shuts you in there and you can’t get out, or the doorknob starts rattling. Perhaps this is what part of the charm of The Lord Milner Hotel holds – the never-ending “what if I actually see a ghost?”
After signing the massive and ancient guest book, we trundled our way up the stairs, keeping a beady eye out for the soldiers that are said to lean on the balustrades. I was so busy gawking up the stairs that lead to the turrets and Katie’s Card Room (where sounds of shuffling cards have been heard) that I almost tripped over Theresa, the hotel cat. Theresa, being a good host to many a newbie at the hotel escorted us to our room and almost everywhere we went. One hiss from that cat and I was prepared to run in the opposite direction! So I liked having her around, a sort of “ghost alert” if you will. She must’ve picked up on this (cats are intuitive) because she decided to spend the entire night with us. Not hissing, but purring. We reveled in the feline affections, but was told the following day at breakfast that she is notorious for sleeping around. And like a true hussy, she ignored us for the rest of our stay.
Having got through our first night unscathed, apart from clanging pipes and creaking wooden floorboards (that hotel talks to you even if the ghosts don’t) we got taken on a private hotel tour by Johnnie, the resident entertainer. You can’t help but love Johnnie. The minute he catches your eye he shouts “It’s show time!” followed by “I love it when you talk foreign.” He took us around the various rooms of the Lord Milner Hotel, showed off his brilliant rendition of Nelson Mandela, pointed out the 100 year old piano, the 300 year old mirror and the cup that South Africa won in the very first cricket match played against the British in Matjiesfontein. He also showed us a photo of a ghost.
The story goes that he had the picture taken with the two little girls and the one said “Who’s the tannie?” Of course no-one else could see this “tannie”, but there she was when the photo was developed and posted to Johnnie by the family. The hotel thinks it may be the ghost is that of Olive Schreiner, who lived in Matjiesfontein (she wrote The Story of An African Farm here) and her house is right near The Lairds Arms. It may or may not be a fake, but I tend to go with the latter. This town barely uses email let alone Photoshop. Besides, there is no way you can get a small child to make an expression like that for no good reason. But you decide – the photo is below. Real or not, it’s chilling stuff!
After that it was time to go see some different ghosts. The fields near The Lord Milner Hotel were once the campsite for British soldiers during the Boer War (the hotel was originally a hospital). The 10 000 soldiers and 20 000 horses may be gone, but there are still reminders in the form of holey tin cans and rusting pieces of metal. We picked our way through the debris, startling a few hares and making sure we didn’t stand on baby tortoises (we saw three!) while searching for treasure. We had so much fun that we were out there for hours. We even found a button! Oh the glee! Turns out that it is the real thing and probably belonged to a General or Commander. We sat on the kopjie, which was probably the look out point, and took in the view. I closed my eyes and imagined how things must’ve been for young soldiers in their late teens and early twenties being plucked from England and sent to the middle of the blistering hot (and sometimes freezing) desert. I swear I heard the ghosts of tents flapping in the Karoo wind.
The afternoon was spent scoffing bangers n’ mash in the pub, taking a brief nap and visiting the township tavern to catch the rugby. We also took a tour of the town (the shortest tour in South Africa) on the red bus, called Futtom Fluffy. It took ten minutes and we turned left or right because we couldn’t turn right or left. When the tour was over, Johnnie brightly informed us that the tour may be over, but the pub was still open. I was beginning to fall in love with this town. Not only did it have history, quaint buildings, ghosts and antique gas pumps, it had character and was filled with characters. It also served divine meals in a dining room where you had to dress for dinner, breakfasts with as much bacon as you could fit on your plate and the pub was always open. A desert oasis indeed!
But we still hadn’t seen any ghosts. We checked our photos as soon as we took them, glanced furtively up the stairs and scanned the windows regularly. But nothing. Not even the sound of shuffling cards. I was secretly disappointed. Until I went upstairs in the pub that evening.
Above The Lairds Arms is a billiard room with a beautiful billiard table that I spent some time admiring – it had a thick wood cover that you had to slide out to open the table. I don’t think I had ever seen one like it until that day. After this minor distraction, I located the bathroom and switched on the light. As I stepped into the bathroom, “click”, off went the light. I went back and switched it on again. But no, the minute I stepped away from the switch it went off. I put it down to faulty electrics the first few times, but eventually I lost my temper. I said in my big girl brave voice “Now stop it! I need the loo and I don’t want to go in the dark!” The light stayed on. I sat there quietly praying it didn’t get switched off again. Which it didn’t, thankfully.
Now herein lies the interesting part. I scuttled downstairs hastily and asked Abie, the barman, about faulty lights. He just laughed and said “There’s no faulty light switches. Someone’s being playing tricks on you. Perhaps it was Olive. She likes it up there.” I brushed it off, went outside and started chatting to a young chap who had just decided to get married to his sweetheart the following day in the Traveller’s Chapel. I found myself agreeing to take the photos. As you do after a few drinks in a pub in a haunted hotel in the Karoo. Then the conversation shifted to the hotel’s ghost stories and he told me that he had seen quite a few shadows in the hotel and something strange on the stairs in the pub. I went on to tell him about the ghost photo, which he hadn’t seen. I showed him the photo I had taken of the photo on my camera. He went quiet for a second, looked at me and said with a deadpan expression, “That’s who was on the stairs”. I never went upstairs again.
The following days were spent eating enough food to feed a British army, taking walks through Boer War graveyards (where the average age of the dead is 25) and singing along with Johnnie on the piano in the Lairds Arms. I also photographed the wedding, which really did take place. Family and friends arrived on the day with cooler boxes filled with champagne and a bunch of lavender for the bridal bouquet. It was utterly charming and fairly impressive, especially as some of them had only been given a few hours’ notice of the impending nuptials.
I have to say the weekend in Matjiesfontein was probably one of my best weekends so far this year. The quaint town, fabulous meals, always-open pub, lovely people, a beautiful swimming pool , ghosts and an impromptu wedding make for a good summer weekend away. Is the hotel haunted? Maybe, maybe not. I think there is something there, faulty light switches and could-be-fake photographs aside. There’s definitely enough atmosphere to make you look up at the windows constantly and not want to go to your room alone.
Matjiesfontein is only 250km from Cape Town. I recommend you spend a night or two. Johnnie will have you singing at the piano bar before you get though your first pint and the meals will have you loosening your belt (I advise not taking one). Perhaps you will even get hitched. And who knows, you may have a few extra guests at your wedding that you didn’t invite…
Who are the ghosts of the Lord Milner Hotel?
Rumours abound of people having seen a ghost wearing a negligee floating around the passages and the stairs of the Lord Milner Hotel. It appears that Lucy (as she is known) has never checked out of her room on the first floor. Then there’s Kate who was a young nurse who liked to play cards with her patients (either when the hotel was a British officer’s hospital or later when it became a popular health resort). Apparently the sound of cards being shuffled in Katie’s Card Room have been heard on many occasions and she has been known to rattle the door at the top of the stairs. Ghosts of British soldiers have frequently been seen on the main staircase and legend has it that the spirit of James Logan (who founded the town) has never left Matjiesfontein, but resides in the elegantly decorated lounges at the back of the hotel.
How to get to Matjiesfontein
Matjiesfontein is on the N1 between Touws River and Lainsburg. It’s an easy 250-km drive from Cape Town. You could in fact go for lunch and be home the same day (but staying in The Lord Milner is part of the appeal).
You can also get to Matjiesfontein on the train. Shosholoza Meyl stops in Matjiesfontein en-route from Cape Town to Johannesburg (and vice-versa) regularly. Rovos Rail also makes a stop at Matjiesfontein.
Where to stay in Matjiesfontein
The Lord Milner Hotel has various accommodation options available, depending on your preferences and budget. From guestrooms in the main hotel (the ones that go out onto the balcony are the best!) to rooms leading onto the gardens, to self-catering cottages, honeymoon suites and a sumptuous swimming pool suite with it’s own pool. A full breakfast is included in the rates, which are from R465 a person a night for the guestrooms in the hotel, to R315 a person a night for the cottages. Tel 023-561-3011, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.matjiesfontein.com.
Where to eat in Matjiesfontein
Breakfast will set you up for most of the day, but the Coffee House serves pastries, sandwiches and light meals. They also do a cactus milkshake! Pub lunches are served in the Lairds Arms – the mutton curry and bangers and mash are highly recommended. Pub lunch is around R60. Dinner is served in the dining room of the hotel with an a-la-carte menu. Choose from light meals, such as soup of the day, pickled fish or an omlette. Or indulge in Karoo lamb chops, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Karoo roast lamb or a fillet steak. There are desserts too. Light dinner will set you back around R40, while a full roast or fillet will cost you about R100.