Chasing Ghosts in Rural South Africa – The Forgotten Route with Wine Flies // FrameAmbition

Hello hello!

In the not-so-distant past I was fortunate enough to hop on a 2-day, 1-night trip from Cape Town into the Karoo and into the more distant past in search of The Forgotten Route – tracing the footsteps of early Dutch settlers moving inland in search of green pastures, diamonds and such. Cool, I love history and I love trains. I even like the Karoo. But would I end up feeling more than a little irritated by this celebration of the arrival of Europeans in Africa knowing what it turned into, especially down south? Possibly.

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What you need to know:

What: A road and train trip tracing the footsteps of early settlers from Cape Town into the old towns of the Karoo.

How much: R1950 per person which includes transport to and from central Cape Town, tastings at a wine farm and olive farm, train are from Worcester to Matjiesfontein, bus tour of Matjiesfontein, braai (BBQ) dinner and overnight accommodation. Excludes lunches on both days and additional purchases on the farms, hotel bar, etc.

Who: There’s something for everyone. Solo travellers like me, couples, families, groups of friends, whoever. Groups are typically limited to 13 people per tour. History buffs, wine and food lovers, ghost-hunters and those at home in nature and the peace and quiet of little old towns will appreciate this the most.

Where: Cape Town – Worcester by road. Worcester – Matjiesfontein by train, where your guide drives to meet you. Matjiesfontein – Koo Valley and Montagu by road again, all the way back to Cape Town again.

When: The tour takes off on a Friday morning only once every few months, kicking off around 9am and returning to Cape Town by 5pm the following day.

Ours was a nice intimate affair and an interesting mix of three couples – two anniversary celebrations – our delightful guide Mark and little me. So in I went knowing at the very least there would be wine involved and a train ride which I’m always down for, especially surrounded by the mountains of the Western Cape. Plus, my own cottage. Score!

 The view out my cottage window at  Rietfontein Reserve

The view out my cottage window at Rietfontein Reserve

What went down:

Day 1 – Old Cape Town, Red Wine Ice Cream and the Shortest City Bus Tour in the World

Cape Town: Company’s Gardens and the Kimberley Hotel

The day kicked off with an old-school welcome declaration yelled by some guy dressed up weird on the street (our first guide Riaan lol) who led us on a stroll around central Cape Town dropping knowledge bombs about the beginnings of the city that almost all of us had always missed. A gargoyle here, an inscription there, through the Arch for Arch and into the Company’s Gardens, one of my favourite spots in the city. 

We stopped at the Cecil Rhodes statue at the gardens and chatted about his life, his legacy and the recent protests surrounding it. It was brought up that as he died in his 40’s who knows what more he could have achieved and it was even suggested by some that the attitudes and actions he’s best known for were “not that bad for the time”. Wow. Okay then. This would be an interesting couple of days.

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We took a quick ride to the quirky Kimberley Hotel – the oldest in the city – for a coffee and to be issued with our passports. Yes, time travel was to be taken seriously here!

Kirabo Wine Cellar: Cupcakes and Elephant Rears

On the road and out of Cape Town we went towards Kirabo Wine Cellars in Rawsonville for a private wine, biltong and cupcake tasting. We arrived and were shown to a beautiful lawn set-up complete with freezing, deep plunge-pool. Bliss. 

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The name Kirabo, as it turns out, was the result of a google search after realizing the family name is already taken by another wine brand and the farm name is too likely to be mispronounced by non-Afrikaans speakers. Final choice: a name meaning 'a gift from heaven' or 'to get down/party' in a mystery African language (not Kiswahili as was suggested - I literally asked everyone at home as I was sure I'd never heard it before. Nope.)

We got down to tasting a variety of reds guided by winemaker Karen whose family own the farm, the group's firm favourite being their Merlot-Shiraz blend Cupcake, which has on the label a cheeky elephant booty keeping in the vibe of the wine. After alternating between wine-tasting and foot-wetting sessions in the pool accompanied by wine-infused cupcakes and shiraz ice-cream, it was time to get going.

We had a train to catch!

Pull in to Worcester to jump on my old friend, the Shosholoza Meyl train for the 2-hour ride to Matjiesfontein where we'd be spending the night. It seems we either missed the train or it was late so we took a little express tour of Worcester - not a whole lot going on but it's cute!

Finally the train rolls in, we hop on and head to the dining car for drinks and lunch; writing and photo-editing for me. Mark, who was our darling tour guide through the whole 2-day experience, read out the temperature before we boarded the train: 41°C. I was afraid to check it again. The scenery around was dry but still really beautiful. The Western Cape and its mountain ranges never disappoints. Hardly any life, but some donkeys. I'm inspired to write.

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Matjiesfontein: Lushness in the Desert and the shortest city bus tour ever

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We were welcomed to Matjiesfontein station with glasses of sweet wine and a cute old victrola playing some jams to set the mood. We had officially arrived in the late 1800's.

After setting our bags down in our cottages down the road in the Rietfontein Reserve, it was time for a little roam around the one-street town and the lawns of the Lord Milner Hotel. I ran around in the cacti and took pictures of the grounds. Those whose packing game was more on point than mine went for a swim at the hotel's pool.

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Nice and settled in, we headed to the front of the hotel to meet Johnny, the town's pride, who would be our guide on the shortest city tour in the world aboard an old red double-decker bus. Johnny cracked us up with stories about his hometown like where the first cricket match between England and South Africa was played and pointed out that an old hearse carriage was empty so 'the ghosts would be walking today'. An absolute legend. The tour ended with a mini-tour of the Lord Milner Hotel's dining and other rooms complete with stories of the first owners, Lord Milner and his wife and before we knew it we were getting ready for our braai dinner of Karoo lamb fresh from a farm nearby.

 Johnny pointing out a 'ghost' at the Lord Milner Hotel

Johnny pointing out a 'ghost' at the Lord Milner Hotel

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Dinner came with the most amazing and unexpected stories all around our intimate group accompanied by that banging Cupcake wine and knowing we had a midnight wander of the Marie Rawdon Museum ahead of us, talk turned to ghosts, the afterlife and all things spooky very fast.

The eight of us had the collection of antique clothing, sewing machines, Victorian household objects and more to ourselves holding onto each other every step of the way because wow, the creeps. I thought it wise to introduce myself to the ghosts in my cottage when I got back to sleep alone in my 2-bed accommodation. They seemed to be at peace.

 Vintage military uniforms at the Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein

Vintage military uniforms at the Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein

Day 2 – A cemetery and some home-grown lunch and olives

The next day kicked off with a lovely breakfast at the Lord Milner Hotel and a last peruse around the town's transport museum with an impressive collection of luxury vintage cars and trains, the old post office and the nearby cemetery (word was that it was considered we do this instead of the museum late the previous night. How 'bout no).

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And we hit the road again for a day savoring the best food and drink that the Keisie Valley and Montagu had to offer. We kicked it of with a hearty home-cooked lunch at Oupa Batt se Winkel (Grandpa Batt's Shop) where we tried and bought the best biltong in the land and sipped on sweet wine as a light rain rolled in.

We carried on for one last hurrah at award-winning Marbrin Olive Farm in Robertson to try out Clint's best olives, olive oils, vinegars and preserves before some bidding wars on the last few bottles of limoncello. Things got heated.

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 Sampling the finest South African olive oils at Marbrin Olive Farm, Montagu

Sampling the finest South African olive oils at Marbrin Olive Farm, Montagu

 A little sweet Muscadel before a home-cooked lunch at Oupa Batt se Winkel

A little sweet Muscadel before a home-cooked lunch at Oupa Batt se Winkel

 Tractor at Marbrin Olive Farm, Robertson

Tractor at Marbrin Olive Farm, Robertson

And before we knew it, that was it. A quiet ride back in to Cape Town with full stomachs and full hearts, as cheesy as it sounds.

Overall thoughts:

Trust me and go. We may well have gotten lucky with such a fun eclectic group and left with new friends, but this is an experience I'd take several different people on without a second thought. Matjiesfontein is so little but full of so much history (and mystery) that I honestly could have stuck around for a week just roaming around, taking pictures, reading and mis-pronouncing old Afrikaans words and songs.

On the colonial history discomfort front: appreciating history for me goes across the board. The only way to learn from the past is to acknowledge all the sides and stories from it, and from the Cape Town segment of the tour to the intertwined lives of indigenous, British and Dutch populations in the Karoo and beyond, The Forgotten Route does a good job of involving people who are the living legacy of all these threads of the country's history. At the end of the day it's all about people and the Western Cape of today is a result of a lot of those represented on this experience.

So props to the Wine Flies team! Check them and all their other tours out here.

Are you convinced? Is this something you'd try out? Keep in touch:

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*This was a sponsored trip and collaboration with Wine Flies Tours but all opinions of my experience are my own because as always, I want you guys to win. Thanks for reading;)